Variation of past-tense aspectual morphology in Madrileño: No estuvo mal vs. no estaba mal

Abstract: This variationist analysis examines the “conflict of interest” of lexical and grammatical aspect that is instantiated by the Spanish stative verb estar ‘be’. Following Vendler’s classification (1967) of lexical aspect, these verbs intrinsically convey the duration of a situation; however, as it is commonly observed, and supported quantitatively in the present analysis, the stative verb estar is used with both perfective and imperfective aspect. This research tackles the following question: what are the linguistic and extralinguistic (social) factors that shape the use of estar in the past tense? Through a variationist approach, it was discovered that extralinguistic factors did not systematically affect the dependent variable. Of the linguistic factors, Person, Locative, Priming and Temporal Frame did result as statistically significant factor groups that conditioned the use of past-tense estar.

Keywords: Language variation, stative verbs, verb aspect, madrileño Spanish.




1.1 Variationist Analysis

Simply stated, the cornerstone of Variationist Analysis is observing the variable nature of linguistic phenomena in a natural conversational setting. United in the belief that prescriptive and/or qualitative descriptive investigations of a linguistic variable result in insufficient and perhaps even inaccurate conclusions, variationists have based this subfield of Sociolinguistics on the fact that quantitative analysis can more accurately explain the observed variability of native-speaker discourse, when in tandem with qualitative analysis. As Sankoff (1988:141) affirms: “The variationist viewpoint on language is first determined by a scientific interest in accounting for a grammatical structure in discourse […] and second by a preoccupation with the polyvalence and apparent instability in discourse form-function relationships.” Variationist analysis is supported by frequencies of the variants, along with supplementary social and linguistic information pertinent to the phenomenon in question, to ascertain possible reasons for variant form-function occurrences in the language. Natural discourse, qualitative analysis, and skillful linguistic ability also guide the variationist through his or her exploration of the variable.

Variationist researchers also aim to disabuse the prescriptivist notion that one can always explain why speakers prefer one form to another in a particular context. In fact, Poplack (2001:407) warns researchers about the slippery slope of semantic interpretations when accounting for morphosyntactic phenomena, and advises against this practice. With respect to variation of French morphosyntax she firmly states:

The grammarian typically responds to such situations by attempting to factor out the variability, either by (1) ignoring it, (2) condemning the offending variant, or (3) attempting to redress the form-function asymmetry, typically by assigning to each form a preferred ‘reading’ or function. […] This makes it possible to attribute the variability to such unobservables as speaker intent, and thereby explain it away. The abiding distaste of grammarians (and many linguists) for inherent variability, coupled with the important interpretive component they assign to speaker commitment and hearer inference, conspire in the observations—with which the literature is rife—that each variant forms fulfills a specific semantic task.[i]

Poplack expresses exactly the position I wanted to take regarding the distinction between perfective and imperfective past-tense morphology in Spanish. Specifically, a variationist approach was used to explore the variability of the stative verb estar ‘be’ in the past tense. I limited this study to only the Spanish spoken in Madrid, Spain, henceforth referred to as madrileño, since it is well known that different varieties of any language can display different usage patterns of linguistic phenomena.[ii]

As it is well known, the Spanish language has a required aspectual distinction in the past –Preterit (perfective) and Imperfect (imperfective)—, which oppose each other in regard to the presence or absence of temporal boundaries.[iii] These aspectual forms can likewise cause difficulty for learners of Spanish as a second language (L2) whose first language (L1) does not make use of such morphological markers for aspectual distinction (e.g. English). Even if one’s language does distinguish between perfective and imperfective morphological forms in the past tense, there still could be different uses and distributions of each aspectual form in each respective language.[iv] Therefore, my aim was to empirically examine the Spanish past-tense system, not only to establish which social and linguistic elements shape the use of each variant in native Spanish speech, but also to propose a rethinking on how the Spanish past-tense system is prescribed in L2 language classes and how this topic is researched under the umbrella of Second Language Acquisition (SLA).[v]

The verb estar was chosen as the focus of this investigation due to a possible “conflict of interest” of lexical and grammatical aspect. Since estar is a verb of state, it would be classified as durative and non-dynamic; this type of verb is more likely to be applied with imperfective aspect (Imperfect) rather than perfective (Preterit) since the Imperfect tense in Spanish generally expresses a state or a condition in the past.[vi]

(1)   …comimos en el tren francamente bien, no estaba (IMP) mal. (63)

‘…we ate on the train frankly well, it was (IMP) not bad.’ [vii]

In example (1), the speaker applied imperfective aspect to estar when commenting on the state of the food on the train, which is what one would expect. However, imperfective aspect is not always the aspectual marker applied to the verb estar, as it is well documented that native Spanish-speakers commonly use the perfective form verb estar in similar linguistic contexts (2).

(2)   Y él estuvo (PRET) muy mal. (197)

‘And he was (PRET) really bad.’

These examples provide us with our point of departure for accounting for the variability of the form-function relationship in the Spanish language. As one can see, the linguistic environments of examples (1) and (2) are fairly analogous, since both excerpts provide a description using the third-person singular form (estaba vs. estuvo) and the adverb mal ‘bad’. One could say that this variation is due to how the speaker viewed the situation. While this may be the case, recall Poplack’s recommendation: instead of “explaining away” the variation, I find it advantageous to examine the patterns borne out in the data and to uncover which factors shape the use of one past-tense aspectual marker over the other. Before reviewing the literature of previous empirical studies involving aspect in Spanish, I will review more in depth the components of aspect, perfectivity versus imperfectivity, and stative verbs.

