When To Use the Preterite Tense in Spanish for Repeated Events and Emotions

Difference of Meaning Can Be Lost in English Translation

Market in Paraguay
Cuando era estudiante en Asunción, fuimos tres veces al mercado. (When I was a student in Asunción, we went to the market three times.). Leandro Neumann Ciuffo/Creative Commons.

It is almost a rule of thumb that the imperfect tense should be used in Spanish when speaking of repeated or habitual events in the past, while the preterite tense should be used when speaking of one-time events.

For example, the sentence "Cuando era niña, fuimos a Idaho" would normally be understood to mean roughly "when I was a girl, we took a trip to Idaho." But "Cuando era niño, íbamos a Idaho" would normally be understood to mean roughly "when I was a boy we customarily went to Idaho."

However, there are at least two cases where the preterite tense should be used when speaking of repeated events:

  • When the number of repetitions is stated: Cuando era estudiante en Asunción, fuimos tres veces al mercado. (When I was a student in Asunción, we went to the market three times.)
  • When the emphasis is on a beginning and/or end to the repeated action: Cuando era estudiante, Pablo se durmió temprano todas las noches. (When he was a student, Pablo fell asleep early every night.) The imperfect tense could also be used here, and in most cases would be preferred. But by using the preterite tense, the speaker is placing a strong emphasis on the fact that Pablo quit going to bed early when he was no longer a student, or that he didn't start going to bed early until he became a student. The going to bed early in the sample sentence is thought of as more of an event rather than background information.

    Note that the preterite and imperfect tense can often be translated to English in the same way — the difference in meaning can be lost in translation. But for the native speaker of Spanish, the two tenses convey a different perspective.

    Similarly, the imperfect tense is typically used when speaking of emotional states in the past.

    However, the preterite can be used when the emotional state is thought of as an event rather than background.

    • Al ver la injusticia, me enojé. (When I saw the injustice, I became angry.) In this example, getting angry is clearly an event, not mere background.
    • Siempre fui triste y me sentí extranjera en todas partes. (I was always very sad-natured and I felt like a foreigner everywhere.) The speaker also could have used the imperfect tense and been grammatically correct here. In fact, in most cases the imperfect would be preferred in a sentence like this. However, by using the preterite, the speaker puts an emphasis on her feelings as an event: Perhaps they were short-lived, or perhaps because they were precipitated by a specific incident.
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    Erichsen, Gerald. "When To Use the Preterite Tense in Spanish for Repeated Events and Emotions." ThoughtCo, Mar. 30, 2016, thoughtco.com/preterite-tense-in-spanish-for-repeated-3079941. Erichsen, Gerald. (2016, March 30). When To Use the Preterite Tense in Spanish for Repeated Events and Emotions. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/preterite-tense-in-spanish-for-repeated-3079941 Erichsen, Gerald. "When To Use the Preterite Tense in Spanish for Repeated Events and Emotions." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/preterite-tense-in-spanish-for-repeated-3079941 (accessed November 25, 2017).