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Spanish Grammar: Imperfect vs. Preterite for Events and Actions

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  • 1:48 Preterite
  • 3:47 Imperfect
  • 6:38 Preterite vs Imperfect
  • 8:11 Signal Words
  • 10:11 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.

In Spanish, the preterite and the imperfect are both used to talk about the past, but they cannot be used interchangeably. In this lesson, you will learn when to use the preterite and when to use the imperfect when talking about actions and events.

Events & Actions vs. Descriptions

You have already learned how to conjugate the two most frequently used past tenses in Spanish, the preterite and the imperfect. However, although they are both used to talk about the past, they cannot be used interchangeably. And that brings us to the million dollar question: How do you know when to use preterite and when to use imperfect? In this lesson, you'll be learning some rules that will help you decide which to use when talking about actions and events.

Before we start, let's take a quick look at a short narrative that contains actions/events and descriptions. Actions and events tell what happened, while descriptions tell what things or people were like.

My roommate was always very forgetful. Once, I asked him to pick up some groceries on his way home. There was nothing in the refrigerator, and I was too busy to go shopping. But he forgot to go to the supermarket. So we had to order Chinese takeout for dinner.

Looking at this paragraph, which sentences show actions and events? The second, fourth, and fifth sentences tell what happened: I asked my roommate to do something, he forgot, we had to order carryout. Sentences one and three are just describing the things and people: what my roommate was like (forgetful), what the refrigerator was like (empty), and how I was (busy). In this lesson, we're going to be looking at when to use preterite and when to use imperfect when talking about events and actions, so it's important to be able to tell the difference between actions and descriptions.

When to Use Preterite for Actions & Events

When talking about actions or events in the past, the preterite is used most frequently. For example, if we took the action sentences from the paragraph in the last section and translated them into Spanish, the verbs would be in the preterite: pedí -- 'I asked,' olvidó -- 'he forgot,' tuvimos que pedir -- 'we had to order.' Here's a list of the times when you would use the preterite to talk about what happened.

Use the preterite to talk about:

1) A completed action or event.

2) A series of completed actions or events.

3) The beginning or end of an action or event.

Let's take a look at some examples of the preterite being used to tell what happened.

Caminé a la tienda. -- 'I walked to the store.' I walked in the direction of the store and have now arrived there, making my walk to the store a completed action.

Compré pan y leche, salí de la tienda, y regresé a casa. -- 'I bought bread and milk, left the store, and went home.' This is a series of completed actions; I completed each action before going on to the next one.

Mientras tanto, empezó a llover. -- 'Meanwhile, it started to rain.' The verb empezar is used in the preterite because it marks the beginning of an event, in this case, a downpour of rain.

To help you remember when to use the preterite, try thinking of the preterite as a point or a dot: *. The preterite represents an action or event, or a series of actions or events, that happened at a specific point in the past.

When to Use Imperfect for Actions & Events

Although the preterite is more often used to talk about actions and events in the past, there are some exceptions.

Use the imperfect to talk about:

1) Repeated or habitual actions.

2) Actions that were not completed or were in progress at some point in the past.

Let's take a look at some sentences that use the imperfect to tell what happened.

De niña, yo jugaba con mis muñecas. -- 'As a child, I played with my dolls.' Here, the imperfect indicates that I played with my dolls many times, maybe every day. In English, we sometimes use phrases like 'I would play' or 'I used to play' to indicate that something happened frequently in the past.

Yo caminaba a la tienda. -- 'I was walking to the store.' In other words, I have not gotten to the store yet or something else happened while I was walking there. This sentence uses the imperfect because it is referring to an action that was not completed.

When it refers to an action that was incomplete or in progress, the imperfect is similar to the past progressive in English - someone was doing something or something was happening. Just like in English, the imperfect is often used along with a verb in the preterite to show that something was happening (imperfect) when something else happened (preterite).

Yo caminaba a la tienda cuando empezó a llover. -- 'I was walking to the store when it started to rain.' A downpour of rain, which began at a specific point in time, started while I was walking to the store, an action that was in progress and not yet completed at that point.

The imperfect is also used to talk about actions or events that were taking place at the same time in the past. We tend to use the past progressive for this construction in English, as well.

Yo hacía la tarea mientras mi hermano jugaba a videojuegos. -- 'I was doing my homework while my brother was playing video games.' These two actions were not necessarily completed; they were just going on simultaneously at some point in the past.

If thinking of the preterite as a point helps you to remember when to use the preterite, try thinking of the imperfect as a line, extending indefinitely in either direction: <--------->. The imperfect represents an action or event that has no fixed start or end point and which either happened repeatedly or was in progress at some point in the past.

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