Preterite/Imperfect Half Truths

Discussion in 'Spanish-English Grammar / Gramática Español-Inglés' started by Salsamore, Jun 7, 2007.

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  1. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    This is a wonderfully written research paper on preterite vs. imperfect usage. It is written with the goal of improving how this distinction is explained in Spanish textbooks:

    Preterite/Imperfect Half-Truths: Problems with Spanish Textbook Rules of Usage

    This article distills the preterite/imperfect distinction into six broad yet concise and easy-to-remember principles of usage:
    1) The imperfect is used for
    a) actions and states in progress at some focused point in the past,
    b) habitual past actions,
    c) repetitious past actions,
    d) anticipated/planned past actions.

    2) The preterite is used for
    a) the completion of past actions or states,
    b) the beginning of past actions or states.

    These rules explain why we usually or almost always:
    • Use the imperfect with verbs of emotion or mental activity
    • Use the imperfect with "used to"
    • Translate the preterite supo to mean "he found out", or quise to mean "I tried to"
    More importantly, the article explains why exceptions exist to these traditional rules of thumb in the context of the six principles it lays out. For example:
    Me entusiasmé al oír las noticias.
    I was excited upon hearing the news.

    Carlos pensó en su novia todo el día.
    Carlos thought about his girlfriend all day.

    Mi padre fue profesor de español, pero ahora es comerciante.
    My father used to be a Spanish teacher, but how he's a merchant.

    Siempre supe que ibas a triunfar.
    I always knew you were going to succeed.

    Durante dos años, quise ser médico, pero luego cambié de idea y decidí hacerme abogado.
    For two years, I wanted to be a doctor, but then I changed my mind and decided to become a lawyer.
    This is the clearest explanation I've read on preterite/imperfect usage. I hope it helps you as well as it helped me!
  2. Basenjigirl Senior Member

    English, USA
    What a plug! Gracias.
  3. aureola Member

    Sweden (English)
    Hello guys and thanks for the link. (I have skimmed through it and will read it more thoroughly when I have more time)

    What I have found as rules of thumb in the article confuses me even more. (I have only studied spanish for 1 year and we have not actually yet learned the imperfect tense, but I can't wait until autumn to learn this so I got some papers from my teacher in advance.)

    In the papers that I got from my spanishteacher these are the rules of thumb that distinguishes between the preterite and the imperfect tenses:

    * Something that describes how someone or something were
    * Habitual/repetitive actions in the past
    * Something that was going on when something else happened

    * Something that suddenly occured (And this is what I'm most confused about because according to the resource above this should be Imperfect tense)
    * Something that describes a chain of events by either;
    a, telling a story of sequencial events, eg first this happened, then that, then that and so on... Something that leads the story forward.
    b, describing something that happened at a very specific time, eg "last thursday, 3 o'clock in the morning" (This is also said to be the Imperfect tense in the article, with these exact words: "The imperfect is used for a) actions and states in progress at some focused point in the past,")
    * Something that happened during a specified amount of time.

    However I feel that sometimes you can find a verb in a context, that corresponds to two or even more of the explanations in BOTH the imperfect and the preterite tenses. If that's the case, is there any rule on how to decide which one should "win"? For example in the following frase, which would be correct?

    When he opened the door, he suddenly saw something in the corner of his eye.
    In this case, the first rule of imperfect should be used for the verb "opened", since it was something that was going on when something else happened - which is that he saw something.
    At the same time, that he opened the door is also leading the story forward, eg first he opened the door, then he saw something, which implies the use of preterite........

    I could give you a number of other examples. This is really the most difficult thing I have ever encountered in learning spanish... hope you can help.

    Btw, thanks a lot for the forum, I have used it for a long time and have found it very useful, although this is my first post.
  4. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    Before I start, I'll say that I'm learning this myself. This is my understanding of the P/I distinction, and as I write this I'm just as much cementing these ideas in my head as I am explaining them. I do tend to think of grammar in very precise terms, so I hope this proves to be a thorough yet not overwhelming explanation.

    The article makes a distinction between "principles" (marked 1a-d and 2a-b) and "rules of thumb" (marked 1 through 6). I will attempt to use the same terminology here to avoid confusion.

