Spanish Grammar: Describing People and Things Using the Imperfect and Preterite

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  • 0:02 Description v. Action
  • 1:14 Imperfect for Descriptions
  • 4:41 Preterite for Descriptions
  • 6:17 In Context
  • 10:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: April Schmidt

April has a Ph.D. in Spanish and has been teaching college-level Spanish for the past eight years.

Like in English, preterite and imperfect tenses in Spanish are not interchangeable. In this lesson, you will be learning how to correctly use the preterite and imperfect to describe things and people.

Description vs. Actions and Events

As you know, the preterite is frequently (although not always) used to talk about actions and events in the past. In contrast, the imperfect is most often used for descriptions. First of all, let's take a look at a short paragraph with both action and description. As you read, try to identify the sentences that describe what someone or something was like.

When I was ten years old and my sister was eight, we loved going on picnics. One spring day, we went on a picnic in a nearby park. The sun was shining, and it was warm. After we finished eating, we ran races and played games.

Looking at this paragraph, which sentences describe things or people? The first sentence tells about the people: how old they were and how they felt about going on picnics. The third sentence tells us about the weather, which was warm and sunny. In contrast, the second and fourth sentences tell what happened (they went on a picnic, ran races, and played games). Now that you've identified some descriptions, we'll be looking at when to use the imperfect and when to use the preterite for describing things and people.

Using the Imperfect for Descriptions

When describing people or things in the past, the imperfect is most often used. For example, if we took the descriptions from the paragraph in the last section and translated them into Spanish, the verbs would all be in the imperfect: Cuando yo tenía diez años y mi hermana tenía ocho - when I was ten and my sister was eight, nos encantaba ir de picnic - we loved going on picnics, and Hacía sol y calor - it was warm and sunny. Here is a list of the times when you would use the imperfect for descriptions.

Use the imperfect for:

  1. Describing physical characteristics (what things or people looked like)
  2. Describing mental or emotional characteristics (someone's personality, feelings, or state of mind)
  3. Telling time or someone's age
  4. Setting the scene or giving background information

Let's take a look at a few examples of the imperfect being used for descriptions in the past.

Mi primer carro era azul. - My first car was blue. This sentence uses the imperfect to describe what something looked like.

A los dieciséis años, yo era muy delgada y tenía el cabello largo. - At 16, I was very slender and had long hair. The imperfect is used here to describe how someone used to look.

Era inteligente y entusiasta. - I was intelligent and enthusiastic. This uses the imperfect to describe mental and emotional characteristics.

Quería mucho a mi novio. - I loved my boyfriend very much. The imperfect is used here to describe feelings or emotions.

Cuando yo tenía dieciséis años, mi hermana tenía trece. - When I was 16 years old, my sister was 13. The imperfect is being used to tell age in the past.

Eran las diez de la mañana. - It was ten o'clock in the morning. This sentence is telling time in the past and, therefore, uses the imperfect.

El prado estaba lleno de flores, y más allá había montañas cubiertas de nieve. - The meadow was full of flowers, and beyond it, there were snow-covered mountains. This description sets the scene, describing what the place looked like.

Hacía mal tiempo; estaba nublado y llovía. - The weather was bad; it was cloudy and raining. This description gives some background information about the weather.

To help you remember when to use the imperfect, try thinking of the imperfect as a line extending indefinitely in either direction, with no fixed start or end point: <---------->. None of these descriptions have any specific time frame, so we don't know how long the meadow was full of flowers or the weather stayed cloudy and rainy. The imperfect tense is indefinite in regard to time, and that's why we use it for descriptions like the ones here.

Using the Preterite for Descriptions

Although the imperfect is usually used for descriptions, there are some exceptions.

Use the preterite for:

  1. Conditions or states that lasted for a specific period of time
  2. Changes in mental, emotional, or physical states
  3. A description that summarizes a completed event

Here are a few examples of the preterite being used for descriptions.

Juan estuvo enfermo por dos días. - Juan was sick for two days. There is a definite time frame given in this description. Juan was sick for two days and is now feeling better. So we use the preterite to show that he is now over being sick.

Gabriela se puso enojada cuando vio a su novio con otra muchacha. - Gabriela got angry when she saw her boyfriend with another girl. This describes a sudden change in feelings, and we use the preterite to show Gabriela got angry at a specific point in time.

La cena fue deliciosa. - The dinner was delicious. This sentence gives a summary description of the dinner, which is now over.

Since the preterite is used for descriptions that are limited in some way, think of the preterite as either a point (a description of an event that occurred at a particular time) or as a line segment with a fixed beginning and end (a description of something that lasted for a specific period of time): * or ---.

Preterite vs. Imperfect in Context

The last two sections gave you a number of pointers about when to use the imperfect vs. the preterite when describing what things and people are like, how they feel, etc. Sometimes, however, either tense would be grammatically correct. Which you choose will depend on the context of the sentence and the meaning you want to convey.

Let's look at a few sentences where you could use either preterite or imperfect to see how using one or the other changes the meaning.

Fue un día perfecto. - It was a perfect day.

Era un día perfecto. - It was a perfect day.

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