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When I read about the past tense I often see sentences such as,

The imperfect tense is used for descriptions of characteristics, feelings, and conditions in the past.

This confuses me when thinking about the preterite as being complete and the imperfect as not being complete. I'm confused because I feel as though there is a preterite counterpart. For example.

1.

Me sentía feliz con mi novia. I felt happy with my girlfriend (maybe I still do maybe I don't anymore)

Me sentí feliz con mi novia. I felt happy with my girlfriend (but not anymore)

2.

Estaba cansado. He was tired. (he may or may not be tired now)

Estuvo cansado. He was tired. (he is no longer tired now)

3.

El atleta era fuerte. The athlete was strong. (maybe he still is today)

El atleta fue fuerte. The athlete was strong. (He isn't strong anymore)

The only time I can envision there not being a preterite counterpart is in an example such as,

El atleta era alto y fuerte. The athlete was tall and strong.

where "fue alto" wouldn't make sense.

So, my question is, is this statement true or can I use the preterite?

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The use of pretérito imperfecto is more about describing states or long or repetitive actions in the past. In many cases, pretérito imperfecto is equivalent to the English construction "used to".

In this sense, in your examples, pretérito imperfecto is the usual choice, as the sentences describe past states. However, you are right that pretérito perfecto simple can also be used if the speaker wants to emphasize that the statement is not true in the present anymore.

When talking about states, both options have similar meanings though different emphasis (although of course, with alto, the pretérito perfecto simple sounds funny because people do not usually "stop being tall". But if someone does, the sentence with pretérito perfecto simple is as correct as the others) . However, for actions that are not states, pretérito imperfecto implies repetitive actions, while pretérito perfecto simple indicates an action that was done once. Therefore, they cannot be interchanged without considerably changing the meaning. For example,

  • Iba a la escuela en coche

means that the speaker used to go to school by car (repetitive action), while

  • Fui a la escuela en coche

means that the speaker went to school once by car. If you have the right context, only one tense is possible, for example:

  • Cuando era pequeño, todos los lunes fui iba a la escuela en coche.

  • El lunes pasado iba fui a la escuela en coche.

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