    In terms of the P/I distinction, there's a difference between an action or state that began and/or ended (i.e., happened) at a focused point in time, and one that was already happening at a focused point in time. The key to understanding this difference lies in another clause in principle 1a:
    The imperfect is used for a) actions and states in progress at some focused point in the past​
    It might help to think of it this way: Principle 1a says that if you are considering the occurrences associated with some particular point in the past, the imperfect is used if the occurrence flows through or is not bound by that point in time. I like to use the word "unbound" or "unencapsulated" to suggest the imperfect, and "bound" or "encapsulated" to suggest the preterite.

    So here's a look at the rules of thumb you mentioned in light of these principles:
    • Imperfect: Describes how someone or something was
    This is usually true because in English, when we talk about a condition at some point in the past, we are leaving that state unbound in time (without a defined beginning or end). For example:
    I was sick yesterday.
    Estaba enfermo ayer.

    Note that, even though I know in the back of my mind that my sickness had a beginning and end, I'm choosing not to talk about the beginning or end event. On the other hand, if I do choose to focus on when my sickness ended:
    I was sick until I took my pills.
    Estuve enfermo hasta tomar mis pastillas.
    • Imperfect: Habitual/repetitive actions in the past
    No explanation needed. This is almost verbatim from principles 1b and 1c.​
    • Imperfect: Something that was going on when something else happened
    The key here is that something was going on. When we talk about something "going on" when something else happened, we are giving background action, which is unbounded. However, this is not exactly the same as saying two actions occurred at the same time, because two simultaneous actions can still be instantaneous (i.e., "bound" in time), without one giving background to the other. I'll illustrate this further below.​
    • Preterite rules
    All of the preterite rules you've given are different embodiments of principles 2a and 2b. Note that in each case, you are describing events that are bound or encapsulated in time.​

    Now to your example "When he opened the door ..." As I mentioned, it is not sufficient to know whether the actions are associated with the same point in time, because they can either happen or be happening (i.e., be in progress) at that moment. In your example, you are describing two bounded events (events that happened at that moment), so it doesn't matter if they are sequential or overlapping in time:
    When he opened the door, he saw something in the corner of his eye.
    Cuando abrió la puerta, vio algo por el rabo del ojo.

    On the other hand, if you choose to describe the opening of the door as being in progress at the moment he saw something:
    While he was opening the door, he saw something in the corner of his eye.
    Mientras abría la puerta, vio algo por el rabo del ojo.
    (This is for illustration. If the subject is the same in both clauses in English, I believe the preference in Spanish is to use the infinitive: Cuando/mientras abrir la puerta ...)

    I agree in this case it's a very fine distinction; of course, many languages can make distinctions so fine as to have hardly any lexical difference. Usually, the sense of what you are trying to say will tell you whether the action or state is "bound" or "unbound", but in some cases you have to decide for yourself whether or not you are focusing on the "boundedness" of the action (especially because English doesn't mark this aspect in the same way that Spanish does).
  5. aureola Member

    Sweden (English)
    Hello Salsamore and thank you SO MUCH for this explanation!
    Now I think I get it!
    Especially what you wrote about the distincion between "happen" and "happening", the boundedness or unboundedness... brilliant.

    And it was also a big enlightenment what you wrote in your last sentences; "you have to decide for yourself whether or not you are focusing on the "boundedness" of the action" when it's hard to know which rule to apply.

    Now I'll go for the exercises once more and see if the frases makes a little more sence.

    In my example, is there any way one could translate the meanings into english, or explain the differences in significance?

    I give it a shot:
    Cuando abrió la puerta, vio algo por el rabo del ojo.
    He opened the door, at that specific time and it doesn't really matter what happened next (apart from the use of the "when" in the beginning of the sentence...)

    Mientras abría la puerta, vio algo por el rabo del ojo.
    As he was opening the door (as a background action, no real importance for the story) then he suddenly (preterite) saw something.

    If this is the case I would definately go for the second one.
  6. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)

    I think at this point the choice is stylistic. I don't know if using one or the other changes the implied cause-and-effect relationship. One thing I'd note:
    As he was opening the door then he suddenly saw something.​
    We wouldn't use "then" or its Spanish equivalent here, because the imperfect tells us that the process of opening continues both before and after the moment of seeing.
  7. Ivy29 Banned

  8. unspecified

    unspecified Senior Member

    Boston, MA, USA
    English, USA

    Neither does the author of the article. In that section, she was pointing out why lists like these should be avoided.

    Thanks for the link, Salsamore. Good article.
  9. geostan

    geostan Senior Member

    English Canada
    Be careful! If cause and effect are involved, you're dealing with two preterites. And the imperfect does not tell you that an action stopped and then continued. It tells you only that it was interrupted.

