Imperfect vs. Preterit

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Hi, I'm confused on when to use each tense. I'm writing a paper about a trip I took. Would I use the preterit every time because all of the verbs happen within that time period? I'll attach a text file of what I have so far. Thanks for your help.

5530 views
updated JUL 17, 2011
posted by nate5

16 Answers

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James Santiago said:

Neil, I'll let you and Lazarus duke it out (while watching with interest), but keep in mind that Lazarus understands Spanish grammar better than probably 99% of native speakers. Most native speakers, of any language, don't really think about their language very often, and when you ask them grammatical questions, they are often at a loss to give a correct reply.

So that's absolutely true, and it poses various problems when eliciting this kind of judgement from speakers.
But it essentially means that it's "my problem" as a person who does claim to understand syntax to pick suitable utterances and variants of those utterances to run past the speaker(s) in order to build up a picture of how they use the language, and to ask the right questions about their judgements. Sometimes I and others will ask the wrong questions and draw incorrect conclusions from the data, but that's not a fault of the informants' judgements per se.

Particular problems can arise in eliciting judgements about rare types of sentence, e.g. "Which waiter did you wonder whether served us'" (which linguistically often turn out to be the most interesting type of sentence, unfortunately!), and it's not always clear what the judgement that you get is actually telling you. But in the case of an everyday sentence such as "I ate an enchilada", speakers probably have a bit more of an idea as to whether the sentence "sounds natural" to them, remembering that essentially, that's the judgement that they're being asked to make. We're not asking them to have a conscious knowledge of grammar or to have made prior conscious observations about such sentences.

James Santiago said:

serious thought to the questions and 2) the difficulty of switching between languages, even assuming that he is proficient in the grammar of Spanish (beyond being a native speaker).

P.S. In this case, there's no switching between languages involved!
P.P.S. From my standpoint, I would essentially consider every healthy educated native Spanish speaker to be "proficient in the grammar of Spanish".

updated FEB 13, 2009
posted by Neil-Coffey
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lazarus1907 said:

I've got family in Colombia, and a colleague from Mexico, and believe it or not, I know other people from the other side of the Atlantic, and I've discussed this topic with many of them in the past, and interestingly, we all seem to agree on this.

And actually, I wasn't aware of so much variation between Spain/Latin America either in the use of the pronominal in these particular cases, which is why I'm quite interested in finding out more about your judgements of these sentences. (N.B. in other uses of pronominal verbs, there does appear to be some clearer variation.)

:

The second sentence, on the other hand, it is pretty specific "una torta", and the pronoun indicates that the entire portion was eaten up. If the choice had been "... y yo comí torta de manzana", the speaker would not be specifying whether he eat some of it, or he finished the whole portion.

Yes, that surely plays a part, although the judgement I got seemed to be that it was more about the contrast. But let me run a few more variants past a few more speakers...

:

The pronoun cam sometimes be omitted if we are mentioning some food, not with the intention to talk about the specific amount we ate, but to discuss what kind of food we ate. This accounts for all your previous examples. So, the pronoun is not simply optional, nor unnecessary. Its has a function, and with specific complete amounts, most speakers use it

So I think this is the part I agree with and isn't terribly controversial. I don't actually have a corpus that would give statistics on comer(se) and I'm not aware of a study that's looked at such a corpus, but from general observation, it wouldn't surprise me to find that the pronominal use turns out to be more common when, say, the article is present (just to give an example of a metric that could be conveniently found)...

:

and would feel strange if someone omitted it in these cases. Grammatically speaking, this omission does not result in an incorrect sentence; only a strange sounding one.

...but this is the part where I think there could be some variation, or that maybe there's something I'm not understanding in the judgements that you and James are making. For example in the sentence:

La carta tenía varias cosas ricas. Comí una enchilada.

surely there's more of a nuance of "this is the kind of food that I ate" rather than "I ate this thing all up and enjoyed it". But as far as I can observe, the above utterance still sounds like a normal, natural thing to say to a Mexican speaker, whereas if I understand correctly you're saying that in Peninsular Spanish it "just sounds odd"'

updated FEB 13, 2009
posted by Neil-Coffey
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hahaha this is too much for my brain

lazarus1907 said:

Tinkerbell said:

I never heard that before .. putting me in front of comi.. can you explain a bit more'? as I dont see the reason behind it.

