In previous posts you have learned about how to talk about the past, and you learned how to form and use the Pretérito Perfecto (Present Perfect), the Pretérito Imperfecto (Past Continuous), the Pretérito Indefinido (Past Simple) and Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto (Past Perfect).
Now you have all the tenses required to talk about the past, but you might be wondering when to use one or the other, aren’t you? I hear you, it seems tricky but it is not that much.
Let me explain.
- Pretérito Perfecto: Is used for past actions that have a feeling of continuing into the present, or continuing to affect the present, or without mention of when.
– Esta tarde he tomado un café con Sara.
– This afternoon I have had a coffee with Sara.
- Pretérito Indefinido: Is used for past actions that are seen as completed at a definite time in the past.
– El año pasado fuimos de vacaciones a Portugal.
– Last summer we went on holiday to Portugal.
It is also used for actions in the past that have no relation with the present, such as single events that contain a date or a specific period of time.
– Viví en Paris desde 1997 a 2001.
– I lived in Paris from 1997 to 2001.
– Trabajamos en el proyecto la semana pasada.
– We worked in the project last week.
– Ayer no fui a trabajar.
– Yesterday I didn’t go to work.
The Indefinido is used for a series of actions in the past, to talk about past actions that happen one after the other.
– Ella se levantó, se vistió, tomó un café y fue al trabajo.
– She got up, got dressed, had a coffee, and went to work.
- Pretérito Imperfecto: This tense Is used for actions in the past that are not seen as completed. It’s use implies that the past action did not have a definite beginning or a definite end.
– Cuando vivía en Londres, todavía no conocía a Peter.
– When I was living in London, I still didn’t know Peter.
The Imperfecto is also used for habitual actions (used to…).
– Hacía yoga todas las mañanas.
– I used to do yoga every morning.
The Imperfecto is the tense of the description, so it is used to describe things, people, animals, situations in the past. Also for telling time and stating one’s age.
– Mi padre era alto, moreno y llevaba un bigote muy gracioso.
– My father was tall, dark and he had a funny moustache.
– Hacía mucho frío y no tenía un abrigo.
– It was very cold and I didn’t have a coat.
– Cuando tenía 12 años jugaba en el parque.
– When I was 12 years old I played in the park.
– Eran las 10 de la noche.
– It was 10 o’clock at nigh.
We combine the imperfecto with the indefinido to tell a story.
– Hacía mucho frío cuando él llegó a casa y preparó una taza de té.
– It was very cold when he arrived home and prepared a cup of tea.
- Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto: Used to talk about an action that happened in the past, previous to another action also in the past.
– Cuando llegué a casa, él ya se había ido.
– When I arrived home, he had already gone.
And now all in combination! Woohoo!
– Pedro estaba (description) muy cansado porque se había acostado (action 1º) muy tarde la noche anterior por lo que no oyó (action 2º) el despertador a la mañana siguiente.
– Pedro was very tired because he had gone to sleep very late the previous night, and that’s why he didn’t hear the alarm the following morning.
Finally, you can download a printable version of this lesson in the link below. You will also find a second link to a pdf with some exercises to practice and reinforce the knowledge. Remember that you can get a personalized correction for free by sending your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get back to you with the corrections as soon as my busy teaching schedule allows me to.
- Theory explanation [pdf]: http://mariaortegagarcia.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Uso_pasados_teoria.pdf
- Practical exercises [pdf]: http://mariaortegagarcia.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Uso_pasados_practica.pdf