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Spanish Preterite & Imperfect Past Tenses© Marie-Claire Hunter, Learn English Spanish Online - 2013
What is the difference between the preterite and the imperfect past tenses?IT HAPPENED = PRETERITEThe preterite lets you look back into the past and see a completed past action neatly encapsulated in the past, over and done with, it describes what happened.It’s as if the preterite is the red light that ‘stops’ an action in its tracks but the imperfect is the green light that allows an action to be in ‘progress’.I ate an apple, it was delicious.
IT WAS HAPPENING = IMPERFECTThe imperfect tense lets you see a past action as it was developing, it describes what was happening. Like the green traffic light that lets the action flow.I was eating an apple when all of a sudden ….
I was eating (imperfect) I ate (preterite) VS
So, if ‘I spoke to my teacher’ uses the preterite past …. how would you change it to use the imperfect past?Hablé con mi maestra. I spoke to my teacher.Thank goodness that’s over!
That’s right, the imperfect version would be‘I was speaking to my teacher’.Hablaba con mi maestra. I was speaking to my teacher.This action is still developing, still taking place.I wish it was over!
When to use the imperfect tense?If you view time as a wavy line, this is the imperfect tense.It describes things as they were happening or it provides the stage of past time on which certain other completed events happened.
When to use the preterite tense. If the imperfect is a wavy line then the preterite could be expressed as dots along that line.Points in time when a state or action happened and was completed at that time, or when one wants to highlight the beginning or end of a past action.
Use the imperfect tense …To set the stage for another past action. It was a dark stormy night … Era una noche oscura y tormentosaTo describe habitual actions I used to eat at the local restaurant. Comía en el restaurante del barrio.To tell the time in the past It was three o’clock. Eran las tres.To state one’s age in the past. I was seven. Tenía 7 añosTo describe characteristics or conditions. He was tall. Él era alto.For most physical or mental states. I felt sick. Me sentía enfermo.
‘Was / Were + -ing word’ ‘Used to….’The imperfect tense is often the equivalent of the above …Yo comía una manzana. I was eating an apple. I used to eat an apple.Usted comía una manzana. You were eating an apple. You used to eat an apple.It also often sets the scene for an action in the preterite.Comía una manzana cuando sonó el teléfono.I was eating an apple (imperfect tense setting the background)when the telephone *rang. (NB: ’rang’ is in the preterite tense to indicate an interrupting action that happened on the background set by the imperfect tense)
Use the preterite tense …For one off completed actions in the past (this includes repetition of such actions)eg. I ate an apple. or I ate an apple and after five minutes I ate another apple.Comí una manzana. Comí una manzana y después de 5 minutos comí otra manzana.2. For actions that occurred during or at a specific period of time.eg. Last week I participated in 6 races. La semana pasada participé en 6 carreras. 3. For actions that were part of a chain of events.eg. I ran down the hall, grabbed my bag and hid under the table.Corrí por el pasillo, agarré mi bolsa y me escondí bajo de la mesa.To signal the beginning or the end of an action, state or feeling.eg. After I ate the apples I felt sick Despues de comer las manzanas me sentí enferma.
Examples picture the dot on the timelineLos invitados llegaron a las nueve.The guests arrived at 9 o’ clockA las seis esta mañana María se levantó, se vistió, y salió de la casa.At six o’clock this morning Maria got up, dressed, and left the house.El niño empezó a llorar. The child started to cry.
Personal Pronouns Before we get started conjugating verbs in the preterite past tense, let’s just remind ourselves about personal pronouns.Those are the words that stand in for nouns (pro + nouns) so that we don’t always have to repeat the noun. So if your brother’s name (or noun) is John, and you don’t always want to say ‘John’ this, and ‘John’ that’ and ‘John’ the other, you could use his pronoun ‘he’. If you want to talk about ‘John and Anna’ their pronoun would be ‘they’, you and John would be ‘we’ and your pronoun would be ‘I’, etc.
Here are the Spanish personal pronounsyo = Itú = the informal youusted = the formal youél = heella = shenosotros = weustedes = the plural you (like ‘you all’ or ‘you guys’)ellos = theyNB: There are a couple of others such as ‘nosotras’ and ‘ellas’ the feminine ‘we’ and ‘they’ but we’ll leave those for another time.
