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If I were to tell a story about someone who had a particular problem and, by the time the story was finished, the problem was solved, would I use "...tuvo un problema" or "...tenía un problema" when setting up the story?

For example:

Miguel tuvo un problema. Su perro se tiró un pedo. Pero Miguel abrió una ventana.

Miguel had a problem. His dog farted. But Miguel opened a window. Miguel had a problem, but now it is solved (presumably).

However, we could also have the following situation where it isn't clear if the problem was ever solved or not, based on all the information we were given.

Miguel tenía un problema. Su perro se tiró un pedo y Miguel intentó abrir una ventana. Lamentablemente, no podía abrirla.

Mainly, I'm confused with regard to determining when to use tener in the preterit and when to use it in the imperfect.

  • 1
    This is actually a question about the difference between preterite and imperfect in general. It's a big topic and there are a lot of similar questions already, have you tried looking around? – pablodf76 Feb 26 '17 at 21:37
  • Preterite vs imperfect isn't ever decided with reference to the present – user0721090601 Feb 27 '17 at 3:20
  • I'm not sure I understand how I am referencing the present. – Blamettu Feb 27 '17 at 6:28
  • Wait. I think I know what you were referring to now. – Blamettu Feb 27 '17 at 6:29
  • If the problem was that the dog farted, then this would be preterit across the board. Miguel had a problem. His dog farted. Miguel opened the window. Though related, these are all discrete, sequential events. – Blamettu Feb 27 '17 at 6:34
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The decision to choose one tense of another does not have anything to do with the fact that the problem was solved or not, but with the fact that the problem was something that happened in a given time, or was something that used to happen recurrently.

Taking the present as the point the action is referred from, if you say

Miguel tuvo un problema

you are stating that Miguel had a problem one, a given day. If you say

Miguel tenía un problema

you are stating that Miguel used to have a problem that happened once in a while. Complete sentences for the two cases could be:

Miguel tuvo un problema ayer: su perro se tiró un pedo y casi muere asfixiado por el hedor.
(The problem happened just yesterday.)

Miguel tenía un problema con su perro: solía tirarse tales pedos que tenía que tener la ventana siempre abierta.
(The problem used to happen every day, but it is not happening any more.)

In fact, if the problem started in the past but it is still not solved, you can use the present tense:

Miguel tiene un problema: su perro se tiró un pedo ayer y la casa aún huele mal.

Note that so far I have used the tenses taking the present as the point in which the action is referred from. That is, we are talking now abou a problem happened in the past. But if we speak about the problem from the point of view of the past, things change. Then you could refer to the problem as something ongoing:

Miguel tenía un problema: su perro se había tirado un pedo y no sabía cómo ahuyentar el mal olor.
(Miguel's problem is still the present from the narrator's point of view.)

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2

Usually you want to say:

Miguel tenía un problema, su perro se tiró un pedo y abrió la ventana para solucionarlo.

The order of happenings are:

Dog fart (finished) -> bad smell problem (unfinished) -> open window (future)

You are telling a story, and you are located at the time Miguel was having the problem (at that time, the window was still closed, even though when you talk, it was already open)

It is also grammatically correct to use tuvo, but is is not usual to use the Spanish simple past (preterito) in this situation. Simple past suits better for actions that happened long ago, locating the listener in a moment in which everything has already finished, for example:

Miguel tuvo un problema de olores, pero lo solucionó abriendo la ventana.

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