1.2 Components of Aspect

 As seen in López-Ortega (2000:488), “aspect has been defined by Comrie as the ‘way of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation.’ These types of distinctions may be marked covertly through the use of inherent lexical aspect or overtly via grammatical aspectual markers.” Aspect is rich and complex in nature; each verb possesses inherent, semantically charged characteristics, as well as explicit morphological endings. Lexical aspect, as classified by Vendler (1967), can be divided into four categories: stative, activity, accomplishment, and achievement.[viii] On the other hand, grammatical aspect is what permits the speaker the ability to express different points of view with respect to a same situation through the use of different morphological markers (i.e. verb conjugations). Hualde, Olarrea, and Escobar (2001:160) further describe aspect as “[…] una categoría que tiene que ver con cómo visualizamos el evento que describe la oración. Podemos ver el evento enfatizando el comienzo, el final o su totalidad o bien verlo en su desarrollo.”

Aspect is a tool all native Spanish-speakers use to shape how the past is narrated in natural discourse. Some grammarians and linguists provide specific “rules” that determine when one is to use a past-tense aspectual form or another; yet, Freidrich (1985:186) points out that “we must grant that aspect is itself a matter of scale that may involve, e.g., degrees of relativity, or of nearly free variation between the perfective and imperfective in some contexts.” The phrase “free variation” to the faithful variationist immediately raises a red flag, and rightfully so. While this quote from Freidrich tells the reader that variation exists when considering perfective and imperfective aspect, this variation is not simply determined by a roll of the dice. Within a variationist perspective, it is believed that linguistic phenomena –in this case, past-tense aspectual morphology– can be explained by the linguistic and (possibly) extralinguistic factors present in the context via quantitative and qualitative analyses. The findings of this analysis will bring to light how this phenomenon functions in Spanish, by revealing the frequencies of usage of the Preterit and Imperfect of estar, and the factors that condition the use of each variant.

1.3 Perfectivity versus Imperfectivity

 Hualde et al. (2001:160) provide the following definition of perfective aspect in Spanish: “Si el evento es visto desde la perspectiva de alguno de sus límites (comienzo, final o totalidad), decimos que se trata de un evento cerrado o perfectivo”. Let’s take two examples from the data to further examine perfective aspect.

(3)   ¡Ah!, ¿con otra? Yo es que no sé que…con quien estuve (PRET) hablando el otro día que en filología italiana […] (219)

‘Ah, with another? It’s that I don’t know…with whom I was (PRET) speaking the other day in Italian Philology […]’

(4)   El otro estuvo (PRET) escondido todo el tiempo de la guerra y después… (143)

‘The other was (PRET) hidden all the time during the war and after…’

The adverbial expressions in (3) and (4), el otro día ‘the other day’ and todo el tiempo de la guerra ‘all the time during the war’ situate the events in a closed time frame and the speakers applied perfective aspect to estar in these cases. On the other hand, Hualde et al. (2001:160) explain in the following terms how imperfective is different from perfective aspect: “Si, por el contrario, el evento es visto internamente sin referencia a sus límites, decimos que se trata de un evento abierto o imperfectivo.” As in (5) and (6), the speakers applied imperfective aspect with states of mind and when there was not a specific time frame present in the linguistic context.

(5)   O sea, como puedes observar, estaba (IMP) de lo más tranquila que te puedes         imaginar…(112)

‘In other words, as you can observe, I was (IMP) as calm as you could imagine…’

(6)   …pero yo ya estaba (IMP) aburrida de estar en casa ¿comprendes? entonces, claro, y le dije que, que ya me quería marchar…(112)

‘…but I already was (IMP) bored of being at home, you know, so, of course, I told him that

I already wanted to leave.’

Upon considering these definitions, the same recurring question arises: is it always the speaker’s perspective of the past that conditions the use of Preterit or Imperfect, or could there be other (linguistic or social) factors motivating the use of the respective variants? Concurrent with Poplack (2001), Aaron (2006:33) advises that “speaker intention is most often unavailable to the analyst, and as such, if there are no overt clues about what the speaker wishes to communicate, then features said to be embodied in the forms themselves cannot serve as the basis of an analysis (Du Bois 1987:811-812; Poplack & Turpin 1999:145-146; D. Sankoff 1988).” Thus, this analysis will use both qualitative and quantitative measures to study the factors that shape past-tense aspectual morphology in madrileño Spanish, as opposed to simply speaker perceptions or researcher intuitions.

Furthermore, many researchers have attributed aspectual distinctions to the discourse functions of foregrounding and backgrounding. Smith (2005:223) states: “shifts of viewpoint and tense [and aspect] are often associated with shifts of direction, and with the distinction between background and foreground.” Congruently, Hopper (1979:213) affirms “it is evidently a universal of narrative discourse that in any extended text an overt distinction is made between the language of the actual story line and the language of supportive material which does not itself narrate the main events. I refer to the former—the parts of the narrative which relate events belonging to the skeletal structure of the discourse—as foreground and the latter as background.” Hopper explicitly concludes that foreground statements are “discrete measured events of the narrative”, where the verbs are primarily perfective (e.g. on average punctual verbs), leaving imperfective aspect to refer to background and secondary information of the narrative.[ix] With this said, however, how can we account for the application of perfective aspect to non-punctual, non-dynamic verbs (e.g. estar) as it is observed in madrileño Spanish?

