Verb conjugation is the backbone of Spanish learning. Strong conjugation skills allow students to ask and answer questions confidently and set the mood for a productive and fulfilling learning experience.
The first part of learning conjugation is, obviously, the mechanics of memorizing the endings that change to indicate the person, pronoun, number, tense, and mood being conveyed. This is how we conjugate verbs.
The second part is the timing of verbs and their tenses. It’s why we use them when we are trying to share narratives and connect them to the proper moment or time frame.
As you progress in your Spanish studies, the connection between tenses can be challenging to master, but also a great opportunity to flex your brain and have fun as you grow your skills.
In this article we’ll go over the three basic tenses: presente, pretérito perfecto simple and pretérito imperfecto to see how they are used. We will take a simple idea, Pancho corre en el parque, and we’ll look at how this situation can be expressed at different points in time.
The purpose of this article is to clarify the distinct roles of pretérito perfecto and pretérito imperfecto from the point of view of the timing, duration, frequency, and description of each tense and also to explore the overlaps and connections between these tenses.
Our initial sentence is Pancho corre en el parque.
With the present tense we describe a situation that is currently true: Pancho corre en el parque. If we want to add a bit more precision, we can add expressions such as todos los días, los domingos por la mañana or adverbs such as nunca or siempre, which in this case will go before the verb: Pancho siempre corre en el parque. Pancho nunca corre en el gimnasio.
In the present tense we can also add:
- Duration: Pancho corre dos horas cada día.
- Frequency: Pancho corre todos los días.
Pretérito perfecto simple
This tense, which we’ll call pretérito points to specific moments in time: ayer, la semana pasada or specific dates: el siete de julio de dos mil siete. It also indicates that an activity or process was carried out, Pancho corrió esta mañana, or that it was completed.
In the pretérito tense we can also add:
- Duration: Pancho corrió dos horas ayer.
- Description: Ayer fue un buen día. Ayer hizo sol. Ayer Pancho corrió a un buen ritmo.
Because this tense is used to communicate SINGLE SPECIFIC actions or moments, we CANNOT use frequency with it. There is no repetition.
We’ll call this tense imperfecto. English conveys the concepts of imperfecto not with a tense but with modal verbs such as USE TO or WOULD, as in Pancho used to run or Pancho would always run. In theory, imperfecto doesn’t have the specificity of pretérito and we use it more to describe habits or places in the past.
Pancho corría en el parque. El parque era bonito y amplio.
In imperfecto we can also add:
- Duration of habits: Pancho corría dos horas cada día.
- Frequency: Pancho corría tres veces por semana.
- Description: Imperfecto points at moments in time that do not correspond to more precise adverbial phrases such as ayer, el martes or el año pasado. Instead, the “moments” described with imperfecto refer to periods in our personal narratives, such as, “Cuando corría maratones,” “Cuando vivía en Madrid,” and “Cuando estaba en la universidad.” We cannot really describe these periods in their entirety using imperfecto.
We can switch to pretérito and say: Mis años de maratonista fueron intensos. Mi vida en Madrid fue productiva y creativa. Estudié literatura en la universidad. In this case, we describe the period as a whole; because it’s been completed and put behind you, a final assessment or opinion of the period can be issued.
If we want to describe our habits during those periods, we can say, “Cuando corría maratones comía mucha pasta,” “Cuando vivía en Madrid iba a muchos eventos culturales,” or “Cuando estaba en la universidad estudiaba mucho.”
The last three sentences should not be understood as things happening “over a period of time,” which can convey the false idea of things you did during the weekend, during the week, or during a very long meeting, but rather as “habits observed DURING those periods.”
Let’s look at some time expressions now, and see which tenses we can apply to them.
Los martes …
- This expression conveys recurring timing, meaning every Tuesday, therefore we use tenses meant for habits, either in the present or in the past.
- Pancho corre los martes.
- Pancho corría los martes.
El martes pasado …
- This expression points to a specific day, and therefore we usually use pretérito perfecto: El martes pasado Pancho corrió en el parque.
- However, we can use imperfecto if we want to add a description of an ongoing situation: El martes pasado Pancho corría en el parque cuando vio un oso. El martes pasado Pancho estaba corriendo en el parque cuando vio un oso.
- These last two sentences actually apply to an activity as it was unfolding -taking place over time, the time when Pancho was running- and an event or an action that took place during this ongoing activity, his sighting of a bear.
Cuando vivía en Ciudad de México ...
- Notice that this expression points to the past, but it doesn’t have dates or words such as ayer, la semana pasada or any other anchors to specific moments in time. Vivía tells us that the person is talking about the past, and en Ciudad de México tells us something specific about the period in the person’s past. The timing of the verb is marked by a place of residence, not by a date or any other reference to specific days, weeks, months or years.
- Habits: Cuando vivía en Ciudad de México iba a los mercados y a los museos y corría en el Bosque de Chapultepec.
- Events: Cuando vivía en Ciudad de México conocí a Salma Hayek y tuvimos un breve romance (en mi imaginación). These two specific things, meeting Salma and having a romance, happened during the broader, descriptive period of the person’s years in México City.
La semana pasada …
- A whole week is longer than yesterday, Monday morning or July 7th, 2007. Because of this, you may be tempted to use the imperfect, but this is an all too common mistake that can be avoided by remembering that we define weeks as seven-day periods, and therefore we should use pretérito if we want to talk about the events that took place during them.
- La semana pasada trabajé mucho, no corrí, participé en muchas reuniones y no cociné. No tuve tiempo para mí. Solamente tuve tiempo para mi jefa, mis colegas y mis proyectos.
Getting a handle on tenses and timing requires a bit of mental flexibility, a lot of patience for practice and clarity in the concepts. We hope this article can help you with the last bit.
If you are currently taking Level 3 or beyond, we suggest you use it to help you form an accurate, functional and dynamic sense of Spanish conjugation.