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Using the imperfect vs the preterite in Spanish (time markers)

The imperfect or the preterite tense in Spanish?

In Spanish we can use both El Pretérito Imperfecto and El Pretérito Indefinido to talk about past actions. Which tense to use can be tricky to understand for English speakers because we can use the same English translation for both tenses. 

El Pretérito Imperfecto tells us in general when an action took place, whereas El Pretérito Indefinido tells us specifically when an action took place. 

Some words and phrases indicate specific timeframes, and therefore signal the use of either El Pretérito Imperfecto or El Pretérito Indefinido.

Examples using El Pretérito Imperfecto in Spanish

Siempre iba a Galicia con mis padres.I always used to go to Galicia with my parents.

Todos los días estudiabas para el examen.You studied for the exam every day. [you = tú]

Cada mes visitábamos a nuestra abuela.Every month we visited our grandmother.

¡Reían juntos tantas veces!They laughed together so many times!

In the examples from above, the time markers tend to trigger El Pretérito Imperfecto because they generally refer to an ongoing length of time or express frequency with no definite beginning and end.

Here is a list of Time markers used with El Imperfecto in Spanish.

 

Examples using El Pretérito Indefinido in Spanish

Ayer Mario comió pescado.Yesterday Mario ate fish.

El año pasado fuimos a Italia.Last year we went to Italy.

Nos gustamos desde el primer momento.We liked each other from the first moment.

Ayer por la mañana hice mi trabajo.Yesterday morning I did my work.

El otro día ustedes no llegaron a tiempo.The other day you didn't arrive on time.

In the examples from above, the time markers tend to trigger El Pretérito Indefinido because they generally refer to a more limited and specific timeframe in the past, with a beginning and an end.

Here is a list of Time markers used with El Pretérito Indefinido in Spanish.

See also Using the imperfect vs the preterite in Spanish (general use).

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Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

Siempre iba a Galicia con mis padres.I always used to go to Galicia with my parents.
El año pasado fuimos a Italia.Last year we went to Italy.
Cada mes visitábamos a nuestra abuela.Every month we visited our grandmother.
¡Reían juntos tantas veces!They laughed together so many times!
Nos gustamos desde el primer momento.We liked each other from the first moment.
Ayer por la mañana hice mi trabajo.Yesterday morning I did my work.
Ayer Mario comió pescado.Yesterday Mario ate fish.
El otro día ustedes no llegaron a tiempo.The other day you didn't arrive on time.
Todos los días estudiabas para el examen.You studied for the exam every day. [you = tú]
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