Past Tense Spanish: Preterite vs. Imperfect and Everything In-Between

A critical aspect of the Spanish language is learning the conjugation of verbs in different tenses. As your knowledge of the language keeps progressing, you’ll start learning to talk about activities or events that occurred in the past. For that skill, the Spanish Past Tense is very useful.

The language has several variations of this tense. When learning, remember to focus on when to use each of the Spanish Past tenses, and how to properly conjugate them. This article will focus on the most useful past tenses, like the preterite and the imperfect. You’ll find examples of how to conjugate verbs in Spanish past tense, and when to use those verbs. We’ll also explain when to use the preterite and the imperfect at the same time in one sentence.

You’ll also learn more about the Spanish Past Progressive, the Present Perfect, and Past Perfect tenses. With this guidance, you will have a clearer understanding, and be able to apply the right tense at the right time when talking about various events that occurred in the past.

The Preterite

Before learning the Spanish Preterite or Simple Past usages, we will first learn to conjugate the verbs in this tense.To conjugate regular verbs in the preterite, divide the verbs into two groups: the AR verbs, and the ER and IR verbs.

AR verbs

To conjugate regular AR verbs in Spanish Preterite, remove the infinitive ending (-ar) and add the ending that matches the subject or personal pronoun. For example, the verb estudiar (to study):

Yo estudié – I studied
Tú estudiaste – You studied (informal, singular)
Él estudió – He studied
Ella estudió – She studied
Usted estudió – You studied (formal, singular)
Nosotros estudiamos – We studied
Vosotros estudiasteis – You studied (plural)
Ellos estudiaron – They studied
Ustedes estudiaron – You studied (plural)

It’s always essential to add the accent marks to the required conjugated verbs. As in yo estudié (I studied), él estudió (he studied), ella estudió (she studied), and usted estudió (You studied, formal singular).

The accent marks on the vowels suggest stressing more on the last syllable. If not emphasized in that syllable, it might be confused with the present tense! For example, in yo llamo (I call), the stress is more in the syllable “-lla.” On the other hand, in el llamó (he called), the stress is at the last syllable “-mó”.

All the other regular verbs ending in AR follow the same pattern when conjugating in the pasado simple. For instance, the verb caminar (to walk): remove the infinitive ending (-ar) and add the ending that matches the subject.

Yo caminé – I walked
Tú caminaste – You walked (informal, singular)
Él caminó – He walked
Ella caminó – She walked
Usted caminó – You walked (formal-singular)
Nosotros caminamos – We walked
Vosotros caminasteis – You walked (plural)
Ustedes caminaron – You walked (plural)
Ellos caminaron – They walked

Keep practicing with all the other regular verbs ending in -ar like hablar (to talk), pensar (to think), abrazar (to hug), cantar (to sing), dibujar, (to draw), and others.

Nosotros Past Tense

Before you continue studying the conjugation of the verbs ending in ER and IR in the past simple, it is important to mention the conjugation of the nosotros form in the preterite.

The endings of the nosotros past tense and the endings of the nosotros present tense for regular -ar and -ir verbs are the same for both the preterite and present tenses.

The way to know if one statement is expressed in the present or the preterite is by using context clues, such as adverbs like siempre (always) and ayer (yesterday). For example:

  • Siempre cocinamos tacos de carne los martes. (We always cook beef tacos on Tuesdays) – Present Simple
  • Ayer cocinamos tacos de carne para mi familia. (Yesterday we cooked beef tacos for my family) – Past Simple
  • Algunas veces Raúl y yo escribimos un correo electrónico a Susana. (Sometimes, Raul and I write an email to Susana) – Present Simple
  • La semana pasada, Raúl y yo escribimos un correo electrónico a Susana. (Last week, Raúl and I wrote an email to Susana) – Past Simple

ER and IR Verbs

The regular ER and IR verbs conjugate the same way, which makes them more practical to remember. To conjugate them, remove the infinitive ending (-er and -ir) and add the ending that matches the subject.

