Preterit and
Imperfect
Both the preterit and the imperfect are past tenses. They’re
actually different ways of looking at the past.
Let’s say you’re looking at a single moment in the past—for
example, 12:00 yesterday. Mealtime. I can look at the moment
and the action of eating in two ways:
I ate at 12:00 yesterday.
What I actually mean when I say that sentence is that I started
eating at 12:00.
I was eating at 12:00 yesterday.
What that means is that I began at some unspecified point before
12:00 and ended at some unspecified point after 12:00. All you
know is that at that moment in time, I was in the process of
eating.
The preterit is used when you want to show the
beginning or end of an action:
Comí a las doce ayer.
I ate at 12:00 yesterday.
The imperfect is used when you want to show an
action in progress:
Comía a las doce ayer.
I was eating at 12:00 yesterday.
One of these sentences would make you sadder
than the other. Which?
Mi abuelo se moría.
Mi abuelo se murió.
You’d rather hear “mi abuelo se moría” because
that means “my grandfather was dying.” It
doesn’t necessarily mean he died. Maybe he
did, but maybe he recovered. “Mi abuelo se
murió” means “my grandfather died.”
Which of the following sentences is going to make the teacher
mad?
Los estudiantes se reían cuando la profesora entró en la clase.
Los estudiantes se rieron cuando la profesora entró en la clase.
Don’t just click and scroll for the answer. Think about it.
The first sentence says, “The students were laughing when the
teacher entered the class.” Apparently, someone had told a
funny story. The laughing was already going on (in progress)
when the teacher entered (beginning/ending of action).
The second sentence says, “The students laughed when the
teacher entered the class.” Apparently, she was wearing
something really strange that made them laugh when they saw
her. You see the beginning of the laughter AND the
beginning/ending of the teacher’s entrance.
The following sentence has one verb in the preterit and
one in the imperfect. One of the verbs shows the
beginning of an action (preterit), and the other shows
an action in progress (imperfect):
He was reading when the phone rang.
Leía cuando el teléfono sonó.
Imagine that you step up to a window to spy on
someone. What you see is someone sitting on his
bed reading. You don’t know when the reading
started; you just know that it was in progress when
you started watching. The window pane was thin, and
you heard the phone ring. You saw (heard) the
beginning of that action.
Click here to go to a practice exercise.
There are some verbs that have a special
meaning in the preterit:
conocer
saber
tener
querer
Think about it: what is it if you began to know
someone? What is it if you began to know a
piece of information?
conocer
saber
tener
querer
no querer
preterit
met
found out
got
tried
refused
imperfect
knew
knew
had
wanted
didn’t want
Lo supe ayer.
Ya lo sabía.
Lo conocí ayer.
I found it out yesterday.
I already knew it.
I met him yesterday.
Lo conocía cuando era niño. I knew him when he was a child.
Tuve la carta ayer.
Ya tenía la carta.
I got the letter yesterday.
I already had the letter.
Quise leerlo.
Quería leerlo.
I tried to read it.
I wanted to read it.
No quise leerlo.
No quería leerlo.
I refused to read it.
I didn’t want to read it.
The imperfect has another use, besides showing
an action in progress. It’s used to show
habitual past action.
Cuando era niño, jugaba al fútbol.
What that sentence means is that when I was a
child, I customarily played soccer. I don’t mean
just once. It was something I did regularly as a
child. You can translate the sentence three
ways:
When I was a child, I played soccer.
When I was a child, I used to play soccer.
When I was a child, I would play soccer.
All the verbs in the following paragraph are in the imperfect because all are
habitual past actions:
En 1955 todos los niños asistían a la escuela. Iban a la iglesia todas las
semanas. Llevaban buena ropa. Jugaban con sus amigos, y viajaban a la
playa con sus padres en el verano.
In 1955 all the children attended school. They went to church with every week.
They wore good clothes. They would play with their friends and would travel
to the beach with their parents in the summer.
However, the minute you put a time limit to a past action, it ceases to be
habitual, and you use the preterit:
In 1955 all the children attended school one day.
En 1955 todos los niños asistieron un día.
When I was a child, I played soccer ten times.
Cuando era nino, jugué al fútbol diez veces.
When you put a time limit on it, you’re showing the end of the action, and that
means you need the preterit.
Click here to go to a your homework.
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Preterit and Imperfect