1.4 Stative Verbs

In a cross-linguistic analysis of tense/aspect systems, Dahl (1985:28) reports that most languages maintain the dynamic-stative classification; yet the distinction between the two is not always black-and-white. He finds that aspectual categories with stative verbs can develop special properties and that “the distinction between (dynamic and stative) constructions tends to be less developed or wholly neutralized in stative contexts” (Dahl 1985:28). Other cross-linguistic analyses of tense/aspect systems and its interaction with stative verbs have shown that some languages do not even permit the combination of stative verbs and perfective aspect (Bybee 1994:448-9; Comrie 1976:50-1); only its co-occurrence with imperfective aspect is permissible. Conversely, some languages have gone as far as conventionalizing the inferential meaning of perfective statives as having an inceptive function (Bybee 1994:447-50), meaning that the only possible interpretation of this combination is the entrance into the state. It is known that the perfective-stative combination is possible in Spanish; yet, the inferential meaning has not been conventionalized in the language, since there still remain a variety of interpretations: inchoative, egressive, or simply past-tense meaning, among others.[x] Consequently, “the interpretation [of different classifications of stative verbs] varies by verb and context” (Bybee 1994:450). Therefore, it was of interest to examine these contexts and apply a variationist approach to determine what contextual factors shape the use of perfective-statives, in this case, the verb estar.



Investigations in SLA have offered empirical analyses to support the study of the Spanish tense/aspect system. Based on the fact that emergent linguistic systems aspect is superordinate to tense in first languages, various SLA studies (Andersen 1991:307; Liskin-Gasparro 2000:831; López-Ortega 2000:488-489; inter alia) support the Lexical Aspect Hypothesis (LAH). According to this theory, one can expect for L2 Spanish learners to acquire and apply perfective aspect first to achievements, then to accomplishments and activities, and finally to states; conversely, imperfective aspectual marking is acquired and applied first to states, activities and accomplishments, and lastly to achievements. To complement the LAH, other SLA studies have investigated L2 discursive grounding strategies in the acquisition of tense/aspect systems. Since in the L1 it has been shown that native speakers commonly make use of perfective markers for foregrounding and imperfective for backgrounding in narratives (Hopper 1979, 1982; Reid 1977), some investigations have added the Discourse Hypothesis (DH) to the LAH framework (Comajoan 2005; García & van Putte 1998; Güell 1998; Lafford 1996; Liskin-Gasparro 2000; Lopez-Ortega 2000). Foregrounded events are those that are characterized with temporal continuity (as opposed to flashbacks or simultaneous actions), punctuality (as opposed to durative or habitual events), and completeness (López-Ortega 2000:489), whereas backgrounded events are those that “give details of indirect relevance to the narrative that may be part of the pre-history, provide a preview…or suggest contingent but unrealized events” (Hopper 1979:239). The DH proposes that as the level of formal study increases, L2 speakers will rely less on the systematic use of verbal morphology (i.e. always producing perfective aspect with foregrounded actions and imperfective aspect with backgrounded actions). Eventually, these advanced non-native speakers of Spanish will use other linguistic elements (i.e. adverbial expressions) to distinguish between foregrounded events and backgrounded conditions (López-Ortega 2000:493). The findings of these studies corroborate both the DH as well as the LAH in the acquisition of past-tense aspectual morphology in Spanish.

It has likewise been shown throughout the SLA literature that L2 learners do not completely acquire the past-tense aspectual distinction of stative verbs. Salaberry (2005:209) explains that this incomplete acquisition is a direct result of the highly complex nature of the combination of perfective aspect with stative verbs in native speech. These studies conclude that L2 speakers strongly prefer applying imperfective aspect to stative verbs and perfective aspect to achievements and accomplishments, especially when distinguishing between high-focused (foregrounded) and low-focused (backgrounded) events in narration (cf. López-Ortega 2000:493). Is this because non-native speakers are imitating the patterns of native speakers? If we do not know exactly the patterns of native speech, how can we compare the values of L2 learners of Spanish?

These questions bring up some important criticisms. While the research offers empirical evidence with valuable implications for the L2 classroom, many of these studies do not define target-like production based on native-speaker patterns, or worse yet, target-like values are based exclusively on the researchers’ intuitions and judgments. Some of these studies make no mention of native-speakers patterns (Comajoan 2005; Liskin-Gasparro 2000; López-Ortega 2000), while others compare L2 speakers’ results with native-speaker performance in cloze activities or sentence translations (Ayoun 2005; García & van Putte 1998; Güell 1998; Salaberry 2005), as opposed to naturally occurring narrative speech. To address these methodological concerns, a synchronic variationist investigation of this phenomenon would provide comparative data to support how non-native speakers should approximate target-like production of past-tense aspectual morphology of stative verbs in Spanish. For this reason, I hope that this research not only contributes to the fields of Sociolinguistics and Variationist Analysis, but also to the fields of SLA and Foreign Language (FL) Pedagogy.

