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Simple & Basic Spanish Sentences: Preterite & Imperfect

Instructor: Angelica Roy

Angelica is an educator and a journalist. She has a master's degree in education, a bachelor's degree in linguistics and languages, and a second major in journalism.

We usually like to remember and talk about our past. Therefore, it is especially helpful to know how to use the past tense structures when we are trying to make connections with new people from other cultures. In this lesson, you will have the opportunity lo learn how to express yourself in the past in Spanish.

Talking About the Past in Spanish

We always have something to say about our past experiences. We usually like to talk about when we were kids, when we went to school, how we enjoyed doing a specific activity, the places that we went to, or the things and people that we liked. In this lesson, you will learn how to use the past tense in Spanish to express all those ideas.

Talking About the Past
Preterite

In Spanish, there are two main ways to express the past:

  • Pretérito indefinido, which is usually known as preterite.
    • Ayer, fuimos a cine. (pronounced: /ah.JEHR FOO.EE.mohs ah SEE.neh/). We went to the movies yesterday.
  • Pretérito imperfecto, which is known as imperfect.
    • Íbamos a cine juntos. (pronounced: /EE.bah.mohs ah SEE.neh HOON.tohs/). We used to go to the movies together.

Pretérito Indefinido

Before we start talking about how to use the preterite, let's learn how to form it. First, we have to remember that in Spanish the regular verbs have three different endings: -ar, -er, and -ir. These endings help us identify the conjugation of the verbs in the distinct tenses. In the preterite, the conjugation of the regular verbs is as follows:

Pronoun -ar -er -ir
estudiar beber subir
yo estudi beb sub
estudi-aste beb-iste sub-iste
él/ella/usted estudi beb-ió sub-ió
nosotros/as estudi-amos beb-imos sub-imos
vosotros/as estudi-asteis beb-isteis sub-isteis
ellos/ellas estudi-aron beb-ieron sub-ieron

As you can see, the preterite conjugation for verbs ending in -er and -ir is the same.

Uses

Use the preterite in Spanish when you want to:

  • Talk about an event that took place in the past. The action started and ended in the past, and it communicates a change in the action.
    • Estudié en Roma. (pronounced: /ehs.too.de.EH ehn ROH.mah/). I studied in Rome.
  • Talk about an event that happened at a specific time in the past or for a certain amount of time in the past. The action was completed at a definite time in the past. These sentences are usually accompanied by a time expression.
    • Trabajamos en Chile por un año. (pronounced: /trah.bah.HAH.mohs ehn CHEE.leh porh uhn AH.nyoh/). We worked in Chile for a year.
    • Te llamó tres veces. (pronounced: /teh yah.MOH trehs BEH.sehs/). He/she called you three times.
  • Tell the sequence of events in a story in the past. The actions happened in a chronological order in the past.
    • Comí, vi un poco de televisión y me fui a la cama. (pronounced: /koh.MEE bee uhn POH koh deh teh.leh.bee.see.OHN ee meh foo.EE ah lah KAH.mah/). I ate, watched some TV, and went to bed.
  • Point out the beginning or the ending of an event in the past. An action that just started or finished.
    • Ya empezó a llover otra vez. (pronounced: /yah ehm.peh.SOH ah yoh.BEHR OH.trah behs/). It started to rain again.

Time Expressions Used with Preterite

Let's take a look at some of the common time expressions that are typically used with the preterite.

Spanish Pronunciation English
ayer /ah.YEHR/ yesterday
anteayer /ahn.teh.ah.YEHR/ before yesterday
anoche /ah.NOH.cheh/ last night
antenoche /ahn.teh.NOH.cheh/ the night before last
en la mañana /ehn lah mah.NYAH.nah/ in the morning
en la tarde /ehn lah TAHR.deh/ in the afternoon
la semana pasada /lah seh.MAH.nah pah.SAH.dah/ last week
el mes pasado /ehl mehs pah.SAH.doh/ last month
el año pasado /ehl AH.nyoh pah.SAH.doh/ last year
el otro día /ehl OH.troh DEE.ah/ the other day
una vez /OO.nah behs/ once
dos veces /dohs BEH.sehs/ twice

Pretérito Imperfecto

The imperfect tense in Spanish is formed as follows:

Pronoun -ar -er -ir
estudiar beber subir
yo estudi-aba beb-ía sub-ía
estudi-abas beb-ías sub-ía
él/ella/usted estudi-aba beb-ía sub-ía
nosotros/as estudi-ábamos beb-íamos sub-íamos
vosotros/as estudi-abais beb-íais sub-íais
ellos/ellas estudi-aban beb-ían sub-ían

Notice that again for verbs ending in -er and -ir the imperfect has the same conjugation.

Uses

Use the imperfect in Spanish when you want to:

  • Talk about actions that happened repeatedly or habitually in the past. Actions that you did for a period of time in the past.
    • Estudiaba de lunes a sábado. (pronounced: /ehs.too.dee.AH.bah deh LOO.nehs ah SAH.bah.doh/). I used to study from Monday through Saturday.
  • Describe a person or the background in the past. Actions that describe the scene of the story you are telling.
    • Era un niño muy tímido. (pronounced: /EH.rah oon NEE.nyoh MOO.ee TEE.mee.doh/). He was a very shy boy.
    • Eran las 5:00PM. (pronounced: /EH.rahn lahs SEEN.koh deh lah TAHR.deh/). It was 5:00PM.
    • Tenía el pelo largo y los ojos verdes. (pronounced: /teh.NEE.ah ehl PEH.loh LAHR.goh ee lohs oh.hohs ah.SOO.lehs/). He/she had long hair and green eyes.
  • Talk about an action that happened at an unspecified time in the past. The action used to happen in the past.
    • Hablábamos mucho. (pronounced: /ah.BLAH.bah.mohs moo.choh/). We used to speak a lot.

Translating the Imperfect

The imperfect tense can be tricky. When we have an imperfect sentence, we can translate it several ways. For instance, when looking at the sentence - Yo corría los sábados. - it can be translated as:

  • I ran on Saturdays.
  • I would run on Saturdays.
  • I used to run on Saturdays.
  • He was running on Saturdays.

Expressions Used With Imperfect

These are some common expressions used with pretérito imperfecto in Spanish:

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