Do you find it difficult to understand preterite vs imperfect tenses in Spanish? If so, you’ve arrived at the ideal place. You may understand this crucial component of Spanish grammar by using the informative explanations, useful advice, and real-world examples found in this guide on preterite vs imperfect in Spanish.

Preterite vs Imperfect in Spanish

Preterite vs Imperfect Spanish: Key differences, examples and tips

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Understanding the preterite tense in Spanish

When describing previous activities, the preterite tense is used. It is sometimes called the Spanish counterpart of the simple past tense in English.

There is a distinct start and finish to these actions. Depending on the subject and the verb’s conjugation group (-ar, -er, or -ir), different endings are added to the verb’s infinitive to generate the preterite.

For example:

  • Hablar (to talk) becomes hablé (I talked).
  • Comer (to eat) becomes comí (I ate).
  • Vivir (to live) becomes viví (I lived).

This tense is used for:

  •  Actions that were concluded in the past.
  • Events that happened once or a specific number of times.
  •  Actions that were part of a chain of events.
  • Situations that set the stage for another past action.

Signal words and phrases for the preterite tense

AnocheLast night
AnteayerThe day before yesterday
El año pasadoLast year
Una vezOnce
De repenteSuddenly
El otro díaThe other day
La semana pasadaLast week
El mes pasadoLast month
En ese momentoAt that moment
Hace (diez) años(Ten) years ago
Hace (tres) días(Three) days ago

Because they present activities or events as distinct, finished acts in the past, these time-based expressions are employed with the preterite tense.

Read Spanish books covering past tenses

Understanding the Imperfect tense in Spanish

When discussing the past, both the imperfect and preterite tenses are used, but the preterite emphasizes events with a distinct beginning and end. On the other hand, prior activities that were habitual or continuous are explained by the imperfect.

stating “Comía paella todos los domingos” (I used to eat paella every Sunday) suggests that the event happened regularly in the past, whereas stating “Comí paella el domingo” (I ate paella on Sunday) refers to a specific incident.

You apply the imperfect to ongoing tasks from the past as well. For instance, the imperfect phrase “Hablaba con María cuando vi a Paulo salir de casa” (I was chatting to Maria when I saw Paulo leave the house) refers to a conversation that was in progress but was cut short by a particular occurrence. 

The verb’s infinitive is formed into the imperfect tense by appending particular endings, which differ according to the subject and the verb’s conjugation group (-ar, -er, or -ir). For example:

  • Hablar (to talk) becomes hablaba (I used to talk/I was talking).
  • Comer (to eat) becomes comía (I used to eat/I was eating).
  •  Vivir (to live) becomes vivía (I used to live/I was living).

This tense is used for:

  • Describing ongoing actions in the past.
  •  Talking about habitual actions or routines.
  • Giving background information/setting a scene.
  •  Describing physical and emotional states or characteristics.

Signal words and phrases for the imperfect tense

A menudoOften
Cada día/semana/añoEvery day/week/year

Preterite vs Imperfect Spanish: Main differences

  • Type of action

Preterite: Pinpoints actions with a clear start and finish.

Example: Bebí agua (I drank water).

Imperfect: Paints a picture of ongoing or habitual actions.

Example: Bebía agua cuando tenía sed (I drank water when I was thirsty).

  • Frequency

Preterite: Captures actions that occurred once or a set number of times.

Example: Visitó Francia dos veces (He/She visited France two times).

Imperfect: Portrays actions that were regular or spanned a longer duration.

Example: Visitaba Francia cada verano (He/She visited France every summer).

  •   Storytelling

Preterite: Your go-to for narrating events in sequence.

Example: Llamé a María y luego escribí una carta (I called María and then wrote a letter).

Imperfect: Provides background or sets the ambiance.

Example: Escribía una carta cuando sonó el teléfono (I was writing a letter when the phone rang).

Tips for mastering the preterite and imperfect tenses

It can be difficult to learn when to use imperfect vs preterite. You may comprehend these tenses more fully with the appropriate techniques and tools. The following reliable guidelines will help you master the art of discussing the past in Spanish:

Make flashcards

Do you want to ensure you always come up with the appropriate answer when you discuss the past? Do you want to keep those key phrases in mind? Then using flashcards to study is a really efficient method of improving your memory. 

To learn which verb tense to use when speaking, try creating flashcards that connect trigger words to the appropriate tenses or flipping cards so that the Spanish translation is on one side and the translation is on the other.

Make flashcards with Spanish translations

Make real-life conversations

Explore the best way to learn Spanish by using the preterite and imperfect tenses in everyday discussions is one of the best methods to understand their differences. Talking about the past with others exposes you to real-world situations when both tenses are necessary. 

Speaking before you believe you have mastered the past tenses should not be put off since this can significantly hinder your progress. Rather, engage in Spanish-language discussions without worrying about your grammar accuracy. Actually, the only way to learn a language is by making mistakes.

Talk with native speakers or certified Spanish tutors to make sure you learn from your mistakes. They can point out mistakes you’ve made. To get the best Spanish tutor, explore italki.

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Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between the preterite and imperfect tenses in Spanish?

The preterite tense describes completed actions in the past, often focusing on the beginning or end of an action. The imperfect tense, on the other hand, is used to describe ongoing or repeated actions in the past and provide background information or set the scene.

When should I use the preterite tense?

Use the preterite tense to talk about actions completed at a specific point in the past, actions that occurred a specific number of times, or actions that were part of a series of events.

When should I use the imperfect tense?

Use the imperfect tense to describe ongoing actions or states in the past, habitual actions in the past, background information, or to indicate time, age, or weather in the past.

Can the preterite and imperfect tenses be used together in the same sentence?

Yes, using both tenses in the same sentence when describing past events is possible. The preterite tense is typically used for the main actions or events, while the imperfect tense is used for background information or to provide context.


Understanding the difference between Spanish’s preterite and imperfect tenses is crucial for accurately describing past events. The preterite tense is used for completed actions with a specific beginning and end. In contrast, the imperfect tense is used for ongoing, repeated actions, or provided background information in the past. We also recommend you learn Spanish future tense to carry on conversing in Spanish effortlessly.

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