Another possible criticism of these studies and theoretical frameworks is the concept of foregrounding and backgrounding. Although the theory of discourse grounding strategies has been widely accepted in the literature, Vet (1991:7-8) posits some limitations because: “the foregrounding/backgrounding approach runs the risk of circularity: very often the only formal clue for deciding whether a state of affairs belongs to the foreground or background of the story is precisely the presence in the sentence of one of the two aspect markers or tense forms.” Vet also notes that some authors have considered the foreground/background distinction as either too narrow (Waugh & Monville-Burston 1986) or too black-and-white, as there seems to be more of a continuum between the two levels (Fleischman 1985). Therefore, it is important to further determine the internal and external factors shaping this phenomenon in the discourse of madrileño Spanish. Although the previous material has greatly contributed to the study of this phenomenon within SLA and assisted me in proposing hypotheses of native-speaker variant choice of the past-tense forms of estar (§3), a variationist approach will establish more conclusive baseline native-speaker data against which non-native speech can be compared.



This analysis addresses the following questions: (1) what are the patterns of estar in the past tense as seen in the madrileño community? and (2) what are the linguistic and extralinguistic factors that shape the patterns in the madrileño data? To begin, I hypothesized that the linguistic factors (i.e. Person, Temporal Frame, Locative, Priming, Collocation Group, and Style) would prevail as the most influential elements in determining the patterns of the Preterit and Imperfect forms of estar. Extralinguistic factors groups (i.e. Sex and Age) were included in the analysis; however, it was predicted that these elements would not result statistically significant in shaping the use of past-tense estar, since there had not been prior evidence indicating a change in progress or that a stative applied with perfective aspect was a stigmatized form in Spanish-speaking communities.[xi] Extralinguistic factors were included in order to corroborate these speculations.

With respect to the linguistic factors, it was expected that madrileño speakers would prefer the use of the perfective estar (PE) when the form co-occurred with a specific temporal frame in the narration of past events. Specific temporal frames include expressions referring to an exact moment in time, such as ayer ‘yesterday,’ dos días antes ‘two days prior’ or el mes pasado ‘last month’. Words or phrases that lack a specific temporal frame or express durative (i.e. por mucho tiempo ‘for a long time’) or habitual (siempre ‘always’ or cada domingo ‘each Sunday’) past events were hypothesized to disfavor the PE, since imperfective aspect emphasizes the duration and habitual nature of past actions. I hypothesized that this factor group would achieve the highest magnitude of effect based on previous descriptive analyses on past-tense aspectual morphology, which uses the presence or absence of a temporal frame as the main distinction between perfective and imperfective aspect.

With respect to Person, the second linguistic factor group considered in this analysis, it was expected for singular and animate subjects to favor the perfective form. This hypothesis was based on the analyses of Reid (1979) and Klein-Andreu (1991), both of whom conclude that these subjects are commonly the center of high-focused, foregrounded events, which correspond to perfective aspect. In contrast, plural and inanimate subjects are predominately a part of low-focused, backgrounded descriptions and, consequently, these verbs are applied with imperfective aspect.

A third factor group that was examined was the presence of a locative. A locative is defined as those words or expressions that are deictic adverbs (i.e. allí ‘there’ or aquí ‘here’) or any other expression that makes reference to a physical place. We can see an example of a locative expression from the data co-occurring with the PE in (7); accordingly, the collocation en Nápoles ‘in Naples’ is considered the locative expression.

(7)       Estuvo (PRET.) dos años allí, en Nápoles (LOC). (138)

‘He was (PRET.) there for two years, in Naples (LOC).’

I expected madrileño speakers to prefer the PE with the presence of a locative (i.e. en ‘in’ + place), since these linguistic elements can highlight the location of the subject and place the event in the foreground of the narrative.[xii]

Along with the Locative factor group, Priming was the fourth linguistic element expected to significantly shape the use of the PE. Structural priming has been defined as “the process whereby the use of a certain structure in one utterance functions as a prime on to subsequent utterance, such that the same structure is repeated” (Travis 2007:101). This phenomenon has been studied under the realms of psycholinguistic (Bock 1986), sociolinguistic (Cameron & Flores-Ferrán 2003; Poplack 1980; Scherre 2001; Scherre & Naro 1991; Travis 2005b, 2007), and corpus-based analysis (Gries 2005; Szmrecsanyi 2005, 2006) (cf. Travis 2007:101). Specifically regarding priming and morphology, studies by Poplack (1980), Scherre & Naro (1991, 1992), Scherre (2001) and Travis (2005b, 2007) find that morphological markers—in these cases, the expression of subject pronouns—are subject to a priming effect over a series of clauses. Likewise, studies of priming including syntactic variables (Gries 2005; Levelt & Kelter 1982; Weiner & Labov 1983) also conclude that these elements are affected by the previous structures in the linguistic context. This information led me to believe a priming effect with morphosyntactic phenomena could be plausible. Examples (8) and (9) show a priming effect with imperfective and perfective aspect respectively.

(8) en verano y eso, pues ponían (IMP1) así.; estaban (IMP2) así (149)

‘in summer and that, well they put (IMP1) it that way, they were (IMP2) that way’.

(9) Enc.–¿allí hizo? (PRET1)… ¿el bachillerato?

Inf.–Ahí estuvimos (PRET2)… No, yo no hice bachillerato; hice cultura general. (139)

Inter. –You studied (PRET1) there?  For your baccalaureate?

Part.–There we were (PRET2). No, I did not do a baccalaureate; I studied general culture.

Since the aforementioned research establishes that priming can condition the choice of morphosyntactic structures regardless of content, I predicted that the aspectual marker of the preceding verb would prime the subsequent past-tense aspectual form of estar.

