Tell Better Stories in Spanish: The Past (Preterite and Imperfect)

April 14, 2017
<div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">"Every time I try to have a conversation in Spanish, I freeze"</span></p></div><p>That's the number one complaint I hear from intermediate Spanish speakers.</p><p>You have no problem understanding what the other person is saying, but when it's your time to speak, you draw a blank. Why does this happen?</p><p>The answer is that the part of your brain that gets activated when you're <strong>consuming Spanish</strong> is very different from the part that's responsible for <strong>producing Spanish</strong>. It's perfectly normal to not be able to come up with a specific construction and at the same time having no problem understanding its meaning when somebody else uses it.</p><p>The single most effective thing you can do to overcome this communication gap is to <strong>practice telling stories in Spanish</strong>. Or rather, practice <strong><em>writing</em></strong> stories in Spanish.</p><p>You might say that you prefer speaking to writing, but that's like saying you prefer playing live concerts to rehearsing in your basement. Yes, improvisation is undeniably sexier, but if it isn't preceded by lots of deliberate practice it can be painful to watch. If you want to get out of Intermediate Purgatory, <strong>you have to get good at writing</strong>.</p><p>Writing a whole story in Spanish may sound intimidating, but don't think you have to churn out a 400-page epic saga: to grab the attention of a native speaker, all you need is a <strong>single sentence</strong>. As long as you clearly indicate who the protagonist is, what happened, and when it happened, you have a story.</p><p>Time is usually the most important component, so I'm going to use it as the backbone of this 3-part series. Most of the stories you will ever tell in your life will belong to one of these three camps:</p><ul><li><a href="#past_stories"><strong>The past</strong></a></li><li><a href=""><strong>The recent</strong></a></li><li><a href=""><strong>The upcoming</strong></a></li></ul><!-- edit --><p>After working through this article series, I hope you will come away with a good understanding of <strong>the fundamental differences between English and Spanish storytelling</strong>, the most common pitfalls, and the best strategies to avoid them.</p><p>Notice I say <em>working through</em> rather than simply <em>reading</em>. To avoid falling into passive consumption la-la land, I recommend <strong>grabbing pen and paper right now</strong> (or keyboard and text editor), and giving yourself the mental space to attempt the Spanish workout at the end of this section. Not because you will get graded at the end, but because it will minimize your chances of getting a brain freeze next time you're having a conversation in Spanish.</p><p>This week we'll cover stories about the past. Next week, we'll do the recent, and the one after that, we'll focus on the upcoming.</p><p><a href="">Subscribe now</a> if you want to get notified when the next article comes out.</p><h2>The past <a name="past_stories"></a></h2><p>When telling stories that take place in the past, there are two fundamental parts to keep in mind: <strong>setting the scene</strong> and <strong>describing the action</strong>.</p><p>The English world has chosen to use the <strong>simple past</strong> for both tasks: "The ground <strong>was</strong> really slippery (setting the scene) and I <strong>fell</strong> on my butt (describing the action)".</p><p>The Spanish world, however, has taken a different tack:</p><ul><li>Use the <strong>imperfect to set the scene</strong>: <span class="sp">El suelo <span class="imperfect">resbalaba</span> mucho…</span></li><li>And the <strong>preterite to highlight the action</strong>: <span class="sp">… y <span class="preterite">me caí</span> de culo.</span></li></ul><p>(For your enjoyment, the verb tenses in this 3-part series have been lovingly color-coded by hand. Make a mental note that light blue means <span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="preterite"></span> and orange means <span class="index index--annotation-manual imperfect" manual="imperfect"></span>)</p><p>The challenge now is to figure out what is context and what is punchline. Let's look at another example:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Yo <span class="preterite">me senté</span> mientras Marcos me lo <span class="imperfect">explicaba</span>.</span><br><span class="en">I sat down while Marcos explained it to me.</span></p></div><p>Here, the spotlight is on the act of sitting down, and the explanation is in the background. In this case —not always—, we can easily reverse this:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Marcos me <span class="preterite">lo explicó</span> mientras yo <span class="imperfect">me sentaba</span>.</span><br><span class="en">Marcos explained it to me while I sat down.</span></p></div><p>Now the focus is on the explanation, and the act of sitting down is in the background.</p><p>In English, the difference between those two examples might feel like hair splitting, but it is significant in Spanish:</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>The <strong>preterite</strong> is what I'm paying attention to (where things happen).