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.
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.
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.
a) El jueves, Mauricio decidió quedarse en casa y no ir a trabajar – On Thursday, Mauricio decided to stay home and not go to work
b) El año pasado no tomé vacaciones – I didn’t take time off last year
The imperfect is used when speaking of other actions, such as habits, as well as for characteristics, descriptions, and emotions.
When referring to habits in the past, you’ll have to use the imperfect.
a) 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
b) Ella siempre estudiaba mucho – She always studied a lot
When referring to someone’s characteristics or personality, use the imperfect.
a) Era un hombre muy inteligente y generoso – He was a very intelligent and generous man
b) Eran atletas muy altos y esbeltos – They were very tall and slim athletes
When describing the weather, time, ambience, or someone’s physical traits, or even what a person was wearing, use the imperfect.
a) Era un día muy frío y nublado – It was a very cold and cloudy day
b) Eran las ocho y media de la noche – It was eight thirty in the evening
c) Había mucha tensión en la reunión – There was a lot of tension at the meeting
d) Tenía los ojos grandes y azules – He had big, blue eyes
e) ¿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.
Getting emotional? Drag the imperfect along.
a) 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.
b) Me fui a casa. No me sentía bien – I went home. I was not feeling well.
An ongoing action in the imperfect is interrupted by the preterite indefinite.
a) La madre repasaba la tarea con su hijo cuando entró su marido – The mother was reviewing homework with her son when her husband arrived
b) Yo estudiaba cuando me llamaste – I was studying when you called me
*the same conjugation as the present
Great news! There are only THREE irregular verbs in the imperfect:
Now that you know the differences between preterite indefinite and the imperfect, try the following exercises.
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
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Irma is a trained linguist, native Spanish speaker, and teacher. She is the founder and CEO of Diáfano.
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