Tell Better Stories in Spanish: The Recent Past

April 22, 2017
<p>This is part 2 of a 3-part series about <a href="">telling better stories in Spanish</a>:</p><ul><li><a href=""><strong>The past</strong></a></li><li><a href="#recent_stories"><strong>The recent</strong></a></li><li><a href=""><strong>The upcoming</strong></a></li></ul><h2>The recent <a name="recent_stories"></a></h2><p>Although technically part of the past, <strong>the recent</strong> feels philosophically different. Consider the question we're most likely to get asked on a Monday morning in any of the Spanish-speaking regions of the planet: <span class="sp"><strong>¿Qué tal el finde?</strong></span> (<span class="en">How was the weekend?</span>)</p><p>We have two options:</p><ol><li>Using the <strong>preterite</strong>. This is a way of talking about our weekend with a sense of finality: the weekend is over, it's <a href="">part of the past</a>, this is what happened. </li><li>Using the <strong>present perfect</strong>. This lets our conversation partner know that we still consider the weekend a <strong>recent event</strong>: it may be over, but in our mind it still feels relevant and current, it's like we're still living there.</li></ol><p>Let's explore a realistic example (<span class="index index--annotation-manual present-perfect" manual="present perfect"></span> <span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="preterite"></span>):</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><span class="present-perfect">Ha sido<span class="index index--annotation-manual present-perfect" manual="1"></span></span> un fin de semana increíble. No <span class="present-perfect">hemos parado<span class="index index--annotation-manual present-perfect" manual="2"></span></span> de ver sitios, hacer cosas y conocer gente. El viernes <span class="preterite">fuimos<span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="3"></span></span> a Granada, <span class="preterite">visitamos<span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="4"></span></span> la Alhambra y <span class="preterite">salimos<span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="5"></span></span> de fiesta hasta las mil. Al día siguiente <span class="preterite">pasamos<span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="6"></span></span> por un montón de pueblitos alrededor de Sierra Nevada y <span class="preterite">acampamos<span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="7"></span></span> cerca de un embalse. El domingo <span class="preterite">nos hicimos<span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="8"></span></span> amigos de un grupo de catalanes y <span class="preterite">nos fuimos<span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="9"></span></span> con ellos a explorar la zona. La vuelta en tren <span class="present-perfect">ha sido<span class="index index--annotation-manual present-perfect" manual="10"></span></span> dura porque no <span class="present-perfect">hemos dormido<span class="index index--annotation-manual present-perfect" manual="11"></span></span> casi nada, pero el viaje <span class="present-perfect">ha merecido<span class="index index--annotation-manual present-perfect" manual="12"></span></span> la pena.</span><br><span class="en">It was an amazing weekend. We didn't stop checking out places, doing things, and meeting people. On Friday we went to Granada, we visited the Alhambra, and we partied until dawn. The next day we passed by a bunch of small villages around Sierra Nevada and we set up camp next to a dam. On Sunday we befriended a group of Catalonians who were also camped there and we went with them to explore the area. The trip back home was challenging because we barely slept, but the trip was worth it.</span></p></div><p>Is the trip over? In a way, yes. But it's not over as in <em>game over</em>; we got off the train, we're back home, but the trip still feels <strong>more like a recent experience than a distant memory</strong>.</p><p>The present perfect is an optional tense. Many Spanish speakers never use it—they simply <strong>replace it with the preterite</strong>. This means that you absolutely <strong>have to master the preterite</strong>, and that the present perfect is extra credit (Don't you wish it was the other way around?). Even if you master the present perfect, it's a law of Spanish nature that all <strong>present perfect</strong> experiences will eventually become <strong>preterite</strong> experiences. For example, here is the same story, a year later:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">La vuelta en tren <span class="preterite">fue</span> dura porque no <span class="preterite">dormimos</span> casi nada, pero el viaje <span class="preterite">mereció</span> la pena</span>.</p></div><p>If you think about it, it's quite charming: we're making past experiences seem current, simply by changing the verb tense. To wield this power successfully, you must remember one thing: <strong>never use the present perfect with a past time reference</strong>. If you do, you'll be tearing at the fabric of Spanish Spacetime and risk being swallowed up by a black hole:</p><div class="translation mistake"><p><span class="sp">—¿Qué tal el finde?