Which tense should I use when I am talking about the past? This is one of the most common grammar questions that every intermediate student of Spanish has. To understand this fully, you would need classes and plenty of practice, but in this article, I’ll give you the most important points with relevant examples so you can feel more confident about how this works.
First, I’ll explain the two main verb tenses for talking about the past. Then we’ll work on the differences and nuances between them.
Simple past tense: the preterite
The preterite tense describes actions that have been completed in the past, usually where we have a clear idea of when the action finished. This is the equivalent to the simple past tense in English (I studied, I worked).
Example: Ayer comí en un restaurante (Yesterday I ate in a restaurant). It’s clear that the action is completed and that it took place yesterday.
Another example: El año pasado fuí a Bogotá (Last year I went to Bogota). Even though there is no specific date stated, it’s very clear that the action is completed and that it happened last year. It also describes a single, distinct action.
Past imperfect tense
This tense is a little less simple than preterite, since it has more than one use. We will start from the most straightforward and common use of it: when we describe a past action that was repeated over a period of time. This is the equivalent to used to in English (I used to go to the movies every weekend) or to the simple past when it refers to something that was ongoing in the past (I woke up very early when I was in college).
Example: Yo bailaba muy bien cuando era jóven (I used to dance very well when I was young). This isn’t describing a single action. It’s also not clear when this action ended, and the period when I was young is not defined either.
Another example: Ana fumaba cuando era soltera (Ana used to smoke when she was single). Here again, the statement itsn´t very clear about the period when Ana smoked, and we certainly don’t know when she stopped being single.
As you can see, the imperfect tense is used to describe events that are repeated in the past. But it’s also used to describe a single continuous event in the past.
Example: Cuando llamaste yo estudiaba (When you called I was studying). This is the imperfect tense.
But compare: Cuando llamaste yo estaba estudiando. The meaning here is the same (when you called I was studying), but this is actually the past continuous tense, which you can express by using the imperfect tense of estar + the present participle of the verb
Here are some other examples using both tenses in parallel to make the distinction more clear:
Cuando vivía en Londres iba al teatro (I used to go to the theatre when I lived in London).
Cuando vivía en Londres fuí al teatro (I went to the theatre when I lived in London). Probably I went just once or twice, but not with regularity or as a habit.
Now a case that’s a little bit more complicated, with more nuances.
En los años 90 estudié leyes (I studied law back in the 90s). We use preterite tense to express a past event that took place and was completed during that period of time.
En los años 90 estudiaba leyes (I was studying law in the 90s). In this case we are referring to an ongoing activity happening back in the 90s, but not necessarily completed in that period. Instead, the point of the sentence is how I was spending my time in those days: I was studying law.
Imperfect and preterite in the same sentence using cuando
The imperfect tense expresses an ongoing action in the past, whereas the preterite expresses a discrete action or event at some specific point in the past.
Cuando caminaba por el parque ví una ardilla (When I was walking by the park I saw an squirrel). We use imperfect for “to walk” because it’s an indefinite period of time that I was walking. However, we use preterite for “to see” because, even though we don’t state the specific time, it’s clear that it was a single, completed event at one point during my walk.
Imperfect twice using mientras
Two parallel events can also happen at the same time, and both be ongoing. We express this with mientras, like we do in English with “while.”
Mientras yo estudiaba Arturo preparaba la cena (While I was studying, Arturo was making dinner). Here, both events were happening in the same period of time. The sentence focuses on that overlap but isn’t trying to make clear when these activities finished. There’s no clear ending point.
As you can see, for these two past tenses, there are a lot of different cases to compare and understand. There are also different cases for particular verbs like querer, poder, saber, but this will be subject of another article.
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