Verbs ver, oír, escuchar, oler, sentir, encontrar in El Imperfecto

The Spanish verbs of perception ver, oler, oír, escuchar and sentir used in El Pretérito Imperfecto imply was/were able to without the need to use the modal verb poder.

Have a look at the following examples:

-Nos sentamos en la última fila. -¿Y veíais bien a los actores?-We sat in the last row. -And could you see the actors well?

Tenía la radio puesta pero no escuchaba nada por el ruido de las máquinas.I had the radio on but I couldn't hear anything because of the noise from the machines.

Cuando estaba resfriada casi no olía la comida.When I had that cold I could hardly smell the food.

Fue una sensación horrible porque no sentía mi pierna.It was a horrible feeling because I couldn't feel my leg.

Con el ruido de la calle no te oía.With the noise from the street I couldn't hear you.

Note how in Spanish we don't need to include poder; we can use the verb of perception directly in El Pretérito Imperfecto, while in English the modal verb could is required ("I could see", "I could smell", "I could hear").

If use the modal verb poder then it would be grammatically correct, but it is much more common to use these verbs directly in the imperfect tense. Look at these examples:

  • -Nos sentamos en la última fila. -¿Y podíais ver bien a los actores?
  • Tenía la radio puesta pero no podía escuchar nada por el ruido de las máquinas.
  • Cuando estaba resfriada casi no podía oler la comida.

Saber = to taste

Bear in mind that the verb of perception "saber" (to taste) is used in the 3rd person singular or plural, so you say "[something] tasted nice/bad/a certain way" or "[some things] tasted nice/bad/a certain way". For example:

La carne que pedí sabía un poco salada. No me ha gustado mucho.The meat that I ordered tasted a bit salty. I didn't like it much.

Los calamares sabían mal; quizás por el aceite que han usado.The calamari didn't taste good; maybe it was the oil that they used.

Here, the modal verb "poder" is not used.

 

Encontrar = to find

When the verb "encontrar" (to find) is used in the negative in El Pretérito Imperfecto, we also follow this rule. We use encontrar directly in El Pretérito Imperfecto with no modal verb: "No encontraba" is used frequently, while no podía encontrar is used infrequently. However, in English using "to find" in the imperfect tense is not an option if we mean that someone "couldn't find" something. For example:

Ya voy, ya voy... es que no encontraba las llaves. I'm coming, I'm coming... I couldn't find the keys.
 
I'm coming, I'm coming... I didn't find/wasn't finding the keys.

Using the present tense of the main verb is also the preferred form and not a construction with the modal verb poder, see:

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Examples and resources

Tenía la radio puesta pero no escuchaba nada por el ruido de las máquinas.I had the radio on but I couldn't hear anything because of the noise from the machines.
Cuando estaba resfriada casi no olía la comida.When I had that cold I could hardly smell the food.
Ya voy, ya voy... es que no encontraba las llaves. I'm coming, I'm coming... I couldn't find the keys.
-Nos sentamos en la última fila. -¿Y veíais bien a los actores?-We sat in the last row. -And could you see the actors well?
Los calamares sabían mal; quizás por el aceite que han usado.The calamari didn't taste good; maybe it was the oil that they used.
Con el ruido de la calle no te oía.With the noise from the street I couldn't hear you.
La carne que pedí sabía un poco salada. No me ha gustado mucho.The meat that I ordered tasted a bit salty. I didn't like it much.
Fue una sensación horrible porque no sentía mi pierna.It was a horrible feeling because I couldn't feel my leg.
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