    Unfortunately, rules are necessary for the beginner, until he develops a sense of when to use the tenses. Occasionally, when one is trying to cover all bases, the rules seem a little stilted, and may not resist scrutiny or a large number of examples. And let's face it: rules are not perfect.

    Another writer spoke of using an infinitive when the subject of both clauses is the same, but cuando and mientras cannot be followed by infinitives. (Such was the example given.)

    Still another writer, a native speaker, suggested that conocer cannot mean "to meet." But surely, "José y María se conocieron en una fiesta cuando no tenían más de diez años." means just that. They met, became acquainted.

    "used to" is explicit. Assuming it is being used correctly, I cannot think of an example where it would not be translated by the imperfect in Spanish.

    For the example one writer gave:

    Mi padre fue profesor de español, pero ahora es comerciante.
    My father used to be a Spanish teacher, but how he's a merchant.

    The Spanish sentence is correct, but the translation into English is not. If the English sentence, as given, is to be translated correctly into Spanish, then I would say that "era" should be used instead of 'fue." We're dealing here with a contrast between the past and the present.

    These are a few of the comments that caught my eye. Sorry if I appear to have been rambling.

  10. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    That's true. I should've considered that more carefully. Since the P/I distinction is very strong in Spanish, it's likely cause-and-effect relationships are also more clearly differentiated between preterite and imperfect than they are in English.

    The article does not propose to throw away all the rules wholesale. Rather, it shows that rules are most useful if you understand the broad, underlying context behind them. If, as the research paper shows, the P/I distinction can be distilled into a concise set of easy-to-remember principles, why not use these principles as a framework to which the rules of thumb can be associated? That way, developing the sense of how to use the tenses doesn't have to be done piecemeal.

    Admittedly, this is a part of Spanish grammar I need to learn more about.

    I think this is a case of many things getting lost in translation. Ivy is thinking about how conocer is viewed in the original Spanish. We can't normally use a form of the word "know" in English when talking about making an acquaintance. What the native Spanish speaker actually thinks when saying conocí is something like "I started to know (someone)." But we can't say this in English because it sounds awkward. (The closest I can think of without resorting to "met" is "I got to know (someone)".) I realize I'm splitting hairs here, but in the basic meaning, "to meet" doesn't equate to conocer, but rather to empezar a conocer. It is the "empezar a" part that is magically compressed into a single-letter preterite conjugation.

    There's an interesting quirk to the phrase "used to" that I didn't realize until I read the article. The basic sense of "used to" is to impart a sense of custom or continuity to a past action or state that no longer exists. If "used to" is applied to a verb of action like "to run", it indicates the action was habitual. On the other hand, if it is applied to a verb of state like "to be" or "to know", it imparts a sense of continuity.

    Now consider this: verbs of state inherently imply a sense of continuity; thus "used to" is somewhat redundant in this case. Because of this redundancy, an English speaker may shift the temporal focus to the other characteristic of "used to" - namely, the fact that the previous state no longer exists. Based on this line of thinking, "used to" + verb of state can focus on either the continuity of the previous state (imperfect) or the fact that previous state no longer exists (preterite).

    Rewording the English translation of "Mi padre fue" should make this starkly clear:
    My father used to be a Spanish teacher ...
    My father was once a Spanish teacher ...​
    I think any native English speaker would immediately see that these two phrases can mean exactly the same thing! It's obvious in the second translation that we're focusing on the conclusion of a previous state; thus the Spanish version would use the preterite.

    Hey, I ramble too, so no harm done. :D
  11. geostan

    geostan Senior Member

    English Canada
    I've now had a chance to read over the article referred to, and while it is well written, I do not agree completely with the writer. The question of "used to" especially bothers me.

    As I use the phrase, only an imperfect is possible as a translation. I do not accept the "completive" aspect that the writer subscribes to. If such were possible, then sentences like "I used to be a waiter for 10 years" should be possible, but they are not.

    What is true is that the imperfect tense is a secondary tense and cannot be used by itself to express a complete thought. This is why context is so important.

    Consider these two sentences.

    It is someone I knew at the university.
    It is someone I knew at the university who told me that.

    I would use the preterite of conocer in the first example, and the imperfect in the second.

