Preterite vs. Imperfect and the change in meanings

Preterite vs. Imperfect and the change in meanings


Some verbs change meanings when they go from preterite to imperfect. For example:

Saber (preterite)= found out; saber (imperfect)= knew [something]

Conocer: preterite- met; imperfect- knew [someone]

Are there any more words like this? Could you write them down if you think of any? Thanks!

updated MAR 4, 2010
posted by MeEncantanCarasSonrisas

1 Answer


I've read some arguments on this.

It's not really that they "change meanings" but that the conceptual meaning in the preterite is expressed in different wording in English.

Since imperfect is the state and preterite is the beginning of the action or completion of the action, you can view it like this:

supe (start of "knowing" = "I found out") AND THEN.... sabía ("I knew")

conocí (starting to"knowing" = "I met") AND THEN.... conocía ("I knew")

But you have to be careful because sometimes the imperfect can carry the preterite meaning, like:

"Visitaba a mis abuelos en el campo todos los veranos y siempre conocía a personas interesantes." = I used to visit my grandparents in the country every summer and I always met interesting people.

Here's a link to explain some more verbs like that.

But you can always conceptualize the meaning based on preterite (specific event) and imperfect (state, or habitual action).

Take "poder".

podía = I could (in general, I was able to)

pude = I could (that specific time, I was able to!)

It also might be helpful to read this article.

Search the article for the heading "(5) Some Verbs Take on a Special Meaning in the Preterite Tense" to get a really good insight on these verbs.

updated MAR 4, 2010
edited by Luciente
posted by Luciente
I agree with you, as non-native Spanish speakers, feeling out the meaning and context can be tricky. I suppose after repetition and observation you begin to 'know' when and how to use them - Chicaliente, MAR 4, 2010
Exactly! Preterite/imperfect are two ways two view the past so you always have to think about HOW you want to express the past. - Luciente, MAR 4, 2010
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