Perfect and Imperfect

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Hello colleagues,

Questions are regularly asked on the forum concerning the difference between perfect and imperfect. The subject being rather complex, those questions usually can't be satisfactorily answered in a short post. You need to give relatively complex and long explanations, which requires time, energy and courage. We don't always have this time, energy and courage, and as a result the poor OPs are sometimes left in the dark. This is why I thought about this: I have written as well as I could the rather long explanation below, thinking it might be a good idea to make it a sticky which people could be redirected to. I'm asking here what you all, and especially the mods, think about it. If it doesn't get approval for being made a sticky, I'll just post the explanations in Lotusbridge's last thread, which was about this subject. I'm aware that my explanations are probably not perfect (now is it at all possible to explain this subject perfectly...?), but they're most probably better than no explanations at all, and maybe they can help even if only to a limited extent.

Here is what I've written:

Fully grasping the difference between perfect and imperfect is often difficult for students whose native language (like English) doesn't have the same distinction. Since, as a result, questions are regularly asked on the subject on the forum, and since the difference is also difficult to explain, even for someone (like me) whose native language has the same distinction, I thought it might be a good idea to apply myself once and for all to write as good and complete an explanation as I could, and make it a sticky thread which people who had questions on the subject could be redirected to. I will do my best, and I apologize if I fail to be altogether clear on one point or the other.

A FEW VERY BASIC AND IMPERFECT (I DIDN'T WANT THE PUN, BUT WHAT OTHER WORD TO USE?) GUIDELINES

The perfect and the imperfect are both past tenses: they are used to describe actions that took place in the past.

The perfect is used for an action that you consider in its entirety, as one block, from its beginning to its end (or, if you don't really "see" the end, you at least "see" the beginning — as in an action that started just then). This action can either still have a more or less tangible result in the present, or not. In the first case, it corresponds to the English present perfect: "I have done this" = "It is now done". In the second case, it corresponds to many situations in which the English preterite is used: "I did this (once in the past)".

The imperfect is used when you are talking about:

1) A certain point during an on-going action in the past. This use is often more or less equivalent to the English past continuous, "I was doing this". You can feel confident that the English past continuous will generally translate to the imperfect in Latin.

2) A certain point of a period during which the action was regularly, habitually repeated. In such situations where in English you could say "At that time, I used to do this" or "Back in the day, I would regularly do this", you will usually find the imperfect in Latin.

But the thing is that, in spite of the above basic guidelines and approximate equivalences, there is no one-to-one equivalence between the Latin perfect and imperfect and English tenses. The exact same distinction is not found in English. The Latin imperfect is also found in some situations where the English preterite is used. Which means that the English preterite can translate to the Latin imperfect as well as to the perfect, depending on context; and this is where things get more complicated, and where I will need to give more complex explanations to try and give you as best an idea as possible of the fundamental difference between the two tenses.

But first, let me mention:

A COUPLE OF MISCONCEPTIONS CONCERNING THE TWO TENSES THAT I HAVE OBSERVED MORE OR LESS FREQUENTLY AMONG STUDENTS

- Some think that the imperfect is always used for an action that lasted for a long time, and the perfect always for an action that lasted for a short time. This is not true. Well, since the imperfect is used to describe a "background" action (something that was happening/was the case (when...)), it may be that, statistically, you'll find in the imperfect more actions that lasted for a relatively long time than actions that lasted for only one second, but the fundamental nature, the fundamental meaning of the tense, is not about duration. So you'd better discard this idea of duration altogether, because it is bound to mislead you. The perfect is quite often found to describe actions that lasted for one second, but also for hours, days, years, centuries... Definitely, the fundamental distinction between the two tenses is not about duration.

- The term "on-going action" being often used to describe the imperfect, some students misinterpret it as meaning that it is an action continuing into the present. This is not the case. The imperfect is a past tense. The action was "on-going" in the past.

MORE IN DEPTH

First, let us see what "perfect" and "imperfect" actually mean. They come from Latin perfectum and imperfectum, which basically mean, respectively, "completed/finished" and "not completed/unfinished". So, the perfect represents an action that you visualize in its entirety: you visualize it from its beginning to its end, and you see it completed (or, sometimes, even if you don't really visualize the end, you visulaize at least the beginning); while the imperfect is an action which you visualize at a point after it started and when it isn't finished yet, but on-going. This does not mean that it is not finished yet and still on-going in the present, but that it was not finished at the moment you are talking about. You don't visualize it entirely from its beginning to its end, but you visualize only a certain point somewhere in the middle of it. The action was probably already going on somewhat before the moment you're talking about, and was perhaps going to go on a bit further.

