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There are some verbs that seem to have quite distinct meanings in the preterite tense. I don't know whether they also seem to change meanings to native speakers or if it just seems completely natural to them.

With saber:

Sé que ella me engaña. → I know she's cheating on me.

Sabía que ella me engañaba. → I knew she was cheating on me.

Supe que ella me engañaba. → I found out that she was cheating on me.

The preterite version usually seems to have a distinct aspect of a cusp or distinct change.

With poder:

Puede ganar el juego. → She can win the game.

Podía ganar el juego. → She was capable of winning the game.

Pudo ganar el juego. → She succeeded in winning the game.

No pudo ganar el juego. → She failed to win the game.

The use of poder here seems much more poetic (and more common in quotidian speech) than something like fracasar or tener éxito.

Are there other verbs that change their meaning so distinctly in the preterite? Is there some way to recognize them, some sense of meaning that requires the change? Or do they just need to be memorized?

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Querer also does this (no quería: "didn't want", no quiso: "refused") –  jrdioko Nov 22 '11 at 2:50
    
I have the 6 characters limit, so I can't edit. There is no "supé", only "supe". :) –  Alenanno Nov 22 '11 at 13:52
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3 Answers

Before your question, I never heard nor read about Spanish verbs that change their meaning when used in some preterite verbal tense. So I read about it, and I found out that:

  • This issue is mainly a way to teach Spanish verbs to English speaking students.
  • This issue is not formally stated in Spanish grammar.

For example, when you analyse the verb saber, this sentence:

Supe que ella me engañaba.  →  I found out that she was cheating on me.

You use the verb "to find out" instead of "to know" because in Spanish, that sentence is expressing the "perfective aspect", so it means it has been "completed", so you are expressing something bigger than just knowing the fact she is cheating on you, you are completely sure about it.

If this becomes something complicated, you can just use a more precise verb when facing this aspect. For example, you can say the same thing as the former example with:

Me enteré que ella me engañaba.
Me di cuenta que ella me engañaba.

The same thing with poder:

Pudo ganar el juego.

It expresses something that has been completed: she has achieved the success after the game ended. So in English you express that with a different verb.

The key concepts with your question are the Verbal aspect and the differences among the Spanish preterite verbal tenses.

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Although I think it's not 100% correct, but it's used, pudo ganar el juego may also be used to mean she could have won the game, although the correct form would be pudo haber ganado el juego

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I believe that the preterite refers to the IMMINENCE of the verb. For instance, puedo and podía refer to "could have done it" in the present and past respectively, which represent POTENTIAL. Pudo (the preterite) means she just DID it, not she could have done it, and of course no pudo means the opposite.

In the other example, Sé and Sabía means know and knew, while supe means "got to know," (or just found out).

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