You can find these endings in the following charts using the verbs comer (to eat) and vivir (to live):

Comer (to eat)
Yo comí – I ate
Tú comiste – You ate (informal, singular)
Él comió – He ate
Ella comió – She ate
Usted comió – You ate (formal, singular)
Nosotros comimos – We ate
Vosotros comisteis – You ate (plural)
Ustedes comieron – You ate (plural)
Ellos comieron – They ate

Vivir (to live)
Yo viví – I lived
Tú viviste – You lived (informal, singular)
Él vivió – He lived Ella vivió – She lived
Usted vivió – You lived (formal, singular)
Nosotros vivimos – We lived
Vosotros vivisteis – You lived (plural)
Ustedes vivieron – You lived (plural)
Ellos vivieron – They lived

As mentioned earlier, it is important to include the accent marks at the end of the verbs. They indicate that the action was done in the simple past.

The other regular verbs ending in -er and -ir follow the same pattern. Practice conjugating different verbs such as comprender (to understand), correr (to run), volver (to come back), salir (to leave or to go out), abrir (to open), etc.

Irregulars Verbs Ir and Ser

The Spanish Preterite has a good number of irregular verbs. Unlike regular verbs, they do not follow the rule of dropping the ending and replace it with another. Some completely change when conjugated.

For example, the verb ser (to be) and the verb ir (to go). These two verbs are irregular in the preterite and change completely. But one good aspect to keep in mind is that both these verbs conjugate the same in the pasado simple. The context will tell if we are talking about the verb ser or the verb ir.

Let’s look at their conjugations:

Ser (to be)
Yo fui – I was
Tú fuiste – You were (informal, singular)
Él fue – He was
Ella fue – She was
Usted fue – You were (formal, singular)
Nosotros fuimos – We were
Vosotros fuisteis – You were (plural)
Ustedes fueron – You were (plural)
Ellos fueron – They were

Ir (to go)
Yo fui – I went
Tú fuiste – You went (informal, singular)
Él fue – He went
Ella fue – She went
Usted fue – You went (formal, singular)
Nosotros fuimos – We went
Vosotros fuisteis – You went (plural)
Ustedes fueron – You went (plural)
Ellos fueron – They went

Now let’s explore some examples using those verbs.

  • Karina fue voluntaria en el hospital el verano pasado. (Karina was a volunteer at the hospital last summer) – verb ser used
  • María y yo fuimos buenas amigas el semestre pasado. (María and I were good friends last semester) – verb ser used
  • Rodrigo fue al supermercado el lunes pasado. (Rodrigo went to the supermarket last Monday) – verb ser used
  • ¿A dónde fuiste ayer por la mañana? (Where did you go yesterday morning?) – verb ir used

Usages of the Preterite

Now that we know how to conjugate regular verbs and some irregular verbs in the simple past, we will learn the usages of el pretérito.

Completed Events

The pasado simple is used to talk about completed events, especially those with evident beginnings and ends that occurred once in the past. Let’s see the following examples for more clarification.

Compré un televisor nuevo (I bought a new television): This sentence presents a completed event because I already bought the TV. I am not in the process of buying it. The action has an end.

Rosa y Pedro se casaron. (Rosa and Pedro got married): This sentence is also a completed event because the two already got married. They are not in the process of getting married, and they got married only once.

Miguel nació en El Salvador. (Miguel was born in El Salvador): The sentence is a completed event because Miguel was born one time in the past. The action is over.

Nosotros limpiamos toda la casa ayer por la mañana. (We cleaned the whole house yesterday morning): A completed action that happened once, yesterday morning.

Beginning and Ends

The Spanish simple past is also used to talk about beginnings and ends. Some key verbs are used to talk about beginnings and ends in the past like empezar (to begin), comenzar (to begin), terminar (to finish), and acabar (to end).

