English has one simple past tense, but Spanish has two: the preterite and the imperfect.
The two past tenses refer in different ways to what has happened. They are called the simple past tenses to distinguish them from verb forms that use an auxiliary verb, such as "has left" in English and ha salido in Spanish. In other words, the simple past tenses use a single word.
Although the English past in a sentence such as "he ate" can be conveyed in Spanish using either the preterite (comió) or the imperfect indicative (comía), the two tenses don't mean the same thing. In general, the preterite is used when speaking of completed action, indicating the verb's action had a clear end. The imperfect is used to refer to an action that doesn't have a specific ending.
Here are some more specific uses to clarify the differences between the two tenses. Note that the imperfect is frequently translated in ways other than the English simple past.
Key Takeaways: Spanish Simple Past Tense
- Although English has one simple (single-word) past tense, Spanish has two, and they usually aren't interchangeable.
- In general, the preterite tense is used for actions that took place over a clear period of time.
- In general, the imperfect tense is used for actions whose conclusion isn't irrelevant or unspecified.
Uses for the Preterite Tense
The preterite (often spelled "preterite) is used to tell of something that happened once:
- Fuimos ayer a la playa. (We went to the beach yesterday.)
- Escribí la carta. (I wrote the letter.)
- Compramos un coche azul. (We bought a blue car.)
It can also tell of something that happened more than once but with a specific end:
- Fui ayer seis veces a la tienda. (I went to the store six times yesterday.)
- Leyó el libro cinco veces. (He read the book five times.)
Finally, the preterite can indicate the beginning or end of a process:
- Tuvo frío. (He got cold.)
- El huracán se terminó a las ocho. (The hurricane was finished at 8.)
Uses for the Imperfect Tense
On the other hand, the imperfect tells of past habitual or repeated actions where there's no definite end specified. It is often translated as "used to + verb," "would + verb," or "was/were + verb + -ing."
- Iba a la tienda. (I used to go to the store. Note that it is possible that the verb's action continues today.)
- Leíamos los libros. (We would read the books. The English "would" is sometimes used for the imperfect, as it is here, but it also is sometimes used for the conditional tense.)
- Lavaban las manos. (They were washing their hands.)
- Escribía muchas cartas. (I wrote many letters.)
The imperfect can describe a condition, mental state, or state of being from the past:
- Había una casa aquí. (There used to be a house here.)
- Era estúpido. (He was stupid.)
- No te conocía. (I didn't know you.)
- Quería estar feliz. (He wanted to be happy.)
- Tenía frío. (He was cold.)
To describe an action that occurred over an unspecified time:
- Se pondría la ropa de deporte. (She was putting on her athletic clothing.)
- Cuando José tocaba el piano, María comía. (While José was playing the piano, María was eating.)
To indicate time or age in the past:
- Era la una de la tarde. (It was 1 p.m.)
- Tenía 43 años. (She was 43 years old.)
Other Distinctions Between the Past Tenses
The imperfect is frequently used to provide the background for an event that is described using the preterite.
- Era imperfect la una de la tarde cuando comió preterite. (It was 1 p.m. when she ate.)
- Yo escribía imperfect cuando llegaste preterite. (I was writing when you arrived.)
Because of the way the two tenses are used, some verbs can be translated using differing words in English depending on the tense in Spanish. This is especially true when the preterite is used to indicate the beginning or end of a process.
- Conocí preterite al presidente. (I met the president.) Conocía imperfect al presidente. (I knew the president.)
- Tuvo preterite frío. (He got cold.) Tenía imperfect frío. (He was cold.)
- Supe preterite escuchar. (I found out how to listen.) Sabía imperfect escuchar. (I knew how to listen.)
Some of the sentences in this lesson could be stated in either tense with a slight change of meaning. For example, while "Escribía muchas cartas" would be the typical way of saying "I wrote many letters," as that is something that typically would take place over an unspecified period of time, one also might say "Escribí muchas cartas." But the meaning of the sentence, not readily translatable without a context to English, would change to indicate that the speaker was referring to a specific point in time. For example, if you were talking about writing many letters while you were on a particular trip, you might use the preterite form.