Now, how to form the preterite tenseFor regular –ar verbs (like ‘hablar’)remove the ‘ar’ (hablar) and add the appropriate ending:for yo add -é yo hablé = I spoke for tú add –aste tú hablaste = you spoke for usted, él or ella add –ó usted habló = you spoke él habló = he spoke ella habló = she spoke for nosotros add –amos nosotros hablamos = we spoke for ustedes or ellos add –aron ustedes hablaron = you (pl.) spoke ellos hablaron – they spoke
Hablaryo hablé = I spoketú hablaste = you spokeusted/él/ella habló = you spoke, he spoke, she spoke, it spokenosotros hablamos = we spokeustedes/ellos hablaron = you (pl.) spoke, they spoke
Those endings work for all regular –ar verbsyo trabajé = I workedtú trabajaste = you workedusted/él/ella trabajó = you worked, he worked, she workednosotros trabajamos = we workedustedes/ellos trabajaron = you (pl.) worked, they worked
Your turn! Te toca a tiConjugate ‘aceptar’ (to accept)in the preterite tense.yo acept…tú acept…usted, él, ella acept…nosotros acept…ustedes, ellos acept…
How did you do?Aceptar = to acceptyo aceptétú aceptasteusted, él, ella aceptónosotros aceptamosustedes, ellos aceptaron
Some pronouns can be omittedDid you notice that the ‘yo’, ‘tú’ and ‘nosotros’ conjugations are unique?yo hablé = I spoketú hablaste = you spokenosotros hablamos = we spokeFor this reason you often don’t need to say or write the pronoun. ‘Hablé’ can only mean ‘I wrote’ so you don’t need to use the ‘yo’.‘Hablaste’ can only mean ‘you spoke’ so you don’t need to use the ‘tú’ etc.
Sometimes you need to use the pronounsThe other two conjugations are shared.usted/él/ella habló = you spoke, he spoke, she spoke – 3 for the price of oneustedes/ellos hablaron = you (pl.) spoke, they spoke – two for the price of oneSo ‘habló’ could mean ‘you spoke’, ‘he spoke’, ‘she spoke’ etc and ‘hablaron’ could mean ‘you (pl.) spoke’ or ‘they spoke.Sometimes your context will make it obvious who you’re talking about and in that case you can drop the pronoun.But if there’s any ambiguity, if it’s not obvious who you’re talking about, then you’re better to use the pronouns …usted, él, ella, nosotros or ellos.
Feel free to try a few more!Here are some common regular –ar verbs ….Cantar (to sing)Caminar (to walk)Comprar (to buy) Hablar (to speak)Estudiar (to study)Enseñar (to teach)Llamar (to call)Llegar (to arrive)Preguntar (to ask for information)Tomar (to take, to drink)Trabajar (to work)
How did you do?Cantar = to sing Caminar = to walkyo canté yo caminétú cantaste tú caminasteusted, él, ella cantó usted, él, ella caminónosotros cantamos nosotros caminamosustedes, ellos cantaron ustedes, ellos caminaron
Hopefully now you’re getting the hang of conjugating regular –ar verbs into the preterite past tense.
Now let’s look at the regular -er and -ir verbsRemove the ‘er’ or ‘ir’ and add the appropriate ending:(eg. comer, escribir)For yo add -í comí, escribí For tú add –iste comiste, escribiste For usted, él or ella add –ió comió, escribió For nosotros add –imos comimos, escribimos For ustedes or ellos add –ieron comieron, escribieron
Comeryo comí = I atetú comiste = you ateusted/él/ella comió = you ate, he ate, she atenosotros comimos = we ateustedes, ellos comieron = we (pl.) they ate
Escribiryo escribí = I wrotetú escribiste = you wroteusted/ella/él escribió = you wrote, he wrote, she wrote, it wrotenosotros escribimos = we wroteustedes/ellos escribieron = they wrote
Your turn …Conjugate ‘entender’ (to understand) in the preterite tense:yo entend…tú entend …usted, él, ella entend…nosotros entend…ustedes, ellos entend…
Answers ….Entender = to understandyo entendí = I understoodtú entendiste = you (tú) understoodusted/él/ella entendió = you (usted), he, she, it understoodnosotros entendimos = we understoodustedes/ellos entendieron = you (pl.), they understood
Feel free to try a few more …aprender = to learnasistir = to attendbeber = to drinkcompartir = to sharecomprender = to understanddecidir = to decidepermitir = to permitrecibir = to receivevender = to sell
Four important irregular conjugations ser ir dar hacer yo fui fui di hice tú fuiste fuiste diste hiciste usted, él, ella fue fue dio hizonosotros fuimos fuimos dimos hicimosustedes,ellos fueron fueron dieron hicieron
Try completing these sentence.The boy went to town.El chico _____ (ir) al centro.The man was a carpenter (but he isn’t anymore).El hombre ____ (ser) un carpintero.We went to Ecuador last year.______ (ir) a Ecuador el año pasado.Each group was given several documents. (to them they gave)A cada grupo les _______ (dar) varios documentos.What did you do yesterday?¿Qué ______ (hacer) ayer?Who did it?¿Quién lo _____ (hacer) ?
