When describing the past in Spanish we can find mainly two tenses in Spanish to express the simple past in English. Let’s check some specific cases.
You might have seen these two tenses before. Probably, you were told that preterite is used for specific actions and imperfect for describing and telling repeted actions.
However, we need some perspective here. Many times when you’re telling a story you might think preterite should be used because it’s a specific action, but after you discover that imperfect tense was the best choice you can be confused and wonder why if it was a specific event.
Well, as many grammar topics in Spanish, culture is a big factor to understand the structure. Something that for you could be specific, a Latin American would express it as a description.
So, for example, if you want to say to a friend “yesterday I was very tired, so I went to sleep early” you should say:
“Ayer estaba cansado(a) así que me acosté temprano” instead of: “Ayer estuve cansado (a) así que y me acosté temprano”.
Yes, we know, we said “ayer” which shows a specific time, but there are two aspects to bear in mind:
- Preterite expresses a finished action, that is to say, we know the end of the action. When we talk about states, emotions and so on, we usually don’t know for sure the time it finished, so you would find imperfect more often.
- Describing is one of the most popular uses of speech acts we prefer in Spanish. Stating isolated facts is not that common for us. If you’re talking to a friend in Spanish, what you probably feel you’re doing is narrating, you need to include yourself in the story. So, you might require a lot the use of the imperfect tense because you usually need to describe. Most of times you would need the preterite if you are stating a fact (but not including yourself in the description).
In the example, you’re describing your state and then you mention the action you did, which would require the preterite (me acosté).
In fact, an extra tip for you to choose better could be: usually verbs that express movement require more often the preterite tense, because we can perceive the ending of the action.
So, next time think if your message requires including the person acting in the story (Imperfect) or just a specific fact in the past (Preterite).
By Yenny Urrego – Espanovo Team