Unit 8: Preterit (Part 2), “to be” verbs, present participle and progressive tenses

8.4 Changes in Meaning in the Preterit versus the Imperfect Tenses

Some verbs that express mental abilities or emotional states or others that simply describe a shift in meaning, at times subtle and at time not, can be described as having a change in meaning between the preterit and imperfect tenses. The imperfect tense maintains the basic meaning of the verb and focuses on an ongoing state, while the preterit tends to connote an action that is complete.  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 preterit, 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 preterit 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 preterit 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 preterit 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/got scared.

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 preterit. 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.


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