The fifth factor group included in the analysis was Collocation, which included verb + preposition

(10), verb + gerund (11), verb + adjective (12), verb + (adjective) (gerund) (preposition) (13), and finally a verb alone (14). [xiii]

(10)     Yo me di cuenta de que estaba (IMP) delante de (PREP) un hombre que tenía muchas cosas que decir. (165)

‘I realized that I was (IMP) in front of (PREP) a man that had a lot of things to say.’

(11)     Mira ahí sé me puedes decir conocedora. De eso y de la pintura, me estaba (IMP) acordando (GER)… (44)

‘Look there I know that you can call me knowledgeable. About that and paintings, I was (IMP) remembering (GER)…’

(12)     […] estaba (IMP) nerviosísimo (ADJ) y todo esto; esto es muy propio de los novios ¿no? (63)

‘[…] he was (IMP) very nervous (ADJ) and all of that; it’s very typical of grooms, right?’

(13)     Yo ya dije: «Mira, me la voy a jugar…». Estuve (PRET) hablando (GER) con (PREP) él. (231)

‘I already said: «Look, I’m going to play it.» I was (PRET) talking (GER) with (PREP) him.’

(14)     […] cuando llegué, estaba (IMP) todo el mundo. (62)

‘[…] when I arrived, everyone was (IMP) there.’

It was anticipated that the instances of PE + gerunds and adjectives would be disfavored, since these grammatical elements imply a durative or on-going state, and would reinforce the non-punctual, non-dynamic nature of the stative verb.

In the final factor group, Style, there were three factors considered based on how the data were collected: face-to-face, open or surreptitious interviews. It was hypothesized that speakers would use a more creative, informal register with open and surreptitious discussions (e.g. eliciting the use of PE), and more formal and conservative registers with the one-on-one interview (e.g. disfavoring the use of the PE). It is worth mentioning that Style was included along as a linguistic factor group; however, as seen in Bell (1984, 2001), Style could be thought as an extralinguistic element, and not entirely linguistic. It was analyzed with linguistic factor groups in the present investigation; yet, another type of methodology is recognizably possible.



The corpus used in this study is entitled El habla de la ciudad de Madrid ‘Speech from Madrid’, which was conducted by Esgueva and Cantarero in 1981. As previously mentioned, natural data (i.e., conversational, oral data) is highly valued in variationist analyses, since it is through the unplanned use of language in context that we may discover the patterns that best characterize the speech of individuals and speech communities. The corpus is a collection of interviews from participants of habla culta, or ‘educated speech’, those of whom resided in Madrid since birth or for the greater majority of his or her life. There were a total of 24 speakers, whose ages ranged from 19 to 86-years-old. Esgueva and Cantarero divided the participants into four generation groups: 11 participants in Generation 1 (19-24 years of age), 5 participants in Generation 2 (25-35 years), 4 participants in Generation 3 (36-69 years), and 4 participants in Generation 4 (70-86 years).[xiv]

A total of 257 occurrences of the dependent variable—Preterit or Imperfect forms estar—was extracted from the data and coded in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. To reiterate, the extralinguistic (Age and Sex) and linguistic factor groups (Person, Priming, Temporal Frame, Collocation Group, and Style) were included as the independent variables. Variable rule analyses using GoldVarb X software (D. Sankoff, Tagliamonte & Smith 2005) were conducted on both extralinguistic and linguistic factor groups. GoldVarb X calculates the input probability of the dependent variable—or the likelihood that the application value of the dependent variable (in this study, the PE) is used without the contextual and extralinguistic factors—, as well as probabilistic weights within factor groups to determine the likelihood of co-occurring with the application value (Bayley 2002:126-7). To identify which contextual and extralinguistic factor groups are significant, GoldVarb X runs a stepping-up and a stepping-down (i.e. comparing all the factor groups in a stepwise manner) and arrives at the model that is the best fit for the data. Likewise, within a statistically significant factor group the range can be calculated; this indicates the relative strength, or the magnitude of effect, the factor group exerts over the dependent variable. Within the factor groups, factors that are greater than 0.50 favor the application value, whereas factors less than 0.50 are said to disfavor the application value. All of the results were based on the Preterit forms of estar (application value), since the patterns of this form were the focus of this investigation.



5.1 Extralinguistic Factors

As expected, statistical analyses established that the extralinguistic factors were not systematic predictors of the use of PE forms. Though the Age factor group was selected as a significant factor group shaping the use of the PE, the data did not show a systematic trend between the factors within the group, which would be indicative of a language change in progress.[xv]

Table 1. Variable rule analysis of extralinguistic factors in relation to the occurrence of the Preterit of estar.

Nonetheless, the results of the Age factor group show an interesting rate of usage among the four age divisions, as seen in Table 1. The generations are ordered from groups with the highest to the lowest frequency of PE. Generation 1 showed an overwhelming preference for the perfective form of estar (60%); yet, instead of a systematic decline (or incline) in subsequent generations, it was Generation 4 that followed (37%), closely behind was Generation 3 (32%) and lastly Generation 2 (25%). If we take a look at the probabilities of the variable rule analysis, we see the same order of use. Again, Generation 1 strongly preferred the PE (.71), followed by Generation 4, though slightly disfavoring the perfective form (.45). Generation 3 also slightly disfavored the PE (.43) and Generation 2 moderately disfavored the application value (.30). It could be argued that the participants of Generation 1 might have used a more informal, innovative register of speech (thus, the PE), since this generation had not yet entered the professional world and were still students when the data were collected.[xvi] It is also of interest that these patterns drastically change from Generation 1 to Generation 2. Since four out of the five participants of Generation 2 had already established themselves as professionals (i.e. lawyer, doctor, librarian, and secretary), it is possible that these speakers preferred or acquired a differed style of speech with respect to past-tense aspectual morphology.

