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Preterite and Imperfect Tenses in Spanish

In Spanish, both the preterite and imperfect tenses may be used to talk about the past.  Which one is used depends on the meaning the speaker wishes to convey.  For a review of the preterite and imperfect conjugations click the following links.

Preterite
Imperfect

Uses of the preterite tense in Spanish

The acronym SAFE can be used to help determine when the preterite should be used.

S
specific – certain time or number of timesElla llamó tres veces. She called three times.
A
action – interrupts on going actions.Estaba leyendo cuando sonó el teléfono. I was reading when the phone rang.
F
focused – definite beginning and/or end to an actionEl concierto empezó a las 7 en punto. The concert began at 7 on the dot.Terminaron el examen temprano. They finished the test early.
E
enclosed – limited or completed time frameVivieron en Europa por 15 años. They lived in Europe for 15 years.

 

The acronym SPICY can be used also…

S
Specific – certain time or number of timesElla llamó tres veces. She called three times.
P
Past action that occurred one timeNosotros fuimos al concierto. We went to the concert
I
Interrupting actionsEstaba leyendo cuando sonó el teléfono. I was reading when the phone rang.
C
Completed time frameVivieron en Europa por 15 años. They lived in Europe for 15 years.
Y
Yesterday (and other past tense trigger words)Ayer desayuné huevos. Yesterday I ate eggs for breakfast.

 

Uses of the imperfect

The acronym DUWIT can be used to help determine when the imperfect should be used.

D
description – describe people or events in the past with no specific beginning or endHacía mucho viento y llovía. It was very windy and raining.Cuando era niña, era muy tímida. When i was young I was very shy.
U
used to – habitual actions in the pastViajábamos a la playa cada verano. We used to travel to the beach every summer.Tocaba el piano pero ya no. She used to play the piano but not any more.
W
was doing – ongoing actions, often used with estarEstaba preparano la cena y mis amigos estaban hablando. I was preparing dinner and my friends were talking. Juan leía el periódico mientras Carmen leía una novela. Juan was reading the newspapaer while Carmen was reading a novel.
I
inside feelings – emotionsEstaban muy enojados conmigo. They were really mad at me.
T
time – also for weather and ageEran las 5 de la tarde. It was 5 in the afternoon.Cuando yo tenía 18 años practicaba fútbol. I played soccer when I was 18.

 

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