Preterite vs Imperfect Spanish: What’s the Difference?

Preterite vs Imperfect Spanish: What’s the Difference?
imperfect vs preterite spanish

The past tense in Spanish can be tricky, especially when starting with the language. The preterite tense, also known as the past historic tense, and the imperfect tense are both used to speak about events that have already happened or been completed in the past. But how do you tell them apart? Here’s an explanation of how to use each in conversation so you can speak like a native speaker.

Spanish Preterite vs. Imperfect Tense

The Spanish preterite and imperfect tenses are two different verb tenses, but when to use them can be confusing. They both refer to actions completed at a specific time in the past, but there are subtle differences in their meanings and how they’re used. To know when to use each of these tenses, you need to understand their essential functions and uses first.

Preterite vs. Imperfect Conjugation Rules

The preterite tense describes completed actions that happened at a specific point in the past. For regular verbs, the preterite is formed by adding the following endings to the verb stem: -é, -aste, -ó, -amos, -asteis, -aron. For example, the regular verb “hablar” (to speak) would be conjugated as follows: hablé, hablaste, habló, hablamos, hablasteis, hablaron.

The imperfect tense describes ongoing or incomplete actions that took place in the past. For regular verbs, the poor is formed by adding the following endings to the verb stem: -aba, -abas, -aba, -ábamos, -abais, -aban. For example, the regular verb “hablar” (to speak) would be conjugated as follows: hablaba, hablabas, hablaba, hablábamos, hablabais, hablaban.

Some irregular verbs do not follow the regular conjugation rules for either the preterite or imperfect tense. Some of the most common irregular verbs are ser (to be), ir (to go), ver (to see), and dar (to give). These verbs must be memorized to be conjugated correctly.

when to use preterite and imperfect spanish

The Preterite Tense

We use preterite tense to talk about a singular event that started and ended in a specific time frame.  In Spanish, there are three main uses of preterite tense: Completed Action (past): Estudié español durante dos semanas. I studied Spanish for two weeks. Recurrent Action (past): Comí en el restaurante italiano un par de veces al mes durante los últimos tres años. I ate at an Italian restaurant a couple of monthly times for the last three years.

Achieved Goal (past): Gané la lotería hace tres semanas y ahora estoy comprando un auto nuevo. I won the lottery three weeks ago, and now I’m buying a new car. Note that you cannot use preterite tense to talk about habitual actions or routines in Spanish, as in English. So how do you know when to use preterite tense versus imperfect tense?

Use the preterite tense when…  It was a completed action with a specific start and end time frame. This is used when there was only one event that happened during a certain period of time. It happened once but has continuing results into the present. This is used when something happened once but still affects what happens today. For example, if you used preterite tense, you would say Cuando era niña me caí de un Arbol.

In the English language, that translates to When I was a girl; I fell from a tree. Even though it happened in my past, it affects me today because I broke my arm.

imperfect vs preterite

Preterite Tense in Spanish

That broken arm still affects me today, so I must use preterite tense in Spanish to express that ongoing action. If I used imperfect tense, I would have said Me caí de un arbol cuando era niña. This sentence means I fell from a tree when I was a girl. The difference between these two sentences is subtle but essential.

It had an identifiable start and end time frame, and there are no continuing results into the present-day (use imperfect). For example, if you use imperfect tense, you would say Comia en el restaurante italiano con mi familia cada semana. In English, that translates to; I ate at an Italian restaurant with my family every week.

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There is no ongoing action in my life today related to eating at a specific Italian restaurant, so I must use imperfect tense in Spanish to express that constant action from my past is not relevant anymore. If I used preterite tense, I would have said Comí en el restaurante italiano cada semana. This sentence means I ate at an Italian restaurant every week. Again, we see how subtle but essential these differences can be!

The preterite and the imperfect are both used to describe actions that took place in the past. However, the preterite is used to describe actions that were completed, while the imperfect is used to describe ongoing efforts.

In Spanish, there are two ways to talk about the past tense – imperfect and preterite. Imperfect describes ongoing or repeated actions in the past, while preterite is used for singular, definitive moments in history.

Preterite Spanish refers to the Spanish language spoken during the pre-Roman period. The term describes the language spoken by the people who lived in the Iberian Peninsula before the Romans arrived in the region. Preterite Spanish is also known as Vulgar Latin because it was the language spoken by the ordinary people, as opposed to the Latin spoken by the educated elite.

