If you're learning Spanish, figuring out which of the different past tense forms to use in each situation is one of the first major roadblocks you'll face.
“What do you mean there is more than one past tense?” is a common question and one I asked myself when I learned my first foreign language.
But did you know that English has multiple past tense forms as well?
Look at the following sentences by way of example:
Just by reading these sentences, you can tell what happened in what order.
Different past tenses in Spanish do the same thing.
In this article, we'll focus on the two most common past tense forms: the preterite vs imperfect in Spanish.
By the end of the post, you'll be able to clear the most common past tense road blocks and express yourself with ease.
For a quick walkthrough the past tenses in Spanish, you can check out this video from my Fluent Spanish Academy YouTube channel. Or if you prefer a more thorough explanation of the preterite vs imperfect in Spanish or just prefer to see it in print, scroll down and read on!
In English, the preterite is also known as the “simple past tense”. Here are some examples:
In English this tense is used to talk about actions that were completed in the past and it has the same use in Spanish. Here are some examples:
Let start with some good news… conjugating the preterite in Spanish is relatively simple!
Start with the root of each verb (which you get by removing the infinite ending –ar, –er, or –ir), as you would when conjugating in the present tense. Then simply add the endings you see in the graphics below.
As you can see, it's pretty simple! The difference lies in the preterite endings, which are not the same as the present tense endings you're already familiar with.
Pay close attention to the accents at the ends of words. Sometimes, an accent is the only clue that a sentence is in the past tense.
Here are a few sample sentences to help you get familiar with the conjugation:
With the basic endings down, you can conjugate most verbs correctly. But as you know, some of the most commonly used verbs in Spanish take irregular forms.
Since many irregular verbs, such as ser/estar (to be) and tener (to have), are so vital to everyday communication, it's worth simply memorizing the irregular preterite forms of these common verbs from the beginning.
Here are eight of the most common irregular verbs conjugated in the preterite tense.
And yes, ser and ir really are conjugated the same way in the preterite tense!
Reading through these irregular conjugations, you probably noticed a few patterns.
Estar and tener are incredibly similar in the preterite, for example, while ser and ir are exactly the same.
The similarities between the irregular preterite verbs will help you master the common irregular verbs in no time!
In addition to simple actions completed in the past, there are a few situations that always use the preterite:
Since the preterite describes actions that have a defined beginning and end, a specific time or date is a huge clue that you should use the preterite:
Most times that you use the following verbs you'll need the preterite:
That's because a beginning or ending describes the specific time when an event occurred:
The past imperfect describes past actions that occurred repeatedly or continuously (as opposed to a single event).
In English, there are multiple ways to modify a verb to form the past imperfect. Here are two examples:
In these examples, “used to” and “was” tell us that these actions happened more than once in the past.
In Spanish, the verb conjugation does all of the work.
Like with the preterite tense, there are only two endings in the past imperfect:
Let's look at another set of sample sentences to help you practice the past imperfect tense.
Try reading this out loud to get a feel for how it sounds.
Now that you have the basic conjugations down, let's move on to the irregular conjugations.
The great news is that there are only three irregular verbs in the past imperfect tense:
That's it! Compared to other verb tenses, the past imperfect is incredibly simple to master thanks to the small number of irregular verbs.
The past imperfect tense is often used to describe the condition or situation of a past event, as in these specific cases:
While the preterite describes actions that happened at a certain time, use the past imperfect when telling the date or time of a past event:
Use the past imperfect any time you are talking about a condition or characteristic in the past. Wondering why? You aren't describing one single event, so you wouldn't use the preterite. Instead, you're talking about something that took place over time:
While age really is just another characteristic, I've mentioned it here specifically because new Spanish learners sometimes get confused when talking about their age. If you are telling a story that happened in the past, use the past imperfect when you relate your (or someone else's) age:
You may look at those last two examples and wonder how often you will be stating someone's age without any other details. Probably not very often! More likely, you'll start the story with your age when something else occurred:
In fact, you will likely use both the preterite and past imperfect together most of the time you speak in the past tense.
Here are three more sentences, using some of the same examples we practiced with earlier:
The best way to master Spanish past tenses is the same way I suggest you practice all Spanish lessons: speak, speak, speak!
In addition to using a high-quality text or workbook, read and listen to as much as you can and find a language tutor or partner you can practice speaking with.
If you're taking advantage of a language tutor on Italki, tell them you'd like to practice speaking in the past tense. And then jump right in.
You may make mistakes at first, but the more you practice using the preterite and past imperfect tenses, the more natural they will feel.
If you want to get some exposure to the Spanish past tenses through listening, then watch the short story below to hear the preterite and the past imperfect in context.
For more short stories like this and an entire library of material to help you get fluent in Spanish through immersion, check out the Fluent Spanish Academy.
Now you've read through this post, do the Spanish past tenses seem so scary? Do you feel ready to start using them? Let us know in the comments.
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