Preterit vs. Imperfect Pretérito 1. Action viewed as completed

Preterit vs. Imperfect
1. Action viewed as completed
a) NO ACTION: Descriptions,
(*usually only happened once)
location, time, weather, age,
2. Emphasis on a specific
physical appearance,
numbers of repetitions
personality traits, physical and
3. Emphasis on a specific
emotional states, attitudes,
4. Changes in emotional states
needs and desires.
b) Habits / “used to” translates as
and desires.
5. Changes in meaning.
the impf
c) In progress / While one action
Particularly “saber = found
is taking place (impf.),
out”, and “conocer = meet for
something happens that
the first time”
interrupts it (pret.)
1. Viajé a Paris. (unless more information is provided, listener will initially believe it was
only once)
b) Viajaba a París mucho.
2. Viajé a París 3 veces.
3. Cuando tenía trece años viajé a Paris.
a) Su casa estaba en la calle Picasso.
Eran las 4 de la tarde. / Era junio / Era el año 1894. / Cuando era niño.
Llovía / nevaba / hacía frío / había mucho viento
Tenía cuatro años.
Era alto. Tenía pelo negro, y era simpático.
Estaba triste / le dolía el cuello.
Note that timeframes themselves are expressed with the impf. But if the emphasis is
placed on them, the pret. is used in the other sentence (the timeframe remains in the impf.
as the only possibility.) Ex: “Eran las cuatro cuando fui a su casa”
4. Cuando vio a Pedro, Elena se puso roja./ Quiso darle un beso / se sintió contenta.
c) Yo hablaba por teléfono cuando alguien llamó a la puerta. ((I was talking on the phone,
when somebody knocked on the door)). The impf. is a good translation for the English
“was/were + -ing”. Ex: “Ella cruzaba la calle”. She was crossing the road.
b) Iba allí a menudo (Note that this sentence already means “I used to go there often”.
You could also say: “Solía ir allí a menudo”. “Soler” is the translation for “used to”,
but the impf. already implies this meaning)
5. Some verbs take on a different connotation when used in the preterite—the imperfect
always maintains the original meaning. The most important ones are “saber” which
changes to “found out” and “conocer”, which implies “to meet a person for the first
Yo sabía cuando era el examen. I knew when the test was.
Yo supe cuando es el examen. I found out when the test is.
Yo conocí a John en 2007. I met John in 2007.
Yo conocía a John en 207. I knew John in 2007.
All of these are clear cut examples of the uses. But when we speak, our sentences are
more complicated than that… Then is when the speaker negotiates the emphasis, and to
highlight one aspect of other of what he’s saying, he must use the pret. or the impf.
1) Cuando tenía 13 años fui a Paris. (unless more information is provided, listener will
initially believe it was only once. The emphasis is on the timeframe. At that age.)
a) Cuando tenía 13 años iba a Paris muchas veces. (We have a timeframe, but the
emphasis is on the habit. The speaker wants to emphasize the “used to”).
2) Cuando tenía 13 años fui a Paris 4 veces (emphasis on the specific number of times)
3) Cuando tenía 13 años fui a Paris muchas veces (We have a habit—which initially
would take imperfect--, but here the speaker chooses to emphasize the timeframe)