Imperfect vs Preterite Tense – Which To Use & When

One of the hardest aspects of Spanish grammar is understanding not only the difference between the imperfect vs preterite tense, but also when to use each of these tenses depending on context.

In this post, we’ll show you how to conjugate any verb in both tenses, as well as demonstrate how and when to use these tenses depending on what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Read on for an understanding of the following:

👍 What the imperfect and preterite tenses are
👍 When to use the imperfect and preterite tense
👍 Examples of each tense with AR, ER and IR verbs

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What Is The Imperfect Tense? 

If you want to refer to something that has already happened or an event that occurred in the past, without indicating a clear cut timeframe, then we use what’s known as imperfect tense.

For example, in English, we might say:

⭐ ‘My friends were dancing when I walked in.’

The focus of the sentence is that the friends were dancing at some point, which is also indicated by finishing with an -ing, otherwise known as a gerund (a verb that also functions as a noun) – but we are also referring to an ‘imperfect past’ in English, AKA a past action that does not have a clear cut start or end point.

Still confused? Let’s think about another:

⭐ ‘I used to like dancing with my friends.’

By saying I used to, you clearly indicate that you once enjoyed dancing with your friends historically, and have since stopped dancing (or enjoying it!). No specifics are pointed out, nor do we find out any context, like when, who, or how. Instead, the clear purpose of this sentence is to indicate that I once liked dancing, but now I don’t.

The Imperfect ‘-er’ and ‘-ir’ Endings in Spanish

In order to form the imperfect ending for a regular verb ending in ‘-er’ or ‘-ir’ correctly, all you have to do is remove the final two letters – ‘er’ or ‘ir’ – at the end, and replace it with the imperfect ending. For this example, we’ll use the verb beber, which means to drink.

As you can see, we are using an ER verb as an example here. Remember that IR verbs follow the same rules.

VerbSubjectRemove '-ER' or '-IR' EndingAdd Imperfect EndingImperfect Conjugation
BeberYoBeb+ íaBebía
BeberBeb+ íasBebías
BeberÉl / Ella / UstedBeb+ íaBebía
BeberNosotros / NosotrasBeb+ íamosBebíamos
BeberVosotros / VosotrasBeb+ íaisBebíais
BeberEllos / Ellas / UstedesBeb+ íanBebían

The Imperfect ‘-ar’ Endings in Spanish

The same goes when you’re conjugating verbs that end in ‘-ar.’ All you have to do is replace that ending for the appropriate imperfect one. To demonstrate, let’s look at the verb Hablar, which means to talk.

Remember, AR verbs follow their own set of rules and endings, whilst ER and IR verbs follow the same set of rules with the imperfect tense.

VerbSubjectRemove '-AR' EndingAdd Imperfect EndingImperfect Conjugation
HablarYoHabl+ abaHablaba
HablarHabl+ abasHablabas
HablarÉl / Ella / UstedHabl+ abaHablaba
HablarNosotros / NosotrasHabl+ ábamosHablábamos
HablarVosotros / VosotrasHabl+ abaisHablabais
HablarEllos / Ellas / UstedesHabl+ abanHablaban

Irregular Verbs In The Perfect Tense

As with most languages, there are a couple of verbs (include reflexive verbs) that fall outside the general rules for tenses, which is frustrating for beginners. As far as the imperfect tense goes, for now, you only need to remember ser, ver and ir are different. If you can, memorize their six possible usages.

What Is The Spanish Preterite Tense? (English Context)

When it comes to the Preterite tense, we’re talking about actions (expressed as verbs) that have already been performed, but which have a clear start and a clear end point that are distinguishable in what you’ve said.

To put that a little more simply, in English you could say:

⭐ ‘Last week, I went for a walk in the park for 30 minutes.’

This sentence offers a clear timeframe for the event – going for a walk in the park – as you declare when the event took place, last week, and how long for, 30 minutes. Therefore, if you were to translate this into Spanish, you would use the Preterite Tense.

⭐ ‘La semana pasada, salí a caminar por el parque durante 30 minutos.’

Preterite Endings For ‘-ar’ Verbs

In order to conjugate (transform) a regular verb into the preterite tense, it’s quite simple – just like with the imperfect tense, you simply drop the ‘-ar’ ending and replace it with the appropriate Preterite Suffix.

Let’s use hablar or to talk again…

VerbSubjectRemove '-AR' EndingAdd Preterite EndingPreterite Conjugation
HablarYoHabl+ éHablé
HablarHabl+ asteHablaste
HablarÉl / Ella / UstedHablHabló
HablarNosotros / NosotrasHabl+ amosHablamos
HablarVosotros / VosotrasHabl+ asteisHablasteis
HablarEllos / Ellas / UstedesHabl+ aronHablaron

Preterite Endings For ‘-er’ and ‘-ir’ Verbs

As above, again using the example Beber or to drink, you simply swap out the regular infinitive ending for the appropriate Preterite one:

VerbSubjectRemove '-ER' or '-IR' EndingAdd Preterite EndingPreterite Conjugation
BeberYoBeb+ íBebí
BeberBeb+ isteBebiste
BeberÉl / Ella / UstedBeb+ióBebió
BeberNosotros / NosotrasBeb+ imosBebimos
BeberVosotros / VosotrasBeb+ isteisBebisteis
BeberEllos / Ellas / UstedesBeb+ ieronBebieron

Irregular Verbs In The Preterite Tense

Despite the consensus amongst many that Spanish is an easy language which can be learned quickly, this is not necessarily the case. Whilst many aspects of Spanish are logical, it does have complicated elements.

