Preterite vs. Imperfect Master Post

This is one of the most common areas of confusion for people learning Spanish as with the subjunctive. I’m going to break it down into the best way that I know how.

¡Empecemos pues!


The preterite used for actions that have a definite beginning and definite ending. It happened one time and there’s no questioning it. We know that these are not ongoing actions for a long period of time. We know when it started and when it ended. 

When to use preterite:

  • used for actions that can be considered as a single event
    (Ella comió esta mañana - She ate this morning)
  • used for actions that were completed a specific number of times, or actions that occurred during a specific period of time.
    (Fui al centro comercial 3 veces - I went to the mall 3 times)
    (Empezamos a cocinar la cena a las 8pm - We started cooking dinner at 8pm)
  • used for a chain of consecutive actions
    (Yo comí, me vestí, y hablé con mi madre - I ate, got dressed, and spoke to my mother)

How to form the preterite:

You take the verb in the infinitive form and chop off the -ar, -er, or -ir. Then you’ve got what is called a stem ( Ex.  hablar => habl-, beber =>beb-, vivir => viv-) Then you tack on these endings:

Preterite endings of AR verbs:

yo              -é            nosotros           -amos
tú              -aste            vosotros        -asteis
       ellos/ustedes        -aron

ex. hablar: (hablé, hablaste, habló, hablamos, hablasteis, hablaron)

Preterite endings of ER/IR verbs:

yo              -í           nosotros           -imos
tú              -iste           vosotros        -isteis
-ió       ellos/ustedes        -ieron

ex. beber: (bebí, bebiste, bebió, bebimos, bebisteis,bebieron)
ex. vivir: (viví, viviste, vivió, vivimos, vivisteis, vivieron)

Some key words to help you know when to use the preterite are and not only limited to:

ayer - yesterday

anteayer - the day before yesterday

anoche  laste night

de repente - suddenly

a las 9 - at 9:00 (can be anytime)

entonces - then

esta mañana - this morning

esta tarde - this afternoon

la semana pasada - last week

el mes pasado - last month

el otro día - the other day

hace X minutos/horas/días/meses/años  - X minutes/hours/days/months/years ago

Examples of preterite

I went to the store today -  Fui a la tienda hoy
It happened today a set number of times)

She fell down at 3 o’clock - Ella se cayó a las 3 pm.
(It happened once at a specific time)

Last month, my grandparents visited us. - El mes pasado, nuestros abuelos nos visitaron.
(It happened last month, one time)

What did they tell you yesterday? - ¿Qué te dijeron ayer?
(It happened one time and it was yesterday)

Irregular preterite conjugations

Here’s a link to my irregular preterite guide if you’re not familiar with them already. The link will show you how recognize which verbs will take an irregular preterite and how to use them!

The imperfect

Now this is where it can be a little tricky. I feel that most understand the preterite more than they do the imperfect. I like to think of the imperfect as being less time orientated. There really isn’t a set of set. It’s more a large portion of time where many things happened (e.g. one’s childhood)

When to use the imperfect:

  • used for telling time
    (Eran las 3 de la mañana - It was 3 in the morning)
  • used for saying how old somebody was
    (Yo tenía 15 años cuando compré mi bicicleta - I was 15 years old when I bought my bike)
  • Used for setting the scene of a story
    (Eran las 3 de la mañana. Llovía a cántaros y el viento soplaba y había niebla por todas partes - It was 3AM. It was rainining cats and dogs and the wind was blowing and there was fog everywhere)
  • used to show habitual actions or what one “used to do”
    (Yo jugaba naipes con mis hermanos de niño - I used to play cards with my siblings as a kid)
  • used to describe emotional and physical conditions
    (Me sentía muy triste - I felt very sad)
    (Raquela estaba muy cansada - Raquela was really tired)
  • used whenever an action was being done (imperfect) whenever another interrupted it (preterite)
    (Hablaba por teléfono cuando entró mi hermano - I was talking on the phone when my brother came in)

*NOTE:  The imperfect tends to the have the meaning of “was doing” when it’s used. So be attentive of how it’s being used.  What I mean is that hababla could mean “I was talking” instead of “I used to talk”. Be aware of the context to help yourself know which one it’s implying, etc.

Some keywords to help to know when to use the imperfect:

a menudo - often

a veces - sometimes

cada día - every day

cada año/día/semana - every year

con frecuencia - frequently

tipicamente - typically

de vez en cuando - from time to time

en aquella época - at that time

frecuentemente - frequently

generalmente - usually

muchas veces - many times

mucho - a lot

nunca - never

por un rato - for awhile

siempre - always

tantas veces - so many times

todas las semana - every week

todos los días - every day

todo el tiempo - all the time

varias veces - several times

How to form the imperfect:

Take the verb into the stem (refer back above how to break infinitives into their stems if you forgot) and add the appropriate endings.

Imperfect endings of AR verbs:

yo              -aba           nosotros           -ábamos
tú              -abas           vosotros        -abais
él/ella/ud   -aba      ellos/ustedes        -aban

ex. hablar: (hablaba, hablabas, habló, hablábamos, hablabais, hablaban)

Imperfect endings of ER/IR verbs:

yo              -ía           nosotros           -íamos
tú              -ías           vosotros        -íais
-ía      ellos/ustedes        -ían

ex. beber: (bebía, bebías, bebía, bebíamos, bebíais, bebían
ex. vivir: (vivía, vivías, vivía, vivíamos, vivíais, vivían

Irregular Imperfect

It’s important to know these 3 verbs are irregular in the imperfect


yo              era          nosotros           éramos
tú              eras           vosotros        erais
él/ella/ud   era     ellos/ustedes        eran


yo               iba        nosotros           íbamos
tú               ibas           vosotros        bais
iba    ellos/ustedes        iban


yo              veía           nosotros           veíamos
tú              veías           vosotros        veíais
veía      ellos/ustedes        veían

Examples of imperfect

Yo jugaba al fútbol todos los dias - I used to play soccer every day

¿Cuando eras joven, ibas de compras con tu mamá? - When you were young, did you go shopping with your mom?

Siempre corrían por la tarde - They always ran in the afternoon

Nosotros dábamos una vuelta por el parque cuando empezó a llover. - We were walking through the park whenever it started to rain.