Preterit vs. Imperfect Remember that there are two past tenses in Spanish: the preterite and the imperfect



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Preterit vs. Imperfect

Remember that there are two past tenses in Spanish: the preterite and the imperfect.

You can think of the preterite as the snapshot of an event, for example, Vimos un tablao (We saw a flamenco show) and Fui al Parque María Luisa (I went to the María Luisa Park).

The imperfect describes what was going on at the time, and fills in the background of the story like this:Estábamos muy cansados, pero fuimos a ver un tablao (We were very tired, but we went to see a flamenco show) and Era una tarde muy bonita y fui al Parque María Luisa (It was a beautiful afternoon, and I went to the María Luisa Park).

Think of the two parts of a postcard: the image, and the note on the back. The photo is like a preterite statement; it captures a moment or illustrates a destination. The note you write on the back, however, probably includes preterite and imperfect to say where you went, what you did, and what it was like. Read what Rosa wrote on the back of a postcard and jot down which verbs are in the preterite and which are in the imperfect.

Anoche fui a un tablao con Mariana. Empezó muy tarde, pero ¡valió la pena! Las mujeres llevaban vestidos muy bonitos y los hombres eran muy elegantes. Mientras uno tocaba la guitarra y otro cantaba, las mujeres bailaban. ¡Yo quería bailar también, pero no se pudo! Volvimos al hotel a las cuatro de la mañana y no nos levantamos hasta las once.

Did you write down the preterite verbs fui, empezó, valió, pudo, volvimos, and nos levantamos and the imperfect verbs llevaban, eran, tocaba, cantaba, and bailaban? If so, you're right on track. Let's look at each and talk a bit about why Rosa used preterite or imperfect to describe each aspect of her outing.

Preterite examples:

 fui: “I went” describes the outing as a completed past action.

 empezó: “It began” describes a precise moment in the past — the instant that the show started. Remember that beginnings and endings in the past are most commonly expressed in the preterite.

 valió: “It was worth it” refers to the outing as a completed past event.

 no se pudo: “It couldn't be done” describes the fact that Rosa had no opportunity to dance during the show. It wasn't allowed, for example.

 volvimos: “We returned” describes the completed action of returning to the hotel.

 nos levantamos: “We got up” describes the completed action of getting up.

Imperfect examples:

 llevaban: “They were wearing” describes a state of being in the past.

 eran: “They were” describes a state of being in the past.

 tocaba: “One was playing” describes an ongoing action in the past or actions occurring simultaneously in the past.

 cantaba: “One was singing” describes an ongoing activity in the past or actions occurring simultaneously in the past.

 bailaban: “They danced” describes an ongoing activity in the past or actions occurring simultaneously in the past.



Preterite Versus Imperfect

It's not always easy to decide whether to use the preterite or imperfect in a narration. In fact, sometimes you can use either one, and your choice will change the meaning slightly or dramatically. You've already learned that some verbs, like querer, conocer, and saber, significantly change their meaning from one tense to another. In other cases, the difference is more subtle. Look at the following examples and explanations:

 Fue un viaje maravilloso. The use of the preterite indicates that the speaker conceives of the trip as being over and done with.

 Era un viaje maravilloso. The use of the imperfect, in a sense, takes the speaker back to the trip to remember how marvelous it was while it was going on.

 Juan se preocupó cuando yo no encontré mi cartera. The preterite is used to relate two specific cause and effect events: “I couldn't find my wallet” (at a particular moment) and “Juan got worried” (a reaction to the lost wallet, a change of emotional state).

 Juan se preocupaba cuando yo no encontraba mi cartera. The use of the imperfect highlights the repeated nature of these events: “Every time I couldn't find my wallet, Juan would get worried.”

 Cuando los músicos empezaban a tocar el público todavía charlaba. The imperfect describes two ongoing events in the past: “When the musicians were beginning to play (tuning their instruments, trying a few chords) the audience was still chatting.”

 Cuando los músicos empezaron a tocar el público todavía charlaba. The preterite in the first phrase describes the moment that the music began, while the imperfect in the second phrase highlights the background conversation of the audience, still chatting even though the music had begun.


Antes yo no (1. sabía/supe) nada sobre Colombia, pero el diciembre pasado (2. viajaba/viajé) a Bogotá y (3. aprendía/aprendí) mucho sobre (about) el país. Durante mi visita, (4. conocía/conocí) varios centros comerciales, discotecas, universidades y parques inmensos. También (5. podía/pude) ver las obras originales de Fernando Botero, el famoso pintor de figuras voluminosas. El último día, un guía turístico me (6. decía/dijo) que yo no (7. podía/pude) irme sin ver el Museo del Oro, e inmediatamente (8. decidía/decidí) visitarlo. Afortunadamente, esa misma (that same) tarde (9. podíamos/pudimos) ir al museo. Allí (10. había/hubo) impresionantes piezas de oro elaboradas por la cultura Muisca, los indígenas de esa región. También (11. sabíamos/supimos) que los muiscas nunca (12. querían/quisieron) revelar el secreto de El Dorado –la legendaria ciudad de oro– a los españoles, quienes no (13. podían/pudieron) encontrarlo nunca.

Paradójicamente, los colombianos (14. daban/dieron) el nombre de "Eldorado" al aeropuerto internacional de la capital. Gracias a este viaje, (15. sabía/supe) que Bogotá es una ciudad muy moderna con una rica historia.



(1) I didn't know anything about Colombia before, but last December (2) I traveled to Bogotá and (3) learned a lot about the country. During my visit, (4) I became familiar with several shopping malls (for the first time), dancing clubs, universities, and huge parks. I also (5) managed to see Fernando Botero's originial works –the famous artist with the voluminous shapes–. On our last day, a tourist guide (6) told me that (7) I could not leave without seeing the Gold Museum, and immediately (8) I decided to visit it. Fortunately, that same afternoon (9) we managed to go to the museum. (10) There were impressing gold pieces elaborated by the Muisca culture, the indigenous group from that region. We also (11) learned that the Muiscas always (12) refused to reveal the secret of El Dorado –the legendary golden city– to the Spaniards, who (13) failed to find it at all. Paradoxically, Colombians (14) gave the capital's international airport the name of "Eldorado". Thanks to this trip, I (15) learned that Bogotá is a very modern city with a rich history.


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