Let's take two examples.

First: In via ambulabam, cum amico tuo Marco occurri. "I was walking on the street, when I came upon your friend Mark." We have here two verbs, one of which is imperfect, ambulabam, and the other perfect, occurri. How do they differ? I was already walking before this very moment I'm talking about, and it may be that I went on walking just a bit after that. I am not visualizing the whole time during which I walked, from the moment I started to the moment I stopped, but only a certain point "somewhere in the middle of my walking", the moment just before I ran unto your friend; and at that very moment, the action of walking was not finished, but on-going, even if I stopped walking on the next second. Hence the imperfect. Now, what about occurri? This action I am visualizing in its entirety: I both started and finished coming upon your friend at the time I'm talking about. I'm not talking about a certain point in the middle of my coming upon your friend. I see the action in its entirety, as one block. Hence the perfect. The difference feels perhaps relatively obvious in this example due to the fact that here the English makes a distinction too: the past continuous (which, as mentioned earlier, regularly translates to the Latin imperfect), "I was walking", is used for the first verb, while the preterite, "I came", is used for the second. But now let's take a second example where English will make no distinction and use the preterite for both verbs. Exactly the same principle as in the first example will apply in Latin; it may just be less immediately obvious to an English-speaking student because no difference will be marked in the English version of the sentence.

Putabam hoc fieri posse; tu me refutasti. "I thought that this could be done; you proved me wrong." Why is putabam in the imperfect? Because I didn't think it — start thinking it and complete my thought — just then, but it was an opinion I already had somewhat before, and I am here talking about a certain moment in the period during which I thought that. Refutasti is in the perfect because this action is visualized in its entirety. You started and finished proving me wrong then. I'm having in mind the whole action of proving me wrong, not a certain point during the process of proving me wrong (which would require the imperfect).

So with the perfect you consider an action in its entirety — no matter the duration of the action; e.g. "He lived a hundred years" will be centum annos vixit (perfect): when you say this, you are considering, from a point of view in the present, the whole time during which he lived, from beginning to end, as one block.

Centum annos vivebat (imperfect) would mean "He had been living for a hundred years (he was still living then, he hadn't quite finished)". If you say this, you are going back mentally to a certain point in the past, a certain point of the period during which he lived, and you are saying that the state of affairs at that moment was that he was living, and had been doing so for a hundred years already. Or in theory, you could also be going back mentally to a certain point in a period during which he habitually, repeatedly lived a hundred years. E.g. "He used to live a hundred years, then die, then live another hundred years, and so on." (But this is a very unlikely context, with this verb. :p) With the imperfect, you are going back mentally to a certain point in the past, and describing a state of affairs, something that was on-going at that time.

Now let's take a couple of examples where, in Latin, either the perfect or the imperfect could be used depending on context, with a somewhat different meaning, even though both versions could translate the same way into English, and let me try to give you an idea of how they differ.

1) Rex magnus hac in terra regnavit. (Perfect)
2) Rex magnus hac in terra regnabat. (Imperfect)

"A great king reigned in this land."

In 1), I am mentioning the king's reign as an event that happened once. I have his whole reign in mind. I see it completed, in its entirety, from a point of view in the present. In 2), I am saying that, at a certain time which I have in mind, one of the things that were going on was that a great king reigned here. I am having in mind some point during his reign. You could say this when you're setting the background to a story you're telling ("In the fifth century, when our hero was born, a great king reigned in this land, the kingdom was in peace, and the people was happy (such was the state of affairs at this point). But one day...") or in any context where you're having a certain period in mind that was at some point in his reign; either because it's been mentioned (- Do you remember year N? - Yes. Ah! A great king reigned in this land then! (He already reigned before year N, and perhaps went on reigning afterwards, but in year N, his reign was on-going.)) or implied in the context — generally speaking, because you're going back mentally to that period for whatever reason.

1) Scribere ad te volebam. (Imperfect)
2) Scribere ad te volui. (Perfect)

"I wanted to write to you."

1) means that I was in a state of desire to write to you. 2) means that the desire to write to you came to me then.

