For most English speakers, differentiating between the many past tenses of the Spanish language is difficult. It is something that requires learning, practice and immersion in the language to begin to recognize the small differences. Read on to get a better grasp of which situation requires which tense.
Consider these sentences:
- Yesterday, I ate a piece of cake.
- When I was young, I ate a lot of bananas.
In both cases in English, we use the past simple (ate), but in Spanish, you would use two different preterite (past) tenses.
To break the tenses down to the simplest and most basic explanation, we can think of the three following examples. If you are having trouble deciding, you can think about whether it would make sense to replace your past verb with was …ing, used to…, or would…. If so, then you would use imperfecto:
I ate – pretérito indefinido
I was eating – imperfecto
I used to/would eat – imperfecto
We will quickly go over the uses of each tense and then offer explanations of some examples. If you need a refresher or to go over the conjugations of each tense, check out our posts on pretérito indefinido for regular verbs, pretérito indefinido for irregular verbs and the imperfecto.
El pretérito indefinido
When do we use pretérito indefinido?
- to talk about past actions that have happened just once or during a specific completed time (see time words below)
- to indicate an action that interrupts another ongoing action in the past
- to present information that advances a story
Time words that indicate pretérito indefindo
The following words indicate very concrete times in the past and would trigger the use of the pretérito indefinido:
- ayer – yesterday
- anoche – last night
- anteayer – the day before yesterday
- el lunes/fin de semana/mes/año pasado – last Monday/weekend/month/year
- un día – one day
- una mañana/tarde – one morning/day
- de repente – all of a sudden
- hace 5 años – 5 years ago
- en 1972 – in 1972
Mis padres se casaron en 1985.
My parents got married in 1985.
(shows an action in the past that happened just once- in 1985)
Compré unas botas nuevas la semana pasada.
I bought new boots last week.
(Again, shows an action that happened just once- last week)
Ayer visité a mi amiga en el hospital.
Yesterday I visited my friend in the hospital.
(An action that happened once yesterday)
When do we use the imperfecto?
- to talk about repeated actions in the past (habits or routines)
- to provide descriptions in the past about people, places or things
- to show an ongoing action in the past (in English it is similar to the past continuous: llovía-it was raining, ella cantaba-she was singing, yo hacía mis deberes-I was doing my homework)
- to show the duration of an action
- to give descriptions, or set the scene, about the details or surroundings in a story
Key time words to indicate imperfecto:
- a menudo/a veces – often/sometimes
- cada día/mañana/semana/mes/año – every day/morning/week/month/year
- en general, generalmente, frecuentemente – in general, generally, frequently
- todos los dias, todas las mañanas – every day, every morning
- siempre, nunca – always, never
- de vez en cuando – from time to time
- por un rato – for awhile
Cuando tenía 5 años, iba a nadar con mi madre cada mañana.
When I was 5 years old, I went (used to go) swimming with my mother every morning.
(Here, we use tenía to indicate age, or a time of life, in the past. We use iba because it was a routine- it happened every morning in the past)
Mi primer amigo en el cole era Portugués, tenía los ojos azules y era muy gracioso.
My first friend at school was Portuguese, had green eyes and was very funny.
(We are using the imperfecto to describe how someone was in the past. The state of being did not change during that time)
Eran las 8 de la noche. Hacía mucho frío y llovía mucho.
It was 8 at night. It was very cold and it was raining a lot.
(This is a description of a weather condition in the past, it could also be used to set the scene for a story that happened in the past)
Deciding between pretérito indefinido and imperfecto
Let’s go back to the examples from the beginning:
- Yesterday, I ate a piece of cake. (Ayer comí un trozo de pastel.)
- When I was young, I ate a lot of bananas. (Cuando era joven, comía muchos platanos.)
In the first example, we use pretérito indefinido because it’s a completed action that happened just once in the past. The second example tells about an action in the past that used to happen often, it was repeated.
Cuando era niña, iba todos los verano a la Costa Brava con mis padres.
When I was a girl, every summer I went (would go) to the Costa Brava with my parents.
(The imperfecto is used to describe a repeated action in the past, it happened every summer)
Un verano, no pudimos ir.
One summer, we couldn’t go.
(We use the pretérito indefinido because it happened just one time – one summer it did not happen)
El martes pasado no trabajé porque estuve enfermo.
Last Tuesday I didn’t work because I was sick.
(We use indefinido because it is a completed action and it happened just once – last Tuesday)
El sábado estuvimos bailando toda la noche.
On Saturday we danced all night.
(In this example, we need to use pretérito indefinido because even if imperfecto is used for repeated actions in the past, when there is a delimited time (all night), we need to use indefinido)
Anteayer fui al banco para retirar dinero.
The day before yesterday I went to the bank to withdraw money.
(We use indefinido here because it’s an action that happened once on a specific day in the past)
Cuando trabajaba en el banco, iba a currar en bicicleta.
When I worked (used to work) at the bank, I went (would go) to work by bike.
(We use imperfecto to talk about work – trabajaba -because it is something that happened over a duration of time and was repeated. We use iba in imperfecto because it was also a repeated action or routine.)
Combining both past tenses
To speak Spanish correctly, you will need to use a variety of tenses to accurately describe your experiences and tell stories. Here are some examples of both pretérito indefinido and imperfecto in use together in the same sentence.
Mis padres se conocieron cuando estaban en la universidad.
My parents met when they were at university.
(Indefinido is used to show that they met which can only happen once. We use imperfecto to show that they were at university during a period of time that is undefined.)
Cuando viajaba por Medio Oriente, comí muchos platos exóticos.
When I travelled (was travelling) around the Middle East, I ate a lot of exotic dishes.
(We use imperfecto to show that I was travelling continuously and indefinido that express a completed action (ate) in the past.)
Bailaba salsa en La Habana cuando descubrí mi gran pasión por la música.
I was dancing salsa in Havana when I discovered my great passion for music.
(Imperfecto shows gives the details of what was happening when something else happened. Indefinido indicates that I made a discovery – just one time.)
Hopefully, your understanding of the two past tenses is clearer now. If you have any doubts, questions, or comments, please leave them below! If you’re interested in learning more, check out our Spanish classes in the heart of Barcelona.