8.4 Changes in Meaning in the Preterite versus the Imperfect Tenses

Some verbs that express mental abilities or emotional states or others that simply describe undergo a shift in meaning, at times subtle and at time not, between the preterite and imperfect tenses. The imperfect tense maintains the basic meaning of the verb, while the preterite tends to connote an action. This takes place in a limited number of verbs (largely, those that follow). Read the following pairs closely:

¿Podías abrirlo? Could you open it? (Were you capable of opening it?)
¿Pudiste abrirlo? Could you and did you open it? Did you manage to open it?
Los carros no podían pasar. The cars were unable to get through.
Los carros no pudieron pasar. The cars were unable and did not get through. (The cars failed to get through.)
Queríamos asistir. We wanted to attend.
Quisimos asistir. We tried to attend.
Vicente no quería bailar. Vicente didn’t want to dance.
Vicente no quiso bailar. Vicente refused to dance.
Tenía que barrer el piso. I had to sweep the floor.
Tuve que barrer el piso. I had to and did sweep the floor.

The first sentences of the first two pairs present nothing new. The subtlety comes in the preterite, where the meaning is not only “was/were (un)able,” but also the implication that an action took place, whether or not it met with success.

The analogy can be continued in the third through fifth pairs. The imperfect merely describes a mental state, while the preterite communicates that the subjects put their will into effect by “trying to” in the third pair, “refusing to” in the fourth (Spanish also has other verbs meaning “to refuse” [negarse a] and “to try” [tratar de]), and doing the action deemed necessary in the fifth.

If you remember that the preterite tense is used to describe the beginning and final aspects of completed actions, the concept becomes useful in understanding the changes in meaning of the following verbs in the preterite versus the imperfect:

Sabía la dirección. I knew the address.
Supe la dirección. I found out the address.
Ella me conocía. She knew me.
Ella me conoció. She met me.
Los niños tenían miedo. The children were afraid.
Los niños tuvieron miedo. The children became afraid.

In the above cases, the initial aspect of the event is “finding out,” “meeting” and “becoming,” respectively. Logically, one must find out a piece of information before knowing it; one has to meet another person before knowing him or her; one becomes frightened (afraid, scared, etc.) before the state of fear continues in the past. (Spanish also has other verbs that mean “to find out”: averiguar, descubrir [literally, “to discover”]).

When the verb haber is used impersonally in a past tense, its tendency is to describe in the imperfect tense, while it tends to denote an action in the preterite. In the latter case, it has various accurate translations (see section 8.2.):

Había mucha comida en la fiesta. There was a lot of food at the party.
Hubo un terremoto. There was an earthquake.

An earthquake occurred/happened/took place.

You may see many exceptions to the above generalization, as hubo could also occur in the first sentence. The inverse (había to describe an action or event) is possible, but somewhat rare.

Vocabulario básico

Verbos:

averiguar- to find out
bailar- to dance (cognate: ballet)
cantar- to sing (cognates: chant, incantation)
desarrollar- to develop
evitar- to avoid
gobernar (ie)- to govern
intentar- to attempt (false friend)
salvar- to save
trepar- to climb

Sustantivos:

el ambiente- atmosphere
la colina- hill
la escasez- scarcity
las Islas Malvinas- the Falkland Islands
el medio ambiente- environment
el recurso- resource

Adjetivos:

cercano- near
escarpado- rugged
lejano- far, distant
silvestre- wild

Expresiones:

de hecho- in fact
de repente- suddenly
de súbito- suddenly

Last revised on June 28, 2021.