Using poder in El pretérito Perfecto and El Pretérito Indefinido for "could" in past actions

In Spanish, the modal verb poder can be used in El Pretérito Perfecto or El Pretérito Indefinido when someone could/couldn't/was/was not able to do something in the past. 

We will use:

OR

Both tenses refer to a past action of poder. Have a look at some examples:

Ellos han podido volver temprano.
They were able to come back early.

Hemos podido pintar la casa y decorarla.
We could/were able to paint the house and decorate it.

Mi inquilino no ha podido pagar la renta este mes.
My tenant wasn't able to pay the rent this month.

No he podido ir a muchas fiestas en los últimos meses.
I haven't been able to go to many parties in the last few months.

¿Pudiste contactar con tu abogado?
Could you (Were you able to) get in touch with your lawyer?

El fontanero no pudo arreglar el grifo.
The plumber wasn't able to mend the tap.

¿Vosotras pudisteis reservar ese hotel tan barato?
Were you able to book that cheap hotel?

The tense to use depends on how we see the time frame in which the action happens. 

As a general rule, to use El Pretérito Perfecto:

  • we are not referring to a specific moment in the past and the time when it happened is not relevant
       or
  • it refers to actions in the past where the speaker sees him/herself inside that same time frame.

For example:

¿Has podido comprar fruta? -No, no he podido.
Were you able to buy some fruit? -No, I wasn't able to.

Esther ha podido reservar una mesa esta mañana.
Esther was able to book a table this morning.

  • In the first example above, the specific time when it happens is not relevant and is not mentioned.
  • In the second example the time phrase "esta mañana" is used and the speaker sees himself inside that time phrase, therefore El Pretérito Perfecto is used.

As a general rule, to use El Pretérito Indefinido:

  • we are referring to a specific moment in the past and the time when it happened is relevant
       or
  • it refers to actions in the past where the speaker sees him/herself outside that time frame. 

For example:

Perdona, no pude llamarte ayer.
Sorry, I couldn't call you yesterday.

Ella pudo recuperar su dinero al final.
She could (was able to) get her money back in the end.

No pudimos conseguir entradas para el concierto.
We couldn't get tickets for the concert.

Remember though that the presence of a time frame is not always necessary with these tenses.

Take this example:

¿Pudiste contactar con tu abogado?
Could you (Were you able to) get in touch with your lawyer?

There is no specific time frame here but the speaker uses El Pretérito Indefinido because the time frame is obvious to him/her as it has been mentioned before, so there is no need to repeat it.

Notice how in all the examples poder is followed by Infinitivo.

See also Using poder in El pretérito Indefinido vs El pretérito Imperfecto (could in past actions) to learn about other ways to express "could" in past actions.

And Using poder to say could [do something] for polite requests and suggestions (conditional simple) to learn about how to say "could" in polite requests.

Examples and resources

El fontanero no pudo arreglar el grifo.
The plumber wasn't able to mend the tap.


Esther ha podido reservar una mesa esta mañana.
Esther was able to book a table this morning.


Hemos podido pintar la casa y decorarla.
We could/were able to paint the house and decorate it.


No pudimos conseguir entradas para el concierto.
We couldn't get tickets for the concert.


¿Has podido contactar con Gabriel?
Were you able to contact Gabriel?


¿Pudiste contactar con tu abogado?
Could you (Were you able to) get in touch with your lawyer?


Perdona, no pude llamarte ayer.
Sorry, I couldn't call you yesterday.


Ellos han podido volver temprano.
They were able to come back early.


Ella pudo recuperar su dinero al final.
She could (was able to) get her money back in the end.


No he podido ir a muchas fiestas en los últimos meses.
I haven't been able to go to many parties in the last few months.


¿Has podido comprar fruta? -No, no he podido.
Were you able to buy some fruit? -No, I wasn't able to.


¿Vosotras pudisteis reservar ese hotel tan barato?
Were you able to book that cheap hotel?


Mi inquilino no ha podido pagar la renta este mes.
My tenant wasn't able to pay the rent this month.


Q&A Forum 1 question, 2 answers

WylieC1Kwiziq community member

Inside/Outside the timeframe

Hola Inma: Regarding El Preterito Perfecto, I don't know what you mean when you say the speaker sees herself inside that same timeframe. For example: “¿Vosotras pudisteis reservar ese hotel tan barato?” In what way does the speaker see herself inside that timeframe? Likewise, for El Preterito Indefinido, in what way does the speaker see herself outside the timeframe, ex: “No pudimos conseguir entradas para el concierto”?

Asked 1 month ago
InmaKwiziq team memberCorrect answer

Hola Wylie

Here is a more general lesson on the difference between using the Present Perfect (Pretérito Perfecto, "he reservado" "hemos trabajado"...) and the Preterite (Pretérito Indefinido, "reservé" "trabajé"...). It is easier to see as general use, instead of modal verbs. Please have a look.

We talk in this lesson about "blocks of time". As an example, if I say:

Hoy he ido al mercado. (Today I went [lit: have gone] to the market.)

I consider that I am still inside that block of time which is the whole "today", (hoy), the day has not finished; therefore I use the present perfect; whereas if I say:

Ayer fui al mercado. (Yesterday I went to the market.)

As yesterday is gone, I am outside that block of time (the whole of yesterday), because now it is a new day; therefore I use the preterite.

With modal verbs like poder, this also applies (although sometimes they have extra nuances).

I hope this general lesson helps to understand better.

Un saludo,

Inma

WylieC1Kwiziq community member

Thanks Inma! I now understand!

Inside/Outside the timeframe

Hola Inma: Regarding El Preterito Perfecto, I don't know what you mean when you say the speaker sees herself inside that same timeframe. For example: “¿Vosotras pudisteis reservar ese hotel tan barato?” In what way does the speaker see herself inside that timeframe? Likewise, for El Preterito Indefinido, in what way does the speaker see herself outside the timeframe, ex: “No pudimos conseguir entradas para el concierto”?

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