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Imperfect vs Preterite — Spanish Verb Conjugation

The “imperfect” and “preterite” tenses – or as we’ve nicknamed them “Back” and “Spine” are both past tense. This lesson will help you clarify when to use one and when to use the other.

Remember that like the back, “back” verbs cover a larger period of time and there is no specific beginning or ending point to the back. The Spine is just the opposite, if you run your hand left to right across your back, you can feel the beginning and ending point of your back. 

Look at the following chart for a direct comparison.

Spine

 

Back

Completed action

 

One specific period of time (2 weeks, once, 3 hours, etc.)

 

Still could be happening

No specific beginning or ending

    More than one specific period of time

Sets the background

 


Spanish

(ar) Hablé

(ar) Hablaba

English

 

I spoke

I was speaking
I used to speak
I spoke (sometimes,
on Mondays, etc.)


Spanish

(er) Comí

 (er) Comía

English

I ate

I was eating
I used to eat
I ate (frequently,
on Saturdays, etc.)



Now let’s take a look at how Back and spine verbs work together. As I’ve mentioned, “Back” verbs set the background of a story. Then, as specific things happen, “Spine” verbs are used.

Look at the following examples and see if you can guess how to say them.

While I was driving, a woman shouted at me.
Mientras manejaba el carro, una mujer me gritó.

While I was eating, Maria came in (entered).
Mientras comía, María entró.

When she was a child, she broke her arm.
Cuando ella era niña, rompió su brazo.

Yeserday we were going to the store when we saw Nancy.
Ayer íbamos a la tienda cuando vimos a Nancy.

The better you learn the concept of how to put Spine and Back verbs together, the more it will help you later on in Spanish.

Review

I ate the apple

comí la manzana

(Marta) You used to like dancing

te gustaba bailar

He delivered the letter

entregó la carta

She was fixing the oven

arreglaba el horno

(Sra. Benites) You read the book

leió el libro

We used to live

vivíamos

They were traveling

viajaban

All of you cooked this dinner

cocinaron esta cena

I was writing

escribía

We spent the money

gastamos el dinero

(Raúl) You used to practice

practicaba


Back and Spine Meaning Changes

Now, for the last part of this section, we’ll learn about some exceptions where verbs actually change meanings when you use the Spine (Preterite) tense. This is an advanced concept so don’t worry if you don’t catch it all the first time. Notice how the meanings of the following 5 verbs change when we use the Spine or Preterite tense. We’ll conjugate each of them for “yo”.

Back (Imperfect) Tense

 

Spine (Preterite) Tense)

Verb/Usage

Normal Meaning

 

Verb/Usage

Changed Meaning Meaning

The verb “to want” in the back tense is “Yo quería” which means.

I used to want or
I wanted

 

The verb “to want” in the spine tense is “Yo quise” which means.

I tried or attempted (affirmative)
I refused to (negative)

 

to want/Yo quería/Back

I used to want 
I wanted

 

to want/Yo quise/Spine

I tried or attempted (affirmative)
I refused to (negative)

The verb “to know” in the back tense is “Yo sabía” which means

I used to know
I knew

 

The verb “to know” in the Spine tense is “supe” which means

I learned
I found out

to know/Yo sabía/Back

I used to know
I knew

 

to know/Yo supe/Spine

I learned
I found out

The verb “to became acquainted with” or “to know” in the back tense is “Yo conocía” which means

I used to know (be acquainted with) or
I knew (was acquainted with)

 

The verb “to know” in the Spine tense is “conocí” which means

I met

to know or be acquainted with/Yo conocía/Back

I used to know (be acquainted with)
I knew (was acquainted with)

 

to know/conocí/Spine

I met

The verb “to be able to” in the back tense is “Yo podía” which means

I used to be able to
I could

 

The verb “to be able to” in the Spine tense is “pude” which means

I tried and could or succeeded in the affirmative
and to fail or failed in the negative

to be able to /Yo podía/Back

I used to be able to
I could

 

to be able to /Yo pude/Spine

I tried and could or succeeded (affirmative)
to fail (negative)

The verb “to have to” in the back tense is “Yo tenía que” which means

I had to (but I didn’t necessarily do it). As in “I had to work but I didn’t”.

 

The verb “to have to” in the Spine tense is “tuve que” which means

I had to (and did it)
as in “I had to work – and I did”

to have to/Yo tenía que/Back

I had to (but didn’t necessarily do it)

 

to have to /Yo tuve/Spine

I had to (and did it)


Basically, with these 5 verbs, since this is an advanced concept, if there is ever any question about which to use for the past tense, just use the Back tense instead of the Spine tense and you’ll be right most of the time. However, it is good to know that the meaning does change in the Spine or Preterite tense.

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