Let’s look at the following examples:

  • La obra teatral terminó con una sorpresa (The play ended with a surprise)
  • Empezó a nevar. (It started to snow)
  • La música comenzó a sonar en la sala (The music began to play in the living room)
  • La reunión acabó con el discurso del señor Martínez (The meeting ended with Mr. Martinez’s speech)

Specific Times and Dates

The preterite is also used to talk about past events or actions on specific days or dates, at specific times, and during specific time periods. Here are some great examples:

  • Roxana regresó anoche a las nueve. (Roxana came back last night at nine)
  • Roberto y Manuel vivieron en Costa Rica por cuatro meses. (Roberto and Manuel lived in Costa Rica for three months)
  • Tu leíste esta historia la semana pasada. (You read this story last week)
  • Melissa nació el once de noviembre. (Melissa was born on November eleventh)

Events in a Sequence

Another usage of the Simple Past is for listing past events that were completed and took place in a sequence. Let’s use these following sentences:

  • Me levanté, tomé una taza de café, y salí a correr. (I woke up, drank a cup of coffee, and went for a run)
  • Tú entraste, bebiste un vaso de jugo de naranja y comiste un emparedado de jamón y queso. (You came in, drank a glass of orange juice, and ate a ham and cheese sandwich)

Now practice writing about activities you did last week, last month or last summer. Practice conversation with a Spanish tutor or Spanish speaker friends, and preterite usages will soon become an easy part of your language learning journey.

The Imperfect

The Spanish Imperfect Tense is another important past tense in the language. The uses are different than in the preterite. But first, let’s take a look at how we conjugate el imperfecto.

For that, divide the verbs into two groups: you guessed it, the AR verbs, and the ER and IR verbs!

AR Verbs

To conjugate regular AR verbs in el imperfecto, remove the infinitive ending (-ar) and add the endings that match the subject.

Let’s practice with the verb bailar (to dance) in the following example.

Yo bailaba (I was dancing, or I used to/would dance)
Tú bailabas (You were dancing, or You used to/would dance) (informal, singular)
Él bailaba (He was dancing, or he used to/would dance)
Ella bailaba (She was dancing, or she used to/would dance)
Usted bailaba (You were dancing, or You used to/would dance (formal, singular)
Nosotros bailábamos (We were dancing, or We used to/would dance)
Vosotros bailabais (You were dancing, or You used to/would dance(plural)
Ellos bailaban They were dancing, or They used to/would dance
Ustedes bailaban You were dancing, or You used to/would dance (plural)

The same conjugation rule applies to other regular verbs ending in -ar like hablar (to speak), jugar (to play), estudiar (to study), trabajar (to work), ayudar (to help), and comprar (to buy).

Also, yo bailaba can mean either “I was dancing,” or, “I used to/would dance.” It depends on the usage context and what the speaker is trying to explain…an action or event in the past. You’ll see this in action by exploring the usage of the imperfect.

ER and IR Verbs

To conjugate regular ER and IR verbs in the imperfect, remove the infinitive endings (-er or -ir) and add the endings that match the subject. The ending to replace are Yo: -ía, tú:- ías, el:- ía, nosotros: -íamos, vosotros:- íais, ustedes: -ían, ellos -ían.

Let’s try those conjugations using the verb correr (to run) and the verb salir (to go out or get out)

Correr (to run)
Yo corría – I was running, or I used to/would run
Tú corrías – You were running, or You used to/would run (singular, informal)
Él corría – He was running or He used to/would run
Ella corría – She was running, or She used to/would run
Usted corría – You were running, or You used to/would run (singular, formal)
Nosotros corríamos – We were running or We used to/would run
Vosotros corríais – You were running, or You used to/would run (plural)
Ustedes corrían – You were running, or You used to/would run (plural)
Ellos corrían – They were running, or They used to/would run

It is crucial to stress more on a syllable where the accent mark or tilde is -í since it determines that the action is said in the imperfect.

There are many other regular verbs ending in -er and -ir that follow the same rule. Practice conjugating them by dropping the endings -er and -ir and replacing by the ending that matches the subjects: leer ( to read), recoger (to pick up), tener, (to have), saber, (to know), escribir (to write), subir (to go up, to rise, to upload), permitir (to allow).

