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Spanish Language : Preterite v Imperfect

By Meg West - Wed 26th Jun 2013

The problems caused by the preterite and imperfect tenses are certainly up there along with those of the subjunctive and ser and estar for us poor Spanish students. Like both of the above, it’s also something that unfortunately just requires lots of practice to master, but it’s always helpful to start out with a clear set of rules.

First of all, let’s determine what it is we’re talking about when we mention the terms “preterite” and “imperfect”. The preterite tense has various names, but refers to the simple past tense ie. yo dije, él dijo, tu dijiste, nosotros dijimos, vosotros dijisteis, ellos dijeron. The imperfect on the other hand is a different tense, used to describe events in the past ie. yo decía, tú decías, él decía, nosotros decíamos, vosotros decíais, ellos decían.

So when do we use each one? Good question. Very good question.

When to use the preterite :

When talking about an event in the past which has finished and has set time parameters eg. “Fue el mejor día de mi vida” or “a las 21h tuve que cenar”

When interrupting a description in the imperfect with an event eg. “Estaba lloviendo cuando llegé”

When to use the imperfect :

When describing/setting the scene for an event in the past eg. “Hacía mucho sol, había una brava suave y estabamos muy contentos cuando...” When talking about a habitual event/occurence in the past eg. “cada año ibamos a Francia para las vacaciones” or “cuando era pequeña, me gustaba jugar en el jardín”

One other thing to look out for (just to make it that little bit more complicated) is that some verbs change their meaning, depending on whether they’re used in the preterite or imperfect.

Some examples :

- conocer :

* “Conocí a Jorge ayer” = completed action: I met Jorge yesterday

* “Conocía a ella cuando era pequeña” = ongoing action in the past: I used to know her when I was little

- saber :

* “Ayer supe que él es su hermano” = completed action: Yesterday I found out that he is her brother

*“Sabía que él era su hermano” = ongoing action: I always knew he was her brother

- querer :

*“Quise hacerlo pero no pude” = completed action: I tried to do it but couldn’t

*“Quería comer chocolate todo el tiempo” = ongoing action in the past: I always wanted to eat chocolate

- poder :

*“Pude completarlo anoche” = completed action: I managed to complete it last night

*“Podía esquíar cuando era niña” = ongoing action: I was able to ski when I was little

So there you go! - Here’s a bit of help that might make things a bit clearer, but of course I can’t explain half as well as your teachers at Inhispania, so be sure to speak to them if you have any more queries !

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