A Date in Madrid: an Annotated Story About Imperfects, Preterits and Conditionals

December 12, 2016
<p>You know your Spanish is in great shape when you can talk about something that happened to you without getting your verb tenses all mixed up. <strong>Getting better at storytelling</strong> is one of the best things you can do on your road towards fluency, and in order to do it successfully, you need to master the <strong>imperfect</strong>, the <strong>preterit</strong> (<span class="sp">pretérito perfecto simple</span>), and the <strong>conditional</strong>.</p><p>Instead of making a list of rules for each tense and going over a few simple phrases, let's observe them in their natural habitat: <strong>the story</strong>.</p><p>What follows is a Spanishified liberal translation of a moving anecdote that I came across while reading the bestseller <a href="https://www.amazon.com/Essentialism-Disciplined-Pursuit-Greg-McKeown/dp/0804137382/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481541656&sr=1-1&keywords=essentialism">Essentialism</a>). It's an excellent illustration of how these verb tenses work together to move the plot forwards.</p><p>Here is paragraph one out of three:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Hace tiempo, Rocío <span class="correct">me contó<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Preterit‑1"></span></span> la historia de cuando su padre <span class="almost">le había prometido<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imperfect‑1"></span></span> llevarla a ver una película en uno de los cines del centro de Madrid. Rocío y su padre <span class="almost">llevaban meses planificando<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑2"></span></span> minuciosamente el evento juntos. <span class="almost">Se sabían<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑3"></span></span> el itinerario de memoria: él <span class="mistake">saldría<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Conditional‑1"></span></span> un poco antes del trabajo para ir a recogerla al colegio, <span class="mistake">irían andando<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑2"></span></span> hasta la parada de metro más cercana y <span class="mistake">cogerían<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑3"></span></span> la línea 10 hasta Tribunal, luego <span class="mistake">cruzarían<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑4"></span></span> la Gran Vía, <span class="mistake">pedirían<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑5"></span></span> dos palmeras de chocolate en La Mallorquina y <span class="mistake">harían<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑6"></span></span> tiempo comprando fuegos artificiales y bengalas en el mercadillo de Navidad de la Plaza Mayor. Después del cine, <span class="mistake">cenarían<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑7"></span></span> un escalope en el restaurante favorito de Rocío, <span class="mistake">cogerían<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑8"></span></span> un taxi de vuelta a casa y <span class="mistake">subirían<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑9"></span></span> a la azotea del edificio para encender los fuegos artificiales. El repaso continuo de cada uno de los detalles del plan <span class="almost">se había convertido<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑4"></span></span> en el pasatiempo favorito de ambos.</span><br><span class="en">Some time ago, Rocío told me the story about the time her father had promised to take her to see a movie in one of the theaters in the city center of Madrid. Rocío and her dad had been carefully planning the event together for months. They knew the itinerary by heart: he would leave a bit early from work to go pick her up at school, they would walk to the nearest metro stop, and they would take the 10 line until Tribunal, then they would cross the Gran Vía, order two <a href="https://11870.com/k/es/es/madrid/explora/principal/las-mejores-palmeras-de-chocolate-de-madrid?utm_source=principal&utm_medium=email">chocolate palmiers</a> at La Mallorquina, and kill time buying fireworks and sparklers in the Christmas market at the Plaza Mayor. After the movie, they would have a schnitzel in Rocío's favorite restaurant, they would grab a taxi back home and they would go up to the roof of the building to light up the firecrackers. The continuous review of each of the details of the plan had become their favorite pass time.</span></p></div><ul><li>We use the <strong>preterit</strong> to <strong>put the focus</strong> on past actions and events that took place at a specific point in the story. In the first sentence, <span class="sp">hace tiempo</span> sets the scene and <span class="index index--annotation-manual correct">Pret‑1</span> puts the focus on what happened at that point in time.</p></li><li><p>We use the <strong>imperfect</strong> to <strong>take the focus away</strong> from past actions and events (so it can be placed on something else). Using the imperfect in <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑1</span> is a stylistic choice. The sentence would have also worked in the preterit: <span class="sp">Rocío me contó la historia de cuando su padre <span class="correct">le prometió<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret"></span></span> llevarla… </span>, but that would imply that the promise was kept. By using the imperfect (or technically, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluperfect#Romance_languages">pluperfect</a>), we add a bit of mystery about whether the promise was kept or not.</p></li><li><p>Anytime we're talking about <strong>habitual actions in the past</strong>, reach for the <strong>imperfect</strong>. That's what we're doing in <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑2</span> and <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑4</span> (don't let gerunds or past participles throw you off).</p></li><li><p>Similar to <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑1</span>, we're using the <strong>imperfect</strong> in <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑3</span> to <strong>set the scene</strong>. The colon is a convenient way to linger on the description.</p></li><li><p>We use the <strong>conditional</strong> to talk about <strong>future events from a past perspective</strong>. Everything from <span class="index index--annotation-manual mistake">Cond‑1</span> to <span class="index index--annotation-manual mistake">Cond‑9</span> is describing the plan that Rocío and her father made before it actually happened. An alternative way to tell it would be to use the imperfect form of <span class="sp">ir a</span>: <span class="sp"><span class="almost">iban a ir andando…<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp"></span></span></span>. The meaning would change a bit, just like the subtle difference in English between <em>they were going to walk…</em> and <em>they would walk…</em></p></li></ul><p>On to paragraph two:<div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Esa tarde todo <span class="almost">estaba yendo<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑5"></span></span> según el plan, hasta que su padre <span class="correct">se encontró<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑2"></span></span> con un viejo compañero del trabajo al salir de la parada de metro. <span class="almost">Llevaban<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑6"></span></span> años sin verse y Rocío <span class="correct">se quedó observando<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑3"></span></span> mientras <span class="almost">se abrazaban<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑7"></span></span> calurosamente. Su amigo <span class="correct">le confesó<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑4"></span></span>: «No sabes la ilusión que me hace que nos hayamos cruzado. Justo el otro día <span class="almost">le estaba diciendo<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑8"></span></span> a mi mujer que <span class="almost">llevábamos<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑9"></span></span> mucho tiempo sin verte. Te vamos a invitar ahora mismo, y por supuesto también a Rocío, a cenar el mejor pulpo a la gallega de todo Madrid» El padre de Rocío <span class="correct">le respondió<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑5"></span></span>: «Álvaro, estoy contentísimo de que nos hayamos encontrado. Ese pulpo tuyo, no me lo pierdo ni loco.»