PRETERITO vs IMPERFECTO: Don’t ever confuse these again!

PRETERITO vs IMPERFECTO: Don’t ever confuse these again!

¡Maura! ¿Qué es lo correcto: patiné por horas o patinaba por horas?
(Maura! Which is correct: I skated for hours or I was skating for hours?)

First Alex said: patiné por horas with el pretérito. Then she said: patinaba por horas with el imperfecto.

Yo soy Maura de Spring Spanish. Let’s learn once and for all when to use this two Spanish past tenses: el pretérito y el imperfecto.

1. When to use el pretérito and when el imperfecto

All throughout this video you’ll see el pretérito highlighted in blue and el imperfecto in yellow, so it’s easier for you to follow. Mantén esto en mente (Keep this in mind.)

Lo primero que tienes que pensar, Alex, es si la acción terminó o no. Ya terminaste de patinar, ¿no?
(The first thing you have to think about, Alex, is whether the action is over or not. You’re done skating, right?)

¡Sí! Hace rato.
(Yes! A while ago.)

Vale, entonces usa el pretérito: patiné.
(Okay, then use the preterite: I skated.)

O sea: patiné por horas. Y uso el pretérito porque ya terminé.
(Meaning: I skated for hours. And I use the preterite because I already finished.)


Bien, entiendo.
(Good, I understand.)

¿Revisaste el link en la descripción? Si no, ¿qué esperas? (Did you check the link in the description? If not, what are you waiting for?) You’ll find our free Essential Spanish Chunking kit which is filled with very useful everyday chunks. About that dialogue…Thinking about complete Vs. incomplete actions will help but, of course, there’s nuances. Let’s check more ways to figure out when to use each.

¿Y qué pasó?
(And what happened?)

Bueno, quería hacer ejercicio, pero estaba harta de hacerlo en casa. Así que decidí sacar los patines y me fui al parque.
(Well, I wanted to exercise, but I was tired of doing it at home. So I decided to take the skates out and went to the park.)

¿Y no hacía mucho frío?
(And wasn’t it very cold?)

Eso fue lo que pensé, pero en realidad no hacía tanto frío. Estaba mojado, eso sí. Pero no llovió más después de que salí. Así que por eso, sin darme cuenta, patiné por horas.
(That’s what I thought, but it wasn’t really that cold. It was wet, that’s for sure. But it didn’t rain anymore after I went out. So that’s why, without realizing it, I skated for hours.)

You could also think about this as narration vs. description. El pretérito narra y el imperfecto describe. (The preterite narrates and the imperfect describes.)

El pretérito narrates the events, without adorning:

  • Decidí sacar los patines. (I decided to take the skates out.)
  • No llovió más. (It didn’t rain anymore.)
  • Me fui al parque. (I went to the park.)

El imperfecto creates a scenario describing feelings or backgrounds:

  • Quería hacer ejercicio. (I wanted to exercise.)
  • ¿Y no hacía mucho frío? (And wasn’t it very cold?)
  • Estaba mojado. (It was wet.)

So the notions that accompany el imperfecto are:

  • Description: Los pájaros cantaban y el viento soplaba. (The birds were singing and the wind was blowing.)
  • Unfinished or continuous actions: Vivíamos felices en ese pequeño apartamento. (We lived happily in that little apartment.)
  • Repetitive or habitual actions: Me llamaba constantemente. (He called me constantly.)
  • Background setting: Hablaban altísimo mientras bebían y reían. (They talked loudly while they drank and laughed.)

The notions that accompany el pretérito are:

  • Punctual action: La puerta se rompió. (The door broke.)
    • Tus vecinos vinieron. (Your neighbors came.)
  • Limited action: Hice natación hace años, pero ya no más. (I did swimming years ago, but not anymore.)
    • Lo amé por mucho tiempo. (I loved him for a long time.)

Now you can see why, to tell a story in Spanish, you’d use el imperfecto to set the ambiance and el pretérito to say what happened:

Imperfecto: Cuando era pequeña me gustaba mucho jugar en la calle. Éramos muchos niños en mi urbanización. (When I was little I loved playing on the street. We were many children in my neighbourhood.): Set the ambiance.

Pretérito: Así que, un día, mis amigas y yo organizamos una competencia en nuestra cuadra. Todos los niños de la urbanización participaron (So, one day, my friends and I organized a competition on our block. All the children in the neighborhood participated.): Say what happened.

