Imperfect vs. Preterite in Spanish

Have you ever considered how often we talk about the past?

We always learn the present tense first in language lessons, but I’ve noticed that I use the past tense a lot in daily life. With friends and work colleagues, my conversations in Spanish involve a lot of storytelling:

What did you do last weekend? Where did you grow up? Have you heard the gossip about Lucy and Emilio? All of these conversation-starters begin and end with people talking in the Spanish past tense. 

In order to grasp the simple (one-word) Spanish past tenses, let’s look at their differences. With Spanish preterite and Spanish imperfect tenses, you will have enough to tell the kind of short stories that are common in Monday morning chit chat.

After studying the conjugations, you’ll know when to use them and be chatting about last weekend in no time. 

Preterite: The Simple Past Tense in Spanish

First off: Preterite and imperfect tenses are not interchangeable. Though English only has one simple past tense, it is necessary to use both in Spanish. 

In general, the preterite tense works for any action that took place and has now ended. Whether it happened once or many times, it has a clearly-defined end.  

  • Fuimos ayer al supermercado. We went yesterday to the supermarket.
  • Comí el desayuno rapido. I ate breakfast quickly. 
  • Leyó el libro tres veces. He/she read the book three times. 
  • La película se terminó a las once. The movie was finished at 11. 

The Imperfect Past Tense in Spanish

While preterite activity is finished, the imperfect tense means continuous action. This includes events where the ending is irrelevant or unspecified. It also can describe a general state of being.

 In English, we might say “used to + verb,” “would + verb,” or “was/were (always) + verb + -ing.”

  • Iba al colegio en California. I used to go to high school in California. Remember by using the Spanish imperfect, it’s possible that I still do. 
  • Leíamos revistas en el parque. We would (often/always) read magazines at the park. 
  • Había mucha gente en el estadio.There were lots of people at the stadium. 
  • No te conocía. I didn’t know you (back then).

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Tricky Pronunciation for Imperfect Verbs in Spanish

Watch out for tricky pronunciation on imperfect verbs in Spanish. Though –ar verbs are fun and easy to say (Iba! Hablaba! Cocinaba!), the –er and –ir verbs commonly end in ía.

Notice the accent mark or tilde on the letter í. This shows stress on the pronunciation, which sounds like EE-ya. 

The ending -ia without any tilde is a dipthong and sounds like –ya. A diphthong is two vowels blended together that produce one sound in Spanish. 

The tilde on imperfect verbs is not a dipthong. It changes the pronunciation and meaning of the word, even if the letters are the same. 

  • media (MED-ya with 2 syllables) – means half
  • medía (med-EE-ya with 3 syllables) – means he/she/it (always) measured 

Media porción de tortilla española, por favor. Half a portion of tortilla española, please. 

Ella medía el tamaño del trozo con cuidado. She always measured the size of the piece carefully. 

Putting Them Together

The Spanish preterite and Spanish imperfect tenses go great together. With both in the same sentence, we can provide background information for an event that happened. 

In English it sounds like this: While [imperfect tense] was happening, [preterite tense] happened. 

  • Era la una de la mañana cuando volvió a casa. It was 1 a.m. when she returned home.
  • Yo estaba en el trabajo cuando naciste. I was at work when you were born. 
  • Tenía 20 años cuando fui a vivir en Madrid. I was 20 years old when I went to live in Madrid.

When used in tandem, the time frame for what was going on continuously [imperfect] and what is over [preterite] becomes more obvious. This type of phrase is really good to get a solid grasp on the concept.  

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