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.

After you reread Acceso’s explanation below, there are a series of links to some very well-designed practice activities (with answers provided) so that you can test out your understanding before you work through the activities in Acceso Hub: Forma y Función (LingroLearning).

Uses of the Imperfect

The imperfect tense is used to describe an event or action in the past without indicating the start or end point of the action, event or state.

  1. To describe habitual actions in the past:
    --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 she when she was in the middle of being young she used to go to her grandma’s house.

  2. To express emotional, mental or physical states in the past:
    --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. To describe two or more simultaneous events in progress in the past:
    --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. To provide background information in a story:
    --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 start to happen.

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

Uses of the Preterite

To indicate the beginning or end of an action, even or state in the past. There is no emphasis on the duration, but rather on a specific moment in time.

--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 y 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 complete.

Preterite vs. Imperfect

Some grammatical descriptions state that there are some verbs that change meaning depending on their use in the preterite or imperfect. In reality, the meaning of the verb does not change, but rather the English translation changes.

  1. The verb conocer (to know/be familiar with):
    --María conocía 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.

  2. 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.


The required activities in Acceso Hub: Forma y Función (LingroLearning) offer opportunities to read and hear the preterit and imperfect in context before you are asked to produce them yourself.