Check out both tenses against each other in this little table:

Yo (I)Yo me reí mucho anoche. (I laughed a lot last night. )Yo me reía mucho con ella.  (I used to laugh a lot with her. )
(You)Tu jugaste futbol ayer. (You played soccer yesterday. ) jugabas futbol en el colegio. (You used to play soccer in school.)
Él (He), Ella (She), Ello (It)Ella vino el sábado. (She came on Saturday.)Ella venía los sábados. (She used to come on Saturdays.)
Nosotros/Nosotras (We)Nosotras salimos a pasear esta mañana. (We went for a walk this morning. )Nosotras salíamos a pasear por las mañanas. (We used to go out in the mornings.)
Ustedes (Plural You),  Ellos/Ellas (They)Ustedes hablaron con él hace poco. (You spoke with him recently.)Ustedes hablaban más con él. (You used to talk to him more.)

2. Tricks and tips to separate el imperfecto and el pretérito

Consider the question:

Almost regardless of the rules, answer in the tense you were asked.

¿Qué hacías, Alex?
(What were you doing, Alex?)

Patinaba en el parque.
(I was skating at the park.)

¿Y qué más hiciste en el parque?
(And what else did you do at the park?)

Poco más, me tomé un café y regresé.
(Not much (Lit.: little more), I had a coffee and came back.)

Consider the accompanying chunks:

Certain expressions tend to stick to either one or the other tense. Here are a few that always go with el imperfecto:

  • Para entrenar corría cada semana. (To train she ran every week.): Other phrases with “cada” would work as well, like: cada día, cada mes, cada año (every day, every month, every year.)
  • Normalmente me esperaban en la puerta del colegio. (Usually, they waited for me at the school gate.): Alternatives to “normalmente” could be: usualmente, a menudo, siempre (usually, often, always.)
  • Antes queríamos mudarnos, pero ya no. (Before we wanted to move, but not anymore.)
  • Cuando éramospequeños jugábamos más (When we were little we played more.): Every time you’ll describe something with “cuando” (when) which isn’t true anymore, like being little, use el imperfecto.
    • Cuando estábamos saliendo íbamos de viaje todos los veranos (When we were dating we went on a trip every summer.)
  • Veía clases de español los martes. (She took Spanish classes on Tuesdays.): The important thing here is using “los” before “martes”.

Expressions that go with el pretérito:

  • Vio clases de español el martes. (She had Spanish class on Tuesday.): See? If you use the singular article “el” instead of the plural “los” you’d need a pretérito, not an imperfecto.
  • Para entrenar corrió por un año. (To train she ran for a year.): This could just as well be por una semana, por un día, por un mes. (for a week, for a day, for a month.)
  • Me esperaron en la puerta del colegio una vez. (They waited for me at the school gate once.): O dos veces, cien veces, muchas veces. (Or twice, a hundred times, many times.)
  • De repente se mudaron. (Suddenly, they moved.)
  • Cuando llamé me dijeron que no había cupo. (When I called they told me there was no quota.): Here “cuando” (when) is followed by el pretérito because it is still true that you called. Remember that if what you say after “cuando” isn’t true anymore you would use el imperfecto.

3. Test your pretérito and your imperfecto

  1. Telling a story from your childhood. Set the ambience with:
    1. Cuando tenía cinco años. (When I was 5 years old.)
    2. Cuando tuve cinco años. (When I was 5 years old.)
  2. Tell what happened when you were 5 years old with:
    1. Me fracturaba el tobillo. (I used to break my ankle.)
    2. Me fracturé el tobillo. (I broke my ankle.)
  3. On Monday there were discounts at the supermarket and you went there. Say it with:
    1. Fui al super mercado el lunes porque había descuentos. (I went to the supermarket on Monday because there were discounts.)
    2. Iba al super mercado el lunes porque había descuentos. (I used to go to the supermarket on Monday because there were discounts.)
  4. How about if this happened every Monday at the supermarket:
    1. Iba al super mercado los lunes porque había descuentos. (I used to go to the supermarket on Mondays because there were discounts.)
    2. Fui al super mercado los lunes porque había descuentos. (I went to the supermarket on Mondays because there were discounts.)
  5. When I was living in Boston my parents:
    1. Me llamaban todos los días. (They called me every day.)
    2. Me llamaron todos los días. (They called me every day.)
  6. I hear a big noise and I come running to you. I ask: ¿qué pasó? (what happened?) And you say:
    1. Me caía, pero no paso nada. (I was falling, but nothing happened.)
    2. Me caí, pero no pasó nada. (I fell, but nothing happened.)
  7. What did you do these past holidays?
    1. Comimos muchísimo y conocimos un montón de sitios nuevos. (We ate a lot and visited a lot of new places.)
    2. Comíamos muchísimo y conocíamos un montón de sitios nuevos. (We ate a lot and visited a lot of new places.)
  8. Why didn’t he like school?
    1. Porque la gente se burlaba de él. (Because people made fun of him.)
    2. Porque la gente se burló de él. (Because people made fun of him.)  

I only covered the imperfecto briefly, but now let’s look at it in depth. I will give you lots of chunks with the imperfecto and explain how it works and when to use it right here.

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