While this conclusion is plausible, a more in-depth investigation is warranted to confirm if the PE is the aspectual form commonly used by the youngest generation. Still, as explained above, if it were a language change in progress, we would observe a systematic increase or decrease of usage among the successive generations. For that reason, it was concluded that there this extralinguistic factor group should be re-examined and not thought as a predictor of PE use. Additionally, as seen in Table 1, the Sex factor group cannot be considered a determining element of PE use, as this factor group was not selected as having a statistically significant effect on the dependent variable.


5.2 Linguistic Factors

The linguistic factor groups provided more systematic and conclusive results than the extralinguistic factors. Table 2 shows the probabilities and relative frequencies for each factor group hypothesized to condition past-tense aspectual choice in madrileño. Of these factors, Person, Locative, Priming, and Temporal Frame were selected as statistically significant factor groups in shaping the use of the PE form. With the exception of Person, all of these linguistic factors support the hypotheses in §3: the presence of a locative favored the use of PE, the PE was favored when following another verb applied with perfective aspect, and the PE was favored when co-occurring with a specific temporal frame. Collocation and Style were not selected as statistically significant factor groups in determining madrileño speaker use of past-tense aspectual morphology.

Focusing concretely on the Person factor group, it was found that first-person plural overwhelmingly favored the PE, with probability of .89. In other words, the PE was frequently observed when co-occurring with a first-person plural (nosotros ‘we’) subject, as in example (15).

(15)    Después, donde estuvimos (PRET), fue en Bayona, que es donde te digo que está, este parador que es francamente bonito, muy bonito, es un castillo y…( 64)

‘After, where we were (PRET), was in Bayona, that is where I mean is, that hotel which is frankly lovely, very lovely, it is a castle and…’

This finding is particularly interesting because plural subjects were predicted to disfavor the PE. Congruent to my expectations, however, the combination of first and second-person singular favored the PE with a probability of .62, and the third-person (singular, plural, and inanimate) strongly disfavored the PE, arriving at a probability of .26. Table 3 below presents the individual results of the original data analysis of Person. Since the second-person singular consisted of a small number of tokens (N=3), this group was combined with first-person to avoid a skewing of the data given these two factors shared the same direction of effect. Additionally, all third-person subjects (i.e. singular, plural and inanimate) were grouped together for the same rationale.

Table 2. Variable rule analysis of the contribution of linguistic factors selected as significant to the occurrence of the Preterit of estar.

The fact that first and second-person subjects favored the use of PE in this data implies that discursive functions were at work; these results confirm Reid’s conclusions that, in French, perfective forms are commonly used with first-person subjects and imperfective forms are associated with inanimate and third-person subjects. As Hopper (1979) explains, foregrounded actions are narrated and applied with perfective aspect, while background actions are commented and applied with imperfective aspect.[xix] The narrators themselves were commonly a part of the main action of the story and, consequently, these speakers chose to use the Preterit form of the verb, even with verbs of state like estar.


Table 3. Original variable rule analysis of the Person factor group

Within Locative factor group, which was also selected as statistically significant, a strong preference for the PE (.75) was observed with a locative present, as seen in (15). Conversely, there was a moderate disfavoring of the use of the PE (.34) for those instances with no locative expression present, as demonstrated in (16).

(15)       […] tenía dieciséis años, y estuve (PRET) en París (LOC) la capital… (210).

‘[…] I was sixteen years old, and was (PRET) in Paris (LOC) the capital…

(16)       él que se creyó que estaba (IMP) allí (LOC1) ya en su tierra (LOC2)… (135).

‘He believed that he was (IMP) there (LOC1) already in his land (LOC2)…’

Both examples display the variable nature of past-tense aspectual morphology of estar, with the former example observed more frequently in the Madrid corpus than the latter. As in example (15), the preference of the PE with a locative (such as allí ‘there’ or en ‘in’ + location) supports the hypothesis that these deictic adverbial elements are high-focused details of the narratives and, thus, they were applied with perfective aspect.

Priming has been defined as the activation or strengthening of information—in this case, a morphosyntactic form—across subsequent utterances, which implies a quasi-neurological energizing or threshold reduction that persists over time. This increases the likelihood of the form to influence subsequent productions.[xxii] As the results show, there was a strong priming effect of the PE form. The PE form was favored when primed by a preceding Preterit form (.62) and overtly disfavored when following a verb with imperfective aspect (.15).[xxiii] This priming phenomenon is illustrated in (17):

(17) Enc.— ¿Cuántos años estuvo (PRET1) en Argentina?

Inf.—  Estuve (PRET2) ocho años, estuve (PRET3)… ocho años pensando siempre en España, tratándonos entre españoles…, y, claro, el exilio es duro. (151)

Int.—  ‘How many year were (PRET1) you (formal) in Argentina?’

Part.—  ‘I was (PRET2) there eight years, I was (PRET3) …eight years thinking always of Spain, relating to each other among us Spaniard…, and, of course, exile is hard.’

