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.
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.
Let's take a look at some examples of the Spanish verb conocer in the present and imperfect tenses:
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 GiluancarPlay Caption
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 6Play 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:
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 4Play 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.
Detrás de mí podemos observar la ciudad antigua
Behind me, we can observe the old city
Caption 11, Ciudad de Panamá Denisse introduce la ciudadPlay Caption
Yo pensé que podía saltar muy alto.
I thought I could jump really high.Play Caption
So, how does the meaning of the Spanish verb poder transform in the preterite?
Es que no entiendo cómo pudo entrar aquí.
It's just that I don't understand how he managed to get in here.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.
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:
¿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 2Play Caption
Y no podía estudiar.
And I couldn't study.
Caption 1, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 5 - Part 3Play 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.
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 3Play 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.
The Spanish verb saber typically means "to know" (in the sense of facts or information) in the present, imperfect, etc.:
No es información nueva, y ellas lo saben.
It's not new information, and they know it.Play Caption
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 2Play 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":
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 1Play Caption
The verb tener in Spanish means "to have" in most tenses, as in the following excerpts:
Todas las estaciones tienen sus ventajas.
All of the seasons have their advantages.
Caption 42, Clara explica El tiempo - Part 2Play Caption
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 8Play 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:
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 PlusPlay Caption
6. Querer (to want)
The verb querer in Spanish most often means "to want." Let's see it in action:
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 cuatroPlay Caption
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'Play Caption
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:
Yo quise ser su amiga, pero no me dejó.
I tried to be his friend, but he didn't let me.Play Caption
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:
Es que yo no quiero vivir en el centro.
The thing is, I don't want to live in the downtown area.Play Caption
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 PoeskaPlay 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 familiaresPlay 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.