Tag Archives: pretérito

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.

The Spanish pretérito is like Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the wonderful observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This quote always makes me think of the Spanish pretérito (preterit) past tense. The pretérito has lots of irregulars, and they are irregular in many different ways.

Unhappy families are like the pretérito.

We’ve already seen that in the present tense, most irregulars — the boot verbs-zco and -go verbs, and ver — developed as Vulgar Latin transitioned to Spanish. The pretérito is different because most of its irregulars were already irregular in Latin. (Well, Spanish added a few for good measure…keep on reading.)

Basically, the Spanish pretérito tense derives from the Latin perfect, which was riddled with irregulars. Latin scholars refer to them as “strong” perfects, as opposed to the regular, or “weak” perfects. The strong perfects were characterized by stress on the root instead of the ending in some of the verb forms. You can still hear this difference in Spanish. For example, irregular dije and dijo are stressed on the di- root, while regular hablé and habló are stressed on the and endings. The strong perfects also lacked the normal /v/ ending of regular perfects, such as laudāvī “I praised” (from laudāre) or audīvit “he heard” (from audīre).

Caeser loved those strong perfects!

Most of today’s irregular pretéritos can be traced to three subtypes of the Latin strong perfect:

Strong perfects

As always, analogy muddied the evolutionary trail. Several common verbs that were regular in Latin picked up the u pattern of hube, supe and the like, including tener/tuve, estar/estuve, and andar/anduve. The irregular pretérito of ver (vi, viste, vio, etc.) influenced that of dar (di, diste, dio, etc.), while the pretéritos of ser “to be” and ir “to go” merged. On the other hand, many verbs with strong perfects in Latin became regular in Spanish. Some examples are temer, which belonged to Latin’s –class (Latin timuī, timuístī, etc.), escribir “to write”, in the – class (scrīpsī, scrīpsístī, etc.), and leer “to read”, in the –ī class (lēgī, lēgístī). Their modern yo pretéritos are regular temí, escribí, and leí instead of something like tume, escrise, and lije.

Finally, to make matters worse, Spanish “invented” its very own irregular pattern: the so-called “sole” verbs. These are -ir verbs with a “boot” change in the present, like servir (sirvo, sirves etc.), mentir (mientomientes, etc.), and dormir (duermoduermes, etc.). In the pretérito, the e or o of the root changes to an i or u in the él and ellos forms. This happens for the same reason I described in my boot verb post: raising an /e/ to /i/ and an /o/ to /u/ anticipates the height of the y sound (transcribed properly as /j/) that you get when you pronounce the -ió and -ieron in fluent speech.


Suela verbs are only Irregular in the sole of the boot

That’s a lot of irregulars — and a lot of unhappy families, at least the night before a major test…