In a moment of weakness I said that I was going to make this month’s article a little lighter. However, having since been assured that my lesson on the Past Simple Tense of tener was very enlightening, I have been encouraged to do a similar job with two more verbs. This month we are going to look at the verbs poder (to be able to) and querer (to want).
As usual, here is what they look like first in the Past Simple, or Preterite tense:
In a similar way to tener, one might initially associate these verbs with describing a state, rather than with single or repeated events in the past. We are either able to do things or we aren’t; similarly we would normally either want or love something over an extended period rather than at a certain moment.
However, this is not always the case. To be able to or could can often refer to specific incidents. The difficulty when translating into English is that we sometimes use different expressions to convey the same meaning. For example, in the negative we might say:
I couldn’t open the door on a particular occasion, but in the positive we would say: I managed to open the door, or I was able to open the door.
If we stick to the word could in the positive, as in I could open the door, it is not clear whether we actually opened the door, only that we could have done if we had wanted to.
If you read that last paragraph though a few times, it ought to make some sense! In Spanish this is all much simpler.
No pude abrir la puerta. (I couldn’t open the door.), but then after some huffing and puffing:
Pude abrir la puerta. (I managed to open the door, or I was able to open the door, rather than I could open the door).
English is the tricky language here, not Spanish and hopefully you can see that this is a clear use of the verb poder in the Past Simple Tense, referring to a specific moment or event in the past.
Querer is a verb that is often used in the continuous form – for example: Durante muchos años la pareja quería tener hijos. – (The couple wanted children for many years.)
This describes a state of wanting or desiring something. However, it is often appropriate to use querer when referring to a specific event. For example:
Somebody phones your friend and when the call is finished you ask:
“¿Qué quiso?” – “What did he (or she) want?” – that is, at that particular moment.
Here is another example:
You try to persuade your child to go to a party and the child refuses. The child says “No quiero” and you report back to your other half later on “No quiso ir a la fiesta”, adding the appropriate terms of annoyance.