Preterite vs. Imperfect: the Past Tenses
Language Resources

In Spanish, there are two simple past tenses: the preterite and the imperfect.

In very general terms, the preterite tense is used to refer to a single event that happened at a specific point of time or had a specific duration in the past, while the imperfect tense is used to describe ongoing events or events without a specific time period in the past.

Preterite

-ar verbs
Example: SALTAR (to jump)

-er & -ir verbs
Example: VIVIR (to live)
yo
(I)
salté
I jumped
viví
I lived

(you)
-aste saltaste
you jumped
-iste viviste
you lived
él, ella
(he, she, it)
saltó
he/she jumped
-ió vivió
he/she lived
nosotros/as
(we)
-amos saltamos
we jumped
-imos vivimos
we lived
vosotros/as
(you all)
-asteis saltasteis
you all jumped
-isteis vivisteis
you all lived
ellos, ellas
(they)
-aron saltaron
they jumped
-ieron vivieron
they lived

The preterite tense is used...

  • To describe something that happened once.
    • Cantó una canción. (He sang a song.)
    • Escribí la carta. (I wrote the letter.)
    • I woke up early this morning. (Me desperté temprano esta mañana)
  • To describe something that happened more than once, but had a specific end.
    • Fui a cuatro restaurantes la semana pasada. (I went to four restaurants last week.)
    • De niño, fui de camping cada verano. (As a child, I went camping every summer.)

Imperfect

-ar verbs
Example: SALTAR (to jump)

-er & -ir verbs
Example: VIVIR (to live)
yo
(I)
-aba saltaba
I jumped/was jumping
-ía vivía
I lived/was living

(you)
-abas saltabas
you jumped/were jumping
-ías vivías
you lived/were living
él, ella
(he, she, it)
-aba saltaba
he jumped/was jumping
-ía vivía
he lived/was living
nosotros/as
(we)
-ábamos saltábamos
we jumped/were jumping
-íamos vivíamos
we lived/were living
vosotros/as
(you all)
-aba saltabais
you all jumped/were jumping
-íais vivíais
you all lived/were living
ellos, ellas
(they)
-aban saltaban
they jumped/were jumping
-ían vivían
they lived/were living

The imperfect tense is used...

  • To describe habitual or repeated actions in the past.
    • Siempre compraba en la misma tienda. (I always went shopping at the same store.)
    • Mi abuela me escribía muchas cartas. (My grandmother would write me a lot of letters.)
  • To describe a condition or state of being in the past.
    • Estaba contenta. (She was happy.)
    • Había dos edificios aquí. (There used to be two buildings here.)
  • To describe an action that occurred over an unspecified time.
    • Hablámos por teléfono. (We were talking on the phone.)
    • Pasaba al perro. (He was walking the dog.)
  • To indicate time or age in the past.
    • Tenía 18 años. (She was 18 years old)
    • Eran las ocho y media de la mañana. (It was 8:30 in the morning)
  • To describe a person or place
    • Tenía el pelo largo y los ojos azules. (She had long hair y blue eyes.)