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Spanish Verbs That Change Meaning in the Preterite Tense

Just when you thought you'd memorized the meanings of a bunch of infinitive verbs (their "to" forms, like saber (to know), poder (to be able), etc.), you find out that there are some verbs that actually change meanings from one tense to another! Verbs that mean one thing in tenses like the Spanish present indicative tense and the imperfect tense in Spanish but change meaning in the Spanish preterite tense will be the focus of today's lesson. 

 

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What Is the Spanish Preterite Tense?

In a nutshell, there are two "main" past tenses in Spanish: the imperfect tense in Spanish, which is used to describe past actions that were ongoing, in progress, or interrupted, and the Spanish preterite tense, which describes completed past actions. As we mentioned, as the meaning of some Spanish verbs actually changes in the preterite tense in Spanish, let's take a look at some examples of several of these verbs and their translations in the present, the imperfect, and, finally, the preterite, via examples from Yabla Spanish's video library. 

 

Spanish Verbs That Change Meaning in the Preterite Tense 

 

1. Conocer (to know)

Let's take a look at some examples of the Spanish verb conocer in the present and imperfect tenses:

 

Present Tense:

porque conozco un sitio muy bueno y podemos ir.

because I know a very good place and we can go.

Caption 67, Cleer Entrevista a Giluancar

 Play Caption

 

Imperfect Tense:

Pablo Escobar conocía La Catedral como la palma de la mano,

Pablo Escobar knew La Cathedral like the back of his hand

Caption 42, Los Tiempos de Pablo Escobar Capítulo 2 - Part 6

 Play Caption

 

In both the Spanish present indicative and the imperfect tense, the Spanish verb conocer means "to know" in the sense of "being familiar with." However, in the preterite tense, the Spanish verb conocer has a different meaning. Let's take a look:

 

Preterite Tense:

Cuando yo conocí a mi esposa, hace nueve años, la primera cosa yo le dije a ella, te... tú vas a ser la mamá de mis hijas.

When I met my wife, nine years ago, the first thing I said to her, you... you are going to be the mom of my daughters.

Captions 52-54, La Sub30 Familias - Part 4

 Play Caption

 

As you can see in this example, as the preterite tense in Spanish limits an action to a specific moment in time, the meaning of the Spanish verb conocer changes to "to meet" in the Spanish preterite tense. 

 

2. Poder (to be able)

The Spanish verb poder means "to be able," in the sense of "can" in the present or "could" in the past. Let's see some examples:

 

Present Tense:

Detrás de mí podemos observar la ciudad antigua

Behind me, we can observe the old city

Caption 11, Ciudad de Panamá Denisse introduce la ciudad

 Play Caption

 

Imperfect Tense:

Yo pensé que podía saltar muy alto.

I thought I could jump really high.

Caption 14, Guillermina y Candelario Una Amiga muy Presumida - Part 2

 Play Caption

 

So, how does the meaning of the Spanish verb poder transform in the preterite?

 

Preterite Tense:

Es que no entiendo cómo pudo entrar aquí.

It's just that I don't understand how he managed to get in here.

Caption 20, Confidencial: El rey de la estafa Capítulo 2 - Part 8

 Play Caption

 

Although "It's just that I don't understand how he was able to get in here" could also be a viable translation, in some contexts, this English rendition would not make it clear whether someone actually did something or merely had the ability to do so. Hence, the important thing to remember when the Spanish verb poder is conjugated in the Spanish preterite tense is that it ceases to describe merely the potential for something to happen and states that it actually did. "To manage" (to do something) is thus a common translation for the Spanish verb poder in the preterite tense that makes this distinction clear. 

 

3. No poder (to not be able)

The meaning of no poder in both the present and imperfect tenses in Spanish is pretty straightforward: "to not be able to," in other words, "can't" in the present and "couldn't" in the (imperfect) past:

 

Present Tense:

¿Cómo que no pueden hacer nada? ¿Cómo que no pueden hacer nada más?

What do you mean you can't do anything? What do you mean you can't do anything else?

Caption 17, Yago 3 La foto - Part 2

 Play Caption

 

Imperfect Tense:

Y no podía estudiar.

And I couldn't study.

Caption 1, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 5 - Part 3

 Play Caption

 

So, what about the preterite? If we know that the preterite form of the Spanish verb poder means "to manage to" do something, it follows that the preterite form of no poder can mean "to not manage to," or, better yet, "to fail to" to do something.

 

Preterite Tense:

Si usted no pudo controlar su matrimonio ¿cómo va a controlar y dirigir y manejar el interés público?

If you failed to control your marriage, how are you going to control and direct and manage public interest?

