Spanish Short Grammar 101 – The Imperfect Tense vs The Preterite Tense


¡Hola todos!

In today’s Grammar short we’ll look at the difference between the Spanish Imperfect Tense and the Preterite.

The main difference is that the Imperfect (hereby: Imp) is used to talk about events in the past that were on-going and we don’t mention a specific end to them, such as being young or being 6 years old.  They obviously came to an end at some point, but we aren’t focusing on that by using this tense.

It is generally translated as “used to” or “was…ing” in English.

e.g. Tenía = I used to have

Era = I was / I used to be

Nadaba = I was swimming / I used to swim

It is often called the story telling tense as we use it to set the scene in stories, describe the background noise and describe things in the past.

e.g. Érase/Era una vez = Once upon a time

El héroe se ubicaba en un castillo = The hero was in a castle

La princesa era muy bonita = The princess was very beautiful

In contrast, the Preterite (hereby: Pret) is used to describe actions in the past that were just brief moments in time.  Actions that were quickly completed and have a defined start and finish.

e.g. Fui = I went

Visité = I visited

Vi = I saw

These actions often litter the background description of the Imp, therefore we often see the two tenses together.

Cuando tenía 8 años visité España.  Yo estaba en la casa de un tío donde practiqué la natación en la playa y jugué al fútbol con mis nuevos amigos del barrio.

Here we can see that it gives the colour in the Imp, and lists activities in the Pret.

“When I was 8 years old (background=Imp) I visited Spain (completed action=Pret) etc.

My very own teacher taught it to me this way (credits go to Carmen Foulkes here) by saying that the Imp is a wavy line that flows across the page, dotted with multiple little crosses which are the single, short activities represented by the Pret tense.

I hope that brief explanation helps a little.

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