Using El Imperfecto vs El indefinido (general use)

To talk about actions that took place in the past we can use both El Pretérito Imperfecto and El Pretérito Indefinido

Which one you need to use depends on whether you (or the speaker) consider the beginning and end of the action, or if you consider the action to be completed. This can be tricky for English speakers to understand because both tenses are usually translated the same in English.

Let's have a look at these examples:

La profesora abría la puerta.
The teacher opened the door.

La profesora abrió la puerta.
The teacher opened the door.

In the first example where El Pretérito Imperfecto is used (abría) we can visualize a door in the process of being opened however in the second example where El Pretérito Indefinido is used, we can see a completely open door.

So the main difference between using these two tenses is:

El Pretérito Imperfecto for actions in the past with no clear beginning and end.

El Pretérito Indefinido for actions in the past with a clear beginning and end.

Have a look at other examples in both tenses:

Susana trabajaba muy duro.
Susana worked very hard.

Susana trabajó muy duro.
Susana worked very hard.

Trabajaba = we can see Susana working.

Trabajó = we can see Susana when she finished her work.

Los chicos corrían por los pasillos haciendo ruido.
The boys ran along the corridors making noise.

Los chicos corrieron por los pasillos haciendo ruido.
The boys ran along the corridors making noise.

Corrían = we can see the boys running.

Corrieron = we see the empty corridors after the boys ran.

Antonio comía un bocadillo a mediodía.
Antonio had a sandwich at midday.

Antonio comió un bocadillo a mediodía.
Antonio had a sandwich at midday.

Comía = we can see Antonio eating his sandwich.

Comió = we can see Antonio throwing his sandwich wrapper away.

See also Using El Imperfecto vs El indefinido (time markers).

 

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

Susana trabajó muy duro.
Susana worked very hard.


La profesora abrió la puerta.
The teacher opened the door.


Susana trabajaba muy duro.
Susana worked very hard.


La profesora abría la puerta.
The teacher opened the door.


Antonio comió un bocadillo a mediodía.
Antonio had a sandwich at midday.


Los chicos corrieron por los pasillos haciendo ruido.
The boys ran along the corridors making noise.


Antonio comía un bocadillo a mediodía.
Antonio had a sandwich at midday.


Los chicos corrían por los pasillos haciendo ruido.
The boys ran along the corridors making noise.


Q&A Forum 3 questions, 5 answers

LauraA1Kwiziq community member

I'm sorry but I still don't get it. Are there longer examples in Spanish that could illustrate this? I feel like I still wouldn't know when to use

Asked 4 months agoAI, scoring
InmaKwiziq team member

Hola Laura,

I understand it is quite tricky because of the lack of Imperfect tense in English. We have two lessons about this difference, one, using time markers that trigger one or the other. In this lesson you will find more examples. Have a look here

With the second lesson we did about this difference we wanted to show that even if there is no time phrase to trigger one tense or another, the speaker decides which tense to use depending on how he/she sees the action in his/her head: as a completed action with a beginning and an end, or as an action that simply happened but the "when" is not relevant.

I hope seeing those other examples in the lesson attached heps.

Saludos

Inma

 

I'm sorry but I still don't get it. Are there longer examples in Spanish that could illustrate this? I feel like I still wouldn't know when to use

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NicoleB1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Kudos

Inma, I just wanted to say that this lesson is the best on the subject.  No other place have I heard/seen the reference of "seeing the .......".  This really helped me a lot to "get" these very interesting tenses.  Thank you for sharing your insight/knowledge with us and your patience!  

Asked 4 months agodepuis
InmaKwiziq team member

Gracias Nicole. It is a tricky one...

Kudos

Inma, I just wanted to say that this lesson is the best on the subject.  No other place have I heard/seen the reference of "seeing the .......".  This really helped me a lot to "get" these very interesting tenses.  Thank you for sharing your insight/knowledge with us and your patience!  

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JonathanC1Kwiziq community member

Difference between the tenses

Would another way of explaining the difference be to say that in English you could get the meaning of  the imperfect by saying "The teacher [was] opened[ing] the door" and the indefinido as "The teacher [had] opened the door"

Asked 1 year ago
InmaKwiziq team member

Hola Johathan

That is a very good point. You could also use that theory to explain the difference but there are more tenses involved in that, for example, for the "was opening" sentence we'd probably use "estaba abriendo" as well as "abría", and "abrió"(opened) is not the same as "había abierto"(had opened). What we want to emphasise in this lesson is that in English the imperfect (abría) and the indefinido (abrió) are both translated as "opened", whereas in Spanish there is the nuance of an action with a beginning and an end or not.

Saludos, Inma

MargaretA2Kwiziq community member

Thank you Inma..I think I'm starting to get it! 

Saludos, Margaret

LynA1Kwiziq community member

...this is an excellent example of what a native English speaker would have to say to convey the intention of the spanish imperfect.

Difference between the tenses

Would another way of explaining the difference be to say that in English you could get the meaning of  the imperfect by saying "The teacher [was] opened[ing] the door" and the indefinido as "The teacher [had] opened the door"

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