    Another point concerns the so-called special meanings of the preterite with certain verbs. In the first place, the problem is with the English, not with the Spanish. I would suggest that the fact that conoci may mean "I met" does not mean that "knew" is automatically excluded as a translation. Again a context needs to exist for the English speaker to know which one fits. I think the same is true for the other verbs.

    The article's author also gave examples of a preterite with a verb of emotion

    Me entusiasmé al oír las noticias. (beginning) I would suggest (becoming) as more appropriate. This would also explain why conocer could translate "meet" in the preterite, i.e. "became acquainted."

    Another factor is dialect.

    Many years ago, a French pedagogical publication did a comparison of the use of the imperfect and passé composé in Reader's Digest (French version and French Canadian version). What the article found was a greater incidence of the imperfect in the French version. (We're talking here of identical articles.)

    What that tells me is that the underlying principles of the tenses are not viewed in exactly the same way in both dialects. This may also be the case for Spanish, for which there are numerous dialects.

    But I digress.

    The bottom line for me is this.

    The preterite refers to the beginning, the end, or the totality of an action, actions or states.

    The imperfect selects a moment within the limits of a past action or state. It cannot normally indicate forward moving, sequential actions. To illustrate this last point, consider the sentence.

    The police looked everywhere: they inspected the closets, they searched under the bed, they tore open the mattresses.

    I wonder how many people would use four preterites in that sentence. I would use just one, the first one. For me, the other three verbs are explanatory, not forward moving. An apt comparison might be the imperfects acting as adjectives modifying a preterite, a noun.

    Just some more food for thought.
  12. Ivy29 Banned

    [QUOTING :
    <<I think this is a case of many things getting lost in translation. Ivy is thinking about how conocer is viewed in the original Spanish. We can't normally use a form of the word "know" in English when talking about making an acquaintance. What the native Spanish speaker actually thinks when saying conocí is something like "I started to know (someone)." But we can't say this in English because it sounds awkward. (The closest I can think of without resorting to "met" is "I got to know (someone)".) I realize I'm splitting hairs here, but in the basic meaning, "to meet" doesn't equate to conocer, but rather to empezar a conocer. It is the "empezar a" part that is magically compressed into a single-letter preterite conjugation.>>

    To be introduced = ser presentado, presentar
    TO MEET = Conocer. ( nobody who met someone for the first time knows that person completely) In Spanish or in English.
    To know is : CONOCER, I know him, lo conozco. In English means both, in Spanish are different like the verb to BE= SER y ESTAR in English.
    a) conocer ( ENGLISH)
    b) saber. (ENGLISH) I know a lot about NewYork, Sé bastante de la Gran Manzana
    Quiso, quise = Wanted to.
    TRY to = intentar, tratar.

    Simple past ( past flash action, started and finished)
    Imperfect preterite ( the action is extended in the past it is no a PERFECT or finished action. Similar to past progressive in English= I was studying English...

  13. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Some remarks from another non-native.

    When both tenses are possible, it's a matter of perspective which one to use. Each carries a different nuance.

    I agree with the basic idea of the article: the distinction between the preterite and the imperfect is above all a question of perspective, of how you wish to present an event as you retell it.

    Of course, given the particular semantics of an event, often only one of the tenses will make sense, but this is a consequence of that overarching principle.

    Excellent explanation. :thumbsup:
  14. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    The structure "I used to" + infinitive can also be translated as solía + infinitivo in some cases.
  15. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I took the liberty of making some additions to your post. I hope you can see the difference now.

    Less commonly, it would also be possible for all four verbs to come in the imperfect, if the scene described were background for some other event, or if it recurred regularly several times.

    Some time ago in another thread, a poster used the terms "short past" and "long past" to describe the preterite and the imperfect, respectively. I've grown increasingly fond of them. :)
  16. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    I'm beginning to think there may be a difference here between American and Canadian English, because I don't see any problem with that sentence.

    If you run a Google search with the phrase "used to be", you'll find it used in many contexts regarding a completed state. Even more telling, you can search on "it's not what it used to be", a very common phrase (at least in American English). The only way "it's not" works in contrast here with "used to be" is if the latter represents a completed state.

