3 Best Tips to Understand What Is the Difference Between Preterite and Imperfect in Spanish

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I want to tell you my 3 best tips to understand what is the difference between preterite and imperfect in Spanish. Learning new verb tenses in Spanish can be confusing and frustrating, but worry no more.

Preterite and imperfect (pretérito indefinido and imperfecto) are Spanish tenses that can be difficult for many English speakers to differentiate. This guide will provide a helpful overview of the main differences between these two widely-used tense forms, along with examples of how each is used in Spanish.

Preterite vs Imperfect in Spanish: What’s the Difference? 

Preterite and imperfect are two tenses in Spanish that indicate past actions. Even though they are both ‘past’ tenses, they each express a different type of action or circumstance. 

Preterite or pretérito indefinido (also known as pretérito perfecto simple) signals completed past events that have a clear beginning and end. There are certain adverbial words or phrases that tip you off that the preterit should be used. Some of them are: 

  • Antes, ayer, anteayer, anoche, anteanoche.
  • La semana pasada, el mes/año/siglo pasado, años atrás.
  • Hace días/semanas/meses/años.
  • El otro día.
  • Durante el siglo (dos siglos, semanas, días, etc.).

Example of a completed past event:

  • Ayer desayuné tres medialunas, miré una película y jugué un videojuego. (Yesterday I had three medialunas for breakfast, I watched a movie, and I played a video game.)

The imperfect or pretérito imperfecto is used for past events that don’t have a clear beginning or end. This tense is also used to talk about past actions that occurred repeatedly over a non specific period of time.

Example of a past event that occurred repeatedly:

  • Juana comía el mismo desayuno cada mañana. (Juana ate the same breakfast every morning.)

Example of a past event that doesn’t have a clear beginning or end:

  • Tocábamos la guitarra por horas, sin parar. (We played the guitar for hours, non stop).  

Imperfect and Preterite in Spanish: How to Use Each Tense

When to Use the Preterite

We use the preterite when talking or writing about actions or events seen as completed in the past, so they have a clear beginning and end.

When in combination with the imperfect, the preterite indicates the main action of the sentence, while the imperfect describes the context or situation. See the example below:

  • Encontré una caja con un millón de dólares cuando caminaba por la costa. (I found a box with a million dollars inside when I was walking down the coast.)  

When to Use the Imperfect 

We use the imperfect verb tense for ongoing or repeated events that had no definite beginning or end in the past. For example, the following sentence expresses an activity that happened each Saturday for an indefinite period of time.

  • “Yo iba al museo los sábados” (I went to the museum on Saturdays.)

We also use it to describe the context or situation in which an action took place. The preterite tense expresses the main action, but it’s the imperfect tense that describes the context or situation that goes on in the background. See an example below:

  • “Cuando limpiaba la sala, el televisor explotó.” (When I was cleaning the living room, the TV exploded.) 

Imperfect vs. Preterite Spanish Quiz

Take this quiz to test your knowledge on imperfect vs preterite in Spanish. You have to conjugate the verbs in the preterite or imperfect as you read a beautiful love story. You can download this quiz for free from my TPT store.

Imperfect vs Preterite Spanish Practice

Looking for more practice? The following resource has helped my students learn to use the imperfect and preterite tenses and I believe it can help you too. Download this resource from my TPT store and start improving your Spanish today!

3 Best Tips to Understand What is the Difference Between Preterite and Imperfect in Spanish

The 3 best tips to understand what is the difference between preterite and imperfect in Spanish are:

  1. Know that the we use the preterite to talk about completed past events that have a clear beginning and end: **“Mamá compró frutas ayer.” **
  2. Understand that we use the imperfect to talk about past events that have no clear beginning or end: **“Mamá compraba frutas en la verdulería de la esquina.”**
  3. Take into account that when the preterite and the imperfect combine in the same sentences, the preterite indicates the main action, while the imperfect describes the background situation or context: **“Mamá compraba frutas cuando papá la llamó.” **

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