Irregular IR and SER

El imperfecto has irregular verbs, as well. Some of them change completely when conjugated in this tense. That is the case of the verbs ser (to be) and ir (to go). Let’s see how they conjugate in the following examples:

Ser (to be)
Yo era – I was, or I used to be/would
Tú eras – You were, or You used to be/would (informal, singular)
Él era – He was or He used to be/would
Ella era – She was, or She used to be/would
Usted era – You were, or You used to be/would(formal, singular)
Nosotros éramos – We were, or We used to be/would
Vosotros erais – You were, or We used to be/would (plural)
Ustedes eran – You were, or You used to be/would (plural)
Ellos eran – They were, or they used to be/would

Ir (to go)
Yo iba – I was going, or I used to/would go
Tú ibas – You were going, or you used to/would go
Él iba – He was going, or he used to/would go
Usted iba – You were going, or you used to/would go
Nosotros íbamos – We were going, or we used to/would go
Vosotros ibais – You were going, or you used to/would go
Ellos iban – They were going, or they used to/would go
Ustedes iban – You were going, or you used to/would

Here are two examples in action:

  • Cuando yo era niña, yo iba todos los domingos a la iglesia. (When I was a child, I used to go every Sunday to church)
  • Cuando nosotros éramos más jóvenes, íbamos a la casa de los abuelos cada mes. (When we were younger, we used to go to our grandparents’ house every month)

Usages of the Imperfect

The Imperfect Indicative can be used for routine actions, times and dates, actions that were in progress in the past, age, descriptions of characteristics, conditions, and feelings.

Habitual or Repeated Actions

The Imperfect Past Tense is used to talk about activities that were done over and over in the past. These are often things a person used to do or would do.

  • Mi familia y yo cenábamos todas las noches. (My family and I used to eat lunch together every day)
  • Todos los sábados los niños iban al parque para jugar. (Every Saturday the children used to go to the park to play)
  • Mis amigos y yo ibamos a la heladería cada viernes. (My friends and I used to go to the ice cream store every Friday)

Actions In-Progress in the Past

El imperfecto is commonly used to talk about something that was happening when something else occurred. When talking about a past action in progress that was interrupted, the action in progress is in the imperfect time, while the interrupting action is in the Preterite.

Let’s look at the following example:

Yo dormía cuando el teléfono sonó (I was sleeping when the telephone rang): As you can see, the action in progress in the past is expressed in the imperfect: Yo dormía (I was sleeping); while the action interrupting is expressed in the Preterite: El teléfono sonó (the phone rang)

Here is another example:

Roxana limpiaba la casa cuando nosotros llegamos. (Roxana was cleaning the house when we arrived): Notice that the action in progress in the past is in the imperfect, Roxana limpiaba (Roxana was cleaning). And the action interrupting nosotros llegamos (we arrived) is expressed in the Preterite.

The imperfect is also used for actions that continued in the past for an unspecified period of time.

For example: María y yo jugábamos en la casa de árbol de la abuela. (Maria and I used to play at grandma’s treehouse): This sentence expresses an action that happened continuously in the past. It did not specify when it happened, what year, what month, what time, etc.

Roberto caminaba por el parque algunas veces. (Roberto used to walk through the park sometimes): This phrase expresses an action that used to happen in the past. But it does not specify when Roberto exactly used to walk through the park.

Times and Dates

The imperfect is also used to talk about times and dates in the past, as in:

  • Eran las diez de la mañana. (It was ten o’clock in the morning)
  • Eran las siete de la noche. (It was seven o’clock in the evening)
  • Era el 14 de abril. (It was April 14th)
  • Era el 09 de enero (It was January 9th)

Age

It is very common to use el imperfecto to talk about age in the past.

