preterite vs imperfect

Preterite and Imperfect: What do these words mean?

Let’s start at the very beginning!

In Spanish Grammar, the word ‘Pretérito’ indicates the tense where the verb expresses an action, a process or a state that happened before the precise moment the person is communicating it (either by speaking or writing about it), meaning à in the past.

The Royal Academy of Spanish Language (Real Academia de la Lengua Española or RAE by its initials) defines ‘Pretérito’ as follows:

«Tiempo que sitúa la acción, el proceso o el estado expresados por el verbo en un punto anterior al momento del habla.»

This indicates that ‘Pretérito’ in Castilian encompasses ALL the verb tenses that are used to talk about anything that happened in a former time.

However, it is common that people use the expression ‘Preterite’ on its own, or ‘Spanish Preterite’, to refer to the verb tense known as ‘Spanish Simple Past’.

This can get even more complicated because Spanish Simple Past’s real name in Castilian is ‘Pretérito Perfecto Simple’.

Therefore, to end all kind of confusions just look at the table below to identify the Spanish name with its English equivalent.

SPANISH ENGLISH
  Pretérito Perfecto Simple     “Yo comí”   Spanish Preterite or Spanish Simple Past   (short name: Preterite)   “I ate”  
  Pretérito Imperfecto     “Yo comía”   Spanish Imperfect Preterite or Spanish Imperfect Past   (short name: Imperfect)   “I used to eat”  

In this article, we will discuss the differences between Preterite and Imperfect. Plus, how to put them into practice with clear examples!

In order to avoid misunderstandings, we will use the short names: ‘Preterite’ for Spanish Simple Past and ‘Imperfect’ for Spanish Imperfect Past.

Preterite vs Imperfect Spanish Nitty-gritty

The following key ideas will help you to distinguish among the past verb tenses:

  • PRETERITE:

It describes situations in the past which are seen as completed. The action expressed by the verb has a definite beginning and ending.

Example:

Esta mañana salió el sol. -> This morning the sun came out.

  • IMPERFECT:

It describes situations in the past which are seen as ongoing (started in the past but still go on) or where interrupted. The action expressed by the verb has a definite beginning but an indefinite ending.

Example:

Esta mañana salía el sol cuando comenzó a soplar el viento. -> This morning the sun was coming out when the wind started blowing. (Is the sun still out and the wind still blowing?)

Preterite vs Imperfect

preterite and imperfect

Preterite and Imperfect do share one thing, however.

One feature that they have in common is that both tenses are simple, meaning that they do not use auxiliary verbs such as ‘to be’ (estar) and ‘to have’ (haber).

As it was mentioned above, the main difference is that Preterite always expresses actions or events that took place in the past and that have already finished.

Whereas the Imperfect expresses actions or events that took place in the past but that they still affect the present.

The ending, in this case, is not explicit, so we do not know if the action or event still continues at the present moment of speech or not.

Example:

  • PRETERITE:

Cuando era un niño dormí bajo las estrellas. -> When I was a boy, I slept under the stars.

This sounds like something you did once when you were young but haven’t done again since then. It generates the feeling that it was something that took place a long time ago.

  • IMPERFECT:

Cuando era un niño yo dormía bajo las estrellas. -> When I was a boy, I used to sleep under the stars.

This sounds like something you used to do when you were young and you still occasionally enjoy.

Or probably you did it so much that you currently hate it! The feeling here is that sleeping under the stars is relevant to your present.

Generally speaking, Spanish Imperfect translates to English as something you used to do; but then again it may also translate as something you were doing in the past before something else happened.

Example:

  • Let’s think about a meal where the food is delicious and you overeat without noticing. When someone offers you a dessert, you want to say that you are full because you ate too much.

You would say “comí demasiado” (I ate too much) not “comía demasiado” (I used to eat too much) because the act of eating has already finished. This is an illustration of a simple past tense sentence or Preterite.

  • Now, let’s think about a situation where you were eating and suddenly you felt a strong stomach pain, then you started vomiting, and ended up with the local doctor.

When you describe the situation to the health provider, you would say “comía demasiado cuando sentí un fuerte dolor en el estómago” (I was eating when I felt a strong pain in the stomach).

This illustrates how Imperfect can sometimes be translated to English as Past Continuous.

Imperfect Progressive

Just to clarify, if you were to say “estaba comiendo cuando sentí un fuerte dolor en el estómago” then is a case of Imperfect Progressive.

This is a type of verbal periphrasis, a compound expression that consists of one verb followed by another in its gerund form, which has a continuing aspect.