    I agree with Outsider's assessment that all of the following could be cast in either the preterite or imperfect:
    I was sick yesterday.
    I was sick until I took my pills.
    It is someone I knew at the university.
    It is someone I knew at the university who told me that.​
    This is one of the reasons native English speakers have so much trouble with the P/I distinction. When we speak, we may or may not be thinking about whether the action or state is bound or not; or we may be doing so implicitly without realizing it because the distinction doesn't always come out in the language. Spanish on the other hand forces you to choose one or the other.
  17. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    No doubt this can be a useful way to think about it, as long as the analogy is seen as a tool and not a be-all end-all principle. In this case, the student would have to realize that "long past" can be treated as "short past" for the purpose of discussion. In the Mi padre fue profesor example (notwithstanding how it's translated into English), the existence as a professor did occur over a long period of time, but in talking about it the speaker decided to "compress" the state into a single unit of occurrence (i.e., make it "bound").

    :idea: Here's an idea: Instead of "short past" and "long past", how about "limited past" and "unlimited past"? Would these terms be too esoteric?
  18. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Curiously, ancient Greek had a tense called the aorist, which means "unbounded". However, this may cause some confusion, as Greek also had an imperfect, which was different. The terminology for verb aspects is not very suggestive or entirely consistent, unfortunately.
  19. Ivy29 Banned

    I do think unnecessary, beacuse IMPERFECT means it hasn't concluded.
    Simple past or simple perfect preterite is finished action into the past.
    Always the IMPERFECT denotes past action going on into the past.

  20. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Welcome to the forum Salsamore and aureola, and hello everyone!

    I have enjoyed reading the article on the Cervantes website. I may use different terminology, but I like to see Einstein’s guideline for good theories applied. What I am referring to is a variation on Occham’s razor: “As simple as possible, only not simpler”.

    Sets of rules based solely on syntax are doomed to fail in a versatile, living language like Spanish. I personally don’t have anything against some rules based on syntax, but they need to follow Einstein’s guideline.

    Sets of rules based solely on function and generalized structure have more promise but can still have “issues” when taken alone. Same thing with rules based solely on semantics.

    The "principles" in the article are what I call rules of function. They describe grammatical entities not in terms of sequences of symbols (syntax) or possible vs. impossible things represented by the symbols (semantics) but in terms of the connection between an abstract idea that people (at least speakers of English or Spanish) can understand that are represented by the choice of past tenses in Spanish.

    Assuming we know we want a past tense because we want to express something for which past tense in either language is appropriate, we basically have a one-bit choice, imperfect tense – yes or no. If no, the only choice is preterite tense.

    I’ll make a giant leap of faith and see how the principles/rules from the article do when cut down to the bare bones –

    Rules/principles by which to choose a Spanish past tense for a verb based on what we want to imply about the state or action depicted by the verb at the moment or during the time interval implied by the context:

    1. To imply that it was
    a) in progress,
    b) habitual,
    c) repetitious, or
    d) anticipated/planned,
    use the imperfect;

    2. To imply that it was
    a) completed or
    b) just beginning,
    use the preterite.

    Have I destroyed anything important? I don’t know if state vs. action, amount of focus, importance to the story, cause and effect, or interruptedness are relevant.

    Let’s see if it works for general cases –

    Lo que estaba pasando (what was happening) >> in progress, habitual, and/or repetitious but not completed or just beginning >> imperfect. :tick:

    Lo que solía hacer alguien (what used to happen) >> habitual and not completed or just beginning >> imperfect. :tick:

    Lo que ocurrió (what happened) >> completed, or at least just beginning >> preterite. :tick:

    Dijo que estaba enfermo (he said he was sick) >> in progress >> imperfect. :tick:

    Dijo que estuvo enfermo (he said he had been sick) >> completed >> preterite. :tick:

    Tenía que estudiar (she needed to study) >> in progress? >> imperfect. :tick:

    Tuvo que estudiar (she had to study) >> completed? >> preterite. :tick:

    Eran las nueve y media >> beginning and completed? >> ??
  21. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    Thanks for the welcome! The eran las + (número de horas) construction does seem odd when presented this way. The explanation I can think of is this: The speaker's focus is not on the fact that "Moment 9:30" came and went, but on the fact that Moment 9:30 was in progress (if only for a short time) when the event that occurred at 9:30 happened.
  22. aureola Member

    Sweden (English)
    Hi Forero,

    Thanks for the welcoming, and for your comments,

    I think people have used these things as guidelines, not rules, in trying to see how to apply the rules.
    It's just not so simple that we (at least some of us, that is, I) always can see whether or not something is habitual, not ended and so on.