Read [url=http://my.spanishdict.com/forum/topic/show'id=1710195%3ATopic%3A1126028]here[/url]. Particularly, section 5.

>

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by Tinkerbell1
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I've got family in Colombia, and a colleague from Mexico, and believe it or not, I know other people from the other side of the Atlantic, and I've discussed this topic with many of them in the past, and interestingly, we all seem to agree on this.

Neil Coffey said:

Juan comió pastel de chocolate y yo me comí una torta de manzana.

This sentence is not about contrast, but a perfect example of the difference between comer and comerse. "Pastel de chocolate" does not provide specific information about the amount eaten, and therefore, it does not accept the pronoun at all. The second sentence, on the other hand, it is pretty specific "una torta", and the pronoun indicates that the entire portion was eaten up. If the choice had been "... y yo comí torta de manzana", the speaker would not be specifying whether he eat some of it, or he finished the whole portion.

  • Comí torta de manzana
  • Son muy grandes. ¿Pudiste acabarla?
  • No, me comí solo la mitad (here that half is finished)

  • Me comí un torta de manzana

  • Son muy grandes. ¿Pudiste acabarla? (''''')
  • Claro que sí. Acabo de decírtelo: ME la comí.

  • Me comí torta de manzana (WRONG: no specific amount is specified)

The pronoun cam sometimes be omitted if we are mentioning some food, not with the intention to talk about the specific amount we ate, but to discuss what kind of food we ate. This accounts for all your previous examples.

So, the pronoun is not simply optional, nor unnecessary. Its has a function, and with specific complete amounts, most speakers use it, and would feel strange if someone omitted it in these cases. Grammatically speaking, this omission does not result in an incorrect sentence; only a strange sounding one.

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by lazarus1907
0
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Neil, I'll let you and Lazarus duke it out (while watching with interest), but keep in mind that Lazarus understands Spanish grammar better than probably 99% of native speakers. Most native speakers, of any language, don't really think about their language very often, and when you ask them grammatical questions, they are often at a loss to give a correct reply. I remember watching many British and American language teachers in Japan, and they were constantly being stumped by questions, or even giving incorrect replies. And these were all college graduates. I don't know anything about your colleague, but it would not be surprising if his answers reflect 1) a lack of having given serious thought to the questions and 2) the difficulty of switching between languages, even assuming that he is proficient in the grammar of Spanish (beyond being a native speaker).

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by 00bacfba
0
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I'll need to poll some more speakers, but it sounds, then, as though there could well be a difference between Peninsular and Mexican usage. The Mexican colleague who is with me is fairly resolute, for example, that the following sequences all sound normal (I'd be interested to know how you and other Peninsular speakers judge them):

Comí una enchilada.
(Sentence just uttered on its own with no context.)

¿Qué comiste? -Comí una enchilada.

¿Comiste (el) pollo? -No, comí una enchilada.

La carta tenía varias cosas ricas. Comí una enchilada.
(Context more similar to the original poster's narrative.)

With all of these sentences, his judgement is that you could also add me, but that it makes little difference in terms of how usual the sentence sounds.

However, we did find a difference with a sentence marking a contrast, such as:

Juan comió pastel de chocolate y yo me comí una torta de manzana.

Here, although it is also possible to omit me, it sounds better to insert it. I'd be interested to know if you get the same judgement the other side of the pond.

lazarus1907 said:

Neil Coffey said:

as far as I can observe, comí una enchilada would be a perfrectly normal, grammatical sentence of Spanish.

Not quite! Although it is grammatical, it is not a normal sentence at all, because the meaning with and without this "se" changes. What James said is the standard explanation found in any grammar book.

As I say, I'm not essentially disagreeing with the changes in meaning/nuance that adding me gives when it's inserted. The part that doesn't appear to reflect usage I've observed is the idea of me being obligatory. (Actually, do grammar books say it is oblitatory either')

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by Neil-Coffey
0
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Neil Coffey said:

as far as I can observe, comí una enchilada would be a perfrectly normal, grammatical sentence of Spanish.