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Imperfect Uses

It can be used to describe:

  1. Actions that regularly took place in the past.
  2. Actions that simultaneously took place in the past.
  3. Ongoing past actions which are not seen as completed.
  4. Ongoing past actions that were interrupted by other actions.

Observe the table below, it shows examples of common Spanish regular and irregular verbs in both forms.

INFINITIVE VERB PRETERITE IMPERFECT
SPANISH ENGLISH SPANISH ENGLISH SPANISH ENGLISH
Comer Eat Comí I ate Comía   I used to eat   I was eating
Vivir Live Viví I lived Vivía   I used to live   I was living
Amar Love Amé I loved Amaba   I used to love   I was loving
Manejar Drive Manejé I drove Manejaba   I used to drive   I was driving
Escribir Write Escribí I wrote Escribía   I used to write   I was writing
Aprender Learn Aprendí I learned Aprendía   I used to learn   I was learning
Visitar Visit Visité I visited Visitaba   I used to visit   I was visiting

For native Spanish speakers, the Imperfect past tense is preferred to highlight the frequency of a past action, the equivalent of ‘used to’ in English.

Examples:

  1. Todos los domingos Julián iba al cine con sus abuelos. -> Every Sunday Julián used to go to the cinema with his grandparents.
  2. Los viernes de Semana Santa cocinábamos pescado. -> On Easter Fridays we used to cook fish.
  3. ¿Usted manejaba en Inglaterra durante sus viajes de verano por Europa? -> Did you use to drive in England during your summer trips to Europe?
  4. Cada vez que llovía se inundaba la carretera. -> Every time it used to rain the motorway used to flood. OR Every time it rained the motorway was flooded.

Formulating the Preterite

preterite vs imperfect

Verbs are generally classified into three groups, depending on their endings: –ar, –er, and –ir.

To formulate the Preterite verb tense you have to change the ending according to the table below. Notice how the groups of verbs that end in –er and –ir are conjugated in exactly the same.

    REGULAR VERBS
    -AR -ER -IR
PERSON CANTAR (sing) BEBER (drink) ABRIR (open)
Singular Yo Cant-é Beb-í Abr-í
Cant-aste Beb-iste Abr-iste
Él/Ella Usted Cant-ó Beb-ió Abr-ió
Plural Nosotros Cant-amos Beb-imos Abr-imos
Vosotros Cant-asteis Beb-isteis Abr-isteis
Ustedes Cant-aron Beb-ieron Abr-ieron

Some irregular verbs may fit into this description but is best to learn them by heart. You can practice them here.

Formulating the Imperfect

The same rule applies for grouping the verbs according to their ending.

In this chart, you can also spot how the first person singular (yo) and third-person singular (él/ella/usted) formulas are the same for all regular verbs. Therefore, if you want to avoid ambiguity is best to include the pronoun in your sentence.

CANTAR (SING) –AR
PERSON IMPERFECT PAST
Yo Cantaba Aba
Cantabas Abas
Él/Ella/Usted Cantaba Aba
Nosotros Cantábamos Ábamos
Vosotros Cantabais Abais
Ustedes Cantaban Aban
BEBER (DRINK) –ER
PERSON IMPERFECT PAST
Yo Bebía Ía
Bebías Ías
Él/Ella/Usted Bebía Ía
Nosotros Bebíamos Íamos
Vosotros Bebíais Íais
Ustedes Bebían Ían
ABRIR (OPEN) –IR
PERSON IMPERFECT PAST
Yo Abría Ía
Abrías Ías
Él/Ella/Usted Abría Ía
Nosotros Abríamos Íamos
Vosotros Abríais Íais
Ustedes Abrían Ían

The verbs ‘ver’ (to see), ‘ir’ (to go), and ‘ser’ (to be) are the only three irregular verbs in this tense. Hurray! You can practice them here.

Preterite VS Imperfect Practice

preterite vs imperfect spanish

Practice the Preterite writing at least one sentence about:

  • Your childhood
  • Past jobs
  • Your ex
  • Someone who has died
  • Last night’s events
  • What you had for dinner the day before yesterday

Now, on to the Imperfect! Write about:

  • What you used to do to entertain yourself as a teenager
  • Your favorite meal your grandmother used to cook
  • What were you doing on the 9/11
  • A time you were woken up in the middle of the night
  • Describe the day someone broke your heart

Are you ready to tackle some more Spanish Grammar challenges? Read the full article on Spanish Past Tense.

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