Lesson Topics

Preterite vs Imperfect: Part IV

Notes:

  1. The written lesson is below.
  2. Links to quizzes, tests, etc. are to the left.

Here are all three regular preterite verb forms together:

hablar comer vivir
hablé comí viví
hablaste comiste viviste
habló comió vivió
hablamos comimos vivimos
hablasteis comisteis vivisteis
hablaron comieron vivieron

Note: The nosotros forms for -ar and -ir verbs are the same in both preterite and present tenses: hablamos, vivimos.

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Here are all three regular imperfect verb forms together:

hablar comer vivir
hablaba comía vivía
hablabas comías vivías
hablaba comía vivía
hablábamos comíamos vivíamos
hablabais comíais vivíais
hablaban comían vivían

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Generally speaking, the preterite is used for actions in the past that are seen as completed, while the imperfect tense is used for past actions that did not have a definite beginning or a definite end.

Juan habló dos horas.
Juan spoke two hours.
(action completed)

Las chicas hablaban en inglés.
The girls used to speak in English.
(no definite beginning or end)

Another way to view this is that the preterite tells us specifically when an action took place, while the imperfect tells us in general when an action took place.

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The preterite is used in the following situations:

  • For actions that can be viewed as single events
  • For actions that were repeated a specific number of times
  • For actions that occurred during a specific period of time
  • For actions that were part of a chain of events
  • To state the beginning or the end of an action

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The imperfect is used in the following situations:

  • For actions that were repeated habitually
  • For actions that "set the stage" for another past action
  • For telling time
  • For stating one's age
  • For mental states (usually)
  • For physical sensations (usually)
  • To describe the characteristics of people, things or conditions

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Ser, ir, dar and hacer are irregular in the preterite:

ser ir dar hacer
fui fui di hice
fuiste fuiste diste hiciste
fue fue dio hizo
fuimos fuimos dimos hicimos
fuisteis fuisteis disteis hicisteis
fueron fueron dieron hicieron

Note: This is not a typo; ser and ir do have identical conjugations in the preterite!

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There are only three irregular verbs in the imperfect:

ser ir ver
era iba veía
eras ibas veías
era iba veía
éramos íbamos veíamos
erais ibais veíais
eran iban veían

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Some words and phrases indicate specific time frames, and therefore signal the use of the preterite.

ayer (yesterday)
anteayer (the day before yesterday)
anoche (last night)
desde el primer momento (from the first moment)
durante dos siglos (for two centuries)
el otro día (the other day)
en ese momento (at that moment)
entonces (then)
esta mañana (this morning)
esta tarde (this afternoon)
la semana pasada (last week)
el mes pasado (last month)
el año pasado (last year)
hace dos días, años (two days, years ago)
ayer por la mañana (yesterday morning)
ayer por la tarde (yesterday afternoon)

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Other words and phrases indicate repetitive, vague or non-specific time frames, and therefore signal the use of the imperfect.

a menudo (often)
a veces (sometimes)
cada día (every day)
cada semana (every week)
cada mes (every month)
cada año (every year)
con frecuencia (frequently)
de vez en cuando (from time to time)
en aquella época (at that time)
frecuentemente (frequently)
generalmente (usually)
muchas veces (many times)
mucho (a lot)
nunca (never)
por un rato (for awhile)
siempre (always)
tantas veces (so many times)
todas las semanas (every week)
todos los días (every day)
todo el tiempo (all the time)
varias veces (several times)

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-ar and -er verbs that change their stem in the present tense do not change in the preterite. They are conjugated just like other regular preterite verbs.

Present Preterite
cerrar cerrar
cierro cerré
cierras cerraste
cierra cerró
cerramos cerramos
cerráis cerrasteis
cierran cerraron

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-ir verbs that change their stem in the present tense do change in the preterite, but in a different way. They change e:i and o:u in the third person, singular and plural.

Present Preterite
preferir preferir
prefiero preferí
prefieres preferiste
prefiere prefirió
preferimos preferimos
preferís preferisteis
prefieren prefirieron
Present Preterite
dormir dormir
duermo dormí
duermes dormiste
duerme durmió
dormimos dormimos
dormís dormisteis
duermen durmieron

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There are a number of orthographic changing verbs in the preterite:

  • Verbs that end in -gar change g to gu
  • Verbs that end in -car change c to qu
  • Verbs that end in -zar change z to c
  • Verbs that end in -aer, -eer, -oír, -oer, and uir change ió to yó and ieron to yeron

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Here are three more verbs that are irregular in the preterite:

decir traer ver
dije traje vi
dijiste trajiste viste
dijo trajo vio
dijimos trajimos vimos
dijisteis trajisteis visteis
dijeron trajeron vieron

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Verbs that end in -ucir are irregular and conjugated as follows:

producir

produje
produjiste
produjo
produjimos
produjisteis
produjeron

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There are a number of verbs that are irregular in the preterite that follow a particular pattern. The pattern is that while their stems change, they all take the following endings:

-e
-iste
-o
-imos
-isteis
-ieron

Here are the verbs, along with their corresponding stem changes:

Infinitive Stem Change
andar anduv-
estar estuv-
tener tuv-
caber cup-
haber hub-
poder pud-
poner pus-
saber sup-
hacer hic-
querer quis-
venir vin-

Exception: hacer (el/ella/usted hizo)

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Some verbs actually change meaning, depending upon whether they are used in the preterite or the imperfect. This is not surprising, since the difference in meaning can be traced back to the different way in which these two past tenses are used.

conocer

Conocí a Juan hace cinco años.

I met Juan five years ago.
(completed action)

En aquella época conocíamos muy bien la ciudad.

At that time we knew the city very well.
(no definite beginning or end)

querer

María quiso comprar la casa.

Maria tried to buy the house.
(completed action)

Juan quería comprar la casa.

Juan wanted to buy the house.
(no definite beginning or end)

no querer

María no quiso comprar la casa.

Maria refused to buy the house.
(completed action)

Juan no quería comprar la casa.

Juan did not want to buy the house.
(no definite beginning or end)

saber

María lo supo ayer.

Maria found out yesterday.
(completed action)

Juan sabía que María venía.

Juan knew that Maria was coming.
(no definite beginning or end)

poder

María pudo levantar la mesa.

Maria succeeded in lifting the table.
(completed action)

Juan podía participar en la manifestación.

Juan was able to participate in the demonstration.
(no definite beginning or end)

tener

María tuvo una carta de su mamá.

Maria received a letter from her mom.
(completed action)

Juan tenía un coche nuevo.

Juan used to have a new car.
(no definite beginning or end)

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