Preterit and Imperfect Redux

It is no accident that the primary focus on grammar in the last unit of Acceso is a review of the preterit and imperfect. One of the most important things that have been empirically established by researchers who investigate second language acquisition is that elements of the second language linguistic system are acquired over time and in a piecemeal fashion. That is, learners do not first acquire the present tense completely and correctly and then the preterit tense and then the imperfect, etc. Instead, learners acquire bits and pieces of the language that they are exposed to and then this simple (and incomplete) system is modified and added to as the learner interacts more with the second language. Eventually, over time, the learner’s second language system evolves to approximate a native speaker’s system.

For an English speaker, acquiring the preterit and imperfect is one of the more challenging aspects of learning Spanish (which is probably not news to you). It involves using verb morphology to establish not only what took place in the past, but also how you are presenting or describing this information to your listener or reader. In English, we use a lot of words to do this, while in Spanish, verb endings convey much of this information.

In this section we are going to assume that you are pretty familiar with regular and irregular forms in the preterit and imperfect, but it will probably be helpful to review them before you begin to think again about how these two tenses work together when narrating the past.

There are a variety of approaches to describing how to use the preterit and imperfect. We offered an explanation in Unidad 2, which is reproduced below, but we also searched the Internet for other explanations that might connect with different learners and help add to your understanding. After you reread Acceso’s explanation below, there are a series of links to the very best sites with a summary of what you will find there. We encourage you to choose a couple to read (all are concise). Additionally, we include links to some very well-designed practice activities (with answers provided) so that you can test out your (new and improved) understanding before you work through the activities in MySpanishLab.

Funciones del IMPERFECTO

Son varias las funciones del imperfecto, pero siempre se refiere a un evento o una acción en el pasado. Se emplea al describir una acción, un estado o un evento en el pasado sin indicar el comienzo (the beginning) o el fin (the end) de la acción, el estado o el evento. Muchas veces las explicaciones gramaticales hacen una lista de funciones del imperfecto como la siguiente, pero nosotros vamos a entender POR QUÉ existe cada función.

1. Para indicar que una acción, un evento o un estado era habitual en el pasado 

Íbamos a la piscina todos los días en el verano.
We used to go to the pool every day in the summer.

Cuando yo era joven, pasaba mucho tiempo en la casa de mi abuela.
When I was young, I used to spend a lot of time at my Grandma’s house.

Los picnics siempre tomaban lugar en el parque.
The picnics always took place (or always used to take place) in the park.

Notice that the speaker does not indicate the beginning or the end of the action, event or state in any of these examples. The speaker does not emphasize when what he is describing started or when it ended. For example, in the second sentence (“Cuando era joven…”), the speaker does not indicate that she started being young or that she stopped being young. She is describing that when she was in the middle of being young she used to go to her grandma’s house.

2. Para expresar estados emocionales, mentales o físicos en el pasado.

El chico se sentía triste.
The boy was feeling sad.

Again there is no indication as to when he started feeling sad or when he stopped feeling sad. In this sentence we know that he was in the middle of being sad.

3. Para expresar que dos o más eventos simultáneos estaban en progreso en el pasado.

Yo leía y mi novio trabajaba en el jardín.
I was reading and my boyfriend was working in the garden.

The speaker does not indicate when these two simultaneous events/actions began or ended, just that they were taking place at the same time in the past.

4. Para proveer un trasfondo (background) en una narración.

Era un día muy bonito. Hacía mucho sol y soplaba un viento suave. Se escuchaban los gritos de los niños que jugaban en el parque cuando de repente...
It was a nice day. It was very sunny and a gentle breeze was blowing. One could hear the shouts of the children that were playing in the park when suddenly…

When you are setting the stage to narrate a story or event in the past it is common to describe what was in the middle of going on. It didn’t start being a nice day or stop being a nice day—it was in the middle of being a nice day. The sun was in the middle of shining and the breeze was in the middle of blowing. The shouts of the children in the park didn’t begin or end. But this type of scene setting makes us wonder what will to start to happen.

What verb tense do you think that you should use after “cuando de repente (when suddenly)...”?

