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Spanish Preterite vs Imperfect Past

Why does Spanish have two past tenses — the preterite and the imperfect? And how do you know which one to use in real life? Let’s explore the preterite and imperfect tenses, and we’ll also get some great practice using estaba, estuve, and estuvo.

Full Podcast Episode


Why is there more than one past tense in Spanish?

Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.

This week we’re going to learn all the rest of the common forms of Ser and Estar, including the future tense, the conditional tense, and some unconjugated forms.

But to start out, we have to talk some more about the past tense. So far, we’ve learned some past tense forms for both Ser and Estar. In Ser, these words all had a stressed syllable that sounds like “air”: era, eras, eran, and éramos. In Estar they all had the stressed syllable “stab”: estaba, estabas, estaban, and estábamos.

But there’s another version of the past tense that means something else. The version of the past tense that we’ve learned so far is what we call the “imperfect” past. It’s the most common type of past tense for both Ser and Estar, the tense that you’ll use all the time. But there’s also something called the “preterite” past tense. In fact, there are two different types of past tense for every verb in Spanish, which is not something that happens in English. But in Spanish, it helps clarify some tricky situations.

To illustrate why there would be two different versions of the past tense in Spanish, let’s tell a little story about your friend with the curly hair.

Let’s say that you’re still visiting the Estar magic shop, and this magic shop has a merchandise area that we haven’t visited yet. This is not far away from the stabby closet that stored magic wands, and in this new, preterite area, there are several red shelves where there are assorted magic items, such as gimmicky hats and pretend potions. Now suppose your friend on the hovercraft sees all this stuff and is very excited by it, so he flies his hovercraft toward the red shelves… a little too fast… and ends up crashing into the corner, hitting his face against the corner of a shelf. To make matters worse, the paint on these red shelves was still wet, so your friend comes away with red streaks all over his face and the front of his clothes. He almost opens his mouth to say “ouch”, but he doesn’t want to get the red paint in his mouth, so he keeps his lips sealed.

Now, given this unfortunate situation, if the pandas come over and see the red marks on the kid, they are likely to ask you about it: “Is he OK? What happened?”

To respond, you want to tell them that he got hurt. But imagine that there are two different things you could say:

Option 1: “The kid was hurting.” This almost makes it sound like the kid didn’t get hurt at the store, but instead, he was already “hurting” before you entered the store. That’s not quite true.

Option 2: “The kid got hurt.” Ah-ha. This indicates an *event*, something that happened while you were shopping. Compare “the kid got hurt” to “the kid was hurting”; it’s clear that option 2 is a more accurate description of what happened.

But there’s a problem. Spanish doesn’t really have a word for “got”; this word doesn’t really have a proper translation from English into Spanish at all.

Instead, in spanish here are two ways of saying that the kid was hurt:

1st, you can say “The kid was hurt,” using the imperfect tense.

2nd, you can say “The kid was hurt,” using the preterite tense.

So the thing is, the imperfect tense means that something was going on in general. And that’s the version we’ve already learned. But the preterite tense more often indicates an event, typically something that changed at a particular moment. (To help remember which is which, the word “preterite” has a stress on the syllable “red”: “Preterite.”)

In Spanish, you can choose one of these two tenses to help clarify whether something was the case in the general past, or whether it was a specific, finite event. You can clarify this simply by the way you conjugate a verb. To remember this, think of the red shelves and the red paint all over your friend with curly hair.

Now, we don’t have to learn many preterite forms of Ser or Estar right now. Both of these verbs typically aren’t considered events most of the time; for example, when you say “I was a kid”, you’re not usually talking about suddenly becoming a kid, you’re just saying something that was true in the general past, so you’ll use era. But Estar does use the preterite tense on occasion, so let’s learn two preterite forms: Estuve and estuvo. Estuve means “I was”, and estuvo means “he/she/it/usted was”.

So as an example of how to use these words, you might use them to indicate that someone was at a place, emphasizing the “event” of being there.

A good example is “I was here yesterday.” If you say “estuve aquí yesterday”, it sounds like you arrived yesterday. It was a special event. But if you use the general past tense instead, “estaba aquí yesterday”, it sounds like you were already there all along.