How did you do?The boy went to town.El chico fue al centro.The man was a carpenter (but he isn’t anymore).El hombre fue un carpintero.We went to Ecuador last year.Fuimos a Ecuador el año pasado.Each group was given several documents. (to them they gave)A cada grupo les dieron varios documentos.What did you (tú) do yesterday?¿Qué hiciste ayer?Who did it?¿Quién lo hizo?
How to form the imperfect tenseFor regular –ar verbs remove the ‘ar’ and add the appropriate ending:for yo add -aba for tú add –abas for usted, él or ella add –aba for nosotros add –ábamos for ustedes or ellos add -aban
Hablar (yo) hablaba = I was speaking, I used to speak(tú) hablabas = you were speaking, you used to speakusted/él/ella hablaba = you were speaking, you used to speak, he/she was speaking, he/she used to speak(nosotros) hablábamos = we were speaking, we used to speakustedes/ellos hablaron = you (pl.)were speaking, you used to speak, they were speaking, they used to speakNB: Just as with the preterite tense you can often omit the personal pronouns, especially when using the ‘yo’, ‘tú’ or ‘nosotros’ forms.
Your turn …Conjugate terminar (to finish) in the imperfect tense.yo termin… tú termin…usted, él, ella termin…nosotros termin…ustedes, ellos termin…
How did you do?(yo) terminaba (I was finishing, I used to finish etc)(tú) terminabas (you were finishing, you used to finish etc)usted/él/ella terminaba (you were finishing, he, she, it was finishing, you etc used to finish)(nosotros) terminábamos (we were finishing, we used to finish)ustedes/ellos terminaban (you/they were finishing, you/they used to finish)
To conjugate regular -er and -ir verbs in the imperfect tenseRemove the ‘er’ or ‘ir’ and add the appropriate ending:for yo add -ía for tú add –ías for usted, él or ella add –ía for nosotros add –íamos for ustedes or ellos add -ían
Comer / Escribiryo comía yo escribíatú comías tú escribíasusted/él/ella comía usted/él/ella escribíanosotros comíamos nosotros escribíamosustedes/ellos comían ustedes/ellos escribían
Your turnConjugate entender (to understand) and venir (to come) in the imperfect tense.
How did you do? Entender Venir(yo) entendía venía(tú) entendías veníasusted, él, ella entendía venía(nosotros) entendíamos veníamosustedes/ellos entendíamos veníamos
So now lets make some sentences..1. I was cooking when the telephone rang.________ (cocinar) cuando ____ (sonar) el teléfono.2. What was the man like?¿Cómo ____ el hombre?3. He was tall and handsome.Él ____ alto y guapo.4. I read a book, ate an apple and went to sleep.____ (leer) un libro, _____ (comer) una manzana y me ______ (dormirse).I was reading a book when the lights went out.______ (leer) un libro cuando las luces se ________ (apagar).6. I saw my mum yesterday.____ a mi mamá ayer.
How did you do?1. I was cooking when the telephone rang.Cocinaba cuando sonó el teléfono.2. What was the man like?¿Cómo era el hombre?3. He was tall and handsome.Él era alto y guapo.4. I read a book, ate an apple and went to sleep.Leí un libro, comí una manzana y me dormí.I was reading a book when the lights went out.Leía un libro cuando las luces se apagaron.6. I saw my mum yesterday.Vi a mi mamá ayer.
Well done!If you would like some more practice visit us on Memrise and practice with our flashcard sets.http://www.memrise.com/course/97680/3-learn-spanish-with-marie-claire-verb-tenses/28/Or practice reading a story that is written using mainly the preterite and imperfect tenses.http://learnenglishspanishonline.com/que-paso-y-que-pasaba-what-happened-and-what-was-happening/If you have any questions or would like some personal language lessons via Skype feel free to email us at email@example.com© Marie-Claire Hunter, Learn English Spanish Online, 2013