Using poder in El pretérito Indefinido vs El pretérito Imperfecto (could in past actions)

We can use modal verb poder (to be able to) for past actions in both El Pretérito Indefinido and in El Pretérito Imperfecto. However poder has a different meaning depending on which tense you use.

Have a look and listen to these examples:

Ella podía ayudar a su amiga.
She could help her friend.

Ella pudo ayudar a su amiga.
She could/managed to help her friend.

When poder is used in El Pretérito Indefinido it has the nuance of "succeeding/managing (or not) to do something".

Let's compare these other examples:

Javier no pudo abrir la puerta. 
Javier didn't succeed in opening the door.

Javier no podía abrir la puerta. 
Javier couldn't open the door.

In the first example above with "pudo" we know the result, however in the second one with "podía" we don't know whether he managed to open the door or not, we only know that he wasn't being able to open the door at that time.

Have a look at other examples using El Pretérito Indefinido:

No pude hablar con ella ayer porque la señal en mi casa era débil.
I couldn't/didn't manage to talk to her yesterday because the signal in my house was poor.

Los ingenieros no pudieron arreglar el problema.
The engineers couldn't/didn't succeed in fixing the problem.

Angela pudo obtener una plaza en el taller de dibujo.
Angela could/managed to get a space at the drawing workshop.

Have a look at other examples using El Pretérito Imperfecto:

Carlos no podía hablar con ella porque estaba nervioso.
Carlos could not talk to her because he was nervous.

Gabriel no podía meter las llaves en la cerradura anoche.
Carlos couldn't put the keys in the keyhole last night.

Vosotros podíais espiar al vecino por la ventana.
You could spy on the neighbour through the window.

Remember that whichever tense is used with poder, it is always followed by Infinitivo

See also:

 

Examples and resources

Vosotros podíais espiar al vecino por la ventana.
You could spy on the neighbour through the window.


Gabriel no podía meter las llaves en la cerradura anoche.
Carlos couldn't put the keys in the keyhole last night.


Angela pudo obtener una plaza en el taller de dibujo.
Angela could/managed to get a space at the drawing workshop.


No pude hablar con ella ayer porque la señal en mi casa era débil.
I couldn't/didn't manage to talk to her yesterday because the signal in my house was poor.


Los ingenieros no pudieron arreglar el problema.
The engineers couldn't/didn't succeed in fixing the problem.


Ella pudo ayudar a su amiga.
She could/managed to help her friend.


Carlos no podía hablar con ella porque estaba nervioso.
Carlos could not talk to her because he was nervous.


Ella podía ayudar a su amiga.
She could help her friend.


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