Pretérito vs Imperfecto: Meaning Changes

Verbos que cambian de significado

Spanish past tenses
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Knowing whether to use pretérito or imperfecto sometimes depends on the meaning of the verb itself. Before reading this lesson, be sure you understand the basics of pretérito vs imperfecto.

Six Spanish verbs have different meanings in the pretérito and imperfecto.

conocer – to know, be familiar with

Imperfecto = "knew, was/were familiar with"

Apenas lo conocía.   I barely knew him.
No conocíamos Barcelona.   We weren’t familiar with Barcelona.

Pretérito = "met, got to know"

Lo conocí la semana pasada.   I met him last week.
Por fin conocimos Barcelona.   We finally got to know Barcelona.

deber – to have to

Imperfecto = “had to"

Debía estudiar todos los días.   I had to study every day.
Debías comprar unos libros.   You had to buy some books.

Pretérito = “should have"

Debí estudiar todos los días.   I should have studied every day.
Debiste comprar unos libros.   You should have bought some books.

poder – to be able to

Imperfecto = “was/were able to / capable of (in theory)"

El no podía oír.   He was unable to hear.
Podía verlo.   I could see him. (I was capable of it, whether or not I actually did.)

Pretérito = “managed to, was/were able to (did)”

Pudo encontrar la solución.   He managed to find the solution.
Pude verlo.   I could (and did) see him.

querer – to want

Imperfecto = “wanted; loved”

Quería un bocadillo.   He wanted a sandwich.
Quería viajar.   I loved traveling.

Pretérito = “tried to"

Quiso terminarlo.   He tried to finish it.
Quise viajar más.   I tried to travel more.

Pretérito (negative) = “refused to”

No quiso terminarlo.   He refused to finish it.
No quise viajar.   I refused to travel.

saber – to know

Imperfecto = “knew"

Sabía su nombre.   I knew his name.
Sabía conducir.   She knew how to drive.

Pretérito = “found out, learned”

Supe su nombre.   I found out his name.
Supo conducir.   She learned how to drive.

tener – to have

Imperfecto = “had, owned"

Tenía un perro.   I had a dog.
Pablo nunca tenía un auto.   Pablo never owned a car.

Pretérito = “got, received”

Tuve un perro.   I got a dog.
Pablo nunca tuvo un premio.   Pablo never received an award.

tener – to be*

Imperfecto = “was/were"

Tenía mucho éxito.   I was very successful.
Teníamos sed.   We were thirsty.

Pretérito = “became”

Tuve éxito de la noche a la mañana.   I became an overnight success.
Tuvimos sed.   We got thirsty.

* In expressions where it means "to be."

 More imperfecto vs pretérito

 Pretérito vs imperfecto quizzes

Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on the difference between pretérito and imperfecto with these exercises:

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Pretérito vs imperfecto