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

We can use the modal verb poder (to be able to) for past actions in both El Pretérito Indefinido and in El Pretérito Imperfecto. However poder has different meanings 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, but in the second one with "podía" we don't know whether he managed to open the door or not, we only know that he was not 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 fix / 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

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.


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


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.


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


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


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


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


Q&A

Ralph

Kwiziq community member

1 June 2019

1 reply

Podía vs. pudo

Gabriel no podía meter las llaves en la cerradura anoche. The fact that the sentence contains anoche, does this mean that is should be no pudo

as it has a time of termination.

Inma

Kwiziq language super star

1 June 2019

1/06/19

Hola Ralph

Not necessarily, no. Adverb "anoche" (last night) is one of those adverbs that would generally trigger the preterite as it indicates a time frame that is not connected to the present; the same goes for "el año pasado", "el otro día"... However, we can actually use these time phrases with the imperfect. When we use it with the imperfect, we "see" that action as an action happening "during that period of time", in this case "last night" but see the action as a non-completed action. It has more of a descriptive function. If we take the same sentence again and see both cases:

Gabriel no podía meter las llaves en la cerradura anoche.

Here I can just see in my head Gabriel trying to put the key in the lock. I am describing what he was doing at certain time during last night but this time is not relevant to me.

However:

Gabriel no pudo meter las llaves en la cerradura anoche.

Here what I see in my head is a very frustrated Gabriel after having tried hard to put the key in the lock but didn't succeed. I see this action as something finished. 

I hope this makes sense.

Saludos

Inma

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