Pretérito or Imperfecto – What do they look like?

I went to the beach but it was raining by the time I arrived! Not only is that first sentence a terrible situation to end up in, but also it shows you two past tenses that we use in English – the past simple and the past continuous. In Spanish, there are also multiple past structures which we need to learn how to use correctly if we are going to speak fluently. Today we’re going to look at the pretérito (preterite – similar to past simple) and the imperfecto (imperfect – similar to the past continuous). If we wanted to talk about our beach predicament in Spanish, we’d say Fui a la playa pero estaba lloviendo cuando llegué. Let’s take a closer look at how these tenses work and when to use them.

Both of these tenses are used for past events, and we can generalise a bit by saying that the pretérito is more for a specific action which ended at a specific time and the imperfecto is for general actions without a definite time or ending. It’s also true that certain time phrases tend to be used with one of the two tenses. Before we get into all that, here’s the conjugaciones (conjugations) of verbos regulares (regular verbs) in the two tenses using the verb hablar (to speak) and comer (to eat).

Regular verbs in the pretérito

Person -ar verbs (e.g. hablar) -er and –ir verbs (e.g. comer)
Yo Hablé Comí
Hablaste Comiste
Él, Ella, Usted Habló Comió
Nosotros Hablamos Comimos
Vosotros Hablastéis Comisteis
Ellas, Ellos, Ustedes Hablaron Comieron

Regular verbs in the imperfecto

Person -ar verbs (e.g. hablar) -er and –ir verbs (e.g. comer)
Yo Hablaba Comía
Hablabas Comías
Él, Ella, Usted Hablaba Comía
Nosotros Hablábamos Comíamos
Vosotros Hablabais Comíais
Ellas, Ellos, Ustedes Hablaban Comían

Easy! Just learn those endings and you can conjugar (conjugate) all regular verbs in these two past tenses. As with everything in life, there are exceptions to these rules and many of the most common verbs are irregular. For instance, ser/estar (to be), ir (to go) and several others. But, ¡no te preocupes! (don’t worry!), if you come to do a course here at Hablamos, we will teach you all about the irregular verbs and more.

Now, let’s have a look at some of the main uses of the pretérito and the imperfecto. We think the best way to learn Spanish grammar is to see lots of examples so you can really understand how things work.

Ejemplos de los usos del pretérito e imperfecto – Examples of how to use the preterite and the imperfect

First, let’s start with the pretérito:

  • Completed actions with a definite ending

Comí un plato de paella anoche – I ate a plate of paella last night
Compró un reloj la semana pasada – He/she bought a watch last week

  • A sequence of individual actions in the past

Fuimos al museo, vimos unas esculturas luego volvimos a casa – We went to the museum, we saw some sculptures then we went back home
Puse la mesa y comimos todos juntos – I set the table and we all ate together

  • When an action interrupts another action in the imperfect

Estaba viendo la tele cuando sonó el timbre – He/she was watching TV when the doorbell rang
Iba caminando por la calle cuando me caí al suelo – I was walking down the street when I fell over

And here are some of the main uses of the imperfecto:

  • For continuous or repeated actions in the past without a clear start/end

Discutíamos constantemente por el dinero – We constantly argued about money
Carlos y sus hermanos jugaban al fútbol todos los días – Carlos and his brothers played football every single day

  • For background details and information in a story/end

Hacía muy buen tiempo y estaban muy contentos – The weather was great and they were very happy
Había mucho viento y llovía todo el rato – It was very windy and it rained the whole time

  • When two actions are happening at the same time/end

Mientras hablábamos en inglés, el professor escuchaba a nuestras conversaciones para ponernos una nota – While we were speaking in English, the teacher was listening to our conversations to give us a grade
Laura comía un helado mientras leía su libro favorito en la playa – Laura was eating an ice cream while she read her favourite book on the beach

  • To talk about an action happening at that time when it is interrupted by another in the preterite

Estaba escuchando a mi música cuando mi madre me llamó – I was listening to my music when my mother called me
Los niños peleaban cuando su padre les gritóThe children were fighting when their father shouted at them

These are just the basics of these two important verb tenses, and you’ll have to speak and write in Spanish a lot to fully understand all the uses.

Time phrases which use the pretérito or the imperfecto

Certain time phrases are a clue as to which tense to use. Here are some examples. You can obviously change a lot of these to talk about different years, months or time periods.

Time phrases using el pretérito Time phrases using el imperfecto
Anoche (last night) A menudo (often)
El año/mes pasado (last year/month) Siempre (always)
El viernes pasado (last Friday or any day) De vez en cuando (sometimes)
Una vez (one time) Todas las semanas (Every week)
En 2019 (In 2019) Todo el tiempo (All the time)

And there you go – an introduction to the world of the pretérito and the imperfecto in Spanish! All it takes to be able to use these tenses correctly is practice, practice, practice. And where better place to get started speaking Spanish than by coming to join one of our face-to-face or online courses at Hablamos.

You won’t regret it! Hablamos – full-on Spanish!