The findings of the previously mentioned studies on priming suggest that the phenomenon is “inertial and subject to such probabilistic factors as frequency of use to particular structural forms” (Bock 1986: 355). Yet, the preference of PE following another Preterit form could also be explained by considering the fundamentals of narrative structure, as did Hopper (1982) and Silva-Corvalán (1983). These authors note that speakers apply perfective aspect to consecutive verbs in narrative clauses to sequence the main events chronologically; this could explain why the PE was favored when following another Preterit verb. By considering both priming and the structure of the narrative, it appears as though discourse factors and cognitive processes both came into play when speakers applied successive verbs with perfective aspect.

The final factor group selected as a significant predictor of the PE was Temporal Frame. Specific time reference moderately favored the PE (.66), while other temporal factors (i.e. durative and habitual) along with the absence of a temporal marker, showed a slight disfavoring of the Preterit (.44). For instance, (18) exemplifies a context of the co-occurrence of specific temporal reference and the PE.

(18) Enc.—¿También ha vivido en Inglaterra?

Inf.—Estuve (PRET) tres años (TD). ¡Claro!

Int.—Have you also lived in England?

Part.—I was (PRET) there three years (TD). Of course!

Originally, I anticipated this factor group to be the most influential out of the linguistic elements considered in the analysis; however, although significant, this factor group ranked last in terms of magnitude of effect (range=22).[xxiv] This is an interesting find especially if we refer back to the definition of perfective and imperfective aspect per Hualde et al. (2001): the distinguishing characteristic of past-tense aspectual morphology in Spanish is the presence or absence of a delineated time frame. Contrary to this distinction, it has been shown that other linguistic factor groups were more salient when determining the use of aspect in the past-tense system of madrileño.

Of the non-significant linguistic factors, Collocation was expected to display a notable influence on the choice of the aspect of estar. Although this factor group was not selected as a significant predictor of the PE form, the verb + gerund (.44) and verb + adjective (.36) factors shared the directionality of not preferring the PE, which was what I hypothesized. Perhaps with a larger data set, this factor group would result as a statistically significant component of this linguistic variable. Likewise, Style, although not significant, perhaps did achieve such status due to the extremely small amount of tokens from the surreptitious interviews (N=4).


Through statistical analyses and qualitative interpretations of the conversational data, the influential factors that shaped the use of the past-tense estar in the madrileño speech community have been brought to light. Systematic patterns were not observed with respect to extralinguistic factors; this finding was anticipated, since there was no evidence of a linguistic change in progress or that the PE was a stigmatized form in madrileño. With that said, certain trends in the Age and Sex factor groups merit further investigation using a solid methodology with evenly distributed participant groups (i.e. congruent to Labovian sociolinguistic methodology). Four linguistic-internal components — Person, Locative, Priming, and Temporal Frame— all resulted as significant factor groups in shaping the patterns of past-tense aspectual choice, whereas Collocation and Style were not selected as having a significant effect on this phenomenon.

Many questions surrounding the conflicting nature of the stative verb estar applied with perfective aspect can now be addressed. This investigation has shown that in the madrileño speech community the PE form was favored with the first-person plural and first and second-person singular subjects, in conjunction with a locative expression, following another Preterit or a verb that was not applied with imperfective aspect, and when a specific time frame was expressed in the linguistic context. It has also been concluded that foregrounding and cognitive processes acted together when madrileño speakers chose which aspectual form to use in narrative discourse.

There is still a need for future research of native speech of the Spanish tense/aspect system. In a related study, other stative verbs could be included in the analysis (i.e. ser ‘be’, tener ‘have), vis-à-vis other non-punctual verbs (i.e. activity verbs such as correr ‘run’, hablar ‘speak’, etc.) to compare each respective tendency. It would also be interesting to continue this discussion of aspectual markers of estar in other varieties of the Spanish language. A diachronic investigation of perfective and imperfective aspect of estar could be equally as enlightening, since a historical approach could uncover how the past-tense aspectual system in Spanish has developed over time, which would more thoroughly explain the synchronic variation that has been observed in the present study.

Most importantly, this research successfully established native-speaker comparative data of this phenomenon, which can be incorporated in the research of other branches of linguistic analysis, such as SLA and FL Pedagogy. While it is true that the Spanish past-tense system has been widely explored within SLA, a variationist approach improves upon these previous methodologies and provides new insights on how native Spanish-speakers make linguistic choices in real-life conversational interactions. Similarly, since Spanish grammar textbooks delineate specific “rules” explaining how L2 learners of Spanish should apply past-tense aspectual morphology, these materials should now be able (1) to take into account the fact that stative verbs behave quite differently than other types of verbs and (2) to use actual native-speaker data and/or quantitative measures to support these outlined rules. As such, the findings of this research can help revise and refine grammatical explanations in Spanish textbooks to appropriately reflect native-speaker face-to-face conversation, which would allow non-native students to move closer to achieving native-like proficiency in the target language.

Aside from of other possibilities related to the present investigation, this study has made headway in the burgeoning field of variationist analysis. This approach not only explains the trends found in natural language use, but also it corroborates the conclusion of other variationist studies that linguistic-internal factors often have a greater effect than social-external factors. It is through both quantitative and qualitative analysis that we can be sure to identify the significant contributions which shape the patterns of a particular linguistic variable, such as the choice of past-tense aspectual morphology of estar in madrileño.


