Language Guide
Verbs
Verbs that Change Meaning in the Preterite

Verbs that Change Meaning in the Preterite

Quick Answer

Some Spanish verbs, such as conocer , have different meanings depending on whether they are in the past tense (el pretérito ) or the imperfect tense (el imperfecto ).

All about Aspect

Some Spanish verbs have different meanings depending on whether they are perfective or imperfective.

  • Perfective is just a fancy way of saying that a verb describes an action that is considered complete at or by a certain time. Put another way, the perfective aspect is used in tenses that describe singular events that occur (initiate and/or terminate) at the temporal reference point in the sentence. These tenses include the preterite tense and all perfect tenses.

  • Imperfective is just an equally fancy way of saying that a verb describes an action that is considered incomplete or ongoing in the time referenced in the sentence. Tenses in the imperfective aspect describe events that are ongoing or habitual in relation to the temporal reference point. These tenses include the simple present tense, the imperfect tense, progressive tenses, the conditional tense, and the future tense.

When it comes down to it, the inherent meaning of the verb (from the perspective of a Spanish speaker) does not change with a change in aspect. Instead what is effected is the durative nature of the event being described. This difference comes up a lot when looking at differences between the preterite and and imperfect tenses. Let's take a look!

Change of Pace

Here is a list of verbs that change meaning according to the perfective/imperfective relationship described above.

Verbs that Change

InfinitiveImperfective TranslationPerfective Translation
conocer
 
to knowto meet
estar
 
to become/to getto be
poder
 
to be able toto manage
querer
 
to wantto try
no querer
 
to not want toto refuse
saber
 
to knowto find out
tener
 
to haveto receive

Now, let's take a closer look at examples of a few of the above verbs in the different tenses mentioned earlier.

Saber

AspectTenseSpanishEnglish
ImperfectiveSimple Present
Sabe la verdad.
 
I know the truth.
ImperfectiveImperfect
Sabía la verdad.
 
I knew the truth.
PerfectivePreterite
Supe la verdad.
 
I found out the truth.
PerfectivePresent Perfect
He sabido la verdad.
 
I have found out the truth.

Tener

AspectTenseSpanishEnglish
ImperfectiveSimple Present
Tiene una carta.
 
He has a letter.
ImperfectiveImperfect
Tenía una carta.
 
He had a letter.
PerfectivePreterite
Tuvo una carta.
 
He received a letter.
PerfectivePresent Perfect
Ha tenido una carta.
 
He has received a letter.

Querer

AspectTenseSpanishEnglish
ImperfectiveSimple Present
No quieres la invitación.
 
You don't want the invitation.
ImperfectiveImperfect
No querías la invitación.
 
You didn’t want the invitation.
PerfectivePreterite
No quisiste la invitación.
 
You refused the invitation.
PerfectivePresent Perfect
No has querido la invitación.
 
You have refused the invitation.

Poder

AspectTenseSpanishEnglish
ImperfectiveSimple Present
Pueden hacerlo.
 
They are able to do it.
ImperfectiveImperfect
Podían hacerlo.
 
They were able to do it.
PerfectivePreterite
Pudieron hacerlo.
 
They managed to do it.
PerfectivePresent Perfect
Han podido hacerlo.
 
They have managed to do it.

Remember that the meanings of the verbs above don't really change. What's going on is that an action in the perfective aspect is viewed as a single event or completed action, whereas an action in the imperfective aspect is considered ongoing in the period of time referenced in the sentence.

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