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Comparison of Past Tenses in Spanish

In the last five lessons, the indicative past tense topic was handled. There we saw the main uses of each tense as well as the conjugations of regular and irregular verbs. In this lesson we will review and compare the different uses of the four past tenses of Spanish.

Present Perfect vs. Past Perfect

The difference between present perfect and past perfect is more or less the same as the difference between their counterparts in English. The present perfect is used for the actions which are not finished yet. The past perfect is used to refer to actions which were completed when another action has happened.

Present Perfect vs. Preterite

Broadly speaking, we can make the same comment as above. The difference between the present perfect and the preterite is the same as the difference between the corresponding tenses in English. In short, you should use present perfect tense for the situations when you would say for example I have done, I have studied etc. And you should use the preterite for the situations when you would use simple past tense in English, for example I gave, spoke etc.

However, there is an important fact you should be aware of. This is the primary difference between the uses of these two tenses in Spanish and English.

In English, if you use yet and already, you would use present perfect tense generally. On the other hand, you should use preterite in Spanish. The Spanish word for yet and already is “ya”.

  • ¿ya terminaste? (have you finished already?)
  • ¿ya hiciste tu tarea? have you done homework already?)

As you see from the examples, the sentences with “ya” is formed with the preterite.

Preterite vs. Imperfect

Deciding whether you should use preterite or imperfect can be quite cumbersome. Because the two past tenses refer to the simple past tense and English has only one type of it. As explained in the related lessons, the preterite is used if the past action being referred is complete and if you give a specific time. The imperfect tense is used for the past actions which took place with no definite beginning and end. In the latter tense, you can express time but it should indicate a period over which the action took place. It is worth emphasizing that the imperfect tense is used for the past actions which cannot be seen as complete. Generally speaking, we can say that it is easy to understand what a sentence means which is formed with preterite. It will refer to an action with specific time in the past. On the other hand, a sentence with imperfect can be translated into English as “would” “used to” or just as the simple past tense “took, spoke etc.”

Also, recall that preterite is used with words like “ayer”, “anteayer”, “anoche” or any other adverb referring to a specific time in the past. Thus, if you need to make sentences with such adverbs, the preterite should be the simple past tense you use. Whenever you indicate a specific time that something happened you should use preterite. On the other hand, if you expree the time in the past or tell how old someone was, you need to use imperfect. Similarly, if you need to express how many times an activity was done in the past, you should choose the preterite. Like “leí el libro dos veces” (I read the book two times). If you need to express the repeated actions in the past, on the other hand, use the imperfect, as explained in the related lesson.


With respect to the differences between these two tenses, there is very interesting point you should take notice. Some verbs change their meanings depending on whether they are used with the preterite or imperfect. Below we review such common verbs. Note that if one of such verbs is used with imperfect, the primary meaning is kept.

conocer: to meet (preterite);  to know (imperfect)

saber: to find out (preterite); to know (imperfect)

tener: to receive, get (preterite); to have, possess (imperfect)

soler: not used in preterite; used to (imperfect)

querer: to try (preterite); to want (imperfect)

deber: should have (preterite); should (imperfect)

poder: was able to (preterite); could (imperfect)

The verbs poder and deber will be handled in detail in a later lesson.

Let's Practice

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