Describing the past: The Imperfect and the Preterite of “State” verbs
A. Some verbs express actions (run, jump, eat); others express states (want, have, be, can). In the narration of the past events, verbs describing states or ongoing conditions are usually conjugated in the imperfect tense.
EJEMPLOS Guillermo, ¿sabías la respuesta de la cuarta pregunta? Guillermo, did you know the answer to the fourth question? Sabía una parte, pero no toda. I knew part of it, but not all.
EJEMPLOS ¿Qué querías hacer? What did you want to do? Quería ir al cine I wanted to go to the movies. ¿Por qué no podías ir? Porque no tenía dinero.
B. When Spanish speakers use state verbs in the preterite, they usually do so to convey that the state came to an end. English speakers often use completely differents verbs to express that meaning. Compare the English equivalents of the followings state verbs in the imperfect and in the preterite.
IMPERFECTPRETERITE sabía I knew supe I found out no sabía I didn’t know no supe I never knew conocía I was acquainted with conocí I met tenía I had tuve I had; I received quería I wanted quise I wanted (and tried) no quería I didn’t want no quise I refused podía I was able; could pude I could (and did) no podía I wasn’t able; couldn’t no pude I (tried and) couldn’t
EJEMPLOS ¿Supiste lo que le pasó a Graciela y Amanda? Did you find out what happened to Graciela and Amanda? No, no supe nada. ¿Qué les pasó? No, I didn’t find out (never heard) anything. What happened to them? ¿Por qué no pudiste terminar? Why weren´t you able to finish? No quise terminar, porque me cansé mucho. I didn’t try to finish, because I got very tired.
C. The verbs SER and ESTAR are usually used in the imperfect; they are used in the preterite only when the state has explicitly come to an end within a specified amount of time.
INFINITIVEIMPERFECTPRETERITE serera I wasfui I was estarEstaba I wasEstuve I was
EJEMPLOS ¿Cómo eras de niño? What were you like a child? Yo era muy tímido. I was very shy.
EJEMPLOS ¿ Cuánto tiempo fuiste presidente del club? How long were you president of the club? Fui presidente seis años. I was president for six years.
EJEMPLOS ¿Dónde estaban tus padres anoche? Where were your parents last night? Estaban con los abuelos. They were with my grandparents.
EJEMPLOS ¿ Cuánto tiempo estuvieron en España? How long were you in Spain? Estuvimos allí de mayo a julio. We were there from May to July.