The Great Debate: preterite versus imperfect

In case you forgot (or blocked it out of your memory) in Spanish there are two past tenses: preterite and imperfect.  It has always been difficult for me (and for most native English speakers, I’d imagine) to figure out which to use.  Well a few months ago when I was still working at a Spanish high school, I had a conversation that shed some new light on the debate…

During a school-wide end-of-the-year party, I was sitting with three teachers and a student.  One of the teachers pointed to another teacher’s coke bottle and asked, Es tuya? (Is it yours?)  To which the other teacher responded, Era mía. (It was mine.)

The teacher had used the imperfect form of the past tense, and I took the opportunity to ask, Why era and not fue (fue is preterite)?  I expected a simple answer and was surprised to find that my question sparked a twenty minute debate among the teachers and student on the preterite versus imperfect.  They concluded that fue mía was not incorrect, it just had different meaning.

Well, what’s the difference then?

A little more debating ensued before one teacher gave me a concise and memorable answer: Es que “era mía” da pena.  She said that to use the imperfect evokes a little bit of pain.  Using the imperfect puts emphasis on the fact that something was, but no longer is.  Whereas the preterite just states what was.  She gave me an example: Era mi amiga versus Fue mi amiga.  The first sentence is imperfect, she was my friend, but isn’t anymore.  The second, preterite, she was my friend.

This example amazed me in its simplicity.  Changing the verb tense completely altered the meaning of the sentence and could change the direction of the conversation.  It reminded me of the intricacies of languages and why learning a second/third/fourth can be so difficult.  Even after so many years of studying Spanish I still learn something new everyday, and I expect it to be that way for a while still.

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