<br>The <strong>imperfect</strong> is in my peripheral vision (a backdrop frozen in time).</p></blockquote><p>Instead of painstakingly covering each of the factors that might influence the preterite-imperfect decision, let's do something much more useful: reverse-engineer them by going through <strong>a real story</strong>.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Cuando <span class="imperfect">tenía<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> seis años, mi familia <span class="preterite">se mudó<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> de San Fernando a Madrid. Nuestra casa madrileña <span class="imperfect">estaba<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> en el último piso de un edificio de seis plantas. Desde la ventana de mi habitación <span class="imperfect">se veía<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> un parque enorme, con césped, tierra, árboles, un tobogán y una cancha de baloncesto en la que solo <span class="imperfect">había<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> una canasta.</p><p>Después de pasarme varios meses insistiendo, <span class="preterite">conseguí<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> lo que <span class="imperfect">quería<span class="index index--inline"></span></span>: un balón. Cuando mis padres me lo <span class="preterite">dieron<span class="index index--inline"></span></span>, <span class="preterite">bajé<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> corriendo los seis pisos de escaleras y <span class="preterite">crucé<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> el parque hasta llegar a la cancha. <span class="imperfect">Estaba<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> tan contento de poder jugar al baloncesto que <span class="preterite">tardé<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> un rato en darme cuenta del detalle más importante: a la canasta le <span class="imperfect">faltaba<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> el aro.<br></span><br><span class="en">When I was six years old, my family moved from San Fernando to Madrid. Our Madrid house was on the top floor of a six-story building. From my room window, I could see a huge park, with grass, sand, trees, a slide and a basketball court.</p><p>After insisting for months, I got what I wanted: a basketball. When my parents gave it to me, I flew down the six flights of stairs and ran across the park until I made it to the court. I was so happy about being able to play basketball that it took me a while to realize the most important detail: the backboard was missing the hoop.</span></p></div><ul><li><strong>Context + punchline</strong>: In <span class="index index--annotation imperfect"></span>-<span class="index index--annotation preterite"></span> and <span class="index index--annotation-manual imperfect" manual="11"></span>-<span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="12"></span>, the context (background: this is how things were) comes first followed by the punchline (focus: this is what happened). <span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="6"></span>-<span class="index index--annotation-manual imperfect" manual="7"></span> shows the same pattern, but the order is reversed (first the punchline: I got it, then the context: I wanted it).</p></li><li><p><strong>Context without punchlines</strong> <span class="index index--annotation-manual imperfect" manual="3"></span>, <span class="index index--annotation-manual imperfect" manual="4"></span>, <span class="index index--annotation-manual imperfect" manual="5"></span>, <span class="index index--annotation-manual imperfect" manual="13"></span> This pattern is very common when <strong>describing the scene where the action will take place</strong>. They're pretty handy when you're starting to write your novel: <span class="sp"><span class="imperfect">Era</span> una noche oscura y tormentosa.</span> (<span class="en">It was a dark and stormy night.</span>)</p></li><li><p><strong>Punchlines without context</strong> <span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="8"></span>, <span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="9"></span>, <span class="index index--annotation-manual preterite" manual="10"></span> This pattern works great when <strong>multiple events happen in sequence</strong>. For example, coming home after a night out: <span class="sp"><span class="preterite">Salí</span> del bar, <span class="preterite">me metí</span> en un taxi, <span class="preterite">abrí</span> la puerta de casa y <span class="preterite">me quedé</span> dormido en el sofá.</span> (<span class="en">I left the bar, got into a cab, opened the front door, and crashed on the couch.</span>)</p></li></ul><p>Okay, enough reading. Time for writing. Feel the resistance, and do it anyway.<blockquote class="workout"><strong>Spanish Workout</strong>: Write your own one hundred-word story about a memory from your youth.