El misterio tras el imperfecto vs el pretérito

¡Hola!

I figured that since I’ve been so sporadic about posting lately (por mi trabajo), I’d offer something a bit more in-depth which I hope will dispel más dudas about this fun but crazy thing called Spanish grammar. Today I want to focus on the difference between the pretérito and the imperfecto, a tricky subject which has induced many a tequila-induced coma for beginning and intermediate students of Spanish. I won’t get into the conjugations of these tenses, as I assume that my readers have been exposed to them already (if not, please visit this link for a refresher), but instead I’ll offer a few pointers for distinguishing between them.

The real reason that we English speakers struggle with these tenses is that we don’t always make the distinction in our language. Let’s take, for example, the sentence “I worked from 9 to 5.” Without additional context, it’s hard to say whether this was a one-time event or a multiple occurrence, whether it happened yesterday or over a period of years. To clear up the confusion, we can say things like “I often used to work 9 to 5” or “I would work every day from 9 to 5” or “I worked 9 to 5 on Monday.” Let’s dissect these sentences and see if we can’t place them in either the imperfecto or pretérito in Spanish.

We’ll start with the imperfecto. Generally, this tense is used to describe things that happened over time with no fixed beginning or end implied. It corresponds to the English “used to” or “would.” The sentence “I used to work 9 to 5” is thus translated “Yo trabajaba desde las 9 hasta las 5.” From this sentence we can infer that the action is past, but we don’t know how long it lasted or how many times it took place. We’re basically describing a repeated action without attaching any time parameters to it.

In the same way, “I would work every day from 9 to 5” implies that the action happened more than once and took place over an extended period of time. “Trabajaba…” corresponds to “would work” as it relates to the past (note that “would” has another use in English, called the conditional, which is expressed by a totally different set of conjugations in Spanish). The actual number of months or years that “I would work from 9 to 5” is not mentioned and is totally irrelevant to the conversation.

Words such as “often,” “every day,” “frequently,” “always,” etc. often accompany our “used tos” and “woulds” in English. The same thing happens with the Spanish imperfecto. “A menudo trabajaba…”, “todos los días trabajaba,” “con frecuencia trabajaba…”, “siempre trabajaba…”. These words describe the frequency of an action without specifying a beginning, end, or the number of times the action occurred.

When, however, we specify a time or fix the number of times something occurred, we are entering into the world of the pretérito. “I worked from 9 to 5 on Monday” specifies the exact eight hours I worked and on which day. By stating “on Monday,” it’s obvious that I’m referring to a one-time event that started, ended and fit into an established period of time that completed in a definite and “it’s totally over” kind of way. In Spanish, this sentence would translate as “El lunes yo trabajé desde las 9 hasta las 5.” Think of the imperfecto as those actions which drag through time and the pretérito as those actions which… boom… happen and are done with.

Let’s say that my work schedule was usually 9 to 5 in the past, but one day I worked from 10 to 6. How would I express this deviation from the norm? Would I use the imperfecto or the pretérito? Based on the above logic, I would say something like “Generalmente yo trabajaba desde las 9 hasta las 5, pero una vez trabajé de las 10 a las 6.” The “una vez” part of this sentence indicates that this instance was an aberration and occurred one set, specific time. Therefore, into the pretérito it goes.

The imperfecto and pretérito often do co-exist in the same sentence, such as in the previous example. Let’s take the sentence “I was working last night when my sister called.” The first part of the sentence- “I was working”- is essentially descriptive and, as such, is translated by the imperfecto. It doesn’t matter when I started working or when I finished, nor is this information even supplied. The point is, I was doing this thing when… boom… something else happened. The something that happened- my sister’s interruption, in this case- is the pretértito part of the sentence. In Spanish, this would look like this: “Trabajaba (or estaba trabajando) anoche cuando llamó mi hermana.”

In English, we have this thing called the past progressive: “I was cooking,” “He was eating,” “They were sleeping,” etc. We normally use this construction whenever another action comes along and interrupts the flow of things. “I was sleeping when you slammed the door” = “Dormía (or estaba durmiendo) cuando tiraste la puerta.” As this example demonstrates, the past progressive also exists in Spanish, but the verb is conjugated in the imperfecto. It’s used to describe what was happening when something else happened. That something else, the interrupting action, is expressed by the pretérito.

Let’s look at an ambiguous case and see if we can decipher the subtleties between the imperfecto and the pretérito. The sentences “estaba trabajando” and “estuve trabajando” are both correct, but they don’t mean the same thing. If you say “estaba trabajando,” you’re basically implying that something sudden or specific occurred while you were working. You’re setting the stage for an interrupting action and your listener will anticipate that there’s more to the story. If someone asked you, for instance, “¿Por qué no regresaste mi llamada?”, you could respond “Estaba trabajando.” Or you could say something like “Estaba trabajando cuando ocurrió el terremoto.” If, however, you say “Estuve trabajando,” you’re just saying that you worked, period. There’s no expectation that something happened during your working hours. It’s basically just a declaration of something that happened in the past and is… boom… over with. You might as well say “Trabajé anoche,” which is what most speakers actually would do.

There are a number of common verbs which change meaning depending on whether you use the imperfecto or the pretérito, but the logic behind them remains the same. Let’s take the verb querer, for instance, and borrow the world’s most famous Spanish not-so-Spanish phrase to illustrate the point: “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” In the past tense, this could read “Yo quería Taco Bell” or “Yo quise Taco Bell.” One of these sentences, however, states that I got my Taco Bell whereas the other leaves the question hanging. If I use the imperfecto “quería,” I’m essentially expressing a wish or desire which may have not been fulfilled. It could be that I was arguing with my wife about which where to eat and “ella quería McDonalds y yo quería Taco Bell.” Did I get my way? Did my desire for chalupas trump my desire to hold my marriage intact? The imperfecto does not tell us. The pretérito, however, states emphatically that I got my Taco Bell.

In the same way, if I say “No quería trabajar,” I’m sort of implying that I worked even though I didn’t want to. The emphasis is on the feeling I had and not on the action committed. If I say “No quise trabajar,” I called the office and told my boss where to stick it. The pretérito here is simply stating that “I did not work because I did not want to.”

The same thing happens with poder. If I say “No podía trabajar” I’m saying that I lacked the capacity to work over an unspecified period of time. If I say “No pude trabajar,” I’m referring to an instance in which I simply could not work. Maybe I had a dentist appointment which prevented me from going to work, or I simply got sick one day (or pretended to be). If I say “Yo podía explicar la diferencia entre el imperfecto y el pretérito,” I’m expressing that I had the capacity to explain the difference between these tenses but who knows if I ever did. If I say “Yo pude explicar la diferencia…”, in some particular instance (such as in this blog post), I actually did.

To recap, if you’re describing a feeling or an ability you once had, an action that you carried out multiple times or over an extended period of time, or if you’re just reminiscing about the way things “used to be,” you’ll use the imperfecto. If you’re describing a completed action you committed at some particular moment, and you can specify either when it happened or how many times it occurred, you’ll use the pretérito. When both are used in the same sentence, the imperfecto describes what was going on when a pretérito action came along and interrupted the flow of events.

I hope this helps clear up the difference. I’ll close with this thought, which I’m sure you’ll get: “Yo quería publicar este artículo la semana pasada pero no pude.” Sorry it took so long ☹

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