distinguishing between imperfect and preterit
February 11, 2008 5:56 PM   Subscribe

Spanishfilter: Help me understand when to use the imperfect forms of verbs and when to use the preterit forms.

My spanish teacher gave the same explanation over and over about reporting vs. presenting, but that really didn't click for me. Now that he won't speak in english or tolerate the class speaking in english, asking him has become even more pointless. So if any of you have any better or alternative explanations, I would greatly appreciate your help.
posted by KingoftheWhales to Education (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't speak Spanish, so I'm sure someone else will be more helpful, but in French the difference is this: when the activity continued or was continuing for some time, use the imperfect; when the activity was at one definitive time and finished, then use the preterit.

I was four years old when I started school. The "was" is imperfect, and the "started" is preterite.
I was walking down the street when I saw my friend Leo. The "was walking" is imperfect and the "saw" is preterit.
Translate those into French (Spanish) and you get the idea.

I hope that helps.
posted by ohio at 6:06 PM on February 11, 2008

I should note that I'm making assumptions about the romance languages working similarly that might not be at all true. I hope a true Spanish speaker will chime in.
posted by ohio at 6:08 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I took Spanish for a few years; ohio's characterization is pretty accurate. Another good example would be an interruption that occurred in the past: in the sentence "I was studying when the phone rang", "studying" would be imperfect since it was an ongoing action, while "rang" would be preterite as it happened at that moment.

Also keep in mind the specialized uses of the two tenses. An overview from studyspanish.com:

The preterite is used in the following situations:

For actions that can be viewed as single events
For actions that were repeated a specific number of times
For actions that occurred during a specific period of time
For actions that were part of a chain of events
To state the beginning or the end of an action

The imperfect is used in the following situations:

For actions that were repeated habitually
For actions that "set the stage" for another past action
For telling time
For stating one's age
For mental states (usually)
For physical sensations (usually)
To describe the characteristics of people, things or conditions in the past
posted by Rhaomi at 6:25 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah. In French (and it sounds like Spanish is pretty much the same) imperfect is used to set the stage and describe ongoing states, along with things that happened in the past habitually/on a certain day. The preterite is used for actions that have been completed, things that happened a specific number of times, bascially what Rhaomi said for Spanish. I like to think of it graphically (I hope my 'graphics' turn out):


This is time.


The event on top should be in imperfect.


The event on top this time should be in the preterite.

I hope that helps maybe.
posted by MadamM at 7:15 PM on February 11, 2008

Damn you, preview! Those 'events' should be spaced out from the beginning of the timeline, although it doesn't really matter. The end of the imperfect event should be lined up with the end of the timeline.
posted by MadamM at 7:16 PM on February 11, 2008

Best answer: Rhaomi's pretty much covered it, but note that telling your age and telling the time only take the imperfect when you're talking about the past. You probably knew that already, but I just wanted to make sure.

One way to think about it that might be helpful is to think of the meaning of "imperfect". Things that are perfect are "done." Michealangelo's David is perfect because there's nothing more that can be done to it. The block of marble he started with was "imperfect" because it wasn't definite, it wasn't "done." In the same way, you can think of actions or states of being as being imperfect because they haven't been completed, or you can't really say that they're done. In the example ohio gave, "I was walking down the street when I saw my friend Leo. ," the walking wasn't completed. Walking down the street and certainly being four years old are indefinite, especially without context.

That context is important because it can change the tense that is required. I used to live in Spain, is a phrase that would take the imperfect in Spanish. However, I lived in Spain for three years would take the preterite, since the time-frame provides a definite context.

"some verbs actually change meaning, depending upon whether they are used in the preterite or the imperfect. This is not surprising, since the difference in meaning can be traced back to the different way in which these two past tenses are used.


Conocí a Juan hace cinco años.
I met Juan five years ago.
(completed action)

En aquella época conocíamos muy bien la ciudad.
At that time we knew the city very well.
(no definite beginning or end)"
That and a few other examples are fromhere. It's a good overview.

posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 9:21 PM on February 11, 2008

The Spanish textbook Poco a Poco explains preterite as being for completed actions or events and imperfect as for past actions or events that were repeated habitually (in English, "used to/would") or that were in progress in the past. So, as above: preterite=finite, limited, or sudden; imperfect=ongoing.

I used to have another Spanish textbook, Puntos de Partida, but I lent it to a friend and that was that. (Or: tenía otro libro de texto llamado Puntos de partida pero se lo presté a una amiga y ya.)
posted by Tuwa at 9:29 PM on February 11, 2008

Best answer: On preview, Rhaomi covered the formal definitions. You'll just have to memorize some of those (e.g. telling time, age). However, I'll elaborate on the For actions that "set the stage" for another past action part. That confused me for a long time, and then it suddenly clicked and made sense.

Imperfect is often used to set the context for a story or event, or how it was.
"It was raining outside, and I was walking my dog. My parents were on the phone, and my little sister was eating a slice of pie."

Preterite is usually used to describe what happened.
"The burglar jumped out of the trash can and tried to attack me. My cat grabbed the knife and killed the trespasser."
posted by theiconoclast31 at 10:35 PM on February 11, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you, this actually makes a lot more sense than it did yesterday.
posted by KingoftheWhales at 11:06 PM on February 11, 2008

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