  • El niño tenía diez años. (The boy was ten years old)
  • Juliana y yo teníamos quince años cuando viajamos a Brasil. (Juliana and I were ten years old when we traveled to Brazil)
  • Los turistas tenían veinticinco años. (The tourists were twenty-five years old)
  • Tú tenías cuatro años cuando aprendiste a montar bicicleta. (You were four years old when you learned to ride a bike)

Descriptions of Characteristics, Conditions, and Feelings

The Imperfect Past Tense describes the characteristics of people, places, objects, and situations in the past. It is also used to describe conditions and feelings that occurred in the past. For example:

  • Mi maestra de español era baja y tenía el pelo lacio. (My Spanish teacher was short and she had straight hair)
  • Las montañas eran hermosas. (The mountains were beautiful)
  • Hacía frío esa mañana. (It was cold that morning.)
  • Me sentía feliz con mi nueva casa. (I was happy with my new house.)
  • Quería mudarme a otra ciudad. (I wanted to move to another city)
  • La señora Jiménez era amigable y trabajadora. (Mrs. Jimenez was friendly and hardworking)

After learning all the usages of the imperfect, it is time to practice! Write small sentences describing how people or places used to look like, talked about what you were doing in the past when another action interrupted it.

You must practice conversation during Spanish tutoring, or with friends, about how you felt in different past situations. With constant practice, using the imperfect in Spanish will become clear.

Preterite vs. Imperfect

As we can see, both the Pasado Simple and the imperfecto are used to talk about the past. But each of them has different usages.

The Preterite focuses on actions that occurred just once or during a specific completed time.The imperfect focuses on events or actions that happened several times in the past.

Here’s an example to use as practice:

El verano pasado, yo visite a mi tía en Florida. (Last summer, I visited my aunt in Florida): This sentence is written in the Preterite because it specifies that the action was completed one-time last summer.

Now, let’s modify the sentence to use the imperfect: Muchas veces yo visitaba a mi tía en Florida. The imperfect is used to express an action that was not completed once, but several times in the past. There exist some words that will trigger the use of the Preterite. These are words that indicate very concrete times in the past, like:

  • Ayer (yesterday)
  • Anteayer (the day before yesterday)
  • Anoche last night
  • Una manana/tarde (one morning/afternoon)
  • El martes/fin de semana/mes/año pasado (last Tuesday/weekend/month year)
  • Hace 7 años (seven years ago)
  • En 1990 (in 1990)
  • De repente (all of a sudden)

Let’s look at some sentences:

  • Mis amigas y yo fuimos a un restaurante mexicano la semana pasada. (My friends and I went to a Mexican restaurant last week)
  • María y Miguel compraron esta casa hace doce años. (Maria Y Miguel bought this house two years ago)
  • De repente, escuché el sonido de un ave en el garaje. (Suddenly, I heard the sound of a bird inside the garage)

There are also key time words that trigger the use of the imperfect. Here some of them:

  • A menudo (often)
  • A veces (sometimes)
  • Cada dia (each day)
  • Cada mañana (each morning)
  • Cada semana (each week)
  • Cada mes (each month)
  • Cada año (each year)
  • Generalmente/en general (generally)
  • Todos los dias (every morning)
  • Siempre (always)
  • Nunca (never)
  • De vez en cuando (from time to time)
  • Por un rato (for a while)

The trigger words in these sentences indicate the imperfect:

  • Mi familia y yo íbamos a la casa de playa cada año. (My family and I used to go to the beach house every year)
  • A menudo, Karina cocinaba pizza con vegetales para nosotros. (Often. Karina would cook pizza with vegetables for us)
  • De vez en cuando, mi padre visitaba la ciudad. (From time to time, my father would visit the city)

When practicing, pay attention to the trigger words for both Past Tenses. These clues will help to understand and express better.

Combining the Preterite and the Imperfect

One of the usages of the imperfect is to express ongoing action in the past. The Preterite participates in this statement when it interrupts the ongoing action. This combination is very common when telling a story or an experience of the past. Spanish combines both tenses in one statement all the time.

Here are some excellent examples:

Nosotros caminábamos para la casa cuando Roxana nos llamó. (We were walking home when Roxana called us): The imperfect caminábamos was used to express the ongoing action during an undefined period. The preterite llamo is used to interrupt the continuing action, and only happened once.