    I sometimes need to get it explained why a certain rule applies (for instance, the rule of habitualness) and sometimes also why some other rule doesn't apply or why it overrides something else that could seem to fit in as well. (See my example at the end of this post)
    Also, sometimes one focuses on the wrong part of a sentence, and get another idea of what the messenger meant, than what was intended.
    A perfect example of this is my very first post in this thread where I highlighted the things I got confused about in the explanations, whereas, like Salsamore explained later, I hade focused on the wrong part of the sentence:

    I had highlighted the "focused point" part, while I should have highlighted the "in progress" part instead.

    Here's another example of a somewhat ambigous sentence:

    "Yesterday I started eating healthy food."

    The "started to" suggest the use of preterite, but eating healhty food is something that the person continues with, it is something that now a habit. (The day before yesterday it wasn't, but from yesterday and on it is.)
    Now I would use the preterite here anyway I think, because I feel that the "started to" part takes presedence, but I'm not sure.
  23. sendai

    sendai Senior Member

    Midwestern US
    "Ayer empecé a comer...."

    The verb that gets conjugated in this sentence is "empezar", not "comer". Eating healthy food may be habit, but that's not the right question. Is starting to eat health food a habit in this sentence? The answer is of course no.

    By the way, I sympathize with your struggle. Applying the guidelines in the article is very hard until you know the difference between the two tenses, at which time you no longer need the guidelines. ;)
  24. aureola Member

    Sweden (English)
    Thank you Sendai.

    Yes, that was what I thought too...
    Btw maybe you could take a look at my attempts in my post above? :) It would be very appreciated...
  25. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    I think many misunderstood that the items marked in red there are when those verbs are used in the PRETERITE in the Spanish. Obviously the infinitives do not mean what's in the quotes. The author should have more clearly written (and this is what's in many of my grammars):

    QUISE = I tried to/sought to
    NO QUISE = I refused to/wouldn't/decided not to
    SUPO= He found out
    PUDE = I managed to
    NO PUDE = I failed to
    TUVE = I got/received
    CONOCÍ = I met

    That's what the grammars say.. Just for clarity..

    The most compelling of these for me are NO QUISE for which I can think of no context where I DIDN'T WANT TO would translate it accurately, and CONOCÍ where "KNEW" is impossible in the English to translate it. Though I have to say I like Ivy29's assertion that like Spanish has TWO verbs for English's TO BE, SER & ESTAR -- the same seems true that ENGLISH has two verbs for CONOCER, KNOW and MEET. That's an interesting way to look at it.
  26. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    Assuming it doesn't hijack the thread can you make any distinction for me between the imperfect tense of any given verb in Spanish and using SOLÍA + the infinitive of that same verb? (when "used to" is the intended context as opposed to [was + -ing] which is often the translation of the imperfect tense in Spanish)

  27. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English

    I loved that Salas.. Thanks -- but could I submit that WHENEVER we are describing a process -- and it's Imperfect in SPanish -- English uses past progressive syntax. I teach my students that Imperfect over into English comes over as either USED TO or WAS + -ING. There are cases where English uses SIMPLE PAST for Spanish's Imperfect but in the sentence there then has to be some other durative marker in the English, underlined below. These are examples.

    They walked and chatted a lot in those days.
    Caminaban y charlaban mucho en aquellos días.

    She stayed as long as she could but...
    Se quedaba el mayor tiempo posible, pero...

    Without the durative context markers the translations would be preterite in the Spanish.

  28. María Madrid

    María Madrid Banned

    Madrid, Spain
    Spanish Spain
    Se quedó el mayor tiempo posible that's what a native speaker would say. Unless you mean that she did that several times,then quedaba is ok. Saludos, :)
  29. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    That makes more sense to me. The length of "she stayed" is a single event that is equated with an encapsulated (though not definite) length of time, "as long as she could". The encapsulation to me triggers the preterite.

    To put it another way, "as long as she could" still emphasizes the end of the action, even though the actual time of completion is unknown.
  30. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    But you agree with my first example where English is simple past and Spanish is imperfect?
  31. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    Yes, I agree completely. It's the same thing as saying "They used to walk and chat a lot in those days"; but since "in those days" provides a similar function as "used to", you can forgo the latter construct and still retain the habituality of the action.
  32. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    I have to admit that I was surprised to note in the article that in the 'complexity' of what he was presenting you really lose one of the essentials that all students should be taught that IMPERFECT in Spanish paints a background picture without speaking to any of the action within that picture. Background info is a pretty easy concept for even basic students to pick up on. Maybe I'm missing something but he doesn't really drive home that aspect.

