The preterite and imperfect tenses
The Spanish preterite and imperfect tenses. Man, even typing those words out stresses me out! When you’re learning Spanish, the big clue that you’re graduating from beginner to intermediate is the preterite and imperfect tenses. It’s the first legitimately difficult thing Spanish language learners address, and honestly it’s made me quit a few times!
What makes it so difficult for us native English speakers to figure it out? In our language, our conjugations are pretty minimal compared to Spanish. While Spanish speakers conjugate verbs in different ways depending on who they’re talking about, we keep it pretty simple, and our conjugations seem more like rule-breakers than actual rules. For example:
To Speak (English)
You guys spoke
Hablar (Spanish, preterite)
See what I mean? Keep in mind that that’s only one of the Spanish past tenses. When Spanish language learners address the past tense for the first time, they’re faced with el pretérito and el imperfecto, and that right there chases a lot of people off. Yeah, including me.
Look, I know it’s daunting. That’s a lot of conjugations and before we even get to think about the conjugations themselves, we have to worry about which tense we even use! Fortunately, there’s a pretty simple difference to get a hang of, and the more you practice, the easier it gets! Funny, I think I’ve heard that concept somewhere before…
El pretérito, or the preterite tense, is used when we talk about something that happened before and now it’s over. We know that the thing stopped happening, either because it’s said in the context clues, or because it’s something obvious.
The preterite tense is used for sudden, sometimes interrupting actions.
We went to the pool on Saturday.
See? We know it happened once, and we know it happened Saturday.
I walked through the door.
This is an example of something obvious. When you walk through the door, you walk through the door. Unless you’re stuck in some kind of space-time continuum, it happens once and then it’s done.
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El imperfecto, or the imperfect tense, is used to talk about things that aren’t quite so positively over. Maybe we’re talking about something that happened habitually, or the thing might still be happening, we just don’t know. This Spanish past tense gets interrupted by the preterite. Actions in the preterite tense (I opened the refrigerator) interrupt actions in the imperfect tense (when I was sick).
The imperfect tense is used for actions that are habitual, cover a span of time, or haven't necessarily ended.
We used to go to the pool on Saturdays.
Habits. This happened more than once, and we don’t know when, or if, it ever stopped happening.
I was walking through the door.
Ah ha! See where the preterite and imperfect tenses might get a tad confusing? In this instance, the action didn’t necessarily end. I mean, yeah, it ended, but not in this sentence.
Another important part of the imperfect tense is when saying things like “when I was five years old”. Yes, this is imperfect. It covers a span of time, and we don’t know exactly when it started or ended, just a vague age.