</span><br><span class="en">"How was the weekend?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¡Genial! <strong>El sábado</strong> <span class="mistake">me he comprado</span> un acelerador de partículas nuevecito.</span>💥💥<br><span class="en">"It was awesome! On Saturday I have bought a brand new particle accelerator."</span></p></div><p>We could have avoided this catastrophe:</p><ol><li>By sticking to the preterite (<span class="sp">¡Genial! El sábado <span class="preterite">me compré…</span></span>. As we did in <span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="3"></span> and <span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="8"></span>), or by</li><li>Or, by omitting the explicit reference to the past (<span class="sp"><span class="present-perfect">¡Genial! Me he comprado….</span></span>).</li></ol><p>By <em>explicit reference to the past</em> I mean things like <span class="sp">ayer, la semana pasada, el domingo, hace dos días, etc.</span> Although, there are a few important exceptions:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><strong>Esta mañana</strong> <span class="present-perfect">me he ido</span> a cortar el pelo.</span><br><span class="en">This morning I went to get a haircut.</span></p><p><span class="sp"><span class="present-perfect">He ido</span> a casa de mis padres <strong>hace una hora</strong>.</span><br><span class="en">I went to my parent's house an hour ago.</span></p></div><p>When we use time markers like <span class="sp"><strong>esta mañana, esta tarde, esta noche</strong></span> or <span class="sp"><strong>hace un minuto, hace dos horas, hace un rato</strong></span>, we're technically talking about <strong>parts of the current day</strong>, so instead of considering them as references to the past, we can think of them as part the <strong>present</strong>. Sneaky, I know. A Spanish lawyer was probably involved in that one.</p><h3>What to watch out for: Literal Translation Syndrome</h3><p>Shouldn't the translation for <span class="sp">Ha sido un fin de semana increíble</span> be <span class="en">It <em>has been</em> an incredible weekend</span>?</p><p>Technically, yes. But as we saw before, the Spanish present perfect conveys shades of meaning that the English present perfect doesn't bother with. Instead of translating word for word, you should always try to find a way to translate native-sounding Spanish with native-sounding English, and vice versa.</p><p>So, here are two simple rules to know when we can <strong>use the present perfect in Spanish</strong>:</p><ul><li>1) When <strong>we would also use it in English</strong>:</li></ul><div class="translation"><p><span class="en"><strong>Have you seen</strong> <em>The Empire Strikes Back</em>?"</span><br><span class="sp">¿<span class="present-perfect">Has visto</span> «El Imperio Contraataca»?</span></p></div><ul><li>2) When we wouldn't use it in English, but the past event <strong>still feels relevant or recent in your mind</strong> and <strong>we're not making an explicit reference to the past</strong>:</li></ul><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><strong>Ayer</strong> <span class="preterite">vi</span> a tu madre y <strong>hoy</strong> <span class="present-perfect">he visto</span> a tu padre.</span><br><span class="en">Yesterday I saw your mom and today I saw your dad.</span></p></div><p>Until you develop your Spanish spider-sense, and become comfortable thinking only in Spanish, these can be useful training wheels to make the intermediate stage less awkward.</p><p>Okay, enough theory. Time for some hard-core finger-on-keyboard Spanish action:</p><blockquote class="workout"><strong>Spanish Workout</strong>: Write your own hundred-word dialogue about something that happened today and that still feels relevant (that is, most verbs should be in the present perfect)</p></blockquote><p>If you can't think of anything, feel free to translate this one (You should end up with a total of <strong>11 present perfects</strong>. Also, I've added a couple of [literal expressions] to make it a bit easier to translate into native-sounding Spanish):<div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Emma: "What's up, Lucas? How was your day?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">Lucas: "[The truth is that I haven't stopped]. This morning there was an accident in the subway and I've had to run to get to work on time. [Then I've spent the day busy], from meeting to meeting, and I wasn't able to eat anything until 4pm. How about you?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">Emma: "[Me, very well]. I did a bit of cleaning, I took the dog out for a walk and I've decided that starting tomorrow, I'm going to go running every day."</span></p><p><span class="sp">Lucas: ¿And why didn't you go running today?</span></p><p><span class="sp">Emma: Today [the thing is that] I was super busy, but tomorrow I'm running for sure.</span></p></div><p>As always, you can <a href="">email me</a> your attempt, or post it in the comments below, and I'll send you the corrected version.</p><p>Also, if you enjoy these articles, <a href="">subscribe</a> and stick around for next week's article: <a href="">Spanish Stories About the Upcoming</a>.</p>