Let’s see when and how to correctly use the PRETÉRITO IMPERFECTO (Past Imperfect) and the PRETÉRITO INDEFINIDO (Past Simple) in Spanish.
I “was” an engineer… “FUI” or “ERA” in Spanish?
In Spanish we have these two tenses to talk about the past…, in some cases like this one, they both can be correct, but conveying slightly different messages.
If you choose:
FUI un ingeniero
I was an engineer
The sense of this phrase is the same of “I worked as an engineer”. Here we are using the PRETÉRITO INDEFINIDO (Past Simple) to describe a FACT in the past, not an USUAL thing in the past (like it would be with ERA).
If you choose:
ERA un ingeniero
I was an engineer
The sense of this phrase is the same of “I used to work as an engineer”. Here we are describing a “process in the past” (NOT a fact in the past). So, something that happened along a more or less extensive period of time.
If we want to dive deeper into this topic, we need to understand when and how to use the PRETÉRITO IMPERFECTO vs. the PRETÉRITO INDEFINIDO.
Let’s figure it out together…
In Spanish, we use the Imperfect Past Tense to:
a) Describe usual/common characteristics or actions in the past, so things that normally repeated itself along time in the past
- Hace algunos años, yo COMÍA más saludable
- Some years ago, I USED TO eat healthier
b) Describe a “process in the past”, so things that happened along a “more or less extensive period of time” in the past
- ESTABA leyendo un libro, cuando alguien me llamó
- I WAS reading a book, when somebody called me
Reading a book is “process”, not just a thing that you do in a couple of seconds. But the calling it’s not a process, it’s something that just “happens”, so we use the Pretérito Indefinido (SIMPLE PAST) here.
c) Indicate the location of people and objects in space, both in the past, for a “more or less extensive period of time”
- Yo ESTABA en el parque, cuando de repente…
- I WAS in the park, when suddenly… (this is just my location in the past, for a more or less extensive period of time)
This is the Simple Past in Spanish, and we have two possibilities here:
a) With a TIME indicator that DOESN’T include the present moment
- Ayer perdí mis llaves
- Yesterday I lost my keys
We should be using the SIMPLE PAST (Pretérito Indefinido) in this phrase because “AYER” (yesterday) doesn’t include the present moment. It would be the same with “last week” (la semana pasada), “last month” (el mes pasado), “last summer” (el verano pasado), etc.
b) Without a TIME indicator
- Perdí mis llaves
- I lost my keys
This communicates the “sensation” that the thing happened a long time ago from the present moment. There is no rule here about “how much time”, but it communicates the perception of the speaker.
As as side note, you can see that sometimes I’m using the pronoun (YO) and other times I’m not. In Spanish it is NOT a mistake to include personal pronouns in our phrases…, the thing is that we use them primarily when we want to stress the concept of WHO is related to that phrase…, just to ad some drama here and there:
- Sé la respuesta (this is pretty neutral, no “drama”)
- I know the answer
- Yo sé la respuesta (and I’m proud about it!)
- I… know the answer (like stressing the pronunciation of “I”)
That being said, in case you want to push yourself beyond the Imperfect vs Past Simple in Spanish, maybe finding new and powerful resources, plus the opportunity to practice your Spanish by talking in a professionally managed environment, if you want, you can take a look at our Live Conversation Classes (384 Classes available per YEAR — 1 to 6 students per class) 🙂
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