Understanding the difference between preterite indefinite and preterite imperfect
Which preterite is right?

Is there anything more confusing to Spanish learners than the preterite indefinite and the imperfect (Ok, aside from the subjunctive!) Both are used to talk about the past, but which one do you use? Simple.

Ever been to a Broadway show?

I’m not trying make small talk here, but have you ever been to a Broadway show? A theater show? Your kid’s play? In over a decade of language teaching, the best analogy I’ve used to help my clients understand is to look at these grammar rules as a Broadway show: the imperfect sets stage and the piece (the setting, the lighting, the weather that day, the atmosphere); the actors’ actions on stage are the indefinite. Hamlet was devastated (crazy, confused, deluded, depending on whose interpretation you are relying) and imperfect. Hamlet reciting his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy – another indefinite.

Preterite indefinite

When speaking about actions that took place at a specific point in time, use the indefinite. The indefinite is not to be used for habits.

Markers included: ayer, anteayer, anoche, anteanoche, hace dos días, el año/mes pasado, la semana pasada, el lunes/martes/miércoles/jueves/viernes/fin de semana.

  1. El jueves, Mauricio decidió quedarse en casa y no ir a trabajar – On Thursday, Mauricio decided to stay home and not go to work
  2. El año pasado no tomé vacaciones – I didn’t take time off last year

Imperfect

The imperfect is used when speaking of other actions, such as habits, as well as for characteristics, descriptions, and emotions.

  1. Habits. When referring to habits in the past, you’ll have to use the imperfect.
    • Cuando yo era niño, mi familia y yo viajábamos al extranjero – When I was a kid, my family and I would travel to foreign countries
    • Ella siempre estudiaba mucho – She always studied a lot
  1. Characteristics. When referring to someone’s characteristics or personality, use the imperfect.
    • Era un hombre muy inteligente y generoso – He was a very intelligent and generous man
    • Eran atletas muy altos y esbeltos – They were very tall and slim athletes
  1. Descriptions. When describing the weather, time, ambience, or someone’s physical traits, or even what a person was wearing, use the imperfect.
    • Era un día muy frío y nublado – It was a very cold and cloudy day
    • Eran las ocho y media de la noche – It was eight thirty in the evening
    • Había mucha tensión en la reunión – There was a lot of tension at the meeting
    • Tenía los ojos grandes y azules – He had big, blue eyes
    • ¿No te acuerdas de ella? Llevaba una camiseta rosa y unos pantalones amarillos muy chillones – You don’t remember her? She was wearing a pink T-shirt and really bright, yellow pants.
  1. Emotions. Getting emotional? Drag the imperfect along.
    • Los estudiantes reprobaron la prueba. Estaban muy tristes – The students failed the test. They were very sad. Notice that in the first sentence I use the indefinite because they failed the exam. That is an action at a specific point in time.
    • Me fui a casa. No me sentía bien – I went home. I was not feeling well.
  1. Ongoing actions interrupted by another action. An ongoing action in the imperfect is interrupted by the preterite indefinite.
    • La madre repasaba la tarea con su hijo cuando entró su marido – The mother was reviewing homework with her son when her husband arrived
    • Yo estudiaba cuando me llamaste – I was studying when you called me

 

Conjugating the preterite indefinite

Ar verbs (estudiar, trabajar, bailar)

Yo estudié

Tú estudiaste

Él/ella/usted estudió

Nosotros/nosotros estudiamos*

Vosotros/vosotras

Ellos/ellas/ustedes

*the same conjugation as the present

Er/ir (comer, beber, vivir)

Yo comí

Tú comiste

Él/ella/usted comió

Nosotros/nosotros comimos

Vosotros/vosotras comisteis

Ellos/ellas/ustedes comieron

Conjugating the imperfect

Ar verbs

Yo estudiaba

Tú estudiabas

Él/ella/usted estudiaba

Nosotros/nosotros estudiábamos

Vosotros/vosotras estudiabais

Ellos/ellas/ustedes estudiaban

Er/ir verbs

Yo comía

Tú comías

Él/ella/usted comía

Nosotros/nosotros comíamos

Vosotros/vosotras comíais

Ellos/ellas/ustedes comían

Great news! There are only THREE irregular verbs in the

imperfect:

Ser (era/eras/era/éramos/erais/eran)

Ir (iba/ibas/iba/íbamos/ibais/iban)

Ver (veía/veías/veía/veíamos/veíais/veían)

Exercises with the preterite indefinite and the imperfect

Now that you know the differences between preterite indefinite and the imperfect, try the following exercises.

  1. Me __________ (llamar, tú) muy tarde. Mi cumpleaños __________ (ser)  el martes. – You called too late. My birthday was Tuesday. 
  2. ¿No te gustan las sorpresas? ¿Por qué no me __________ (decir)? – You don’t like surprises? Why didn’t you tell me?
  3. Qué bien se ve Luis. ¿Se __________ (cortar) el pelo? – Luis looks really good. Did he cut his hair?
  4. ¡__________ (ser) las cinco de la mañana cuando __________ (irse, él)! – It was five in the morning when he left.
  5. __________ (haber) mucha gente en la plaza – There were a lot of people at the plaza.
  6. ¿Por qué están tan cansados? ¿__________ (acostarse) muy tarde anoche? – Why are they so tired? Did they go to bed late?
  7. _________ (estar, él) muy feliz porque no __________ (tener) que trabajar – He was very happy because he didn’t have to work.
  8. ¿Me __________ (comprar, tú) las cosas que te __________ (pedir)? – Did you buy me the things I asked for?
  9. Él le __________ (enviar) flores a su novia por San Valentín – He sent flowers to his girlfriend because of Valentine’s Day.
  10. ¿No __________ (querer, ustedes) ir a la fiesta? – You didn’t want to go to the party?

Answers: 1. llamaste/era; 2. dijiste*; 3. cortó; 4. eran/se fue; 5. había; 6. se acostaron; 7. estaba/tenía; 8. compraste/pedí; 9. envió; 10. querían

*irregular

Irma Cedeno

Irma is an educator, linguist, creativity expert, cultural competence strategist, and the founder of Diáfano, a company responsible for designing and implementing Spanish classes and programs at corporations. From universities and top US institutes to Fortune 500 companies, Irma has been an integral part of language learning and cultural competence training. After travelling to 40+ countries (and counting!) and over 10 years of working in education, she developed and honed her methodology in 2013. The Diáfano Method is student-centered methodology that breaks down language learning into clear and simple steps.
Irma grew up bilingual and is a proud learner of French, Italian, Portuguese, and Japanese. Check her out at www.diafanomethod.com.

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