The imperfect past tense vs. the simple past tense

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The imperfect past tense vs. the simple past tense 

Reminder: the pretérito imperfecto (imperfect tense) and the pretérito indefinido (simple past tense) are both used to talk about actions that took place in the past. These are often translated in the same way in English.

Trabajaba trabajar, pret. imperf. todos los días hasta que gané ganar, pret. indefinido la lotería.

I used to work every day until I won the lottery.

We use the pretérito imperfecto (imperfect) to talk about:

  • Repeated actions (habits or routines) in the past with no clear beginning and end.

De pequeño, Teo estudiaba estudiar, pret. imperf. inglés. 

When he was little, Teo used to study English.

  • To talk about the circumstances surrounding an action or event, to set the scene in a story.

Mientras paseaba pasear, pret. imperf. por la playa, iba ir, pret. imperf. comiendo un helado.

While I was walking along the beach, I was eating an ice cream.

  • To describe people, places or things in the past.

El día de su fiesta, Ana llevaba llevar, pret. imperf. un disfraz de pirata. 

On the day of her party, Ana was wearing a pirate costume.

Note: some time expressions that are typically used with the imperfect are siempre (always), cuando era joven (when I was young), mientras (while), todos los días/años/viernes, sábados (every day/year/Friday, Saturday).

We use the pretérito indefinido (simple past) to talk about:

  • Actions that were completed at a specific moment in the past.

El año pasado Teo estudió estudiar, pret. indefinido inglés. 

Last year Teo studied English.

  • When listing actions that occur in a specific moment in the past (to present information that advances a story).

El domingo paseé pasear, pret. indefinido por la playa, comí comer, pret. indefinido un helado y jugué jugar, pret. indefinido a voleibol.

On Sunday, I walked along the beach, I ate an ice cream, and I played volleyball.

  • The qualities or characteristics of an action or event.

La fiesta de Ana fue ser, pret. indefinido increíble, me divertí divertirse, pret. indefinido mucho.

Ana’s party was amazing; I had a lot of fun.

  • Actions that suddenly interrupt a narrative.

Caminaba por el puente hasta que cayó caer, pret. indefinido al agua. 

He was walking along the bridge when he fell in the water.

Note: some time expressions often used with the simple past are ayer (yesterday), la semana pasada (last week), el año pasado (last year), en 2013 (in 2013), de repente (suddenly).

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