The Preterit and the Imperfect

Verbo:             Imperfecto:                             Pretérito:   

Conocer:          Conocía a Laura.                  Conocí a Laura.

                        I knew Laura.                          I met Laura.


Saber:              Sabía la verdad.                    Supe la verdad.

                        I knew the truth.                      I found out the truth.


Poder:              Podía terminar.                     Pude terminar.

                        I was able to finish.                 I managed to finish.


No poder:        No podía hablar.                   No pude hablar.

                        I was not able to speak.          I failed to speak.


Querer:            Quería salir.                           Quise salir.

                        I wanted to go out.                  I tried to go out.


No querer:       No quería dormir.                 No quise dormir.

                        I didn’t want to sleep.             I refused to sleep.


Tener:              Tenía una idea.                      Tuve una idea.

                        I had an idea.                          I got an idea.

It is common to have both imperfect and preterit conjugations together in the same sentence.

The imperfect can be used to give background information or to explain what was happening when a preterit action happened:


Yo cocinaba la cena cuando el teléfono sonó.

I was cooking dinner when the phone rang.


Cuando abrieron la puerta hacía mucho frío.

When they opened the door it (the weather) was very cold.


Él rompió el vaso mientras que estaban jugando.

He broke the glass while they were playing.


 Let’s remember the rules for the To be verbs, ser and estar, as we consider which to use in the imperfect and the preterit. Remember that the rules for imperfect and preterit as well as for ser and estar are still true, we just have to examine them so we can choose which one to use:

  Imperfecto: Pretérito:
Estar: Background info of a location or condition, when the exact time frame or number of times is not known or is not relevant. Location or condition with a specific time frame, it may no longer be true or is now irrelevant.
Ser: Background info describing an inherent characteristic, when the exact time frame or number of times is not known or is not relevant. Info describing an inherent characteristic in a specific time frame, no longer true or is now irrelevant

Some examples:


María estaba enojada.

María was angry.

(We don’t know or it doesn’t matter if she is still angry.)


María estuvo enojada.

María was angry.

(We know that María is not angry anymore.)


Ricardo era un buen estudiante.

Ricardo was a good student.

(We don’t know or it doesn’t matter if Ricardo is still a good student.)


Ricardo fue un buen estudiante.

Ricardo was a good student.

(We know Ricardo is either no longer a good student, or that he is no longer a student. He could have become a bad student, graduated, or even died.)


[Note that in English, the translations are the same and we may have to submit more information. In Spanish, we know that the event is over (María is no longer angry).]


As a general rule, you’re more likely to use the imperfect forms of ser and estar, so if you’re not sure, go with the imperfect. If you’re talking about something with a definite beginning, end or duration, choose the preterit.


Timelines and visualizations

When we know with any certainty when the action happened or the number of times it happened, we should be able to identify that point on a timeline:

We will use red arrows to indicate preterit events that occurred. For example:

El viernes, fuimos al cine.
(On Friday, we went to the movies)





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