Using the imperfect vs the preterite in Spanish (general use)

To talk about actions that took place in the past we can use both El Pretérito Imperfecto and El Pretérito Indefinido

Which one you need to use depends on whether or not you consider an action in the past to have a beginning and an end. If you do, you should use El Pretérito Indefinido, if you don't then you should use El Pretérito Imperfecto. This can be tricky for English speakers to understand because both tenses are usually translated the same in English.

Let's have a look at these examples:

La profesora abría la puerta.The teacher opened the door.

La profesora abrió la puerta.The teacher opened the door.

In the first example where El Pretérito Imperfecto is used (abría) we can visualize a door in the process of being opened however in the second example where El Pretérito Indefinido is used, we can see a completely open door.

So the main difference between using these two tenses is:

El Pretérito Imperfecto for actions in the past with no clear beginning and end.

El Pretérito Indefinido for actions in the past with a clear beginning and end.

Have a look at other examples in both tenses:

Susana trabajaba muy duro.Susana worked very hard.

Susana trabajó muy duro.Susana worked very hard.

Trabajaba = we see Susana working.

Trabajó = we see Susana when she has finished her work.

Los chicos corrían por los pasillos haciendo ruido.The boys ran along the corridors making noise.

Los chicos corrieron por los pasillos haciendo ruido.The boys ran along the corridors making noise.

Corrían = we see the boys running.

Corrieron = we see the empty corridors after the boys ran.

Antonio comía un bocadillo a mediodía.Antonio had a sandwich at midday.

Antonio comió un bocadillo a mediodía.Antonio had a sandwich at midday.

Comía = we see Antonio eating his sandwich.

Comió = we imagine Antonio throwing his sandwich wrapper away.

See also Using the imperfect vs the preterite in Spanish (time markers).

 

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Examples and resources

Los chicos corrieron por los pasillos haciendo ruido.The boys ran along the corridors making noise.
La profesora abría la puerta.The teacher opened the door.
La profesora abrió la puerta.The teacher opened the door.
Antonio comía un bocadillo a mediodía.Antonio had a sandwich at midday.
Antonio comió un bocadillo a mediodía.Antonio had a sandwich at midday.
Susana trabajaba muy duro.Susana worked very hard.
Susana trabajó muy duro.Susana worked very hard.
Los chicos corrían por los pasillos haciendo ruido.The boys ran along the corridors making noise.
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