Captions 58-59, Muñeca Brava 43 La reunión - Part 3

 Play Caption

 

While we might alternatively translate "si usted no pudo controlar su matrimonio" as "you couldn't control your marriage" or "you weren't able to control your marriage," the important thing to remember is that the verb poder in the preterite means that something in the past was attempted but did not come to fruition.

 

4. Saber (to know)

The Spanish verb saber typically means "to know" (in the sense of facts or information) in the present, imperfect, etc.:

 

Present Tense:

No es información nueva, y ellas lo saben.

It's not new information, and they know it.

Caption 7, Clase Aula Azul Información con subjuntivo e indicativo - Part 3

 Play Caption

 

Imperfect Tense:

Sí. Si algo sabíamos era que la plata no crece en los árboles.

Yes. If we knew anything, it was that money didn't grow on trees.

Caption 28, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 10 - Part 2

 Play Caption

 

However, because the preterite tense in Spanish narrows the timeline of such "knowing" down to a specific moment, the meaning of the Spanish verb saber transforms, in the preterite tense, from "to know" to "to find out":

 

Preterite Tense:

A tal punto que yo me alegré mucho, mucho, cuando supe que ibas a pasar veinticinco años en la cárcel.

To the point that I was very happy, very, when I found out you were going to spend twenty-five years in prison.

Captions 56-57, Yago 14 La peruana - Part 1

 Play Caption

 

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5. Tener (to have)

The verb tener in Spanish means "to have" in most tenses, as in the following excerpts:

 

Present Tense:

Todas las estaciones tienen sus ventajas.

All of the seasons have their advantages.

Caption 42, Clara explica El tiempo - Part 2

 Play Caption

 

Imperfect Tense:

Tenía una casa pues, amueblada de cuatrocientos metros

I had a, well, furnished, four-hundred meter house,

Caption 79, 75 minutos Gangas para ricos - Part 8

 Play Caption

 

And, although the meaning of the Spanish verb tener doesn't always change in the preterite, it sometimes takes on the meaning of "to receive" or "to get," as in the case of: Tuve una carta (I got a letter). Let's look at an additional example:

 

Preterite Tense:

Y bueno, ahí tuve otras proposiciones, que no eran tampoco un sueño, pero eran mucho más interesantes que lo que tenía en Cuba,

And well, there, I got other proposals, which weren't a dream either, but they were much more interesting than what I had in Cuba,

Captions 49-51, Orishas Entrevista Canal Plus

 Play Caption

 

6. Querer (to want) 

The verb querer in Spanish most often means "to want." Let's see it in action:

 

Present Tense:

Amigos de Yabla, hoy los queremos invitar a aprender español

Friends of Yabla, today we want to invite you to learn Spanish

Captions 1-2, El Hatillo, Caracas, Venezuela El cuatro

 Play Caption

 

Imperfect Tense:

Yo de niña pensaba que quería ser bailarina. ¿Qué pensabas tú?

As a little girl I thought that I wanted to be a dancer. What did you think?

Caption 20, Conjugación El verbo 'pensar'

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In the preterite tense, however, the Spanish verb querer "puts a limit" on this past "wanting" and becomes a manner of saying that someone "tried" to do something:

 

Preterite Tense:

Yo quise ser su amiga, pero no me dejó.

I tried to be his friend, but he didn't let me.

Caption 38, Guillermina y Candelario Un marciano en la playa - Part 1

 Play Caption

 

7. No querer (to not want) 

In our first two tenses, the Spanish verb phrase no querer means exactly what it sounds like: "to not want." Let's examine some clips that demonstrate this construction in the present and imperfect:

 

Present Tense:

 

Es que yo no quiero vivir en el centro.

The thing is, I don't want to live in the downtown area.

Caption 71, El Aula Azul La Doctora Consejos: Subjuntivo y persona ideal

 Play Caption

 

Imperfect Tense:

 

y en un principio le dije que no quería tener un gato en casa.

and at first, I told her I didn't want to have a cat in my home.

Caption 32, Fermín y los gatos Mi gata Poeska

 Play Caption

 

The preterite form of the Spanish verb querer, on the other hand, means that someone not only "didn't want" to do something at a specific point in the past, they actually didn't (or "wouldn't"):

 

mi otra hermana, Zoraida Zárraga, mi sobrino, Harold Blanco, que no quisieron presentarse por temor a cámara.

my other sister, Zoraida Zarraga, my nephew, Harold Blanco, who refused to appear due to camera shyness.

Captions 11-13, Coro, Venezuela Relaciones familiares

 Play Caption

 

So, we see that the meaning of the verb no querer in Spanish can sometimes become to "to refuse" in the preterite tense. 

 

We hope that this lesson has edified you regarding the alternative meanings of some Spanish verbs when they are conjugated in the preterite tense. Can you think of any we missed?  Don't forget to tell us with your suggestions and comments

 

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