It was a dark and stormy night. Era una noche oscura y tormentosa.

OK, so it turns out that my Spanish maybe isn’t quite at intermediate level yet, but since the book will only be published in April I have 4-5 months to get it there. This made me think that some of you guys may also need a bit of help and since I need to learn the stuff anyway I may as well share it with you.

When I read books in Afrikaans or English I don’t have to concentrate on the words so I’ve never before noticed how much past tense is used.

By way of example I’ll quote the first sentence from Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly, which is the book I’m currently reading.

From across the aisle Harry Bosch looked into his partner’s cubicle and watched him conduct his daily ritual…

Two past tense references in the very first sentence of the book.

During the week Emily sent me the translation of the first few chapters and I got as far as the second sentence when I realised my knowledge of the past tense is seriously lacking and I can’t follow the story nicely! I have to admit, visions of angry Kickstarter supporters mobbing my inbox with complaints that the book’s too difficult did briefly enter my mind.

But no, I decided, this book is a learning tool so we’re going to use it as a learning tool and without further ado, let’s begin.


In Spanish there are several past tenses that are used in different situations and in chapter 1 we’re introduced to the Imperfect tense – el pretérito imperfecto.

We use this tense to talk about things we were doing in the past (I was washing my car) or to show some sort of continuity of action (I used to live in Cape Town).

Here’s a list:

To refer to an ongoing action or state in the past with an unspecified time frame. Estaban en el estrecho corridor.

They stood in the narrow corridor.

To refer to habitual actions in the past. Su regreso a casa siempre era algo que ella esperaba.

His homecomings were always something she looked forward to.

To set the scene in a narrative in the past. Era una noche oscura y tormentosa.

It was a dark and stormy night.

To describe people, places and objects in the past. La chica estaba feliz.

The girl was happy.

La musica era ruidosa.


To express politeness. Buenos dias, ¿que deseaba? Quería un kilo de fresas.

Good morning, what would you like? I’d like a kilo of strawberries.

Luckily for us it’s fairly simple to use the imperfect, we simply change the ending of the verb a bit.

 Here’s a table:

respirar (-ar ending) haber (-er ending) conseguir (-ir ending)
(to breathe) (to have) (to get / obtain)
Yo respiraba había conseguía
respirabas habías conseguías
Él, ella, Ud. respiraba había conseguía
Nosotros, -as respirábamos habíamos conseguíamos
Vosotros, -as respirabais habíais conseguíais
Ellos, ellas, Uds. respiraban habían conseguían

 You’ll see that the conjugations for verbs ending in –er and –ir are identical so we only have to learn two lots of conjugations. Further good news is that there are only 3 exceptions – ser, ver and ir. ALL other verbs are conjugated as shown above.

 As it turns out, this tense is much easier than I thought it would be and I don’t know why I put off learning it for so long!

 Let’s get back to The Cooking Pot. This tense is used extensively in chapter 1, but fortunately for us it’s only 14 words AND they’re mostly used in the third person, singular so if we learn these 14 words then we can read almost all the past tense that is used in this chapter and that has definitely made my life easier.

 Here they are (in the order in which they appear in the chapter):

Word Meaning Third person singular (él/ella) conjugation
haber to have había
respirar to breathe respiraba
volver to return / to come back volvía
poder to be able / can podía
estar to be estaba
ser to be era
tener to have, to hold, to take tenía
entender to understand entendía
esperar to wait, to hope esperaba
saber to know, to taste sabía
suponer to suppose, to assume suponía
sentir to feel sentía
Word Meaning Second person singular (tú) conjugation
conseguir to get / obtain conseguíras


Word Meaning Third person plural (ellos/ellas) conjugation
poder to be able / can podían
deber to owe, must, have to, ought debían
estar to be estaban

 So there we have it.

 Now, here’s your homework (yes, I said homework): learn these words before you start reading chapter 1, it will make your reading experience, and your life, so much easier.

 In the next blog I’ll give you the English translations of some of the more difficult words used in chapter 1. These words and their translations will be highlighted in the book itself, but we may as well learn them beforehand.

 Yay, I’ve learned a new past tense in Spanish!

 Enjoy, and good luck!