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Simple Past Tenses in Spanish Language: “Pretérito Indefinido” and “Pretérito Imperfecto”

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Two of the most common verb tenses to refer to the past in Spanish (though not the only ones) is the Past Perfect Simple and the Imperfect Past. Both serve the same purpose to recount past actions, with little connection to the present:

The Present Perfect Simple, often featuring irregular forms (“yo fui”,” tú hiciste”…) is often preferred for specific actions, the inchoate and perfective aspect of the verb, events or actions completed in the past, sometimes with durative aspect, unrelated to the current situation.

The Imperfect also refers to the past (“nosotros teníamos”, “vosotros escuchabais” …) but often highlights the continuative aspect of the verb, without regard to its completion. The actions described in this tense extend over a certain period of time.

Let’s take a simple example with two distinct meanings:

  • “No conocía a nadie en la fiesta”, (Pretérito Imperfecto) means I couldn´t find any acquientances at the party
  • “No conocí a nadie en la fiesta”, (Pretérito Perfecto Simple) means I didn´t actually make any acquientances at all there.

The difference is not always so marked:

  •  “No hice nada malo,” points to a particular point in the past, with no connection to the present. The interest is in the result.
  • “No hacía nada malo,” displays the continuative aspect of the verb, which may well extend up to the present. The interest is the process rather than the result

The rules of use of these tenses are very consistent throughout the Spanish-speaking community, and although there are very specific, even subjective, uses, the best thing to do is pay attention to the time markers which often collocate with either tense.

With Present Perfect Simple: “ayer”, “anoche”, “el año pasado”, “hace mucho”…

With Imperfect: “(casi) siempre”, “normalmente”, “cuando era pequeño/-a”, “a veces”…

When we tell stories, we often combine both tenses, reserving the Past Perfect Simple to report the event itself and the Imperfect to describe the circumstances surrounding. The trend in journalistic language is to use the Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto instead of the Pretérito Perfecto Simple, thus taking us closer to the news, highlighting its impact on the present.

  • “El accidente ocurrió cuando se dirigía de vuelta a casa.” (“The accident happened on his way back home.”)
  • “El accidente se ha producido mientras conducía de vuelta a casa.” (“The accident occurred while driving back home.”)


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