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Spanish 101A

Spanish 101B

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Trying to decide when to use the Preterite and when to use the Imperfect is one of the challenges of learning these two tenses. Review the uses of the Imperfect and the Preterite, and make a chart for yourself listing the differences.

The Imperfect past tense is used to describe a scene while the Preterite is used to list series of completed actions. It can be a little more subtle, especially with verbs that change meaning depending on the tense.

You will use the Imperfect

  • When you "set a scene" describing what your house or dog used to look like and what your family was like. Think of looking at a photograph and describing the people in it and what they were doing. Since the photograph is static, the people in it can't start doing something different. So you can only describe the scene you see.
  • When you are describing what people were doing (in the process of doing) or used to do or when you describe what it was like when you arrived at the party last night.
However, the stories that occur within these settings happen in the Preterite! (which we will look at after our example.)
snoopy typeing

For example, let's set a scene:

  • Eran las nueve de la noche. Era viernes. Hacía mal tiempo. Llovía. Todos estábamos en casa. Mamá y Papá miraban la televisión; yo leía una novela de StarTrek; mi hermana hablaba por teléfono con su novio en su cuarto. Esnupi (nuestro perro) dormía detrás del sillón en la sala.

  • It was 9:00 at night. It was Friday. It was bad weather. It was raining. We were all at home. Mom and Dad were watching television; I was reading a StarTrek novel; my sister was talking on the phone with her boyfriend in her room. Esnupi (our dog) was sleeping behind the armchair in the living room.

This has all been written in the Imperfect.

But now let's get to the action:

  • De repente, ¡Entró un ladrón! Pasó por la escalera y caminó hasta la recámara de mis padres. Miró en el cuarto cuando oyó la voz de mi hermana. Se volvió y bajó las escaleras. Trató de huir de la casa, pero Esnupi se despertó y mordió la pierna del ladrón.

  • Suddenly, a robber entered! He went upstairs and walked down to my parent's bedroom. He looked in the room but then he heard my sister's voice. He turned and went down the stairs. He tried to flee the house, but Esnupi woke up and bit the robber's leg.

This is a series of actions in the Preterite which happened within the setting established by the Imperfect.

The focus of the Preterite is on completed action(s). The Imperfect focuses on a state of being.

Let's look at some examples:


(completed action)


(description, scene)

Comí la cena. Comía la cena...
I ate my dinner (and I finished it) I was eating my dinner...[when something happened]
-or- I used to eat my dinner...
Tuvo que devolver la camisa Tenía que devolver la camisa
She had to -and did- return the shirt. She had to return the shirt (She was supposed to return it - but we don't know if she did or not.)

Some verbs have different meanings in the Imperfect and Preterite forms:


(completed action)


(description, scene)

Conocer to have met someone to have known someone
Saber to have found out something to have known something
Querer tried wanted
No Querer refused didn't want
Poder managed to (suceeded) was able to (capable of)
No Poder failed to wasn't able to (not capable)

Examples of how these verbs change in meaning:


(completed action)


(description, scene)

Quise hacerlo pero no pude. Quería ir a la playa cada fin de semana. Y por no trabajar los fines de semana, podía ir frecuentemente.
I tried to do it but I failed (to do it) I wanted to go to the beach every weekend. And because I didn't work weekends, I was able to go frequently.
La conocí el año pasado. Nos conocíamos por tres meses antes de casarnos.
I met her last year. We knew each other for three months before marrying.