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4.6: Sección 1 - Gramática - El pretérito y el imperfecto- usos y narración

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    El pretérito y el imperfecto

    In this section, we will delve even further into how to use the Preterit and the Imperfect together. Remember: these two tenses are not interchangeable, and the decision to use one versus the other depends on the context that is given and the point of view of the speaker. Let’s review the expressions used in each tense and the situations in which each tense is used.

    Uses of each tense

    Uses of the Preterite Uses of the Imperfect
    • An action that happened at one specific time in the past


    Anoche cenamos en un restaurante colombiano.

    (Last night we had dinner at a Colombian restaurant)

    • A habitual or a recurring action of the past.


    De niña, jugaba con los niños del vecindario.

    (As a child, I used to play with the kids from the neighborhood)

    • An action that took place at a specific moment in time and is now over.


    La semana pasada, los estudiantes entregaron sus ensayos.

    (Last week the students turned in their essays)

    • Two or more simultaneous events in progress in the past (with no specific beginning nor end).


    escuchabas la música mientras hacías tu tarea.

    (You were listening to the music while doing your homework)

    • A series of actions that happened right after another.


    A las seis de la mañana, me levanté, me duché y me vestí enseguida. Después me maquillé y salí de casa.

    (At six in the morning, I got up, showered, and dressed up right away. Then I put on makeup and left home)

    • Background information of a story, description of time, location, weather, and physical and emotional description of a person, character, and/or situation.


    Era la medianoche. Llovía fuertemente y Mariela estaba sola en su casa. Mariela era una niña de seis años. Ella era valiente y no tenía miedo de nada.

    (It was midnight. It was raining heavily, and Mariela was alone in her house. Mariela was a six-year-old little girl. She was brave and was not afraid of anything)

    Common expressions

    Even though we rely on context to decide when to use each tense, certain expressions facilitate that decision.

    Expressions used with the Preterit Expressions used with the Imperfect
    • anoche
    • ayer
    • anteayer
    • pasado, pasada (la semana pasada, el mes pasado, el año pasado, el verano pasado)
    • Todos los, todas las (todos los días, años, todas las semanas)
    • Cada (día, semana, mes, año, primavera, verano, otoño, invierno)
    • Siempre
    • Frecuentemente, a menudo, con frecuencia
    • Hace + time period (hace dos días, hace tres meses, hace diez años)
    • Por + time period (por dos años, un mes, dos semanas, una hora)
    • De niño, de niña
    • De joven
    • Cuando era (niño, niña, joven)
    • De repente
    • Mientras

    Special note about Saber y Conocer

    Saber and Conocer have different meanings when used in the Preterit or the Imperfect. Look at the following examples:



    - María sabía la verdad. (Imperfect)

    María knew the truth.

    - María supo la verdad. (Preterit)

    María discovered the truth.



    - María conocía los niños en el parque. (Imperfect)

    María knew the kids in the park.

    - María conoció a los chicos en el parque. (Preterit)

    María met the kids in the park.

    Using the Preterit and the Imperfect together

    Depending on how you combine the preterit and the imperfect together, you are expressing a different meaning because the tenses themselves have different relations to time. In English, these distinctions have to be expressed by means of adverbs or prepositional phrases, but in Spanish, the choice of preterit or imperfect expresses not just that the action happened in the past, but also *how* the action happened.

    Remember: when you want to convey that two actions were ongoing at the same time in the past, you use the imperfect tense. You will often see the words “mientras” (while) and “y” to show that these actions were in progress simultaneously.


    • Yo jugaba al fútbol y mi hermana jugaba al baloncesto. (I used to play soccer and my sister used to play basketball)
    • Los deportistas entrenaban mientras los entrenadores planeaban el próximo partido. (The athletes were training while the coaches were planning the next game)

    2. A combination of preterit with preterit:

    Remember: when you want to convey a series of completed actions in the past, you use the preterit tense for each of them. It is very important that the events are stated in the order of what happened first.


    • Me levanté a las 8 de la mañana, desayuné y luego salí de casa para entrenar. (I woke up at 8 in the morning, ate breakfast, and then I left home to go train)
    • Mi entrenadora fue conmigo al gimnasio, me explicó la rutina y después evaluó mi desempeño. (My coach went with me to the gym, explained to me the routine, and then assessed my performance)

    3. A combination of imperfect with preterit:

    When you want to show that an action was in progress when another action began, you use the imperfect for the continuous action and the preterit for the interrupting action.


    • Los fanáticos silbaban cuando el jugador marcó un gol. (The fans were whistling/booing (at the players) when the player scored a goal)
    • El jugador estaba celebrando hasta que (until) el árbitro anuló el gol. (The player was celebrating until the referee annuled the goal)



    By clicking on the icon to your left, you can hear a video lesson about the preterit and the imperfect.

    This page adapted from: 8.3: El pretérito y el imperfecto by M. Barrio De Mendoza, K Gutiérrez, H.Ho, C. Lin, & A Stere Lugo ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0; Preterit and Imperfect Redux by Acceso, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0; and 9.11: Pretérito e Imperfecto II by Erica Brown, Alejandra Escudero, María Cristina Montoya, & Elizabeth Small SUNY Oneonta via OER SUNY, licensed under CC BY 4.0. (Some wording modified from originals and new examples were added)

    ¡A practicar!

    Actividad 1

    Sandra juega para un equipo profesional de fútbol de su país. Completa la siguiente historia con la forma correcta del Pretérito o del Imperfecto de los verbos en paréntesis.


    photo by Charles "Andy" Lee (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    La semana pasada, Sandra 1. _________________ (participar)en un campeonato de fútbol. 2. _________________ (Hacer) buen tiempo y los hinchas estaban muy animados. Al final del partido nadie (no one) 3. _________________ (marcar) gol, así que los dos equipos 4. _________________ (tener) que jugar la prórroga (extra time). El marcador (scoreboard) 5. _________________ (seguir) cero a cero cuando, de repente, Sandra 6. _________________ (marcar) un gol en el minuto 100. En ese momento, todas las personas en el estadio 7. ____ _______________ (levantarse) de sus asientos para celebrar. Sandra 8. _________________ (estar) muy contenta porque le 9. _________________ (dar) la victoria a su equipo.


    1. participó

    2. Hacía

    3. marcó

    4. tuvieron

    5. seguía

    6. marcó

    7. se levantaron

    8. estaba

    9. dio

    Actividad 2

    Paso 1. Describe tu primer día de clases en tu universidad. ¿Qué ocurrió? ¿Qué actividades hiciste? ¿A qué clases fuiste? ¿Cómo eran tus profesores? ¿Qué tiempo hacía? Etc.

    Paso 2. Comparte tu descripción con un/a compañero/a. ¿Tuvieron experiencias similares? Explica.

    Actividad 3

    Paso 1. En parejas, observen la siguiente foto y describan todo lo que ocurrió usando el pretérito e imperfecto.


    Soccer action by Michael Newman (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Paso 2. Escojan 5 de las oraciones de Paso 1 y expliquen por qué usaron el pretérito o el imperfecto.


    "Era un día nublado y hacía frío".

    Explicación: Se usa el imperfecto - Background information and description of weather

    Paso 3. Comparen su historia con la historia de otro grupo. ¿Tuvieron similitudes? ¿Usaron el pretérito y el imperfecto en el mismo contexto?

    4.6: Sección 1 - Gramática - El pretérito y el imperfecto- usos y narración is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by E. Aldea, A. Anderson, K. Armstrong, J.Liu, and A. Stachura.