</p></blockquote><p>As always, I'm more than happy to read your story (if you spellcheck it in Microsoft Word or Google Docs first). <a href="">Email it to me</a> or post it in the comments below, and I'll reply with some general comments. For more thorough corrections, I totally recommend <a href="">HiNative</a>.<h3>What to watch out for: Neglecting your preterite muscle</h3><p>The preterite has many more irregular conjugations than the imperfect, so you might be tempted to ignore it when you're picking verbs for your story. However, <strong>the preterite should almost always be your first choice</strong>. It is by far the most common tense for telling stories about the past in Spanish.</p><p>Once you're ready to accept this difficult truth, tackle it head on: <strong>become obsessed with mastering it</strong>. The moment you feel zero hesitation when choosing between <span class="sp">dije</span> and <span class="sp">dijo</span>, <span class="sp">empiezan</span> and <span class="sp">empezaste</span>, or <span class="sp">propusimos</span> and <span class="sp">propusieron</span> is like seeing The Matrix. You'll never go back.</p><p>If you're looking for a challenging preterite workout, grab a bunch of paragraphs from your favorite Spanish book, replace the preterites with infinitives, and try to change them back into their original preterite form. Here's what that could look like:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">El miércoles pasado <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">vi</span>VER</span> a Dolores al salir de clase y la <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">invité</span>INVITAR</span> a ir al cine, pero me <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">dijo</span>DECIR</span> que tenía cosas que hacer, así que me <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">fui</span>IR</span> yo solo. Al final me lo <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">pasé</span>PASAR</span> muy bien porque la chica que estaba haciendo la cola detrás de mí me <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">preguntó</span>PREGUNTAR</span> qué película iba a ver. Yo se lo <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">dije</span>DECIR</span> y ella me <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">respondió</span>RESPONDER</span> que iba a ver la misma, así que nos <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">pusimos</span>PONER</span> a hablar y después del cine nos <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">fuimos</span>IR</span> a dar una vuelta. La verdad es que me <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">cayó</span>CAER</span> genial. Hemos vuelto a quedar hoy, así que ya te contaré cómo me <span class="hidden-wrapper"><span class="hidden">fue</span>IR</span>.</span><br><span class="en">Last Wednesday I <strong>saw</strong> Dolores after class and I <strong>invited</strong> her to the movies, but she told me (she <strong>said</strong>) that she had things to do, so I <strong>went</strong> by myself. It turned out that I had a lot of fun (I <strong>passed</strong> it very well) because the girl that was waiting in line behind me <strong>asked</strong> me what movie I was going to see. I told her (I <strong>said</strong> it to her) and she <strong>replied</strong> that she was going to see the same one, so we started talking (<strong>put</strong> ourselves to talk) and after the movie we <strong>went</strong> for a walk. I actually really like her (she <strong>fell</strong> to me great). We're meeting again today, so I'll let you know how it goes (<strong>went</strong>).</span></p></div><h2>Spanish takeaways</h2><p>Your ability to speak fluid Spanish depends on your ability to <strong>think fluid Spanish</strong>. If you're not happy with your Spanish thinking speed, try <strong>writing your thoughts down</strong>: it will free up your working memory, and you'll get better at internalizing the patterns of Spanish storytelling.</p><p>When you're talking about experiences that are not connected with your present experience, you have two weapons of choice: <strong>the imperfect</strong> and <strong>the preterite</strong>. The imperfect is used to <strong>describe the state of things</strong> before, during or after something happened in the past. The preterite is used to <strong>shine a spotlight on the important actions</strong>. They can work independently, but they're even more effective when they do an alley-oop: the imperfect sets it up, and the preterite slam-dunks it.</p><p>Next week, we'll cover the subtle distinction between the past and <a href="">the recent</a>. The preterite will continue playing a prominent role, so the more you practice it this week, the better prepared you'll be. You can train by doing the infinitive-to-preterite drill from above, or any other exercise you decide to inflict on yourself.</p><p>Don't worry too much about prepositional verbs, direct objects and subjunctives for now. <strong>This week is preterite/imperfect week</strong>. Master that and you'll start getting native winks left and right.</p><p><a href="">Email me</a> or comment below if you have any questions or Spanish concerns. If you're excited about this series, <a href="">subscribe</a> and share it with the world. <span class="sp">Lo aprecio un montón</span>.</p>