</span><br><span class="en">That afternoon everything was going according to plan until her father ran into an old work colleague as he was leaving the metro station. They hadn't seen each other in years and Rocío watched them while they embraced enthusiastically. His friend told him: "You don't know how happy I am that we ran into each other. Just the other day I was telling my wife that it had been a long time since we saw you. We're inviting you right now, and of course Rocío, to have the best <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polbo_%C3%A1_feira">Galician octopus</a> in Madrid for dinner." Rocío's father replied: "Álvaro, I'm so excited that we ran into each other. There's no way I'm missing your famous octopus.</span></p></div><ul><li><span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑5</span> and <span class="index index--annotation-manual correct">Pret‑2</span> showcase the typical imperfect-preterit one-two punch: the imperfect <strong>sets the scene</strong>, and the preterit <strong>focuses on what happened</strong>.</p></li><li><p><span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑6</span> + <span class="index index--annotation-manual correct">Pret‑3</span> + <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑7</span> is a variation on the same theme. We're putting the focus on Rocío. Everything else at that moment is secondary.</p></li><li><p><span class="index index--annotation-manual correct">Pret‑4</span> and <span class="index index--annotation-manual correct">Pret‑5</span> don't need sentence-specific imperfect verbs to set the scene because that was already done in the previous sentences.</p></li><li><p>Likewise, the <strong>preterit focus can sometimes be implied</strong>. In <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑8</span> and <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑9</span>, the punch line would be something like <span class="sp">…y de repente, <span class="correct">te vi<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret"></span></span></span> (<span class="en">…and suddenly, I saw you</span>). Another option would be to change <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑8</span> into a preterit: <span class="sp">el otro día <span class="correct">le dije<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret"></span></span> a mi mujer…</span></p></li></ul><p>And here is the final paragraph:<div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">A Rocío <span class="correct">se le vino<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑6"></span></span> el mundo encima. Su ilusión de palmeras y cohetes <span class="correct">se esfumó<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑7"></span></span> en un momento. Encima, el pulpo <span class="almost">le daba<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑10"></span></span> asco y ya <span class="almost">se estaba imaginando<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Imp‑11"></span></span> cuánto <span class="mistake">se aburriría<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑10"></span></span> escuchando conversaciones de adultos durante horas. Pero entonces su padre <span class="correct">continuó<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑8"></span></span>: «Pero hoy no puede ser. Rocío y yo tenemos un montón de planes para esta tarde. ¿A que sí?» <span class="correct">Le guiñó<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑9"></span></span> un ojo, <span class="correct">la cogió<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑10"></span></span> de la mano y <span class="correct">siguieron andando<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret‑11"></span></span> Fuencarral abajo para continuar la que <span class="mistake">acabaría siendo<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Cond‑11"></span></span> una noche inolvidable en Madrid.</span><br><span class="en">Rocío felt the disappointment washing over her. Her dreams of palmiers and firecrackers evaporated in an instant. Besides, she thought octopus was disgusting and she was already imagining how bored she would be listening to adult conversations for hours. But then her father continued: "But not today. Rocío and I have a bunch of plans for this afternoon. Isn't that right? He winked at her, grabbed her hand and went on walking down Fuencarral to continue what would become an unforgettable night in Madrid."</span></p></div><ul><li>Anytime you want to talk about <strong>specific events that happened in the past</strong>, like in <span class="index index--annotation-manual correct">Pret‑6</span> through <span class="index index--annotation-manual correct">Pret‑11</span>, the <strong>preterit</strong> is your friend.</p></li><li><p><span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑10</span> and <span class="index index--annotation-manual almost">Imp‑11</span> are not specific events in the context of this story. You could say <span class="sp">El pulpo <span class="correct">le dio<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret"></span></span> asco</span> if she was right about to eat it, or <span class="sp"><span class="correct">se imaginó<span class="index index--annotation-manual" manual="Pret"></span></span> cuánto se aburriría</span>, but the certainty takes dramatic effect away from the punch line at <span class="index index--annotation-manual correct">Pret‑8</span></p></li><li><p>In <span class="index index--annotation-manual mistake">Cond‑10</span> Rocío hasn't started getting bored. In <span class="index index--annotation-manual mistake">Cond‑11</span>, the night hasn't yet become unforgettable. We use the <strong>conditional</strong> because, in both cases, we're in the past, <strong>talking about an event that hasn't yet happened</strong> (indeed, it may never happen).</p></li></ul><p>This story is full of useful <a href="https://deliberatespanish.com/blog/fix-mistakes">scaffold sentences</a>. My advice is to <strong>spend 30 minutes every day memorizing each sentence</strong>. Keep it simple:<ul><li>read a sentence out loud</li><li>look away</li><li>try to repeat it</li><li>look back to see what you forgot</li><li>keep doing this until you can hold the whole thing in memory</li><li>move on to the next sentence</li></ul><p>A couple of weeks of this, and you'll be <strong>telling stories like a Spanish pro</strong>.</p><p>Let me know how it goes in the comments.</p>