1) Illo tempore saepe pugnabam. (Imperfect)
2) Illo tempore saepe pugnavi. (Perfect)

"At that time, I often fought." (1) could also translate to "At that time, I would often fight" or "At that time, I used to fight often".)

In 1) I am, again, going back mentally to some point of that period during which I often fought, and visualizing it at some point in the middle. In 2), I am considering the whole period during which I often fought in its entirety, as if it were in some way one event: my "fighting career" is viewed here in its entirety like the reign of the king in rex magnus hac in terra regnavit.

Finally, let me come back to the near-equivalence of English past continuous and Latin imperfect to point out something concerning this: some English verbs are less often found in the continuous tenses than others, and some almost never (e.g. you hardly ever say "I was knowing"). This does not at all mean that they are similarly less often found in the imperfect in Latin. This regularly causes students to misuse the perfect where they needed the imperfect when they use those verbs in Latin. Such verbs include (but are not limited to, these are just those I can think of now): to be, to know, to want, to think, to believe. So when you need to use the Latin equivalent of one of these verbs (or a similar one) in past tense, be particularly careful* about whether it is, in the context, describing an on-going state (= Latin imperfect) or a "one-block" event (= Latin perfect). E.g. You need to say "I knew" in Latin. Do you mean: 1) that you were in a state of knowing — e.g."I knew she would do this, and indeed she did" — , 2) that the knowledge came to you just then — e.g. "When I saw him, I knew he was your father" — or 3) are you considering a whole, more or less definite period during which you knew, from its beginning to its end — e.g. "I knew his name for a long time, but then I forgot"? If the answer is 1), you need the imperfect. If it's 2) or 3), you need the perfect. You can perhaps also try, in English, to substitute for the verb concerned another verb that doesn't have this peculiarity of being rarely found in the continuous tenses; for example "to run", "to eat" or "to watch TV", and see if it would work in the past continuous (was/were [verb]ing) in your context or not. If it does, you probably need the imperfect.

*I don't mean that you shouldn't be careful in other situations as well. Of course you should actually always be careful. ;)

I hope this post has clarified things at least a bit for you. If you still have questions, you can post them on the forum, and we'll answer them if possible.
 

malleolus

Civis Illustris
From the point of any odd Latin teacher I'd like to add that in most countries Latin studies and thus the knowledge of tenses and their morphology rather sadly boil down to much more basic issues: Is the student capable of translating any imperfect/perfect tense forms cropping up in a Latin text written by a Roman author accordingly?
For all it's worth, I myself am beyond grateful if students don't mix up imperfect and future tenses.
Any chances of translating from English to Latin are slim to none.
And you'd be burnt on the stake for asking a student to do that in an exam.
 

Ignis Umbra

Ignis Aeternus
For all it's worth, I'm beyond grateful if they don't mix up imperfect and future tenses.
Are you referring to the formation or the translation of these tenses? I can understand the former, but certainly not the latter.
 

malleolus

Civis Illustris
Are you referring to the formation or the translation of these tenses? I can understand the former, but certainly not the latter.
Both, actually.
Picture the following(quite common) situation:
In Latin Year One, you've got to teach 28 students, who are not necessarily obsessed with acquiring knowledge, least of all the ground rules of Latin grammar.
If you are lucky, you've got 3 lessons a week for 1.5 years to make them familiar with the basics of Latin: you also have to set 4- 6 written tests a year. (Our curriculum over here allows for no tardiness)
By the time you've successfully managed to get your students through all the declensions of nouns and adjectives (and comparison as well), you've got about two months to have them pick up all the tenses and modes of verbs.
Last time I checked I had about three lessons to explain to them the ablative absolute.
There was no time at all to make them understand that there was quite a difference between the Latin imperfect and the Latin present perfect.
Around Christmas of the second year you start throwing original texts at them. And that's when you start praying that they'll somehow make it, at least a small percentage of them.
 

