When it comes to learning Spanish, the overarching problem is that there are so many more ways to say things in Spanish than most other languages, especially English. That means that Spanish language learners are often tasked with having to expand their understanding of language in order to conquer it — and Spanish past tenses are very much included.

In English there is only one past tense, whereas in Spanish there four different ways to talk about the past in the indicative mode, which is the most frequent mode of speech in Spanish. (Don’t worry if you don’t quite understand what we mean by “mode” — we’ll get to it later in the series, promise!)

So, naturally, the problem comes when trying to figure out which of the four past tenses to use and when. In this post we’re going to address distinguishing between the indefinido and the imperfecto, one of the most difficult distinctions. Throughout this post, we’re going to refer to the tenses by their Spanish names because it’s easier to search and find more information about them if you use their native names.

What you’ll find here are some of the ways that we’ve noticed work best for our students when it comes to the indefinido and the imperfecto. In the meantime, stay patient! Learning to tell these two tenses apart is a challenge that takes time to understand and practice to learn, but you’ll get there — we promise!

First things first

The best place to start is at the beginning by examining the nature of verbs. In every language there are two types of verbs: open verbs and closed verbs. Open verbs express actions that have no time frame — the verb itself doesn’t give any information about the beginning or end of an action. For example,

  • trabajar — to work
  • estudiar — to study
  • hablar — to talk
  • comer — to eat
  • vivir — to live

Closed verbs are ones that express actions that inherently have endings because they can be thought of as essentially completed once they begin. With closed verbs you don’t need any other markers to indicate when the action has started or ended. For example,

  • prometer — to promise
  • decir — to say
  • entrar — to enter
  • salir — to go out
  • morir — to die
  • nacer — to be born
  • llegar — to arrive

Now that we’ve discussed open and closed verbs, hold this in your mind as we move into dissecting the indefinido and the imperfecto, since these two tenses are infused by whether or not verbs are open or closed.

Distinguishing between Spanish past tenses

The indefinido and the imperfecto are the two most common ways to talk about the past in Spanish, but figuring out which one to use and when is the trick, so let’s start by separating them out. The indefinido:

  • requires time markers to show the action has ended (whether through a closed verb or through other markers)
  • is used to talk about past actions that occurred in a sequence
  • is used to express a one-time action in the past

Here’s how you conjugate the indefinido using cantar, beber, and vivir as examples:

Spanish past tenses

The imperfecto, on the other hand:

  • describes past actions that don’t have time frames
  • is used to express politeness
  • is used to talk about repetitive actions in the past
  • is used to express customary actions

And here is how the imperfecto is conjugated, using the same example verbs:

Spanish past tenses

Because, as we mentioned earlier, English has only one past tense, Spanish language learners have to learn how to express the same content that is usually contained in one tense in English in two tenses in Spanish. In order to compensate, we have to give different meanings to verbs as we use them in the past, depending on whether they’re open or closed — it can be used fun to think of this as different aspects of a verb.

Verb aspect

The aspect of a verb is another important element. Essentially it has to do with the way that you look at or understand the action of a verb — this is what determines if most verbs are open or closed (since many can go either way). The two important aspects are perfective and imperfective: The perfective aspect describes an action that has finished in the past and the imperfective aspect describes an action in development with no ending and no beginning. Let’s look at an example:

  1. El atleta ganaba la competencia — The athlete led the competition.
    (Imperfective aspect; the action in is development)
  1. El atleta ganó la competence — The athlete won the competition.
    (Perfective aspect; the action is in the past and completed)

Here you can see how ganar changed from an open to a closed verb — to lead is open because it does not indicate a beginning or an end while to win is a closed verb because when the action is described it is over. The key is that the meaning of the verb ganar is changed in these examples by changing which past tense is used to describe the action. This graphic can help provide another way to think about this:

understanding Spanish past tenses

Next, let’s look at two more examples.

  1. En 2003 estudiaba español — In 2003 I was studying Spanish.
  2. En 2003 estudié español — In 2003 I studied Spanish.

Here you can see how the time marker “en 2003” has a different meaning in each sentence. Estudiaba in the first sentence, because it is the imperfecto, communicates only that “I was studying in 2003,” but offers no information about when the action started or stopped. Studying, in this instance, could have begun earlier, ended later, or both — all we know is that it was happening in 2003. On the other hand, in the second sentence, by using estudié, which is the indefinido, “I studied Spanish in 2003” is communicated again, but that Spanish was being studied only in 2003 — the action began and ended in that year.

These two examples illustrate how we compensate for having a lack of a verb form in English. Technically English deploys “was studying” to communicate an action in development and “studied” to communicate a finished action in the past. Of course, as many of you know, this is grammatically correct but not necessarily how English is actually spoken. Colloquially we use either to describe the same thing in English, so it’s this specificity that exists in Spanish and not in English that must be mastered in order to begin utilizing Spanish past tenses.

Putting it to practice

Now that the explanations are laid out, try putting your new knowledge to the test by completing the following exercise in this image and this interactive exercise by focusing on the meaning of the sentences as you encounter them.

understanding Spanish past tenses

And there you have it! It’s not easy, we know, but we’re here to help! If you have questions or want to schedule a class for yourself or a group, get in touch! Nothing makes us over here at Leon Lingua happier than sharing Spanish with the world.

Pictures from E Spanyol and Gramática Básica del Estudiante de Español, S.L. Difusión, 2007.