As with many languages, some verbs (often the most commonly used) are conjugated differently in the preterite tense.

Here are some examples:

🇪🇸 estar
🇪🇸 tener

🇪🇸 haber
🇪🇸 hacer
🇪🇸 ir
🇪🇸 dar
🇪🇸 ser
🇪🇸 poner
🇪🇸 querer
🇪🇸 andar
🇪🇸 venir
🇪🇸 saber
🇪🇸 poder

For these verbs, you’ll simply have to memorize all of their preterite forms in order to master them.

Imperfect vs Preterite Tense

The Difference Between Preterite and Imperfect – Which Is Which?

In the simplest possible terms, the preterite tense indicates what you did whilst the imperfect tense determines what you were doing. This is pretty much the same for all instances, and can be a helpful way to figure out which ending to use.

🇪🇸 Toqué la guitarra means I played the guitar – for a clear cut, distinct time.

So, that’s the preterite tense (from the AR verb tocar).

🇪🇸 Yo tocaba la guitarra means I used to play the guitar or I was playing the guitar without saying when or how long.

So, that’s the imperfect tense.

🇪🇸 Comí mi cena means I ate my dinner – the action has been completed, the time frame is clear.

So, that’s preterite tense.

🇪🇸 Comía mi cena means I was eating my dinner or I used to eat my dinner. That is, until something interrupted you, and you aren’t finished.

Therefore, it’s the imperfect tense

Imperfect vs Preterite Tense – Let’s look at one more:

🇪🇸 Vi la televisión means I watched TV. You have finished your TV watching.

Therefore, the established time frame can be defined using the preterite tense.

🇪🇸 Veía la televisión means I was watching TV – once again, you didn’t get a chance to finish your TV watching before being interrupted by something else (i.e someone asking what you were doing!)

So, that would be imperfect tense

You could also understand the difference between the two as follows, with preterite referring to things that have happened previously, whilst the imperfect tense talks about how things used to be, before.

Taking those same sentences from before:

🇪🇸 Toqué la guitarra = I played the guitar = preterite tense

🇪🇸 Yo solía tocar la guitarra = I used to play the guitar = imperfect tense

🇪🇸 Comí mi cena = I ate my dinner = preterite tense

🇪🇸 Comía la cena = I used to eat dinner =  imperfect tense

🇪🇸 Vi la televisión = I watched TV = preterite tense

🇪🇸 Yo veía la televisión = I used to watch TV = imperfect tense

How to Remember the Imperfect vs Preterite Tense in Spanish

When listening to Spanish or reading Spanish, you will likely come across a verb or phrase that you’re not familiar with. You can determine which tense it is in by looking at specific clues gathered from the context of the rest of the sentence.

For instance, some words and phrases that might suggest that the imperfect tense is being used would be those referring to vague times, like…

Todo el tiempo which means All the time.

Siempre which means Always.

Varias veces which means Several times.

Muchas veces which means Many times.

Todos los días which means Every day.

Nunca which means Never.

Cada día which means Every day.

A menudo which means Often.

A veces which means Sometimes.

Other more specific words and phrases, which might suggest the preterite tense, include the following…

Anoche which means Last night.

Esta tarde which means This afternoon.

En ese momento which means At that moment.

Otro día which means The other day.

Después which means Afterwards.

Ayer which means Yesterday.

Hace dos días which means Two days ago.

Entonces which means Then.

Durante dos semanas which means For two weeks.

El mes pasado which means Last month.

Imperfect vs Preterite Tense: Tips and Tricks for Learning Spanish

Change Your TV Habits:

Consider switching things up a little and watching some Spanish TV or movies – popular shows right now include Hace, Alta Mar, La casa de las flores, and Locked Up. Put English subtitles on and it will help you associate specific words and phrases with the sound of spoken Español.

Likewise, you could put on your own favorite films and TV shows… but watch them with Spanish subtitles. Through this method, you will pick up on particular verbs and phrases that catch your eye. Indeed, some of them will definitely come up in your studies.

Practice With Friends

Whether they’re online acquaintances on Duolingo or real-life friends that you can converse with, the best (and fastest!) way to become fluent in any language is simply to speak it. Particularly if they can offer you feedback. If you have any Spanish-speaking friends, now’s the time to ask for their help!

You could perform different conversational scenarios or tell anecdotes to each other and offer critiques afterwards, either in person or using the power of technology.

If you’re a bit shy about speaking right now, you could ask them to text or email you in Spanish instead, which would give you a chance to practice your written communication too.

Apps, Games, Quizzes

If you struggle to settle down and “study” because it feels too much like hard work, try making things fun! There are hundreds of Youtube videos, smartphone apps and online tutorials that can help train your brain gradually, over time.

Just by keeping up with your Spanish practice regularly, even just for a few minutes a day, you will solidify and consolidate the information you are learning. Indeed, this will push it into your long term memory.

This means you’ll be able to recall it even if you don’t practice for a couple of days. It takes time to get to this point, so don’t take it for granted!

Imperfect vs Preterite Tense – A Summary

We pointed out at the start of this language post that for Spanish beginners, determining when and how to use the imperfect and preterite tenses can be really difficult.

Not only is it hard to pick up on, but it’s also really significant and has an impact on the meaning of words. So, getting it wrong could alter what you’re saying entirely! However… it is not difficult to learn once you have learned the rules highlighted throughout this post.

Go over your notes consistently. In addition to this, use Spanish revision materials to reinforce your knowledge. These methods will help and provide clarity to even the most confused Spanish learner!

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