Using the 2 Simple Past Tenses of Spanish

Choice Often Depends on Completion of Verb's Action

Beach in the Canary Islands for a Spanish lesson on the past tenses
Fuimos ayer a la playa. (We went to the beach yesterday.) Photo taken at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain. Juan Ramón Rodríguez Sosa/Creative Commons.

While English has just one simple past tense, Spanish has two: the preterite and the imperfect.

The two past tenses refer in different ways to what has happened. They are called the simple past tenses to distinguish them from verb forms that use an auxiliary verb, such as "has left" in English and ha salido in Spanish. In other words, the simple past tenses use a single word.

Although the English simple past in a sentence such as "he ate" can be conveyed in Spanish using either the preterite (comió) or the imperfect indicative (comía), the two tenses don't mean the same thing.

In general, the preterite is used when speaking of completed action, that is when the verb refers to an action that has a clear end. The imperfect is used to refer to an action that doesn't have a specific ending.

Here are some more specific uses to clarify the differences between the two tenses. Note that the imperfect is frequently translated in ways other than the English simple past.

Uses for the Preterite Tense

To tell of something that happened once:

  • Fuimos ayer a la playa. (We went to the beach yesterday.)
  • Escribí la carta. (I wrote the letter.)
  • Compramos un coche azul.) (We bought a blue car.

To tell of something that happened more than once but with a specific end:

  • Fui ayer seis veces a la tienda. (I went to the store six times yesterday.)
  • Leyó el libro cinco veces. (He read the book five times.)

To indicate the beginning or end of a process:

  • Tuvo frío. (He got cold.)
  • El huracán se terminó a las ocho. (The hurricane was over at 8.)

    Uses for the Imperfect Tense

    To tell of past habitual or repeated actions where there's no definite end specified:

    • Iba a la tienda. (I used to go to the store. Note that it is possible that the verb's action continues today.)
    • Leíamos los libros. (We would read the books. The English "would" is sometimes used for the imperfect, as it is here, but it also is sometimes used for the conditional tense, which usually refers to a theoretical rather than past action.)
    • Lavaban las manos. (They would wash their hands.)
    • Escribía muchas cartas. (I wrote many letters.)

    To describe a condition, mental state or state of being from the past:

    • Había una casa aquí. (There used to be a house here.)
    • Era estúpido. (He was stupid.)
    • No te conocía. (I didn't know you.)
    • Quería estar feliz. (He wanted to be happy.)
    • Tenía frío. (He was cold.)

    To describe an action that occurred over an unspecified time:

    • Lavaban los manos. (They were washing their hands.)
    • Cuando José tocaba el piano, María comía. (While José was playing the piano, María was eating.)

    To indicate time or age in the past:

    • Era la una de la tarde. (It was 1 p.m.)
    • Tenía 43 años. (She was 43 years old.)

    Other Distinctions Between the Past Tenses

    The imperfect is frequently used to provide the background for an event that is described using the preterite.

    • Era [imperfect] la una de la tarde cuando comió [preterite]. (It was 1 p.m. when she ate.)
    • Yo escribía [imperfect] cuando llegaste [preterite]. (I was writing when you arrived.)

    Because of the way the two tenses are used, some verbs can be translated using differing words in English depending on the tense in Spanish. This is especially true when the preterite is used to indicate the beginning or end of a process.

    • Conocí [preterite] al presidente. (I met the president.) Conocía [imperfect] al presidente. (I knew the president.)
    • Tuvo [preterite] frío. (He got cold.) Tenía [imperfect] frío. (He was cold.)
    • Supe [preterite] escuchar. (I found out how to listen.) Sabía [imperfect] escuchar. (I knew how to listen.)

    Some of the sentences in this lesson could be stated in either tense with a slight change of meaning. For example, while "Escribía muchas cartas" would be the typical way of saying "I wrote many letters," as that is something that typically would take place over an unspecified period of time, one also might say "Escribí muchas cartas." But the meaning of the sentence, not readily translatable without a context to English, would change to indicate that the speaker was referring to a specific point in time.

    For example, if you were talking about writing many letters while you were on a particular trip, you might use the preterite form.