Combining Tenses in Spanish

We combine tenses unthinkingly in English. “I was cooking when the phone rang.” “When the storm started, I was at home.” “When I get more time, I will travel more often.” “If I were rich, I’d have a big house.

The problem is that, as native speakers, we never stop to think about the fact that we’re combining different tenses. In fact, we rarely think about tenses in English at all: we simply use them!

Spanish Preterite and Imperfect Sentences

When you start saying anything but the simplest of sentences in Spanish, you’re going to need the ability to distinguish tenses in your head. The two main past tenses are the perfect place to start, because many sentences combine the two.

Let’s say that you want to tell someone, “I wasn’t home when you called.

  • What is the action that occurs over an indefinite period of time in the past? My not being home.
  • What is the event that breaks up the continuous action? Your call.

Therefore, “I wasn’t home” would be in the imperfect tense, while “you called” would be in the preterite tense.

Or perhaps you want to say, “I was 18 years old when I graduated from high school.

  • What is the action that occurs over a period of time? Being 18 years old.
  • What is the event that breaks up the timeline? Graduation.

Therefore, “I was 18 years old” would be in the imperfect, while “I graduated” would be in the preterite.

  • Tenía dieciocho años cuando me gradué de colegio.

This pattern can be summarized as follows:

  • The imperfect refers to the ongoing action in a sentence.
  • The preterite refers to the action that intervened in the ongoing action.

Or, as I like to say it:

When an imperfect action is going on, a preterite event happens.

Arreglaba mi computadora cuando se cortó la luz.

I was fixing my computer when the light went out.

Juan escribía una carta cuando se le cayó el lápiz.

Juan was writing a letter when he dropped his pencil.

Yo estaba ganando el juego cuando comenzó a llover.

I was winning the game when it started raining.

Eran las cinco cuando Teresa llegó.

It was five o'clock when Teresa arrived.