Ignis Umbra

Ignis Aeternus
Wow. That kind of curriculum seems incredibly taxing both on the instructor as well as the students. I would have thought that a greater emphasis would have been placed on highlighting the subtleties between the imperfect and perfect tenses. In my first year, we spent a solid month on those two tenses alone, but that was primarily because the entirety of the curriculum was dispersed over four years, only two of which were required to graduate.
 

malleolus

Civis Illustris
Wow. That kind of curriculum seems incredibly taxing both on the instructor as well as the students. I would have thought that a greater emphasis would have been placed on highlighting the subtleties between the imperfect and perfect tenses. In my first year, we spent a solid month on those two tenses alone, but that was primarily because the entirety of the curriculum was dispersed over four years, only two of which were required to graduate.
Thing is, nobody cares about the subtleties of the individual Latin tenses since the students are not supposed to spend time reflecting on them as their main goals are to translate quite difficult texts in Year 2 as well as Year 3 and 4 as well as interprete them literature-wise.
We usually start out with texts focusing on Europe (Hyginus, Ovid, Boccaccio..) and then go on to analyze one or two outstanding Romans/Greeks.
After that we rush through Ovid's Ars and Catullus' poems and translate one complete speech by Cicero focusing on the figures of speech and such.Then on to Seneca's work.We usually end up with Cicero, de re publica.
 

Ignis Umbra

Ignis Aeternus
Speaking of rushing, what's the reason behind cramming an exhaustive amount of grammatical concepts and vocabulary into a single year? Is Latin a prerequisite for another course where you teach?
 

malleolus

Civis Illustris
Students have to do 4 years of Latin before graduation, which enables them to go on to uni.If you don't take Latin at grammar school you have to take a rather difficult exam at uni which crams everything I stated in the post above into 2 years.

This is why I was flabbergasted when PP spent an inordinate amount of careful reasearch and explaining on illustrating the difference between said tenses.
 

Ignis Umbra

Ignis Aeternus
Ouch. It seems America's educational standards are lower than those of nearly every other nation...
 

malleolus

Civis Illustris
Ouch. It seems America's educational standards are lower than those of nearly every other nation...
I wouldn't think so - your goals are just different.
 

Ignis Umbra

Ignis Aeternus
Probably so.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
From the point of any odd Latin teacher I'd like to add that in most countries Latin studies and thus the knowledge of tenses and their morphology rather sadly boil down to much more basic issues: Is the student capable of translating any imperfect/perfect tense forms cropping up in a Latin text written by a Roman author accordingly?
For all it's worth, I myself am beyond grateful if students don't mix up imperfect and future tenses.
Any chances of translating from English to Latin are slim to none.
And you'd be burnt on the stake for asking a student to do that in an exam.
That's rather sad, I guess (from a certain point of view, at any rate). Now I was aware of that — that most people who are studying Latin at school neither want nor need to bother with such subtleties to pass. But on this forum, we do meet a few weirdos who are, for some reason, interested in learning more and understanding things more in depth, even, in some cases, with a view to composing Latin themselves. It's for them that I did that. Questions on the difference between perfect and imperfect are regularly asked, so some people are interested.
Perhaps you could use a different mode of emphasis besides capitalizing entire words, though.
Oh. Do others also dislike this? If yes, I guess I can just change it to italics or underlined.
 

Imber Ranae

Ranunculus Iracundus
Oh. Do others also dislike this? If yes, I guess I can just change it to italics or underlined.
It comes across a bit shouty, yes. ALL-CAPS is OK for a single word here and there, but it's rather jarring with multiple words (though it's fine for headings, of course). I'd recommend using italics instead.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
I liked the all-caps because it seemed even more emphatic than italics (I used it just when I really wanted to insist on one or maximum three or four little words), but well, it's changed. Italics should work fine after all.
 

scrabulista

Consul
Staff member
Some old grammar books will say perfect(ive) and imperfect(ive) aspect, with the past, present, and future tenses.
Thus, what moderns call "imperfect," they called "past imperfect(ive)."
 

malleolus

Civis Illustris
I liked the all-caps because it seemed even more emphatic than italics (I used it just when I really wanted to insist on one or maximum three or four little words), but well, it's changed. Italics should work fine after all.

It's probably our (PP's and my own) European sense of emphasis. Usually works quite well with my students if I say so myself. None of them would give a rodent's b***** i.e. pay any attention to italics.
 

malleolus

Civis Illustris
But on this forum, we do meet a few weirdos who are, for some reason, interested in learning more and understanding things more in depth, even, in some cases, with a view to composing Latin themselves. It's for them that I did that. Questions on the difference between perfect and imperfect are regularly asked, so some people are interested.

Didn't mean to imply otherwise, just thought it might be of interest to point out how students usually acquire the basics of Latin.
 
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