Aspect in Spanish

The was a recent thread on this listserv about preterit, imperfect, and perfect used with “nunca” in Spanish. Here’s some thoughts on aspect (which is what these are: they are all past tenses but of different aspects):
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Spanish, on p. 187, it has it that Harry
“Anduvo por la hierba humeda, reviviendo la ultima hora en su mente, en una feliz nebulosa.” This had been preceded by a description of how happy he felt after winning at quidditch. The English original has it:
“He walked over the damp grass, reliving the last hour in his head, which was a happy blur.” Both sentences end in a colon, followed by a description of several scenes in the stadium before Harry started his walk across the wet grass. Both end with Harry reaching “the shed”, an end point.
Certainly the English, “He walked over the wet grass, reliving….” points to the imperfect, but here I think the translator (a Peninsular named ) caught the sense Rowling was conveying that after all that, Harry started walking, i.e. putting us at the starting point of the action, thus calling for the preterit. This is reinforced by the following sentence saying Harry had reached the shed, i.e. the end point of the walk.
The problem for us English speakers (OK, I should speak for myself) is that “walked” can be either preterit (perfective) or imperfect (imperfective). But imagine the sentence reading “He was walking over the wet grass………”; you would expect something to intervene, to interrupt the action, but he only completes the walk, arriving at the shed.
BTW, for those of you who know Russian, John Forsyth has a tremendous book called Aspect which analyzes hundreds of sentences like this in Russian.
Recently, someone took umbrage with my comparing Latin aspect with Spanish aspect (the question was whether the phrase “What day was it yesterday?” “It was Wednesday” would use “erat” [imperfect = Sp “era”] or “fuit” [perfect = Sp. “fue”[). When writing this, I thought about how Slavic aspect might differ from Spanish or Romance in general. For example, in Russian, a negative past action is in the perfective if it was attempted but it failed e.g. I called 911 but it was busy and in the imperfective if the action wasn’t even attempted e.g. I didn’t (bother to) call.
Then I thought of Spanish, a word like costar, to cost, in the past is in the perfective if you bought something and “it cost a lot” = costo’ mucho. But if it cost a lot and you didn’t buy it, you’d say “costaba mucho” (y no lo compre’). Something like that.
Of course, those knowing Spanish and/or Russian better than me can jump in here any time.


  1. Steve says:

    I’m enjoying your blog!

    BTW, “preterite” just means “past”… all past tenses in Spanish are called “preterites”.

    hablaba – pretérito imperfecto
    habló – pretérito perfecto simple or pretérito indefinido
    ha hablado – pretérito perfecto compuesto
    había hablado – pretérito pluscuamperfecto
    hubo hablado – I forgot this name, but I’m pretty sure it has “pretérito” in it!

    There are some other naming conventions, as well, but these are the basics.

    The fact that people use the term “pretérito” as an abbreviated form of “pretérito perfecto simple” causes a lot of confusion!

    To make matters worse, most textbooks for English-speakers use the wrong name for the “pretérito perfecto compuesto”: they mistakenly call it the “presente perfecto”, a direct translation from English of “present perfect”, which is of course, analogous structurally and in basic meaning.

    But just because English considers it a present doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect the fact that Spanish considers it a preterite (i.e., a past). This is a wasted opportunity to teach our students a lesson in comparing *and* contrasting.

    I only have a cursory understanding of French, but imagine if all French textbooks for English-speakers called “le passé composé” (which for most verbs is formed literally the same way, “he has -ed”) “le présent parfait”.

    There would be outrage, I think!

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      First of all, I believe you are the first person in all these years of my blog to say they read it at all. Thank you.
      Having collected grammar books for over 65 years in a variety of languages, I can only agree over the confusion that reigns. My experience is that most Spanish teachers as well as those of other languages are submerged within their own specialty and do not recognize the terminology of their field as being peculiar to their field. A good example is aspect, crucial to understanding perfective and imperfective (called preterit and imperfect by most Spanish teachers), is unknown to most teachers. The basic meaning of subjunctive is a verb used in a subordinate clause but that is not what it means to Spanish teachers. And so on.
      For fun, read several grammars of Greek and see total chaos. The variations go totally out of control when you read grammars of a language written in that language; they all have their own terms as you have pointed out for Spanish.
      Nerds like us enjoy finding the future subjunctive in Spanish. One thing I’ve noticed for Spanish, Russian, and French is certain grammatical devices are labeled obsolete only to find them in current literature. I think a lot of treatments of grammar are done off the top of the head.
      BTW, Bernard Comrie has several short books on tense and aspect with many examples from Spanish. And William Bull treats Spanish grammar in a very sophisticated yet practical way in his Spanish For Teachers.
      Again, thanks for the response.

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