Funciones del PRETÉRITO

Para indicar el comienzo o el fin de una acción, estado o evento en el pasado. No hay énfasis en la duración. Se enfoca en un momento específico en el pasado. En algunos casos es el comienzo (the beginning) y en otros es el fin (the end).

El verano pasado Katie fue a España.
Last summer Katie went to Spain.

Se quedó en un piso en Madrid.
She stayed at a flat in Madrid.

Estuvo allí por seis semanas.
She was there for six weeks.

Conoció a mucha gente e hizo muchos buenos amigos.
She met a lot of people and she made many good friends.

Viajó a Barcelona dos veces y a Sevilla tres veces.
She traveled to Barcelona two times and to Sevilla three times.

Estuvo contenta durante toda la estancia.
She was happy during the whole stay.

In all of these sentences the actions, events and states are viewed as being completed in the past and not in progress. Either a beginning or an end is being described.  For example, in the following sentence Katie has begun to know many people (conoció) and has finished with making lots of friends (hizo).

Conoció a mucha gente y hizo muchos buenos amigos.
She met a lot of people and she made many good friends.

It really doesn’t matter if what is being described is a beginning or an end in the past because both are expressed using the preterit in Spanish. What is important is that the action, event, or state (emotional or physical) is being described as completed.


Muchas descripciones gramaticales dicen que hay verbos que cambian significado según su uso en el pretérito o el imperfecto. En realidad el significado del verbo no cambia sino que su traducción al inglés cambia.


María conocía a los niños en el parque.
María knew the kids in the park.

María conoció a los chicos en el parque.
María met the kids in the park.

At first glance, it looks like the verb CONOCER (to know/be familiar with) changes meaning in the preterit. However, if you think of the imperfect as being “a middle” in the past (Maria was in the middle of knowing the kids in the park; she didn’t start knowing them and she didn’t stop knowing them) and the preterit of being a beginning in the past (María started knowing the kids in the park—the beginning of knowing) it becomes clear that we are just viewing “knowing” in different ways. 

This also works for the other verb in Spanish that means to know about—SABER:

María sabía la verdad.
María knew the truth.

María supo la verdad.
María discovered the truth.

In the first sentence, there is no emphasis on when María began to know the truth. She was in the middle of knowing it and the imperfect is used to signal this.  In English we have a special verb for the beginning of knowing something (DISCOVER or TO FIND OUT), but in Spanish you only have to use SABER in the preterit to indicate that it was the beginning of knowing something in the past, which is pretty cool even if you don’t think that Spanish grammar is very interesting.

Other Approaches

What you do you think? Does the Acceso explanation make more sense now than it did last semester? We hope so! All the same, we encourage you to check out the following links to the other explanations that we mentioned above.

  1. This site, created by Juan Manuel Soto and hosted by Indiana University-Bloomington, provides a 2-page explanation that is very similar in approach to our own. It is a very sophisticated description written in English that distinguishes itself by providing a graphic representation of the preterit and imperfect and many excellent examples.
  2. This site from Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne (apparently lots of people are learning Spanish in Indiana!) offers a different approach to presenting aspectual differences that is very worthwhile to consider. It also has two traditional, fill-in-the-blank practice activities (links at the bottom, left-hand side of the explanation page) with answers (links at the bottom of each practice activity page).

Simple 2-step approach to the preterit and imperfect

This video provides a unique, “simple 2-step” approach to deciding between the preterit and imperfect. It really doesn’t provide a very comprehensive explanation, but we had never heard of this trick, and it really might be useful for some learners. Start at minute 3:40 if you want to skip a review of forms.


This series of activities, created by Barbara Kuzcan Nelson at Colby College, is really worthwhile. The activities ask you to choose between the preterit and imperfect (both forms are provided) and then provide excellent feedback. Definitely worth a look!

This activity, also created by Barbara Kuzcan Nelson at Colby College, offers an interesting cultural context and sound files to reinforce pronunciation and comprehension. It might be especially helpful to you if you retain information better by listening to it.

The following site, hosted by Ursinus College, provides a brief review and then a fill-in-the-blank paragraph for practice. The activity is unique in that it allows you to check each answer as you go rather than having to wait until you have done the whole thing.

The required activities in MySpanishLab offer opportunities to read and hear the preterit and imperfect in context before you are asked to produce them yourself.

Sudamérica III