Learning when to use the Spanish past tenses “Pretérito Imperfecto” and “Pretérito Indefinido” requires quite a bit of learning and practice.
Until this point, we have learned how to conjugate those tenses, as well as the easier cases in which we use them. If you haven’t read those posts, we strongly encourage you to do that first:
To sum up what we learned on those posts:
– IMPERFECTO is the past tense for circumstances : descriptions (physical or emotional), and also of things that were happening regularly in the past. In general, we can name it the tense of “WHAT WAS GOING ON”.
– INDEFINIDO is the tense for actions (single actions or series of different actions, one after another). We can name it the tense of “WHAT HAPPENED”.
We Spanish speakers choose between Indefinido and Imperfecto at the speed of light 🙂 without having to think about it. But for Spanish learners it’s more challenging.
Everything is relative
Take this sentence:
“I was at the park”.
Is that something that “happened”, or that “was going on”?.
The answer is it can be both. It depends on the context given by the rest of the sentence. Everything is relative.
If I just say “I was at the park yesterday.”, full stop, I am treating it as something that happened. So I would use indefinido:
I was at the park yesterday = Ayer estuve (indefinido) en el parque.
But if I say “I saw Helena when I was at the park”, it’s different. In that sentence, in a relative sense, what happened is that I saw Helena, and “I was at the park” is the circumstance, it’s what was going on when I saw her. Thus:
I saw Helena when I was at the park = Vi (indefinido) a Helena cuando estaba (imperfecto) en el parque.
Let’s examine “Vi a Helena cuando estaba en el parque” with a time graph:
When mixing Indefinido and Imperfecto, try to consider each verb in context: does it play the role of “happened” or the role of “was going on” in a relative sense?
One more example
We will now study another example, similar to the previous one. Let’s try to translate this text to Spanish:
I was in McDonalds yesterday. Pablo came with me. While we were there, we ate two burgers.
We can analyze each sentence separately:
1. I was in a McDonalds yesterday = Ayer estuve (indefinido) en un McDonalds.
I’m just stating it as something that happened.
2. Pablo came with me = Pablo vino (indefinido) conmigo.
Again, just stating something that happened.
3. While we were there, we ate two burgers = Mientras estábamos (imperfecto) allí, nos comimos (indefinido) dos hamburguesas.
Here, “We ate two burgers” is what happened while something else was going on: “we were there”.
Then, the whole translation is:
Ayer estuve en un McDonalds. Pablo vino conmigo. Mientras estábamos allí, nos comimos dos hamburguesas.
Can I read other examples?
I’m writing a final post on this topic where I will offer more examples and analysis of them. Stay tuned!