Spanish Preterit vs Imperfect


The preterit is used when referring to actions that were completed in the past. The imperfect is used to denote an action that took place in the past, but the specifics of the timeframe are left up in the air.

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We have now learned about both past tenses and how they are used in Spanish: the Preterit Tense and the Imperfect Tense. Now, we’re going to learn how to choose when to use each tense.

As we have discussed, the Preterit Tense is used to talk about what we will refer to simply as a “one and done” action in the past tense. The Imperfect Tense is used to talk about what we will refer to simply as “over and over” actions done in the past tense.

There are key words that you can look and listen for that will tell you whether to use the Preterit or Imperfect. Let’s check them out… 

Key Words

Ayer (yesterday)A veces (sometimes)
Anoche (last night)Cada día/semana/mes (every day/week/month)
Anteayer (the day before yesterday)De vez en cuando (from time to time)
Esta mañana/tarde (this morning/afternoon)Frecuentemente (frequently)
Hace un día/mes (one day/month ago)Generalmente (generally)
La semana pasada (last week)Nunca (never)
El mes pasado (last month)Siempre (always)
El año pasado (last year)Todo el tiempo (all the time) Todos los días (every day)

Now that you know these words and phrases, choosing between Preterit and Imperfect will be a breeze! 

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:

Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

I can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings. I can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form.
Spoken Production:
I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and people I know.
Spoken Interaction:
I can interact in a simple way provided the other person is prepared to repeat or rephrase things at a slower rate of speech and help me formulate what I’m trying to say. I can ask and answer simple questions in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics.
I can understand familiar names, words and very simple sentences, for example on notices and posters or in catalogues.
I can recognize familiar words and very basic phrases concerning myself, my family and immediate concrete surroundings when people speak slowly and clearly.