Table of contents Chapter 6 6.5 Pretérito imperfecto and pretérito indefinido

Chapter 6: Tenses

  6.5 Difference between pretérito imperfecto and pretérito indefinido

Now that there are two different past tenses, there must be a difference between the two of them. Well, there is. As usually there is this a rule of thumb that can help to see the general idea. With the Spanish past tenses we can say:
              Whenever the event, the action happens only once and does not take much time the pretérito               indefinido will be the right choice. For example:

De repente una bomba explotó.
Suddenly a bomb exploded.

If this sentence was said in pretérito imperfecto the meaning would change quite significantly and honestly that would sound a bit weird because a bomb usually explodes just once.

Suddenly a bomb exploded repeatedly. = De repente una bomba explotaba.

If there are events or actions that happened or were done repeatedly in the past the pretérito imperfecto will be the better guess.

Every Sunday I used to have my breakfast in a café.
= Los domingos tomaba el desayuno en un café.
(It is not: Los domingos tomé el desayuno en el café).

There are furthermore those verbs that change their meaning depending on whether they are used in pretérito imperfecto or pretérito indefinido. Here some examples:

 conocer (= to know somebody) in imperfecto and in indefinido
Le conocí en Madrid.
I met him in Madrid. (to get to know somebody)
Le conocía bien. I knew him well. (to know somebody)

 saber (= to know something) in imperfecto and in indefinido
Lo supe de él. I heard it from him. (to learn, to hear, to get to know)
Lo sabía ya, I already knew,
porque él me lo había dicho. because he had told me. (to know)

For more details on this issue please have look at chapter 7.4.