preterite vs imperfect

Spanish Preterite vs Imperfect: The Ultimate Guide (+ Examples)

In Spanish, just like in English, there is more than just one “past tense”. Two of the most important ones for a Spanish student are the preterite and the imperfect. Knowing when to use which tense will help you a lot in conversations, especially when you tell a story.

Before I give you in-depth explanations and examples, here’s the gist on preterite vs imperfect: When you use the preterite to talk about events in the past, you provide precise details of when something happened (and in which sequence). You use the the imperfect to talk generally about past situations, habits or qualities/properties, without providing information about a definite ending.

Not sure what that means? That's normal. The best way to understand the difference is with tons of examples. And that's exactly what you'll get in this guide!

Let's dive in.

When to use preterite vs imperfect

The first thing you need to know apart from learning day-to-day phrases is when to actually use these Spanish tenses.

Let’s start first with the imperfect.

As previously mentioned, the imperfect helps you describe past events but you can’t use it to provide information about a definite ending.

With this in mind, you can use the Spanish imperfect to:

  • Describe qualities like physical features
  • Describe regular situations or events that happen frequently
  • Describe temporary situations in the past

On the other hand, the preterite comes in handy in other situations where:

  • You are describing a “chain of events/actions” in the past
  • You need to state that the past event ended at that moment

It’s all about perspective. Take for example the two Spanish chunks below:

SpanishEnglish
Llovía mucho aquel díaIt rained a lot that day
Llovió mucho aquel díaIt rained a lot that day

Note that there’s no difference between the English translation of the first chunk and the second one.

But in Spanish, these chunks are quite different.

The first one uses the imperfect, and thus, does not express that the event finished in the past – the rain is an “ongoing situation”.

The second one uses the preterite, which indicated that “back then it rained a lot, but now the rain has stopped.

Here’s a video about the imperfect from Spring Spanish, a YouTube channel I co-founded:

And here’s a video about the preterite:

The best way to understand the difference is by seeing both tenses in action as much as possible.

Here are some more examples to make the difference clear.

By the way, I recommend you watch the videos above AND start looking out for preterite vs imperfect in all the Spanish you hear (e.g. in Spanish podcasts) or read (e.g. in Spanish books). If you can’t recognize the tenses yet, read on: later in this article there are full conjugation tables for both tenses.)

SpanishEnglishTense
Recuerdo que amaba planearI remember I loved to planImperfect: describing an ongoing situation in the past
Quería que me tragara la tierraI wanted the earth to swallow meImperfect: describing an ongoing state in the past
¿Qué hacías?What were you doing?Imperfect (asking about what you were doing when something else happened)
No entendiste, te contaré de nuevoYou didn't understand, I'll tell you againPreterite (describing an action with ending in the past)
Él podía cocinar lasañaHe could cook lasagnaImperfect (describing a quality/skill in the past)
Fingió que le dio gusto vernosHe pretended he was glad to see usPreterite (describing an action with ending in the past)
Pensabamos que duraría pocoWe thought it wouldn't last longImperfect (describing a state/situation in the past)
Nos fuímos tempranoWe left earlyPreterite (describing an action in the past)

Preterite vs Imperfect endings and conjugation table

Now, let’s talk about the endings in these two Spanish tenses. This will help you differentiate one tense from another when you hear an expression while traveling or just when talking to your Spanish friends.

We’re using the verbs encontrar (to find), entender (to understand) and fingir (to feign).

The imperfect

Pronoun-AR-ER-IR
Yoencontrabaentendíafingía
encontrabasentendíasfingías
Ella & Élencontrabaentendíafingía
Nosotras / Nosotrosencontrábamosentendíamosfingíamos
Vosotrosencontrabaisentendíaisfingíais
Ellas / Ellos / Ustedenencontrabanentendíanfingían

The preterite

Pronoun– AR-ER-IR
Yoencontréentendífingí
encontrasteentendistefingiste
Ella & Élencontróentendfing
Nosotras / Nosotrosencontramosentendimosfingimos
Ustedesencontraronentendieronfingieron
Ellas / Ellosencontraronentendieronfingieron

You’ll see that the -ER and -IR verbs have mostly the same conjugation, both in the imperfect and the preterite.

Now, in my experience, learning these conjugation tables by heart won’t help you much in actual Spanish conversations; you simply won’t have time to remember the verb and the endings. Learning too much grammar and conjugation tables like this will increase how long it takes to learn Spanish.

It’s much easier to listen to tons of Spanish where the preterite and the imperfect are used, and to learn some chunks used by native speakers that contain the imperfect and preterite. Learning and using these chunks saves you a lot of uncertainty: after all, you know they’re correct, so you don’t have to come up with the verb ending – or choose between preterite and imperfect – at all!

  • ¿Te conté que estaba enfermo? (Did I tell you I was sick?)
  • No me contaste. (You didn’t tell me?)
  • Traté de esconderme. (I tried to hide.)
  • No entendí. (I didn’t understand)

And here are some more chunks with the Spanish imperfect (from the video mentioned above):

  • Se sentían súper mal. (They felt pretty bad.)
  • Recuerdo que amaba planear. (I remember I loved planning.)
  • En casa, creíamos que la íbamos a pasar bien. (At home, we thought we were going to have a good time.)

Learning chunks like this has a much bigger impact on your Spanish fluency than merely learning conjugation tables. The more chunks like this you hear, and the more you learn them by heart, the easier it becomes to speak. It's the easiest and best way to learn Spanish.

Learning preterite vs imperfect conjugations through chunks and flashcards

In my book on language learning, (and in this article with my best tips for learning Spanish)I mention using spaced repetition and flashcards to imprint Spanish chunks on your brain so they roll off the tongue in conversations.

This works especially well with verb conjugations, so it’s definitely worth a try. I recommend you create so-called “cloze cards”: fill-in-the-blank flashcards. For example:

FRONT:
¿___________ (Did I tell you that) estaba enfermo?

BACK:

¿Te conté que estaba enfermo?
(Did I tell you that I was sick?)

This way, you have the context of the sentence, which should tell you whether to use preterite or imperfect. You’ll also automatically practice the full chunk te conté que (did I tell you that), not just a random verb conjugation. AND when you learn chunks in context, your brain usually finds it easier to memorize and retrieve chunks when speaking.

Nothing but advantages!

Conclusion

Knowing when to use the Spanish Preterite vs Imperfect might be hard when you’re just starting out learning Spanish. However, observing a lot of Spanish conversations and seeing the difference in action will help you distinguish between the two more easily. Once you can tell the difference when other people speak, and you memorize some of the chunks you hear, it’ll become even easier for you to use the correct tense yourself.

For more info about chunking, I recommend you download the free Spanish Chunking Starter Pack. It contains tons of chunking examples, an in-depth chunking tutorial that shows you exactly how to learn Spanish through Conversation Based Chunking (without memorizing word lists and grammar rules), and comes with recommended resources for where to find useful chunks. Download it here:

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