If you're a student of Spanish, at some point you've probably felt like a student of verbs: verb endings, verb stems, changes based on people, changes based on groups, and, of course, different tenses. When you start learning the different Spanish past tense verbs, the verb terrain can get really rocky. But by the time you get there, you (like me) have probably already fallen in love with the language, so there’s no going back! Luckily, el que busca encuentra: those who seek will find. And here you'll find answers to your Spanish past tense verb questions!
Spanish has two main verb forms for talking about the past, the imperfect and the preterite. And in true Spanish style, they have totally different conjugations and distinct, nuanced meanings. So what gives? How do you know what each form means? In this post, we'll be sharing tips and tricks for using Spanish past tenses.
One rule of thumb for the Spanish past tenses
First, let's make a long story short: here is one basic tip for when to use the imperfect and the preterite to talk about the past.
If we need a phrase to say it in English, use the imperfect.
In most cases, the English version of what you want to say will lead you to the right verb tense, so you can use these pointers for a shortcut!
- Imperfect: Do we say it with multiple words in English?
When it comes to the imperfect, you're pretty safe remembering that it’s used for these three English multi-word phrases:
|was doing||would do||used to do|
|Spanish||Mientras tomaba una siesta, mi perro comió el sofá.||Los domingos, visitaba a mi abuelita.||De niño me encantaba atrapar sapos.|
|English||While I was taking a nap, my dog ate the couch.||On Sundays, I would visit my grandma.||As a kid I used to love catching toads.|
That's because the imperfect is used for talking about more complex situations in the past — situations spread out over time. English uses these more complex phrases to talk about these kinds of past situations, and in Spanish you'll use the imperfect!
- Preterite. Do we say it with just one word in English?
The preterite typically translates to a single past tense word in English.
|One word: "took"||One word: "visited"||One word: "loved"|
|Spanish||Hoy, tomé una siesta de tres horas.||Visité a mi abuela la semana pasada.||Sí, me encantó atrapar sapos contigo ayer.|
|English||Today, I took a three-hour nap.||I visited my grandma last week.||Yes, I loved catching toads with you yesterday.|
In Spanish, the preterite is used to talk about situations in the past that are viewed as a whole, single chunk: there was a time period in the past, something happened in that time window, now let’s move on.
Also note that the preterite is often used when we'd use didn't in English, as in I didn’t take a three-hour nap, I didn't visit my grandma, and No, I didn't love catching toads yesterday.
For most cases, and especially for beginners, that’s the only tip you need! With these English phrases in your pocket, you’ll be able to understand Spanish speakers and get your point across in the vast majority of scenarios.
If you're interested in what to do the rest of the time or you're a more advanced learner, read on to learn what's going on behind the scenes.
Spanish past tenses: an advanced course
The reason for the general Spanish past tense tip above, and the less-straightforward exceptions to the English phrase rule, is a bit more complicated.
- Imperfect. The imperfect is for situations that are likely to continue or repeat.
The imperfect actually tells us something about the world — that there’s an *underlying reason* for an ongoing or repeated action in the past. We use the imperfect when there was an intention, a routine, or a circumstance that made the action ongoing.
|Examples of imperfect||Reason for the situation to continue or repeat||Álvaro llamó a sus papás cuando cruzaban el puente ayer.
Álvaro called his parents when they were crossing the bridge yesterday.
|We’re not sure if Álvaro’s parents ended up making it to the other side of the bridge, but we do know that they had the intention to cross the bridge and were in the process of doing so when Álvaro called.|
|Cuando Itzel trabajó en la oficina, cruzaba el puente todos los días a las cinco.
When Itzel worked in the office, she would cross the bridge every day at five.
|We learn here that Itzel had a routine of crossing the bridge, and we might imagine that this routine was tied to her work in the office.|
|A Mayra le gustaba cruzar el puente, pero la semana pasada aprendió que no es seguro.
Mayra used to like crossing the bridge, but last week she learned that it isn’t safe.
|Here we learn that Mayra’s lack of knowledge about the bridge led her to be perfectly happy crossing it; in other words, what Mayra knew was a circumstance that changed when she learned it was unsafe.|
- Preterite. The preterite focuses on what happened in a particular instance or specific window of time.
When we use a verb in the preterite, it’s like we are looking at the past with a magnifying glass. We are just interested in what was going on in a particular period of time.
|Examples of preterite||Particular window of time||A Mayra le gustó cruzar el puente.
Mayra liked crossing the bridge.
|What this sentence tells us is that Mayra enjoyed the experience of crossing the bridge. And that’s it! Here we learn about her response in this particular instance, but unlike with the imperfect, we don’t have any other information about Mayra’s continuing feelings about crossing the bridge.|
|Itzel y Mayra cruzaron el puente cinco veces ayer porque tenían mucho que hacer.
Itzel and Mayra crossed the bridge five times yesterday because they had a lot to do.
|Here we learn about something that happened in the time window ‘yesterday’: Itzel and Mayra crossed the bridge five times. They were busy!|
Spanish past tenses take center stage
There's also an analogy you can use to help you apply these more complicated ideas quickly in real-life conversation. Think of a director producing a movie or play!
Imagine a stage. The curtains open and immediately, we notice the scenery: there’s a quaint town, some people walk around, a stream of water trickles from a fountain (clearly this production has a good budget). Suddenly, a young girl walks on stage, she does a twirl, and she starts to sing about her little town.
If you were to describe the play to a friend, you would use the imperfect to describe all that stuff going on in the background before the main action happens. That main action — the drama unfolding in the foreground — that would be in the preterite.
Given what the imperfect and the preterite mean, this makes sense! We expect the things going on in the background to be generally stable or to continue on. But all of the drama — all of the interesting change — is taking place in the foreground, under that magnifying glass.
|On the stage||Reasons for imperfect or preterite|
|Imperfect||Había un pueblo pintoresco.
There was a picturesque town.
Algunas personas caminaban por todas partes y un chorrito de agua caía de una fuente.
Some people were walking all around, and a stream of water was trickling from a fountain.
|These sentences set the stage: they describe ongoing actions and situations that we're in the middle of seeing and that we expect to continue on. Some of them require those multi-word phrases in English, too, like were walking, but you’ll notice that some don’t, like [there] was.|
|Preterite||De repente, una muchacha entró en el escenario, dio una pirueta y empezó a cantar sobre su pueblo.
All of a sudden, a young girl entered the scene, twirled, and started to sing about her town.
|Here the action in focus for the audience uses the preterite. These actions are in specific time periods — she entered, then twirled, then started to sing — and are the center of attention.|
Spanish past tenses: was learning and now learned ✅
There are lots of ways to remember the differences between the preterite and imperfect in Spanish, so find the rule or analogy that works for your level! For beginners and those in need of a quick rule of thumb, remember that if we need a phrase to say it in English, use the imperfect. When you encounter examples where translation doesn’t work, think of how the action is being discussed, or use the analogy of a play or movie!
The more you practice Spanish over time, the more you'll get the hang of the past tenses. Soon they'll feel as natural as well-rehearsed lines. Check out our other Spanish tips for more ideas about studying Spanish and how Duolingo can help!