Preterite and Imperfect:
Two Aspects of the Simple Past Tense in Spanish
By Kathy Chonez
The preterite and the imperfect are two aspects or characteristics of the simple past tense in the indicative mood of the Spanish verb system. Since both the preterite and the imperfect refer to a past time, the choice of one over the other is governed by the nature of the remembrance of the action/state/event of the verb. Our memory of something in the past focuses on one of the following features of that past action/state/event: 1) the beginning, 2) the duration, 3) the completion or, 4) the repetition. These are the four ways in which we conceptualize the past.

Now, if we consider time to be linear and therefore, capable of being represented by a straight line, we can diagram the four ways of conceptualizing past actions/states/events as follows:


It is easy to see that the beginning of an action/state/event or the completion of an action/state/event represent precise moments on our temporal map. We can consider them independently of one another or, we can bundle them in one package and without reference to either the beginning or the end, see the experience in its entirety as a singular past event. The following sentences illustrate 1) focus on the beginning, 2) focus on the end, and 3) focus on the package without reference to either the beginning or the end:


Reflects the beginning of the action

  • Fui a España el cinco de mayo de 1985.
  • I went to Spain on the fifth of May, 1985.


Reflects the end of the action

  • Salí de España el cinco de mayo de 1995.
  • I left Spain on the fifth of May, 1995.

Second Part