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Spanish past tense - Preterite vs Imperfect

19 Oct, 2017 Spanish for Beginners
Spanish past tense - Preterite vs Imperfect2 votes. 4.5 / 5

In this lesson, we will learn how to use Spanish past tense to talk about actions completed at a point in the past. Basically, there are two major past tenses: Preterite and Imperfect.

Spanish Preterite Tense

Just like other tenses, you will need to learn how to conjugate verbs to match the subject and tense.

Regular Preterite Forms

To conjugate regular preterite verbs, you just need to remove the infinitive ending (-ar, -er, -ir) and add the preterite ending that matches the subject. The table below will show you preterite endings of regular verbs in Spanish.

Subject-ar Verbs-er and -ir Verbs
yo-i
 -aste-iste
él, ella, usted -ió
nosotros-amos-imos
vosotros-asteis-isteis
ellos, ellas, ustedes-aron -ieron

Note:

  • Remember that the preterite forms of yo, él, ella, and usted have tildes on the final vowel. It can change the tense and subject of a sentence.

For examples:

Mandó una carta - He/She sent a letter

Mando una carta - I send a letter

  • The endings of regular -ar and -ir verbs for nosotros are the same in both preterite and present tenses. Therefore, you need to consider the context and adverbs of the sentence to figure out it refers to the past or the present.

For examples:

Siempre cocinamos paella los domingos - We always cook paella on Sundays

Ayer cocinamos paella para mi familia - Yesterday we cooked paella for my family

Irregular Preterite Forms

To verbs with irregular preterite forms, you need to memorize their conjugations. Just practice as much as you can.

The table below will show you irregular preterite forms of some common verbs.

SubjectSer (to be)Ir (to go)Dar (to give)Ver (to see)
yofuifuidivi
fuistefuistedisteviste
él, ella, ustedfuefuediovio
nosotrosfuimosfuimosdimosvimos
vosotrosfuisteisfuisteisdisteisvisteis
ellos, ellas, ustedesfueronfuerondieronvieron

Uses of Spanish Preterite Tense

1. To talk about completed events or actions in the past

For examples:

Compré un coche nuevo - I bought a new car

Roberto nació en Costa Rica - Roberto was born in Costa Rica

2. To talk about beginnings and ends in the past

For examples:

Empezó a nevar - It began to snow

La película terminó con una sorpresa - The movie ended with a surprise

3. To talk about past events or actions that occurred on specific times, dates, or periods

For examples:

Regresé anoche a las diez - I got back last night at ten

Vivió en Perú por tres meses - He lived in Peru for three months

4. To list past events in a sequence

For example:

Me levanté, me vestí, y salí para la fiesta

I got up, got dressed, and left for the party

Spanish Imperfect Tense

Regular Imperfect Forms

Just like regular verbs in preterite forms, you just need to remove the infinitive ending and add the imperfect ending that matches the subject.

See the table below:

Subject-ar Verbs-er and -ir Verbs
yo-aba-ia
  -abas-ias
él, ella, usted-aba-ia
nosotros-ábamos-iamos
vosotros-abais-iais
ellos, ellas, ustedes-aban-ian

Irregular Imperfect Forms

Below you will find conjugations of three common verbs: ir, ser, and ver.

SubjectIr (to go)Ser (to be)Ver (to see)
yoibaeraveía
ibaserasveías
él, ella, ustedibaeraveía
nosotrosíbamoséramosveíamos
vosotrosibaiseraisveíais
ellos, ellas, ustedesibaneranveían

Uses of Spanish Imperfect Tense

1. To talk about habitual or repeated actions in the past.

For examples:

Almorzábamos cada día - We used to eat lunch together every day

Todos los sábados las mujeres iban de compras - Every Saturday the ladies would go shopping

2. To talk about an action that was happening when something else interrupted. The action in progress is in the imperfect. And the action that interrupted is in the preterite

For example:

Mi papá cocinaba cuando entré a casa - My dad was cooking when I came in the house

3. To talk about times and dates in the past

Eran las tres de la tarde - It was three o'clock in the afternoon

4. To talk about age in the past

Los perros tenían dos años cuando los adopté - The dogs were two years old when I adopted them

5. To give descriptions of conditions, feelings, or characteristics in the past

Hacía calor esa noche - It was hot that night

Mi profesor era alto y tenía el pelo ondulado - My professor was tall and had wavy hair

See also:

Spanish preterite vs imperfect past tense

Spanish preterite vs imperfect tenses

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