Unit 2 - Preterit Tense - Regular Forms
Lesson 2.1 - Introduction to Past Tense(s)

See why Spanish has more than one past tense for verbs, and learn the difference.

Welcome to the Past (and Unit 2)!

With this unit, we will finally break the bonds of the present tense and learn to talk about things that happened in the past. Once you achieve a basic understanding of the past tense, you will find that you can understand more and more material in Spanish.

But the past tense has one complication that we need to cover first...

Not One, But Two Past Tenses

In English, we have one main past tense form for verbs. In Spanish, there are two. This is another difference between the languages that takes some time and effort to master.

To understand why Spanish uses two tenses where English only needs one, you need to realize that in the native Spanish speaker's mind, there are two categories of actions that occurred in the past.

Events at a Specific Time, that are Completed

First, there are things that occurred at a specific time, and were completely finished. These include things like I visited my grandmother yesterday, or I called my brother on the phone this morning.

Both of those examples are actions that occurred at a specific time, and they are over and done with. In Spanish, we use the "preterite" tense for these situations.

Habitual or Continuous Events, at an Indeterminate Time

The second category is for things that occurred either habitually (a non-specific number of times), continuously, or over a long indeterminate period of time.

For example, I often studied in the library. The time period is indefinite. In Spanish, we use the "imperfect" tense for these actions.

The Tense Names aren't Really Important

Linguists aren't very helpful in naming things, so we're stuck with the names preterite and imperfect. These are not descriptive at all unless you are a grammar expert. Fortunately, once you start actually using these verbs, the names aren't really important.

I Know, It Seems Complicated

There are some parts of learning Spanish that are going to challenge you. This is likely one of them. Getting your English-speaking brain wrapped around the idea of two past tenses will not happen overnight. It takes some time.

This is one of a handful of concepts in Spanish that most students find challenging. But with some practice, you can do this!

A Specific Example

Let's look at an example to illustrate the basic idea again:

For a specific time frame, and a completed action, use the preterite tense.

Last night, I studied for the test.
Anoche, estudiƩ para el examen.

For an action with a non-specific time frame, that occurs habitually or continuously, use the imperfect tense.

I often studied in the library.
A menudo estudiaba en la biblioteca.

To a native Spanish speaker, these are different kinds of past actions. In English, we use the same conjugated form studied for both. As you can see, Spanish uses estudiƩ and estudiaba, forms that you will be learning shortly.

Practice is the Key

If you are like me, you could read the section above many times, and still struggle to choose which tense to use in any given sentence. That's normal. And the answer is not always clear-cut.

Repeated exposure to these forms in context is the best antidote. VerbMaestro's exercises were specifically created to help you in this task. Pay attention to the exercise sentences you see.

Each sentence represents a native example of the usage. Eventually, you will just begin to know which tense sounds right in a given situation.

Use the Outside Resources, but Not Yet!

As you might expect with this subject, there are many excellent resources listed below for diving deep into the details.

However, most of the discussions assume that you already understand how to form the conjugations. Although you can use them now if you want to get an overview, they will be more valuable after you have completed the other lessons in this unit.

After you learn the conjugation forms for the past tenses, I encourage you to come back to this lesson and access the additional resources on this topic. I will remind you again at the end of Unit 3.

On to the Preterite...

We will begin now with the preterite tense, since it is the past tense form that you are most likely to need right away. For example, if you have a conversation partner, your discussions might include talking about what you did yesterday. For that task, cue up the preterite tense.

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Additional Study Resources

Speak Spanish Faster explains when to use preterite, and when to use imperfect. (9:55)
SpanishDict - Details on how to choose which tense. (9:41)
The Spanish Dude offers a rule of thumb that helps decide when to use each tense. (7:49)
Includes a handy guide to words and phrases that trigger the use of each of the tenses.
Good explanation that contrasts the two tenses, including when they appear together.
Olly Richards does an excellent job of covering the topic.
Chapter 13 "The preterite tense", and Chapter 14 "The imperfect tense".
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