Preterite Versus Imperfect in Spanish: Differences & Rules

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  • 0:00 Two Different Past Tenses
  • 1:24 Adverbs as Rules
  • 4:44 Rules for Cases
  • 7:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

This lesson refers to the specific differences between the preterite and the imperfect tenses. Along with those differences, you will find specific rules that determine the use of each tense.

Two Different Past Tenses

The preterite and the imperfect tenses are used to express actions that happened in the past. The essential difference is that the preterite tense is about actions that are fully completed and were done once at a specific time. Conversely, the imperfect tense is about actions that were repeatedly performed during a past period of time. Given the undetermined nature of that time, those actions do not have a specific end. The general equivalent of the imperfect is, in English, the expression 'used to.' However, also as in English, you don't always say 'used to' for past activities.

To illustrate, when you refer to the fact you wrote an email this morning, you are talking about an action you did and completed at a specific time. In Spanish, you use the preterite tense to talk about such action by saying:

Yo escribí un correo electrónico esta mañana. (I wrote an email this morning.)

Conversely, to say that back in the '90s you used to write letters by hand, you are talking about an action you used (repeatedly) to do during that time frame and you don't have a specific time when that ended. In Spanish, you use imperfect to tell about such action by saying:

En los 90, yo escribía cartas a mano. (In the 90s, I used to write letters by hand)

Adverbs as Rules

To further clarify, the Spanish language itself uses some adverbs that typically accompany the preterite and the imperfect tenses. They are very precise and will help you use the preterite or the imperfect without any doubts. Let's take a look at the most common. Let's first look at:

Adverbs that Accompany the Preterite

  • ayer (yesterday, pronounced: ah-yehr)
  • anteayer (the day before yesterday, pronounced: ant-eh-ah-yehr)
  • a la una, a las dos, a las tres, etc. (at 1, at 2, at 3, etc., pronounced: ah la oo-nah, ah las dohs, ah las trehs). This refers to any time of the day.
  • anoche (last night, pronounced: ah-noh-cheh)
  • anteanoche (the night before last, pronounced: ant-eh-ah-noh-cheh)
  • esta mañana (this morning, pronounced: ehs-tah mah-nya-nah)
  • esta tarde (this afternoon, pronounced: es-tah tar-deh)
  • la semana pasada (last week, pronounced: lah seh-mah-nah pah-sah-dah)
  • el mes pasado (last month, pronounced: el mehs pah-sah-doh)
  • el fin de semana pasado (last weekend, pronounced: el feen de seh-mah-nah pah-sah-doh)
  • el año pasado (last year, pronounced: el ah-nyo pah-sah-doh)

Here are some examples of sentences in the preterite with these adverbs:

Ayer hablé con mi madre. (I talked to my mom yesterday.)

Anoche compré una pizza. (Last night, I bought a pizza.)

Conocí a mi novia el año pasado. (I met my girlfriend last year.)

Here are some:

Adverbs that Accompany the Imperfect

  • a veces (sometimes, pronounced: ah-veh-sehs)
  • a menudo (often, pronounced: ah meh-noo-doh)
  • cada día (each day, pronounced: kah-dah dee-ah). You can also say each month, each year, etc. by adding the respective word after cada.
  • en esa época (at that time, pronounced: ehn eh-ssa eh-poh-kah)
  • mientras (while, pronounced: mee-ehn-tras)
  • todos los días (everyday, pronounced: toh-dos los dee-as). You can also say each month, each year, etc. by adding the respective word after todos.
  • cuando yo era niño (when I was a child, pronounced: koo-un-doh yio eh-rah nee-nyo). Note that the female word for child is niña. You can also say, instead of child, the word estudiante (student, pronounced: ehs-too-dee-ahn-teh) to refer to your time at school. Similarly, you could say adolescente (teenager, pronounced: ah-doh-less-ehn-teh) if you wish to refer to your teenage years.

Here are some examples of sentences in the preterite with these adverbs:

En Italia, trabajaba solo a veces. (In Italy, I used to work alone sometimes.)

Mientras mi esposa limpiaba, yo lavaba los platos. (While my wife cleaned, I washed the dishes.)

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