Deciding between the Preterit and Imperfect Verb Tenses in Spanish

When you use past tense verbs in Spanish, you need to pick between the preterit and the imperfect tenses. Choosing the right verb tense is key for making your meaning clear. For example, when talking about your friend Nico and his birthday, your verb choice changes the meaning:

  • Preterit: Nico celebré su cumpleaños en México. (Nico celebrated his birthday in Mexico.)

  • Imperfect: Nico celebraba su cumpleaños en México. (Nico used to celebrate his birthday in Mexico.)

The following table can help you figure out when to use the preterit tense and when to use the imperfect tense.

Uses of the Preterit and Imperfect Tenses
Uses of the Preterit Uses of the Imperfect
To describe an action or a series of actions that were
completed in the past
To describe ongoing or continuous past actions, without
focusing on their beginning or end
To express an action, event, or state of mind that happened in
the past and was completed at a specific moment or period
To describe conditions in the past
To tell the time in the past

When choosing between the imperfect and the preterit, watch for time words to use as clues, and remember that the imperfect often translates to English as used to.