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El Pasado - Pretérito vs Imperfecto - Spanish Past Tenses
One of the most striking differences between Spanish and English is in verb tenses. For English speakers, learning how to use the various past tenses in Spanish can be very tricky (and vice versa), because English has several tenses which either do not exist or do not translate literally into Spanish.
Anyone who has studied Spanish is aware of the troublesome relationship between the pretérito and imperfecto. The imperfecto (yo hablaba) translates to the English imperfect (I was talking) while the pretérito (yo hablé) literally translates to the English simple past (I talked) but can also be translated as the English present perfect (I have talked) or the emphatic past (I did talk).
It is extremely important to understand the distinctions between pretérito and imperfecto in order to use them correctly and thus express past events accurately.
Thus the imperfecto is normally used for descriptions of the past, while the pretérito narrates specific events. In addition, the imperfecto often sets the stage for an event expressed with the pretérito.
Compare the following passages:
Imperfecto: Cuando tenía dieciocho años, quería ser arquitecto. Me
gustaba mucho la obra de Antoni Gaudí y esperaba comprender su genio.
Pretérito: Decidí estudiar en España e hice los formularios de
inscripción, pero las universidades no me admitieron. Conocí a un pintor y
comencé a estudiar con él.
The following list of key words and phrases may help you figure out whether to use imperfecto or pretérito.
Imperfecto: normalmente - usually, de vez en cuando - from time to time, antes - formerly, todos los días - every day, los lunes - on Mondays.
Pretérito: una vez - once, dos veces - twice, tres/cuatro/etc. veces - three/four/etc. times, muchas veces - several times, ayer - yesterday, un día - one day, el lunes - on Monday, bruscamente - suddenly, de repente - all of a sudden.
There are a few verbs in Spanish which have a different meaning depending on which past tense is used.
*When used in expressions where it means "to be."
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