  33. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I was thinking the same thing. "Eran las nueve y media" is kind of like "Érase que se era". On the other hand you can paint a picture with preterite too: "Fue en un Harlem español en donde yo te conocí."

    I also think that "focused point" business breaks the author's own principle because it confuses more than it helps.
  34. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    I searched the article and the author doesn't use the word "background" anywhere. Given that her goal was to improve how P/I is explained in textbooks and not to throw away traditional rules wholesale, she may have not felt the need to point out this particular rule because it is probably more reliable that many of the other ones applied to the imperfect. I would agree that "background action" is a useful rule to mention. (Of course this is a consequence of principle 1a.)

    I share the same concern that the author's use of the word "focus" in both the imperfect and preterite principles may cause confusion. She may have been better off using the term "specific/particular point in the past" in her imperfect principle rather than "focused point", and/or used the word "emphasize" in her explanations of the preterite rather than "focus". Thus:
    1a) The imperfect is used for actions and states in progress at some specific/particular point in the past.​
    The only issue I'd see with with wording is that "specific" can mean "defined" - in other words, it might imply that you have to actually know the point in time through which the action is occurring. But I'm surely splitting hairs at this point. :)
  35. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I don't call it splitting hairs to try to perfect the principles. The author is saying these principles are meant to cover all imperfect vs. preterite choices in Spanish and to do it better than other approaches.

    Her main point is that textbooks should try not to mislead. Her principles are reasonable, and overall better than most textbooks, but to me they seem to suffer from the same type of little flaw as the textbooks. They do mislead. They are at the same time technical enough to require further training for their proper application (What is repetitive as opposed to repeated?) and inaccurate enough to prove they are incomplete.

    The author has the right idea, but something is missing. So close, and yet so far.... Well, this isn't a textbook but a paper on how to improve textbooks.

    In mathematics we call this "searching for God's proof of the theorem", one that undoubtably says exactly what it needs to say.

    I don't understand why a point in time has to be mentioned in 1a. Is it a necessary condition for using the imperfect for actions or states in progress? (Does anyone have examples?) Does that condition help with "eran las nueve y media"?

    I am looking over my college Spanish textbook (A Concept Approach to Spanish (Da Silva), and I find that it too is almost perfect though a little less concise. It's main strong point is the way it is organized. I can turn right to the pages explaining the past tenses and find good examples of each of the concepts with accurate, explained, translations that interpret rather than translate "literally". Da Silva's headings are unclear in themselves and are sometimes contradictory, but what she really means by them is clear from the examples.

    But she mentions the mental or emotional state thing. It may be OK because it is just in a heading to introduce some of the examples. She mentions the "meaning changing" but stresses "the essential difference in translation", so that could be OK too. Everything seems to be covered except "eran las nueve y media", which I may just have to give up and call a traditional exception.

    I remember there are some surprises hidden in the Ejercicios, just so we students know their is always more to learn.
  36. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    Yes.. True.. But I'm pretty sure the verb TO BE (SER) is the only verb that allows a picture to be painted with PRETERITE. But good reminder.

  37. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    That kind of statement would necessarily be background for some other event: "It was half past nine, when..." Here, "half past nine" is interpreted as a time interval, rather than a point in time. Compare:

    ¿A qué horas nació tu hijo?
    Fue a las nueve y media.

    In this case, time is the main topic, and it is seen as a precise instant.
  38. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    In the course I wrote, still being considered for publishing --- I attempted to boil down all the essential of Spanish Intermediate/Advanced grammar to 40 pages; short concise tables for learning POR TANTO and the like and targetted no more than 2 pages explanations for the stuff like SUBJUNCTIVE -- Spanish grammar in a soundbite age. LOTS of examples showing the various cases. I think you guys would love my section called PRONOMINAL VERBS and the MANY, MANY USES OF 'SE'. No grammar books has ever gone at that topic the way I did.

    But all that to say -- that the BROADER explanations actually have a greater chance of covering ALL cases of the IMPERFECT and PRETERITE. I think in the attempt to get too scientific about it -- you would tend to potentially MISS a case -- or have to shoe horn a case like ERAN LAS NUEVE... which she indeed had to do. ERAN LAS NUEVE is simply BACKGROUND INFO -- so -- IMPERFECT... See how easy that was? :D.

    The English mind can wrap itself about the idea of BACKGROUND PICTURE versus SNAPSHOTS of actions within the background. And though a little oversimplified -- it can explain 'every case' of Imperfect versus preterite.