The Imperfect Tense

For most verbs, usage of preterite and imperfect depends on whether or not an action was completed. The imperfect tense is used to describe ongoing efforts or past events that were incomplete. So it isn’t just when you learned a language (preterite) but whether you still know it (imperfect).

On a similar note, if you’re doing something in Spanish right now or have just started it and are still in progress, use imperfect; if it was completed at some point in time before now, use preterite. In some cases with irregular verbs, they’ll need to be conjugated differently between these two tenses.

For example, instead of using regular -ar verb forms for an action beginning in an earlier time period followed by an action happening more recently in the preterite tense and then continuing into even more recent times in imperfect tense, sometimes a completely different form will need to be used for both tenses.

This is true for both regular and irregular verbs. For example, I spoke (preterite) versus I was speaking (imperfect). Or I wrote (preterite) versus I had written (imperfect). There are many other examples where there is a difference in usage between preterite and imperfect depending on whether actions were ongoing or complete at various points in time.

preterite and imperfect spanish
preterite vs imperfect spanish

In Spanish, most past actions that were incomplete should be expressed using imperfect tense rather than preterite. This includes events over long periods, such as childhood vacations or illnesses that lasted several years. It also applies to specific instances in which an action was interrupted by another event.

For example, when a character in a story is writing a letter and is interrupted by someone knocking on their door, they might have been writing for hours before being interrupted and then write again later that night once they’re finished with their meeting.  On another note, if you’re doing something in Spanish right now or have just started it and are still in progress, use imperfect; if it was completed at some point in time before now, use preterite.

When to use Preterite and Imperfect Tense

Spanish has two past tenses, imperfect and preterite. Both tenses are used in different circumstances, and although they are similar, there are some essential differences between them. The rules are pretty straightforward. The only thing you need to remember is that if something happened once, you have to use preterite; if something happened many times or was habitual, you must use the imperfect tense.

There are more instances where either one of them must be used – Imperfect Tense for actions that continued over an undefined period (regardless of how long it lasted) or were habitual, and Preterite Tense for single events like specific dates or events mentioned in a particular order.

There’s no magic formula to know which one should be used in which instance – but with practice, it will become natural (and much easier). Hopefully, this article helped clarify the difference between Spanish Preterite vs. Imperfect and when to use one over the other.

Preterite vs. Imperfect Examples

Preterite vs. imperfect is a topic that often confuses Spanish learners. To use these tenses correctly, it is essential to understand their differences. The preterite tense describes completed actions in the past, while the imperfect tense describes ongoing or incomplete steps in the past.

One of the main differences between the preterite and imperfect tenses is their use. The preterite tense describes specific, completed actions that happened at a particular time in the past. For example, “I finished my homework at 6 pm.” The imperfect tense, on the other hand, is used to describe ongoing or incomplete actions that took place in the past. For example, “I was doing my homework at 6 pm.”

Another critical difference between the preterite and imperfect tenses is in their conjugation. The preterite tense is conjugated using regular verbs, while the imperfect tense is conjugated using irregular verbs. For example, the common verb “hablar” (to speak) is conjugated as “hablé” in the preterite tense, while the irregular verb “ser” (to be) is conjugated as “era” in the imperfect tense.

Another critical difference between the preterite and imperfect tenses is how they are used in Spanish. The preterite tense is used more often in Spanish than the imperfect tense. This is because the preterite tense is used to describe specific actions that happened at a particular time, while the imperfect tense is used to describe general actions or states of being. For example, you would use the preterite tense to say “I went to the store,” but you would use the imperfect tense to say “I was at the store.”

In Spanish, the imperfect tense describes ongoing past actions, states of being, or habitual past actions. It is also used to describe past actions in general terms. The imperfect tense is conjugated using the regular -ar, -er, and -ir verbs endings.

The imperfect tense describes ongoing or repeated actions in the past. This can be actions that happened regularly, such as daily routines, or activities that occurred over time. For example, you might say, “I used to go for a run every day,” or “We went to the park every weekend.”

The preterite tense describes specific, one-time events in the past. These events usually have a beginning and an end, and they are often seen as being completed. For example, you might say, “I ran a marathon last year” or “We went to the park yesterday.”

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