Narration: Preterit vs. Imperfect

In narrations, the most commonly used verb tenses in Spanish are the preterit and the imperfect.

Foreground and Background

The preterit (pretérito) is used in Spanish to answer the question What happened? On the other hand, you will often use the imperfect (imperfecto) if it answers the question What was going on when something else happened? Generally, the preterit is used to relate events while the imperfect is used to describe what was going on in the past, states of being in the past, or past habits.

All this takes on special importance in narration of past actions, when both tenses often occur in the same story. Narrating a story entails both describing a setting (habitual actions, atmosphere, places and people) and recounting a plot or a series of events, actions, changes of feelings or thoughts. In general, all stories have a well delineated plot line of events, the foreground, and a background of supporting details and description.

Notice in the story below most of verbs appear in the preterit because the narrator, Alma, is quickly moving us through the story from one event to the next: the snake bits, she calls to her father, etc. The two moments of background description, tenía dieciséis años and era toda la luz que había, are in the imperfect.

Cuando yo tenía dieciséis años, yo un día salí en la tarde afuera, y a mí me picó una víbora de coral, entonces, yo grité a mi padre ¡papá, papá me picó un coral! Y mi papá llamó al vecino, buscaron una lámpara, porque era toda la luz que había y bueno, fueron a buscar un carro, me amarraron muy fuerte para que no regara el veneno a mi cuerpo y me levantaron, inmediatamente para el hospital.
When I was 16 years old, one day I went outside in the afternoon and a coral snake bit me. So I yelled to dad “Dad, Dad, a coral snake bit me” And my dad called our neighbor, they looked for a lamp because that was all the light there  was. They went to get the car, they tied me very tightly so that the poison wouldn’t flow to the rest of my body and and they immediately picked me up to take me to the hospital.

This second narration below is very different from the first. There is no preterit used because the narrator, Paul, describes this celebration by painting a picture of the moment but he does not create a storyline.

Cada octubre había una peregrinación grandísima. En toda la carretera, creo que eran doce carriles, no había carros, nada más la carroza en la que iba la muñeca y toda la gente y ni siquiera ese carro estaba en marcha, sino que lo jalaban con sogas. Los hombres que indicados no sé cómo los escogerían, pero era jalado y la gente de a miles y de a miles, y de a miles llenaban toda carretera.
Every October there was a huge pilgrimage. In the whole road, I think there were twelve lanes, there were no cars, just, the carriage where the doll and the people went. And the car wasn’t even turned on, instead they pulled it with ropes. The men, I don’t know how they chose them, but it was pulled and people by the thousands filled the street.

Meaning Changes

Some verbs like ser, poder, querer, saber, etc. tend to be in the imperfect when narrating the past, since they most likely describe a >past state of being or condition. However, when these verbs occur in the preterit, they indicate a change of state or a change of condition and they can have different meanings.

Verbs Imperfect Preterit
conocer to know to meet
poder to be able to to manage
querer to want to try
no querer not to want to to refuse
saber to know to find out

Compare these examples and the difference in meaning between the imperfect sabía (I knew) and the preterit supe (I realized):

Sabía que tenía que buscar un mejor porvenir para mis hijos.
I knew that I had to look for a better future for my children.
Un día desperté y supe lo que quería hacer.
One day I woke up and I realized what I wanted to do.

Time Duration

The preterit is also generally used for activities that lasted for a precise length of time or that happened a precise number of times, with a definite beginning and end. On the other hand, the imperfect is used for indefinite lengths of time. Look at these examples:

Cuando estaba a punto de recibirme, trabajaba como un part-time en una compañía de construcción, acá en Estados Unidos se les dice intership.
When I was about to graduate, I was working as a part-time employee in a construction company, here in the United States they call it an internship.
Y eso es lo que hice, trabajé un año y medio.
And that is what I did, I worked for one year and a half.

Adverbs

The following adverbs are commonly associated with each of the past tenses:

adverbs/imperfect adverbs/preterit
todos los días, todas las mañanas…
every day, every morning
un día, una mañana, una tarde…
one day, one morning, one evening
cada día, cada mañana, cada mes…
each day, each morning, each month
repentinamente, súbitamente, bruscamente…
suddenly, abruptly, brusquely
en general, generalmente, usualmente…
in general, usually
de repente, de golpe…
all of a sudden, suddenly
antes, en el pasado, en esos tiempos…
in the past, long ago, at the time
de inmediato, inmediatamente…
right away, immediately
siempre, a menudo…
always, often
primero, finalmente…
first of all, finally
rara vez, raramente
rarely
entonces, luego…
then, next

But ultimately it is the entire context that determines which of these two past tenses to use and not a given adverb or word. For example, in the sentences below, the same adverb, siempre, is used with both the imperfect or the preterit according to the context.

Siempre me andaba jalando los cabellos, porque siempre tenía el pelo bien largo, entonces siempre me jalaba mi pelo.
He always went around pulling my hair because I always had long hair, so he always pulled my hair.
Hasta que terminé la universidad siempre tuve buenas calificaciones, siempre fui el mejor estudiante.
Up until I finished college, I always had good grades, I always was the best student.
Siempre fui respetuoso como me enseñaron en mi casa.
I was always respectful as I was taught at home.