There are some Spanish verbs that change meaning when they are used in the preterite tense (pretérito indefinido). This kind of phenomenons is one of the reasons why the Spanish language is so amazing but also so difficult for our students.

When these verbs are used in the present or the imperfect tenses, they often keep their original meaning. However, when they express a perfective action (a complete and finished action) in the preterite, they modify their sense. Today we’ll see some of them.

Querer: one of the verbs that change meaning

One of the most used verbs that change meaning is querer. It means ‘to want’ when it’s used in the present or imperfect but it has the sense of ‘to try’ in the preterite. Furthermore, if the sentence is negative in the preterite it can mean ‘to refuse’.

  • Present: Quiero aprender español (I want to learn Spanish)
  • Preterite: Quise aprender español (I tried to learn Spanish)
  • Negative Preterite: No quise aprender español (I refused to learn Spanish)


Poder doesn’t always mean ability

Here we have more verbs that change meaning in Spanish. Poder usually means ‘can’ or ‘be able to’. Nevertheless, it can also have the sense of ‘to manage’ or ‘to succeed’ in the preterite and ‘to fail’ when it’s negative.

  • Present: Puedo aprobar el examen DELE (I can pass the DELE exam)
  • Preterite: Pude aprobar el examen DELE (I managed to pass the DELE exam)
  • Negative Preterite: No pude aprobar español (I failed to pass the DELE exam)

Conocer: how to know or meet someone

These two meanings are very confusing for our students. The verb conocer can mean that you know a person but also that you met a person for the first time. It’s depending on the tense you say.

  • Present: Conozco a mi profesor de Spanishviaskype (I know my teacher on Spanishviaskype)
  • Preterite: Conocí a mi profesor de Spanishviaskype (I met my teacher on Spanishviaskype)

More verbs that change meanings: Saber

El saber no ocupa lugar (knowledge does not take place) is a popular saying. However, saber does not always mean ‘to know’, it also has the sense of ‘to find out’ in the preterite.

  • Present: la fórmula de la Coca Cola (I know Coca-Cola formula)
  • Preterite: Supe la fórmula de la Coca Cola (I found out Coca-Cola formula)

As you can see, there are some verbs that change meaning in Spanish. It’s very important to use them properly in order not to mix them up. If you want to know more about this topic, reserve some lessons with us and we’ll learn more curious facts about Spanish verbs.