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12.11: Pretérito e Imperfecto II

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Distinguish the use of imperfect for ongoing actions and preterit for interrupting actions in the past.

    Depending on how you combine the preterit and the imperfect together you are expressing a different meaning, because the tenses themselves have different relations to time. In English, these distinctions have to be expressed by means of adverbs or prepositional phrases, but in Spanish the choice of preterit or imperfect expresses not just that the action happened in the past, but also *how* the action happened.

    1. A combination of imperfect with imperfect:
      When you want to convey that two actions were ongoing at the same time in the past, you use the imperfect tense. You will often see the words “mientras” (while) and “y” to show that these actions were in progress simultaneously.
      graphic representing two simultaneous continuous actions (i.e. verbs in the imperfect) running parallel to a timeline; the lines representing the verb in the imperfect fade out at either end
      • Play AudioLa banda tocaba música tradicional y mis tíos se sentían nostálgicos. (The band was playing traditional music and my aunt and uncle were feeling nostalgic.)
      • Play AudioMis hermanos y yo tomamos refrescos mientras los adultos bebían champán. (My siblings and I had sodas while the adults drank champagne.)
    2. A combination of preterit with preterit:
      When you want to convey a series of completed actions in the past, you use the preterit tense for each of them. It is very important that the events are stated in order of what happened first.
      graphic representing a sequence of discrete actions (i.e. verbs in preterit) as large Xs one after the other on a timeline
      • Play AudioMi tía se levantó a bailar, el tacón de su zapato se rompió y ella se cayó. (My aunt got up to dance, the heel of her shoe broke off, and she fell.)
      • Play AudioMi tío la salvó antes de tocar el piso, la levantó y la hizo girar por un momento. (My uncle caught her before she touched the floor, he lifted her up and twirled her for a moment.)
    3. A combination of imperfect with preterit:
      When you want to show that an action was in progress when another action began, you use the imperfect for the continuous action and the preterit for the interrupting action.
      graphic representing a continuous action (i.e. verb in imperfect) interrupted by a discrete action (i.e. verb in preterit)Examples:
      • Play AudioNuestra prima bailaba con mi hermano cuando su novio llegó a la fiesta. (Our cousin was dancing with my brother when her boyfriend arrived at the party.)
      • Play AudioEl novio se estaba poniendo celoso hasta que yo le expliqué la situación. (The boyfriend was getting jealous until I explained the situation.)
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