Or let’s say you’re telling a story about someone you know, and you say either estaba bien or estuvo bien. If you say estaba bien, you mean that they were doing well all along. But estuvo bien tends to imply that they started feeling well at some particular moment, or that they were doing well for a specific amount of time.

Right now let’s do a mini-quiz with these preterite forms. We’ll only use estuve and estuvo for the purposes of this quiz. Then, in a minute, we’ll practice choosing whether to use the preterite or the imperfect.

After that, he was OK.

After eso, él estuvo bien.

Después de eso, él estuvo bien.

I was at the place for two hours.

Estuve en el lugar por two hours.

Estuve en el lugar por dos horas.

You(formal) were great in the show!

¡Usted estuvo great en the show!

¡Usted estuvo genial en el show!

Now we’re going to start quizzing whether to use the preterite or the imperfect, and this is something that really gives many students a lot of difficulty. One way that might be helpful to think about it in general is: Imagine that you’re telling a story about some time in the past, and at first you’re setting the scene, showing the general state of things before anything starts happening; that’s the imperfect past tense. Then, events start happening, at defined moments in time. That’s the preterite tense.

One easy hint is that if a sentence includes a specific moment or duration of time, you’ll normally use the preterite tense. But if you’re talking about anything that has a longer duration than the story, you’ll use the imperfect tense.

Let’s go ahead and try this with today’s quiz.

Our friend(f) was better after that.

Nuestra amiga estuvo better after eso.

Nuestra amiga estuvo mejor después de eso.

How good that you are my friend(m)!

¡Qué bueno que seas mi amigo!

I saw him yesterday, he was well.

Lo I saw yesterday, estaba bien.

Lo vi ayer, estaba bien.

I was a kid(m) when that happened.

Yo era un kid cuando eso happened.

Yo era un niño cuando eso pasó.

I was here for two days with the boy.

Estuve aquí por two days con el chico.

Estuve aquí por dos días con el chico.

The problem was that I didn’t know what to do.

The problem era que no I knew qué to do.

El problema era que no sabía qué hacer.

The one(f) that was here today was my friend(f).

La que estuvo aquí today era mi amiga.

La que estuvo aquí hoy era mi amiga.

For a little while, either he was here or she was here.

Por a little while, o él estuvo aquí o ella estuvo aquí.

Por un rato, o él estuvo aquí o ella estuvo aquí.

But I was fine when she got here.

Pero estuve bien cuando ella estuvo aquí.

The boy is the one that was my friend.

El chico es el que era mi amigo.

His friend(m) was here once.

Su amigo estuvo aquí once.

Su amigo estuvo aquí una vez.

The girl, the one that I know, was not here.

La chica, la que I know, no estaba aquí.

La chica, la que conozco, no estaba aquí.

The girl doesn’t have it, you have what I want!

¡La chica no lo has, tú have lo que I want!

¡La chica no lo tiene, tú tienes lo que quiero!

I was with your friends(f) for a few hours.

Estuve con tus amigas por a few hours.

Estuve con tus amigas por unas horas.

They(f) were my friends, but he wasn’t.

Ellas eran mis amigas, pero él no lo era.

That’s why I was at your house this afternoon.

Por eso estuve en tu casa this afternoon.

Por eso estuve en tu casa esta tarde.

She wasn’t your friend.

Ella no era tu amiga.

I was here in order to be with his friends(m).

Estuve aquí para estar con sus amigos.

The good (thing) is that you were a good girl.

Lo bueno es que eras una buena chica.

She got sad when you said that.

Ella estuvo sad cuando you said eso.

Ella estuvo triste cuando dijiste eso.

I was here when we(f) were here.

Yo estaba aquí cuando nosotros estábamos aquí.

Were you(formal) here just now?

¿Estuvo usted aquí just now?

¿Estuvo usted aquí hace un momento?

I want them to be in a good place.

I want que estén en un buen lugar.

Quiero que estén en un buen lugar.

They were at the house with the girl.

Estaban en la casa con la chica.

We weren’t there with those guys.

No estábamos there con those chicos.

No estábamos ahí con esos chicos.

For more practice with the preterite and the imperfect, go to LCSPodcast.com/31.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Michael Agudelo. Our music was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.

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