Preterit vs. imperfect
The preterit and imperfect are both simple (i.e., non-compound or one-word) tenses indicating a past-time action or state. Sometimes a given English past-tense sentence may be translated into Spanish with either the preterit or the imperfect, but these two tenses have different meanings or implications.
The imperfect tense may be considered the present tense backshifted into past time. It is generally used to indicate:
Mirábamos las mariposas. We were watching the butterflies. Mientras ella abría la puerta... As she opened (was opening) the door...
Two frequent examples of states in past time which are normally viewed as in progress and thus given in the imperfect:
Mi madre era muy baja, tenía 40 años, y trabajaba sin fin. My mother was very short, was 40 years old, and worked constantly. Eran las diez de la noche, había una tormenta terrible, y teníamos miedo. It was 10:00 at night, there was a terrible storm out, and we were afraid.
No lo sabía. I didn't know it/that. Creíamos que estábamos perdidos. We thought we were lost.
En México, yo caminaba por la playa y las gaviotas hacían circulos sin terminar en el cielo. In Mexico, I used to walk along the beach and the seagulls would make endless circles in the sky.
* * * *
The preterit tends to freeze an action or state in past time, or to view it as over and done with. It is used to:
¿Quién rompió el juguete? Who broke the toy? Elena bailó toda la noche. Elena danced all night. Los Gómez vivieron allí seis años. Mr. and Mrs. Gómez lived there six years.
Vine, vi, vencí. I came, I saw, I conquered. Trabajó un poco, fue a McDonalds a comer, y luego volvió a casa. She worked a bit, went to McDonalds to eat, and then returned home.
Se puso enojado. He got (became) angry. El cielo se anubló. The sky clouded up.
Note, however, that it is possible to view start-up and ending actions as in progress, in which case the imperfect would be used [Se ponía enojado. He was getting angry. / El cielo se anublaba. The sky was clouding up.].
Mientras los demás dormían, María se escapó. While the rest were sleeping, María escaped.
|[Practice 1] [Practice 2]||
|Contact: Fred F. Jehle|
|Indiana University - Purdue University Ft. Wayne|
|Fort Wayne, IN 46805-1499 USA||