Tag Archives: preterite

Spanish linguist’s guide to verb conjugations

I just wrote out some thoughts on Spanish verb conjugations in order to answer a question on Reddit, and thought they might be of more general interest.

The question was how to learn Spanish verb conjugations. I recommended conjuguemos.com, as always, for verb practice. But I also summarized the different conjugations, lumping them into eight groups from a learner’s perspective.

In this effort I wasn’t careful to distinguish tense, aspect, and mood; life is too short. And of course, the longer-term challenge is knowing WHEN to use each conjugation.

  1. The present tense takes a lot of practice because (i) it is usually the first tense you study, (ii) -ar, -er, and -ir verbs have distinct endings, and (iii) there are a lot of irregulars.
  2. The imperfect is super-easy because (i) -er and -ir verbs have the same endings and (ii) there are only three irregulars.
  3. The preterite, like the present, has tons of irregulars, but at least -er and -ir verbs have the same endings. I have a nice summary on my Teaching page (look for “Todo el pretérito”).
  4. The two subjunctive (present and past) conjugations are similar to the normal (“indicative”) present and the preterite for historical reasons, so once you have learned these it’s mostly a matter of getting used to a somewhat different set of endings. It helps that -er and -ir verbs have the same endings in the present subjunctive, and that -ar, -er, and -ir verbs ALL have the same endings in the past (“imperfect”) subjunctive. However, the present subjunctive does have six irregulars of its own. And the imperfect actually has two possible sets of endings (-ra and -se), though learners can just stick with the -ra set.
  5. The future and conditional are a piece of cake because you aren’t really conjugating, you’re just sticking endings (the same for -ar, -er, and -ir verbs) onto the infinitive. Although there are a bunch of irregulars, they all evolved to simplify pronunciation, so they feel good in your mouth.
  6. The perfect tenses with haber (like he comido) all use the same participle (the -ado/-ido thing), so once you (i) memorize a few irregular participles (like escrito) and (ii) know how to conjugate haber in the tense of your choosing, you are set.
  7. Same for the various progressive tenses (like estoy comiendo and estaba bailando), except that here you probably already know how to conjugate estar, so all you need to learn is the present participle (the -ando/-iendo thing), which again has a few irregulars (like durmiendo and leyendo) which are predictable once you get the hang of them.
  8. Commands build on what you already know. Mostly you use the subjunctive. The only exception is affirmative informal commands, both singular () and plural (vosotros). For historical reasons, affirmative  commands resemble the él/ella/usted form of the present tense, plus 8 irregulars, while affirmative vosotros commands simply change the -r of the infinitive for a -d, e.g. hablad ‘Speak, you guys’. A complication with commands is that object pronouns go before negative commands (No lo hagas) but glom onto the end of affirmative commands, often requiring an accent mark to maintain the normal stress position (Cómelo).


Rules are made to be broken — “siempre” edition

Back in 2013 I wrote about the drawbacks of teaching students formulaic rules instead of general principles for certain aspects of Spanish grammar and vocabulary. The prime example I gave was the two versions of the Spanish past tense: the preterite, or simple past, and the imperfect. I teach my students the general principle that the preterite is used to narrate the bare bones of ‘what happened’ in a sequence of events, and that the imperfect adds color to this sequence. You can see this distinction in the following sentence, where I’ve underlined preterites and colored imperfects red. (In class we work through a fairy tale on a whiteboard, using different-colored markers.)

Llovía cuando entré, me senté, y le dije “Buenos días” a mi amiga, quién se llamaba Juanita y llevaba un vestido espléndido.

‘It was raining when I entered, sat down, and said “Good morning” to my friend, who was called Juanita and wore a splendid dress‘.

Nevertheless, certain rules are extremely useful in deciding which past tense to use. For example, mientras ‘while’ always triggers the imperfect, and the mention of a specific time or time interval, like a las tres or durante cinco días, usually triggers the preterite.