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Special thanks go to Jessica E. Aaron and Francisco Salgado-Robles  -as well as two anonymous reviewers-  for their insights and comments throughut this research.  Also, I would like to note my appreciation to all of the participants, who at a later stage were to become the cornerstone of this work.  All errors, of course, remine my own.

[i] Emphasis added. Poplack (2001) studied the variation between three morphosyntactic irrealis structures in French: Subjunctive vs. Indicative, Synthetic Future vs. Periphrastic Future and Conditional vs. Imperfect.

[ii] Let it be known that by no means do I take the position that madrileño Spanish should be the only variety of Spanish considered to help establish native-speaker baseline data for past-tense aspectual use. I simply used this variety as a point of departure, and would like to encourage other researchers to look at this same phenomenon in other varieties (e.g. other Peninsular, Latin American and Caribbean varieties).

[iii] The Present Perfect (PP) is not considered in this exploratory analysis. It is recognized that many instances of the PP in Peninsular Spanish take a perfective meaning. See Knouse (2009) for how the PP was incorporated in the analysis of the variation of stative verbs and past-tense aspectual morphology.

[iv] See the section “Previous Research” for more in-depth information.

[v] Liskin-Gasparro (2000; 1996), López-Ortega (2000).

[vi See Keniston (1937:181-2).

[vii] The present author translated all of the examples cited from the Madrid 1981 corpus.

[viii] Examples of Vendler’s categories in Spanish (taken from El corpus del español, (1) Stative: ¿A ti te sigue gustando la cerveza o nunca la ha tomado? ‘Do you still like beer or haven’t you ever had it?’

(2) Activity: Llevar la merienda al campo. Llenar bien la panza, beber cerveza fresca y vino y reírnos de nuestras caras. ‘Take a picnic in the countryside.  Fill up your belly, drink fresh beer and wine, and laugh at ourselves’ (3) Accomplishment: Después no me acuerdo. Fuimos a tomar una cerveza, porque me moría de sed. ‘After I don’t remember. We went to have a beer because I was dying of thirst.’ (4) Achievement: Tuvimos que intervenir sólo en un caso en que un niño rompió una botella de coca-cola para agredir a otro; fuera de eso no intervenimos…. ‘We had to intervene only when a boy broke a bottle of coca-cola to assault someone; outside of that, we don’t intervene…’

[ix] As in Michaelis (1998:37).

[x] See Guitart (1978).

[xi] See Chambers (2002:352) for a discussion on how social factors can point toward a change in progress.

[xii] As seen in, as well as many beginning L2 Spanish textbooks (e.g. Puntos de partida, Contextos, Paso a paso).

[xiii] Parentheses indicate that these factors may be in any combination with each other.

[xiv] The same divisions of age were applied to this study; yet, it is recommended to use an equal distribution among cells in future investigations.

[xv] It is believed that a larger variety and sample of speakers is needed in order to ameliorate such problematic areas.

[xvi] That is to say if a non-prototypical use of estar (i.e., PE) is considered innovative and informal.

[xvii] In a previous variable rule analysis run, individual results for Specific (.66), Durative/Habitual (.54) and None (.42) were separated. The latter two factors were combined since speakers did not show a strong tendency towards either variant. Yet, speakers strongly favored the PE with a specific time frame present in the context, which set it apart from the other factors in this group.

[xviii] There appears to be a non-parallel hierarchy of percentages of the Collocation Group due to the interaction with Person. Since this group was not found significant, it was not necessary to reanalyze this factor group.

[xix] Hopper also states that it is assumed that Preterit morphological markers correspond to perfective aspect and Imperfect morphological markers with imperfective aspect. Yet, he notes that tense/aspect systems are rich and complex; simple black-and-white can not always be made, as there are many factors at work that must be accounted for.

[xx] The same linguistic factors were included in this original run: Person, Priming, Locative, Collocation, Style, and Temporal Frame. Of these all resulted as significant factor groups except for Collocation and Style.

[xxi] There were no examples of second-person plural in the data set.

[xxii] Adapted from Bock (1986: 356).

[xxiii] Interestingly, the PE was favored when it was preceded by neither variant (.69). It is hypothesized that this is because be the PP in Peninsular Spanish can function as a perfective.

[xxiv] As a reminder to the reader, range is calculated by subtracting the lowest probably from the highest probably within a statistically significant factor group.

Articulos similares:

Licencia Creative Commons
Variation of past-tense aspectual morphology in Madrileño: No estuvo mal vs. no estaba mal por Stephanie M. Knouse (Doctora de Lingüística Hispánica), a excepción del contenido de terceros y de que se indique lo contrario, se encuentra bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Spain Licencia.

About Stephanie M. Knouse

Stephanie M. Knouse es Profesora Ayudante Doctora de Lingüística Hispánica en Furman University (Greenville, Carolina del Sur, EE.UU.). En su institución, supervisa el Servicio de Orientación y Formación Docente de Lenguas Extranjeras, coordina el Programa de Primer Año de Lengua Española, así como actualmente codirige el Programa de Estudios en Madrid. En 2003 realizó un Máster en Español en Middlebury College y en 2009 obtuvo el grado de Doctora en University of Florida. Sus intereses de investigación incluyen Variación Lingüística, Fonología en L2, Pedagogía de L2 y Adquisición de L2 en contextos de inmersión en el extranjero.


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