Not quite! Although it is grammatical, it is not a normal sentence at all, because the meaning with and without this "se" changes. What James said is the standard explanation found in any grammar book.

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by lazarus1907
0
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It depends a bit on what you mean by "called for". If you mean "obligatory", then I'd say that's not quite how I observe people using the verb: as far as I can observe, comí una enchilada would be a perfrectly normal, grammatical sentence of Spanish. But if by "called for" you mean "common/usual in everyday speech", then yes I agree. I also agree that with the pronoun, there is often an implication of "completion", though I think it could have other implications, notably "enjoyment". In the post by Milton Sand, I think he has the translation of "to eat and enjoy" which, while a clumsy translation, gets across part of the meaning.

James Santiago said:

I don't think the use of the pronominal verb is a matter of formal versus informal, but one of completeness. If he ate the whole enchilada (no pun intended), I believe the pronominal is called for. If, on the other hand, he was sampling the enchilada plate, the pronominal would not be called for. And I don't think this varies by region, either. That is my understanding, at least. Maybe Lazarus can shed more light on it.

>

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by Neil-Coffey
0
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Tinkerbell said:

I never heard that before .. putting me in front of comi.. can you explain a bit more'? as I dont see the reason behind it.

Read [url=http://my.spanishdict.com/forum/topic/show'id=1710195%3ATopic%3A1126028]here[/url]. Particularly, section 5.

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by lazarus1907
0
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Tinkerbell said:

I never heard that before .. putting me in front of comi.. can you explain a bit more'? as I dont see the reason behind it.

So that I don't have to type it out myself (hehe), please see the following, and read the post by Milton Sand.

<http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php't=887756>

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by 00bacfba
0
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I never heard that before .. putting me in front of comi.. can you explain a bit more'? as I dont see the reason behind it.

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by Tinkerbell1
0
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I don't think the use of the pronominal verb is a matter of formal versus informal, but one of completeness. If he ate the whole enchilada (no pun intended), I believe the pronominal is called for. If, on the other hand, he was sampling the enchilada plate, the pronominal would not be called for. And I don't think this varies by region, either. That is my understanding, at least. Maybe Lazarus can shed more light on it.

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by 00bacfba
0
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Possibly me comí una enchilada is a bit less "matter of fact" (the connotation is something like "I had an enchilada and I enjoyed it/ate it all up"), but yes in Mexico too it's common in informal speech.

James Santiago said:

Spanish speakers would generally say comí una enchilada

Actually, I think they would say "me comí una enchilada." But your main point is valid.

>

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by Neil-Coffey
0
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Spanish speakers would generally say comí una enchilada

Actually, I think they would say "me comí una enchilada." But your main point is valid.

Just a couple of other comments (too many to do all):

Pedro dijo que los tacos eran deliciosos

Después comimos de comer

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by 00bacfba
0
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Nate: normally, you use the preterite to describe an event "straightforwardly", viewing it as something this is "over and done with". On the other hand, the imperfect tends to be used to focus on the "middle" of a situation/description, especially when you're describing the "background" to another event. As a very rough rule of thumb, the imperfect is commonly used in descriptions when in English you could insert "at that moment". So if tends to be used in sentences or pairs of sentences such as "X was/were ... when Y", where "X was ..." would be in the imperfect, and Y would be in the preterite. However, there are cases where it essentially depends on the emphasis you want to place.

Because the preterite tends to imply that an event is "over and done with", sometimes it has subtle certain connotations. For example, if you say No supimos cómo llegar al club, that means "We didn't know how to get to the club..." but I think it would also tend to imply "...so we didn't go there".

Actually, from the passage you've posted, I don't think your main problem is tense usage (except for a couple of cases). In most cases, I think the actual tense you've used is OK. But in some cases, the verb you've chosen isn't the one that Spanish speakers would tend to use. So I'd recommend you spend a few minutes looking up some of the verbs in the dictionary a bit more carefully, and seeing if you can find a more appropriate one. For example, if you want to say "I had an enchilada", Spanish speakers would generally say comí una enchilada, using the verb comer. The dictionary entry for have should mention this somewhere. Be careful with your use of the verb pedir.

updated FEB 12, 2009
posted by Neil-Coffey