Variation on a Theme: the Spanish Verb Poder

In a related article, we dealt with Mexico’s cavalier attitude toward the “official” use of conditional verb tenses, and how the conditional and imperfect subjunctive are applied interchangeably.  That article omitted mention of  the verb “poder“—already quite irregular.

Ability to use ‘to be able’

It so happens that the equivalent “to be able” is also a cause of many headaches for Spanish speakers learning English, starting with the baffling infinitive, and progressing through the maze of different uses of “could.”

The conditional and imperfect subjunctive of poder are formed in the same way as with other verbs:

  • podría, podrías, podríamos, etc., and
  • pudiera (pudiese), pudieras, pudiéramos etc.

The tenses apply as they do for other verbs mentioned in the related article.

It could get confusing

The problem lies more in the English word “could,” which can be simple past, imperfect, conditional, or even a sort of implied subjunctive. English speakers usually don’t consider which of these is the case, making the choice of the right Spanish tense more difficult. Here are some examples:

  • I could watch that film a dozen times — yo podría ver esa película una y otra vez*
  • I would go there every year if I could — iría allá todos los años si pudiera

The simple past and imperfect

Less straightforward is when to use the imperfect “podía and when the simple past tense “pudeetc. In some cases the very same expression can have two different meanings.

Usually the imperfect suggests a temporary or ongoing ability to do, or not do, something, while the simple past refers to something that’s finished, for example:

  • No pudimos ir a tu fiesta — we couldn’t go to your party; but
  • No podíamos ir a fiestas — we couldn’t, or weren’t allowed, to go to parties;
  • Él no podía hacer su tarea — he couldn’t do his homework  (because he didn’t understand the subject); but
  • No pudo hacer su tarea — because he was sick or didn’t have a pencil.

* No one in Spanish uses the word “docena” for dozen in the figurative sense, only literally, such as una docena de huevos—a dozen eggs. On the other hand, Spanish does use decenas to convey many but not necessarily hundreds, for which “tens” in English would be a poor translation; see also Ordinal Numbers in Spanish

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