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The following sentence is from a dictionary:

No me había fijado en el escalón y casi me caigo.

I'm confused that the past perfect is combined with present tense. I'd expect simple past in the second part.

For comparison that's like saying "I hadn't noticed the step and almost fall", while I think that native English speakers would say "fell". (I'm not native English, though.)

I've already asked some natives speakers (Mexico and Cuba) and they both say the sentence sounds correct to them but they couldn't give me an explanation that sounded reasonably to me.

I'd like to understand why the sentence is correct. It's not according to anything a textbook would teach, where it reads that the use of past perfect requires a reference point of time in the past. I can also not see any of the textbook usages for the present tense here.


Note, while I use English grammar terms, I refer to the Spanish grammar. Though as far as I'm concerned the English and Spanish grammar are in accordance to the respective matter at hand.

3 Answers 3

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It would of course be also correct, and perhaps more appropriate, to combine past perfect with simple past:

  • No me había fijado en el escalón y casi me caí.

However, the sentence provided is acceptable because the historic present is used instead of the past to make the account more vivid:

  • No me había fijado en el escalón y casi me caigo.

I agree that this combination of tenses (past perfect and historic present) is not possible in English.

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  • That example does not work in English but we do use the historic present. The entire works of Damon Runyon are supposed to contain only a single instance of the simple past, the remaining events being recounted in the historic present.
    – mdewey
    Jan 5, 2023 at 11:23
  • Yes, that is what I meant. I made a small change to reflect that.
    – Gustavson
    Jan 5, 2023 at 14:31
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This is a very interesting question. It is not easy to explain why the present tense works here, but after thinking about it for a while, I think it is a very specific usage when the verb follows the word 'casi'.

To see what I mean, note that the sentence becomes incorrect if we leave out the 'casi':

*No me había fijado en el escalón y me caigo.

This sentence sounds completely wrong. No native speaker of Spanish would ever say this. The only correct version is:

No me había fijado en el escalón y me caí.

Because of this, I don't think this is simply a case of using the historic present as it doesn't work with many other similar sentences. The presence of 'casi' is needed for the sentence to sound natural (in fact, much more natural than the 'indefinido' here). The present also sounds perfect if we replace 'casi' with the synonymous expression 'por poco':

No me había fijado en el escalón y por poco me caigo.

The Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas has an entry for 'por poco' where it says:

  1. por poco. Locución adverbial que expresa, seguida de un verbo en presente de indicativo, que estuvo a punto de suceder lo expresado por el verbo: [...]

That 'seguida de un verbo en presente de indicativo' is the key here. Both 'por poco' and 'casi' are overwhelmingly followed by a present and this use has probably ended up spilling over into sentences where the main verb is in the past. This is the only explanation I can come up with as I have never seen this discussed in any grammar book.

But the use of the present always feels much more natural in this case. Consider the following examples:

  1. Me dormí en el hotel por la mañana y casi/por poco pierdo el tren.

  2. Mi novia me pilló con otra y casi/por poco me deja.

  3. No había reservado hotel y casi/por poco me quedo sin un lugar donde dormir.

All these cases are like the original sentence; the present tense sounds more natural and common than a past tense. But if you leave out 'casi'/'por poco', then you must use a past tense.

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Cuando te pones a pensarlo, se escucha extraño. La razón es que estamos usando el presente histórico. Esto no lo vemos en lenguas como el inglés, por lo que no hay algo similar.

El presente histórico, sirve para contar los hechos conjugando en presente, pero se habla de hechos que ya ocurrieron. Normalmente lo que nos indica que está en pasado, es otra parte de la oración. Una fecha, otro verbo ya conjugado, o estamos citando algo. Hay otras situaciones en los que lo utilizamos, así que te recomiendo leer más sobre el tema de alguien especializado.

En el caso de una plática informal, es común utilizarlo con un hecho que casi ocurría, pero al final no. "Casi repruebo el examen". En tu ejemplo, también estaría bien decirlo como "No me había fijado en el escalón y casi me caía". Aunque como podrás notar, a los hispanohablantes nos resulta muy natural como lo escribiste.

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  • "caía" es incorrecto. Debería ser "caí".
    – Gustavson
    Jan 4, 2023 at 17:30
  • (sorry I forgot you asked in english so here we go again) It sounds bizarre in english. The reason is that we don't have a similar construction in english. Spanish haves what is called 'historical present'. Historial present is used to report a fact that already happened. Normally the hint that will let us know that we are talking about the past is something else in the sentence. It can be a date, another verb, or the context. There are some other options so I recommend studying it somewhere else. In your example you could have used simple past as well, but it is more native with hp.
    – C-cat
    Jan 4, 2023 at 17:30
  • Perdona, utilicé el pretérito imperfecto, porque me sonó más natural. No tengo idea si estoy bien.
    – C-cat
    Jan 4, 2023 at 17:32
  • No solo no es natural, sino que no es correcto.
    – Gustavson
    Jan 4, 2023 at 21:17
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    The historical present is used in English. It is commonly used to make the events being recounted more vivid.
    – mdewey
    Jan 5, 2023 at 11:21

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