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Practice Preterite and Imperfect in Context

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  • 1:40 La Gansa de los Huevos de Oro
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: April Schmidt

April has a Ph.D. in Spanish and has been teaching college-level Spanish for the past eight years.

In this lesson, you will see how preterite and imperfect work together to tell a story: imperfect provides background information and descriptions, while preterite tells what happened. You'll also be using these tenses yourself to help tell a story.

Using Preterite and Imperfect in a Story

Both the preterite and imperfect are needed to tell a story. The preterite is most often used to talk about actions and events. So if you only used the preterite, you would end up with a story that only gave the plot outline or told what happened. The imperfect, on the other hand, is most frequently used for descriptions. So if you only used the imperfect in your story, it would all be background information and description.

I think you'll agree that neither of these two extremes would make for a very good story. A well-told story often begins by setting the scene and giving some background information. It also has enough action to keep people interested and curious about how it will end. At the same time, there should be some descriptive touches scattered throughout the story to help people visualize the scenes.

To see how the preterite and imperfect work together to tell a story, we'll take a look at how they are used in a short fable, 'The Goose and the Golden Egg.' Since it's a story you have probably heard before, you should be able to guess the meaning of any unfamiliar words. As we read the story, look for the verb or verbs in each sentence. Is the verb in the preterite or the imperfect? Keeping in mind the different ways these two past tenses are used, try to identify why the preterite or imperfect is being used in that sentence. We'll go over the answers at the end of the story.

La Gansa de los Huevos de Oro

Había una vez un hombre que tenía una gansa. Cada día, la gansa ponía un huevo. Pero no era un huevo común y corriente, sino un huevo de oro. El hombre vendía los huevos y empezó a ponerse rico. Pero pronto no estaba satisfecho con un solo huevo de oro cada día. De modo que decidió matar la gansa para poder sacarle todos los huevos de oro de una vez. Pero cuando mató la gansa y la abrió, no encontró ni un solo huevo de oro. Y ahora su gansa maravillosa estaba muerta.

Okay, now let's look at the verb usage in each of the sentences. Which verb tense was being used and why? (You can pause the video if you need more time.)

Había una vez un hombre que tenía una gansa. The two verbs, había and tenía, are both in the imperfect. The first part of the sentence is saying 'Once there was a man,' so it is providing background information about a character. The second verb is also giving background information: the man had a goose. Plus, there is no time frame given; we don't know how long the man lived, when he got the goose, or how long he had had it for. So you can see why using the imperfect makes most sense here.

Cada día la gansa ponía un huevo. The verb ponía is in the imperfect tense. The sentence starts out Cada día, so we know that the goose laid an egg every day. And the imperfect is used for actions that are repeated or habitual.

Pero no era un huevo común y corriente, sino un huevo de oro. Era is the imperfect form of the verb 'ser.' The imperfect is being used here because the sentence is describing what the egg is like - a golden egg, rather than an ordinary one.

El hombre vendía los huevos y empezó a ponerse rico. The first verb, vendía, is in the imperfect, and the second verb, empezó, in the preterite. Vendía is in the imperfect because the man was in the habit of selling the eggs; he did so every day or every week. And empezó is in the preterite because it marks the beginning of something, in this case, the man's becoming rich.

Pero pronto no estaba satisfecho con un solo huevo de oro cada día. Estaba is in the imperfect because the sentence is describing the man's feelings: he was no longer satisfied with only one golden egg a day.

De modo que decidió matar la gansa para poder sacarle todos los huevos de oro de una vez. Decidió is in the preterite because it marks the completed act of making a decision.

Pero cuando mató la gansa y la abrió, no encontró ni un solo huevo de oro. The three verbs in this sentence (mató, abrió, and encontró) are all in the preterite because they show a series of completed actions: the man killed the goose, opened it, and found--nothing.

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