English past tenses vs. Latin Perfect/Imperfect/Pluperfect in Examples


Sīmia Illustris
Over the years I have written two enumerations of English past tenses and to each I gave the Latin counterpart, so there is no ambiguity where you should understand the English preterite (= otherwise called Past Simple) as the Latin perfect and when as the Latin imperfect.

Here I will post both explanations. First the more recent one and then the older one. You can pick whichever you want.

This thread is a practical - more example based continuation to the explanation written by Pacifica, the native speaker of one Romance language that more or less retained the distinction as it was in Latin.

In one line I also mention what kind of mistake commonly appears in the Latin translation of the Harry Potter (Harrius Potter), even though the translation is in other matters very well done (but, please, let's discuss Harrius Potter elsewhere).


Explanation No. 1

1. Present continuous in English: I'm doing it = Present tense in Latin: (id) faciō <- sometimes can be understood as describing a state somebody is in

2. Present simple in English: I do it [every day] = Present tense in Latin: (id) faciō.
2a. Present simple describing a state: I'm a man / I'm young / I like drinking wine / I live in Europe / I have a dog = Present tense in Latin: vir sum / juvenis sum / vīnum bibere mihi placet / in Eurōpā vīvō / canem habeō
3. Present perfect continuous in English: I have been doing it (for a few hours, I'm not yet finished) = Present tense in Latin: (id) faciō

Now: the Latin imperfect tense quite exactly mirrors the Latin present tense, but now in the past. It is just the same as the Latin present tense, with all these 3 meanings I have just enlisted, but moved into the past. Watch the following three meanings of the imperfect and compare with the ones for the Latin present tense.

4. Past continuous in English: I was doing it = Imperfect tense in Latin: (id) faciēbam <- can also describe a state somebody was in at that moment

5. Past simple used for habitual/repeating past in English: I walked to the city every day / I *would go to swim [every day] / [At that time] He worked in a company [making drills] = Imperfect tense in Latin: ambulābam / nātābam / labōrābat (operābātur)
5a. Past simple used to describe a state (which can be also habitual/repeating) in English: I worked there [at that exact point in the narration] / I was young / [at that point of the narration] I liked drinking wine / I [already] didn't like drinking wine / I had a dog = Imperfect tense in Latin: labōrābam (operābar) / eram / vīnum bibere mihi [nōn] placēbat / habēbam
6. Past perfect continuous in English: I had been doing it [for few hours, I was not yet finished at that point] / I had been working for a long time [and not yet finished] = Imperfect tense in Latin: faciēbam / labōrābam [operābar]


7. Past simple in English (quite in all other cases, unless in describing a habitual/repeated past or a state): I did it, I worked [for a defined time and then I finished working] = I worked there for two years, I didn't like the milk [right at that moment after I was offered it <- not describing a state, but a short unpleasant experience], I made a cake, I was in the school today [describing what happened] / I had a dog [and have no more] <- describing it as an event in the past. = Perfect tense in Latin: fēcī / labōrāvī [operātus sum] / nōn placuit / (ef)fēcī / fuī / habuī

8. Present perfect simple: I have made dinner / I have just arrived / I have broken the door = Perfect tense in Latin: parāvī / advēnī / frēgī


9. Past perfect simple: I had made dinner / I had just arrived / I had broken the door = PluPerfect tense in Latin: parāveram / advēneram / frēgeram


The only problem is with the number 5 and 7 in this table, where past simple is translated sometimes as imperfect and sometimes as perfect. So the short advice is (for the long advice see the table): past simple (I went..) means imperfect only in those instances where it is the same in the given clause as present simple (I go...), but just seen from the past viewpoint.
So, if you can convert the English past simple to present simple and not changing the overall meaning of the clause (i.e. a result) but changing just the time of the action, then that serves as a test whether it should be translated as an imperfect or not.
(The Latin present tense is a kind of "imperfect" too, but a present one, that's why they are so similar and behave alike).
And if the test fails, then the past simple means quite always perfect.


Explanation No. 2

  • I swim (every day) = pres. in Latin (habitual) -> natō
  • I'm swimming (right now) = pres. -> natō
  • (1) I've been swimming (for some while) = pres. ("a longer present") -> natō
  • (2) I've been swimming (for some while, but I've just finished in this very moment) / I've been sleeping for few hours (but are not anymore)-> perf. (take this as "I've swum / I've slept" emphasized by the time expression) -> natāvī / dormīvī
  • I've swum = perf. (Greek, IndoEuropean original perfect) -> natāvī
  • (1) I swam (yesterday) = perf. (one event = aorist) -> natāvī
  • (2) I swam (every day, repeatedly) = imperf. (same as habitual present) -> natābam (same as "He worked in a company making drills (at that time)" -> labōrābat (if this verb is used) not laborāvit as the translator wrote in the beginning of Harrius Potter)
  • I was swimming [when...] -> imperf. (the start and and end of action was irrelevant, just his state at the given moment, just like a present tense but in the past) -> natābam
  • I tried to swim (rare) -> (if expressed by a tense) imperf. -> natābam
  • I would swim (in the past, not as a conditional "would") / I used to swim -> imperf. (habitual again, same as "I swam every day") -> natābam (you could also think about a frequentative here probably)
  • (1) I had been swimming (for some while) = imperf. ("a longer past-present: by a past-present I mean that imperfect is quite a mirror of the present tense, but in past. See "(1)I've been swimming") -> natābam
  • (2) I had been swimming (but I had just finished) / I had been sleeping (but wasn't sleeping anymore, just had finished) = pluperf. (see (2) I've been swimming, take it as emphasized "I had swum / I had slept" by the time expression) -> natāveram / dormī(v)eram
  • I had swum = pluperf. -> natāveram