San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Perfect-ly Perplexing: The Joy Of Past Tenses in Spanish

I know you’re not going to believe me when I say that English verbs are not really easier than Spanish verbs. It only feels that way if you are an English speaker learning Spanish. Just ask any Spanish speaker learning English how he finds our use of “do” in questions and negatives, how he likes our irregular past tense verbs, and if he understands what “get” means.

For some murky reason, it seems to happen that the simple past tense forms, at least in English and the Romance languages, are extremely irregular. In fact, the Italians got so tired of their irregular past tense that they simply stopped using it. Now, instead of saying, for example, “I ran,” an Italian will simply say, “I have run.”

Unfortunately, Spaniards have always been more entrenched in linguistic tradition than their merrier Mediterranean brothers, so they are not going to let us off the hook.

We must learn the past tense and all its aberrations if we are to speak Spanish. And we must not ask why fui means both “I was” and “I went,” and how such a word came out of the verbs ser and ir any more than we expect a Spanish speaker to ask us how “went” came out of “go” or why “I read” (present) and “I read”(past) are spelled the same.

The problem doesn’t stop there for the learner of a Romance language, in this case, Spanish. As if handling one past tense weren’t enough of a problem, Spanish has to go and have two: the perfect and the imperfect, though in Spanish, the perfect is always called the “preterit.”

These terms have nothing to do with perfection as we mean it now. The original meaning of “to perfect” was “to finish,” and therein lies the rub. The preterit expresses a finished action in the past, while the imperfect expresses an unfinished action.

Wait a minute. The past is always finished, right? That’s what makes it the past. So we have to time-travel back to the past and see whether the action or state of being was finished at the moment to which we are referring.

That may sound like a heap of trouble, but, in fact, it’s not quite as difficult as it sounds. As it turns out, we have our own ways of expressing this in English, at least, when we are expressing actions.

Take the following dialog, for example: JANE: Hi. Am I interrupting anything? What were you doing? (Hola. ¿Interrumpo algo? ¿Qúe hacías?) JOHN: Not much. I was writing a letter to my mom when you called. (Nada. Escribía una carta a mi mamá cuando llamaste.)

Note here that Jane would never, in this context, ask John, “What did you do?” Nor would John reply, “I wrote a letter when you called.” So one of the ways we express the imperfect is the past progressive (was/were + verb with -ing ending). Two other ways we do this is by expressing habitual actions in the past using “used to” or “would”: “I used to go to the movies a lot back then,” or “I would go to the movies a lot back then” (Yo iba mucho al cine en aquel entonces.)

But, uh oh, the bad news is that we can also say: “I went to the movies a lot back then.”

Furthermore, states of being or mind are most often expressed by the imperfect in Spanish, whereas English uses a simple past tense rather than a progressive: Federico estaba muy triste. (Federico was very sad.)

In other words, we can’t always rely on how we might express it in English.

The Spanish preterit usually expresses single actions that happened and finished at a fixed time in the past: Ayer tuve un examen en español. (Yesterday I had an exam in Spanish.)

However, it can also express states of being or mind that happened and finished at a fixed time: Me extrañó cuando ella se puso a llorar. (I was surprised when she started crying.)

Moreover, certain verbs change meaning depending on whether they are used in the imperfect or preterit: Sara conocía a mi padre. Lo conocío cuando era estudiante de medicina. (Sara knew my father. She met him when she was a medical student.) As if all this weren’t confusing enough, listening to the way people here speak might confuse you more. In the same way that the English tend to treat the mother tongue with respect and follow the rules while we “Americans” violate them, the Spanish tend to follow the rules while the Latin Americans break them. Your job as a language learner is to understand the concept and follow through. More or less.

That is, my advice to you, as always, is to avoid getting hung up on the fine points of grammar and, rather, get a feel for the thing, then forge ahead as best you can.

Of course, you’ll make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.


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