The adverb siempre ‘always’, like mientras, has long been on my mental list of reliable imperfect triggers, and it is one that I teach to my students. I was therefore surprised when a participant in Reddit’s /s/Spanish subreddit recently mentioned that siempre can occur with the preterite, too. In the spirit of “If you build it, they will come”, within 24 hours I’d come across several instances of this in the Spanish novel I’m currently reading, Alberto Fuguet’s Las películas de mi vida.

tempI’ve listed some examples below; the ones that are most striking to me combine a siempre preterite with an imperfect or two elsewhere in the same sentence.

  • Pero mi abuelo sintió siempre que hacía menos de lo que podía hacer. ‘But my grandfather always felt that he accomplished less than he was capable of.’
  • Mi abuelo siempre sintió que lo miraban en menos. ‘My grandfather always that they looked down on him.’
  • Siempre supe que eras brillante. ‘I always knew you were brilliant.’
  • Siempre me llamó la atención que [el aeropuerto] no tuviera un nombre. ‘It always struck me that the airport didn’t have a name.’
  • Los Zanetti y los Soler siempre fueron inmigrantes. ‘The Zanettis and Solers were always immigrants.’

One could probably write an article about the use of the two past tenses with siempre based on this novel alone. You could also broaden the field of inquiry to other authors, from around the Spanish-speaking world, as well as to actual speech — and then you’d have yourself a nice dissertation! But at a rough glance, Fuguet appears to be using the siempre preterites to give his overall assessment of how something was in the past, whether it was his grandfather’s feelings, a friend’s intelligence, an airport’s name, his families’ assimilation, and so on. This reminds me of a rule of thumb a Spanish teacher once shared: that fue (‘it was’ in preterite) is used to give an overall ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ assessment. The imperfects in these sentence would then serve to flesh out the factors behind these assessments.

What do you think?

When one rule trumps another

I just finished Jordi Sierra i Frabra’s Siete días de julio, his equally dynamite sequel to Cuatro días de enero, which I wrote about last month. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite book series in any language. I’m looking forward to reading Cinco días en octubre soon — right now it is out of stock at Amazon (a good sign for Spanish literature lovers).

On p. 87 of Siete días, one character asks another No tiene a nadie, ¿verdad? This sentence caught my eye because of its intriguing use of the “personal a“, the preposition used to mark direct objects that are (i) human and (ii) specific. To give a more typical example, the personal a is required in Visito a María because María is a specific person. It isn’t needed in Visito Madrid, because Madrid is a place, not a person, or in Necesito unos amigos nuevos, because the friends are not specified — in fact, they are unknown. A fuller explanation is here.

No tiene a nadie is an interesting use of the personal a because it lies at the intersection of two of this structure’s subtleties. On the one hand, tener is usually an exception to the personal a. One says, for example, Tengo dos amigos, in contrast to Veo a dos amigos, Visito a dos amigos, and so on. However, nadie requires the personal a, even though it doesn’t specify a person: one says No veo a nadieNo visitan a nadie, and so on, just as one says No veo a Miguel and No visitan a Ana.

In the case of No tiene a nadienadie trumps tiene. This seems to be the outcome in general, not just in Siete días de julio, at least as judged by numbers of Google hits. By this metric, No tiene a nadie outnumbers no tiene nadie five to one, and no tengo a nadie outnumbers no tengo nadie seven to one.

This reminded me strongly of dueling subtleties in the Spanish past tense. In general, the imperfect is used for repeated actions, and the preterite for time-bounded actions. For examples, one says Iba a la playa cada día  ‘I went to the beach every day’, but Fui a la playa ayer ‘I went to the beach yesterday’. When an action is repeated within a specified time frame, the preterite wins. For example, one would say Durante mis vacaciones fui a la playa cada día, or La semana pasada fui a la playa cada día.

Nadie trumps tener for the personal a. A specified time frame trumps repetition in the past tense. These rules of thumb are good to know.