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Better Call Saul #17

Context: Kim is suspicious of Jimmy. On the phone the night before, he had essentially predicted that something would happen to the Kettleman's. She asked why he said those things on the phone last night. Jimmy claimed he simply read the facts.

Jimmy: Same way I knew that the Kettleman's needed a lawyer.

Spanish Translation: Igual que supe que los Kettleman necesitaban un abogado.

Our Issue: The Imperfect & Preterite



We use the imperfect and preterite tenses together to tell stories about the past. They happen at the same time, but don’t have the same duration.

The imperfect tense gives us background information, HOW THINGS WERE.

The preterite tense tells us the focus of the story, WHAT HAPPENED.

It’s important to remember that each tense represents the action of a verb. It’s an “imperfect action” and a “preterite action”. Each with their own duration.


I like this example! It’s a good example of the imperfect and preterite tenses working together to help us tell stories about the past. The imperfect and preterite are clearest when they’re together in the same sentence.

But before we get to all that, let’s make sure we understand what reality this sentence is communicating. The verb “to know” is used a bit odd here. Why did they put “to know” in the preterite tense, “supe”?

When Jimmy said “I knew the Kettleman's needed a lawyer” -- he really meant, that’s when he REALIZED the Kettleman's needed a lawyer--that’s when he STARTED to know that the Kettleman's needed a lawyer.

So, using the Get Literal Method:

Same way I KNEW that...
= Same way I REALIZED that...
= Igual que SUPE que...

Since the words now reflect reality more literally, it’s pretty easy to see why they used the preterite tense for “I knew”. That’s when Jimmy started to know! That’s when Jimmy realized! That’s WHAT HAPPENED!

Now the second verb. Jimmy said “needed” in English, but they chose “necesitaban” in Spanish. ¿Por qué?

Well, let’s take a look with the Get Literal Method again:

...the Kettleman's NEEDED a lawyer
= ... the Kettleman's WERE NEEDING a lawyer
= ...los Kettleman NECESITABAN un abogado

Do you feel how the Kettleman's needing a lawyer is HOW THINGS WERE when Jimmy realized they needed a lawyer (what happened)?

If not, it’s okay. I’ve got another way I want you to look at this sentence.

In reality, the imperfect action always starts before the preterite action starts. But in this SENTENCE, the preterite action is before the imperfect action. That’s a mismatch between the sentence and reality!

So let’s switch the order to match reality, changing the sentence as little as possible:

Same way I knew that the Kettleman's needed a lawyer
= Same way I realized that the Kettleman's needed a lawyer
= The Kettleman's needed a lawyer, then I realized it

The Kettleman's needed a lawyer. That’s the background information for our story. That’s HOW THINGS WERE. That’s the imperfect action.

Then I realized it. That’s the point! That’s the focus! That’s WHAT HAPPENED. That’s the preterite action.

Here’s what the timeline looks like:

Imperfect & Preterite Timeline

If you sit back and think logically, Jimmy can’t realize somebody needs something if they don’t already need it! The Kettleman's needing a lawyer HAS to begin before Jimmy realizes they need a lawyer.

And even though it’s “needed” in English (the simple past) that still translates to the imperfect tense in Spanish, “necesitaban”. The Kettleman's needing a lawyer is how things were.

One last thing. Notice how the imperfect action continues after the preterite action has ended--the green line and arrow?

When Jimmy realized the Kettleman's needed a lawyer, that didn’t end their need for a lawyer. Them needing a lawyer continued even after Jimmy realized it.

Sometimes the preterite action ends the imperfect action, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, it didn’t. The imperfect action continued until the Kettleman's didn’t need a lawyer anymore.


Igual que supe que los Kettleman necesitaban un abogado.
= Same that I knew that the Kettleman's were needing a lawyer.
= Same way I knew that the Kettleman's needed a lawyer.

Any questions? About this issue or any others? Ask away!

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