Spanish Verbs: Preterite vs Imperfect

There are two past tenses in the Spanish language: preterite and imperfect. As both of these tenses refer to actions in the past, it can be difficult for new learners to know when to use the preterite tense versus when use the imperfect tense. Below we'll explore the rules that will help you determine which past tense to use and when to use it.

Preterite

The preterite tense is used for past actions that have been entirely completed. These actions have specific beginning and end points. These actions may be single events, actions that occurred repeatedly but for a specific number of times, or actions that were part of a chain of events. Read, study, and listen to the following examples, then repeat each out loud.

He went to the market last night.
Él fue al mercado anoche.
I walked to the store, bought some food, and went to my sister's house.
Caminé a la tienda, compré comida, y fui a la casa de mi hermana.
She called you five times yesterday.
Ella te llamó cinco veces ayer.
I spoke with my friend for three hours today.
Hablé con mi amigo por tres horas hoy.

Phrases that trigger the preterite tense

Spanish words that indicate a specific time frame often signal the use of the preterite tense. The following words and phrases are helpful indicators that the preterite tense should be used.

at that time
a esa hora
last night
anoche
the night before last
ante anoche
the day before yesterday
ante ayer
yesterday at noon
ayer al mediodía
yesterday morning
ayer por la mañana
yesterday
ayer
from the first moment
desde el primer momento
yesterday afternoon
ayer por la tarde
last night
ayer por la noche
last year
el año pasado
last Monday
el lunes pasado
last month
el mes pasado
last month
el mes pasado
the other day
el otro día
then
entonces
this morning
esta mañana
at that moment
en ese momento
two days ago
hace dos días
this morning
hoy por la mañana
last week
la semana pasada
one time
una vez
for three years
durante tres años
this afternoon
esta tarde

Some Spanish verbs naturally require the preterite when used in the past tense since they communicate a definite beginning and ending point. Some of these verbs include:

to arrive
llegar
to leave
salir
to realize
darse cuenta de
to decide
decidir
to turn a certain age
cumplir años
to get married
casarse
to die
morir
to graduate
graduarse

Imperfect

The imperfect tense is used for past actions that do not have a definite end. These actions have not yet been completed or refer to actions that were repeated habitually. The imperfect tense is used for "setting the stage" for another action, for telling time, to describe people (characteristics) in the past, to communicate past physical or mental states, and for stating one's age. Read the following examples, then repeat each out loud.

We would eat breakfast together almost every day.
Desayunamos juntos casi todos los días.
I was reading when my mother arrived.
Yo leía cuando llegó mi mamá.
It was six o'clock in the morning.
Eran las seis de la mañana.
When he was a little boy, he played with toys.
Cuando era niño, jugaba con juguetes.
The girls used to speak in English.
Las chicas hablaban en Inglés.
When I was five years old, I was very small.
Cuando tenía cinco años, era muy pequeño.

Phrases that trigger the imperfect tense

The following words and phrases are helpful indicators that the imperfect tense should be used for expressing a past action.

at times
algunas veces
sometimes
a veces
often
a menudo
each; every
cada
day, week, month, year
día, semana, mes, año
frequently
con frecuencia
once in a while
de vez en cuando
at that time
en aquella época
usually
generalmente
frequently
frecuentemente
while
mientras
a lot
mucho
never
nunca
many times
muchas veces
generally
por lo general
for a while
por un rato
several times
varias veces
rarely
rara vez
always
siempre
every week
todas las semanas
so many times
tantas veces
every day
todos los días
every year
todos los años
all the time
todo el tiempo