    When a native Spanish speaker utter ESTABA ENFERMO -- and NOTHING else.. The hearer would then ask. ¿Y QUÉ PASÓ?. When the speeaker would utter ESTUVE ENFERMO. The hearer has no further questions. A snapshot and the hearer knows YA NO ESTÁ ENFERMO.

    That's another thing that opens students eyes about ESTABA and ESTUVO. ESTUVO means -- AND NOT ANYMORE.
  39. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Not always, though: :)

    Estuve enfermo hace un año, y estoy enfermo otra vez.
  40. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    Well that's 2 separate sicknesses. You are not still sick from the first sickness. You were sick and then got better and then got sick again. So the principle still works. ;) And what it ESTÓ?
  41. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    The trouble with playing with semantics like that is that is makes the rules less precise, and therefore less useful. :)

    A typo. I've corrected it, thanks.
  42. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    The solía + infinitivo construction refers more explicitly to a past habit. Soler means "to be in the habit of".

    I agree with Salsamore: that particular function of the imperfect is included in the principle 1a: ongoing event in the past.
  43. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Entonces, ¿"eran las nueve y media" se puede llamar "ongoing"?
  44. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    If you say eran las nueve y media, you will always be speaking in reference to another event (though it may just be implied). The other event is what happened, las nueve y media is when it happened.
    In this sense, I can accept this phrase as an instance of case 1a: the hour on the clock is something which was happening when something else occurred (think of the hand of the clock frozen in time, pointing to the figure 6).

    P.S. As a matter of fact, I would say a good image for the imperfect/preterite distinction is that the imperfect is like the "still" key in a VCR, and the preterite is like the "play" key. Or (another analogy) the imperfect is like those scenes in The Matrix that were shown in slow motion and stereoscopic perspective, while the preterite is for scenes at normal speed. :)
  45. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    Yes, I whole-heartedly agree with that generally. The thing is that using sentences with a semantic that will rarely if ever come up in life for the average student -- isn't really productive. ANY rule of thumb can be disproven as an 'ALWAYS WORKS' paradigm. But 'rules of thumb' come into being because they are 96%+ reliable. And a student can usually go to the bank on them.

    And in your sentence there it's not a matter of semantics really... because there is only ONE possible semantic understanding for what's communicated there. Your sentence would never work if the context were that you never healed from the first sickness. So again -- the rule of thumb actually works perfectly -- even with that sentence. ESTUVE means "after that sickness I got well... (I was NO LONGER sick) and then...."
  46. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    I can't agree to the word 'event'. Take a look at this sentence.

    "It was a cloudy day and the sky was blue. The sounds of the ocean were swirling around in my ears and I felt totally at ease and peaceful."

    Obviously from some literary source -- and every verb in that paragraph would be in the Imperfect in Spanish.. But I would hardly call those verbs -- EVENT verbs. Specifically -- 'felt' is not an event. I could be splitting hairs but the article was such an attempt at being precise that I was expecting a better explanation for the case of 'background info' which doesn't really exist in the students mind as a 'timed' thing.
  47. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I feel that this is also a question of semantics. I have a very broad concept of "event". For me, it doesn't have to be a sudden thing; feeling something can be an event.

    The preterite doesn't have to describe dynamic or "active" things. It can be used with states, too. And conversely the imperfect isn't restricted to stative or "passive" conditions. This is why I tend to prefer the (to me) broader word "event" to others like "action".
  48. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    A stretch to be sure -- but I agree. These are the points at which --we who like 'formulas' to actually work in ALL cases -- do some amazing gymnastics to account for what should be considered rule-breakers. "Eran las nueve" is a 'rule-breaker' of the Imperfect Tense to me and that's how I teach it and the students totally get it.

    LOVE THOSE!!!! Good stuff.
  49. NewdestinyX

    NewdestinyX Senior Member

    PA, USA|Do work in Spain
    American English
    I see your points and can concur to a point. But that approach, IMHO, won't work for students. They will start asking themselves the wrong questions. This is a question, as a litmus test, that should always work.

    Is the action/state a general 'description'/'past habit' ?= Imperfect
    Is the action/state 'finite'/'once and done' (even if it had length)? = Preterite

    That is a SUPER simplified, maybe oversimplified, explanation but it accounts for all cases of either - including ERAN las nueve -- if you wanted to stretch a bit. :)

    At least Intermediate students I've worked with rarely make errors using that test.
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