Pasado - Pretérito vs Imperfecto - Spanish Past Tenses
One of the most striking differences between Spanish and English is in verb
tenses. For English speakers, learning how to use the various
past tenses in Spanish can be very tricky (and vice versa), because
English has several tenses which either do not exist or do not translate
literally into Spanish.
Anyone who has studied Spanish is aware of the troublesome relationship
imperfecto. The imperfecto (yo hablaba) translates to the
English imperfect (I was talking) while the pretérito (yo hablé)
literally translates to the English simple past (I talked) but can also be
translated as the English present perfect (I have talked) or the emphatic
past (I did talk).
It is extremely important to understand the distinctions between pretérito
and imperfecto in order to use them correctly and thus express past events
The pretérito indicates
A single event Fui a España el año pasado - I went to Spain last year.
Visité Barcelona el sábado - I visited Barcelona on Saturday.
One or more events or actions that began and
ended in the past Fui a España - I went to Spain.
Visité unos museos - I visited some museums.
An event that occurred, interrupting another
action (see imperfecto III below) ...cuando me dijeron la verdad - ... when they told me the truth.
...cuando mi hija nació - when my daughter was born.
Changes in an existing physical or mental state
at a precise moment or for a particular isolated cause Tuve miedo cuando vi el perro - I was scared when I saw the dog.
The imperfecto is used for
A habitual or repeated action Iba a España cada año - I went (used to go) to Spain every year.
Visitaba mucho la Sagrada Familia - I often visited la Sagrada
An ongoing action with no specified completion Iba a España - I was going to Spain.
Visitaba unos museos - I was visiting museums.
Description/background information; set the
scene of how things were or what was happening when there was an
interruption (see pretérito III above) Vivía en Costa Rica cuando... - I was living in Costa Rica when...
Estaba en mi cama cuando... - I was in bed when...
General description of physical or mental
states of being Tenía miedo de perros - I was afraid of dogs.
Expression of the time of day or age in the
past Eran las cinco de la mañana - It was five a.m.
Era sus cumpleaños; tenía doce años - It was his birthday; he was
Thus the imperfecto is normally used for descriptions of the past,
while the pretérito narrates specific events. In addition, the
imperfecto often sets the stage for an event expressed with the pretérito.
Compare the following passages:
Imperfecto: Cuando tenía dieciocho años, quería ser arquitecto. Me
gustaba mucho la obra de Antoni Gaudí y esperaba comprender su genio. When I was eighteen, I wanted to be an architect. I really liked Antoni
Gaudí's work and I hoped to understand his genius.
Pretérito: Decidí estudiar en España e hice los formularios de
inscripción, pero las universidades no me admitieron. Conocí a un pintor y
comencé a estudiar con él. I decided to study in Spain and filled out the application forms, but the
universities did not admit me. I met a painter and started studying with him.
The following list of key words and phrases
may help you figure out whether to use imperfecto or pretérito.
Imperfecto: normalmente - usually, de vez en cuando -
from time to time,
antes - formerly, todos los días - every day, los lunes -
Pretérito: una vez - once, dos veces - twice,
tres/cuatro/etc. veces - three/four/etc. times, muchas veces -
several times, ayer - yesterday, un día - one day, el lunes
- on Monday, bruscamente - suddenly, de repente - all of a sudden.
There are a few verbs in Spanish which have a different meaning depending on
which past tense is used.
could (was able to, succeeded)
could (a possibilty - no indication as to whether it happened)