Let's take a simple sentence in English and see if we can figure out what it means:
- When I was a child I went to Disneyland.
In Spanish, we don't have that ambiguity.
That's because Spanish has two simple past tenses. This can be confusing to some people learning Spanish, because in Spanish there can be two different verb tenses to use in translating a single English verb.
Those two tenses are the preterite (el pretérito) and the imperfect (el imperfecto). Note that the difference is suggested by their names. The imperfect tense is "imperfect" in that it is incomplete or not taking place at a particular time. The preterite, on the other hand, generally refers to an action that took place at a particular time.
Let's look at two possible Spanish translations for the sentence at the beginning of this lesson. First, the preterite:
- Cuando era niño fui a Disneyland.
- Cuando era niño iba a Disneyland.
Frequently, the imperfect form is translated as "used to." The above sentence could be translated as "When I was a child I used to go to Disneyland." The imperfect form also can often be translated in the "past tense of to be + _____ing" form, indicating an action in progress. "When I lived in Disneyland I was going to Disneyland often." Here are some example sentences of the two tenses:
- Ayer (a specific time) llovió (preterite). Yesterday it rained.
- Iba (imperfect, no definite time) a ir a la piscina, pero llovía (imperfect, no definite time, activity in progress). I was going to go to the pool, but it was raining.
- Cuando yo comía (imperfect, no specific time, action is incomplete), mi amigo me llamó (preterite, an incident that happened and was completed at a specific time) por teléfono. While I was eating, my friend called me on the phone.
- Cuando yo comía (imperfect, no specific time, action isn't completed), yo charlaba (imperfect, no specific end of action) a mis amigos. While I was eating I chatted with my friends.
- Cuando él hablaba (imperfect, no specific time, action in progress), tropezó (preterite, a completed action) con la alfombra. While he was talking he tripped on the carpet.
Sometimes a verb can be translated using a different word depending on whether the preterite or imperfect is used.
- Conocí a María. I met María.
- Conocía a María, I knew Maria.
Keep those distinctions in mind and you'll be able to keep the tenses straight.
Additional notes:Other past tenses: To be technical, Spanish has two simple indicative past tenses, the tenses that we usually think of when we talk about the past tense in English. Some other Spanish verb uses could be considered a type of past tense. For example, there is the imperfect subjunctive used in dependent clauses such as the viniera in "Yo esperaba que José viniera," I expected that José would come. There are also various compound tenses that can refer to actions in the past: He comprado, I have bought; yo estaba comprando, I was buying. These forms frequently are learned when learning the simple forms of auxiliary verbs.
Ambiguity of person: Note that the first- and third-person forms in the imperfect are conjugatead identically for -ar verbs. So "hablaba" could mean "I was speaking," "he was speaking," "she was speaking" or "you were speaking." A pronoun can be used to clarify if the context does not.