Raúl y Jimena se conocieron cuando estaban en la universidad. (Raul and Jimena met when they are at the university): The imperfect estaban is used to show that they were at the university during an undefined period. It is also an ongoing activity because they were students at the university. The preterite se conocieron is used to show that they met only once. It also interrupts the ongoing action.

Try practicing using both tenses in one sentence. What were you doing when something interrupted? Practice writing, and in small conversations.

Once you’re more familiar with the Preterite and the Imperfect, check the following tenses also used in the past. They conjugate differently and have different usages.

Past Progressive

The Past Progressive is used to express an action that was happening at the moment in the past.

It is formed with the imperfect of the verb estar plus the gerund (the present participle).

The present participle ending for regular -ar verbs is -ando. The present participle ending for regular -er and -r verbs is -iendo. There’s a simple formula you can follow.

Past Progressive Formula

Subject + estar in the imperfect + verb with ending in either “-iendo” or “-ando”

Let’s look at the following examples:

Yo estaba comiendo una hamburguesa. (I was eating a hamburger): Estaba is the imperfect of the verb estar, conjugated to the first person yo. The gerund for the verb comer is -iendo. So, drop -er and replace for its ending -iendo, resulting in comiendo.

Karina estaba hablando con su hermana. (Karina was talking to her sister): Estaba is the imperfect of the verb estar, conjugated to the third person (Karina). The gerund for the verb hablar is -ando. So, drop -ar and replace it for its ending -ando, resulting in hablando.

The Past progressive or Pasado Progresivo can be used combined with the Preterite when talking about an ongoing action that got interrupted. For example:

  • Yo estaba comiendo cuando tu llegaste. (I was eating when you arrived)
  • Los estudiantes estaban escribiendo cuando la maestra llegó. (The students were writing when the teacher arrived)

The above sentence can also be rewritten using the imperfect: Los estudiantes escribían cuando la maestra llegó. (The students were writing when the teacher arrived. In this context, estaban escribiendo and escribían have the same meaning of an ongoing action. One is written in the Past Progressive, and the other in the imperfect.

Present Perfect

Unlike the Preterite and the Imperfect, El Presente Perfecto is used to talk about things that have happened in the recent past. It is also used to talk about things that started in the past and continue in the Present.

Present Perfect Formula

Subject + haber in the present + past participle

The verb haber is conjugated like this: Yo he, tú has, él ha, nosotros hemos, vosotros habéis, ellos han, ustedes han.

But it never goes alone. It needs the verb in the Participle to make sense:

  • Esta mañana, he tomado una taza de café (This morning I have drunk a cup of coffee) – recent past
  • Él ha dormido diez horas. (He has slept ten hours) – recent past
  • Nosotros hemos vivido en los estados Unidos por 12 años. (We have lived in the United States for 12 years) – an action that started in the past and continues today

Past Perfect

The Past Perfect, also known as the Pluscuamperfecto del indicativo, is used differently than the Preterite and the Imperfect because it is used to refer to a previous action that occurred before another past action.

It is a compound tense, which means it uses the auxiliary haber conjugated, in this case, in the Preterite imperfect, plus the past participle of the verb we want to conjugate.

The conjugation of haber in the imperfect goes like this: yo había, tú habías, él había, nosotros habíamos, vosotros habíais, ellos habían, ustedes habían.

Past Perfect Formula

Subject + haber in the imperfect + past participle

For example:

Cuando llegué a tu casa, tú ya habías comido. (When I arrived at your house, you had already eaten): This timeline means the person first ate, then the other person arrived at his house.

Nosotros ya habíamos dado el regalo a Carla cuando tú llamaste. (We had already given Ana her present when you called): They first gave Carla a gift, and then he called.

Further Advice

As you can see, Spanish uses different Past Tenses. One of the ways to learn Spanish fast is by practicing these tenses. Divide by category first, and then combine the Preterite and the imperfect. Practice with a Spanish tutor to jumpstart your progress.

The best way to learn Spanish quickly is by immersion in the language. Besides writing about events in your past, organize your ideas in Spanish, and describe people, places, and hobbies using new conjugations and vocabulary. Most of all, enjoy your Spanish journey!

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