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Why do people say things like:

Se lo pregunté, pero no supo la respuesta

Sabía seems more natural to me, and I've been told that either is fine, but I'm still a bit fuzzy on why somebody would use supo here in the first place. I know supo sometimes means found out rather than knew, but this is not what's going on with this particular sentence.

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Hard question indeed.... I think it is rather the difference between preterite and imperfect, but there is a nuance hiding here... I can feel it... I can smell it... –  Joze Nov 24 '11 at 14:49
    
In portuguese it would be more common to say "sabia" but "soube"(supo) would also be accepted –  André Pena Feb 12 '12 at 22:36
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6 Answers

As you say "Supo" means "found out" and "Sabía" means "Knew" which are not the same. But, answering your question, it's about if the action has a stated timeframe.

María lo supo ayer. = Maria found out yesterday.

This means a completed action.

Juan sabía que María venía. = Juan knew that Maria was coming.

This doesn't provide definite beginning or end.

So, if you're talking about timeframe defined actions use preterite and if not use the imperfect.

Another example (which clearly states difference)

No sabía su nombre. = I didn't know his name.

No supe su nombre. = I didn't find out (learn) his name.

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In your last two sentences, you wrote hombre instead of nombre. –  Auron Nov 24 '11 at 15:10
    
Fixed @Auron, thanks :) –  Randolf R-F Nov 24 '11 at 15:11
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hmmm... This isn't answering the question in this particular case... –  Joze Nov 25 '11 at 8:30
    
Actually in the last example if you say it in the third person "No supo su nombre" it could very well be translated as "He didn't know his/her name". –  Sergio Romero Apr 26 '12 at 19:38
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Both "sabía" and "supo" are ok, for a native speaker if you use both sounds ok, the problem it is that you want to make the sentence in english, in spanish we talk with many errors , you english speaker too, we did not follow all the grammar.Maybe a Linguistic Expert can answer.

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I guess one possible explanation in this particular case would be:

  • sabía, is used when the the person, actually, didn't know the answer.

  • supo is used when he knows the answer, but somehow is hidden from his mind at that moment. If you give him enough time he could have figured out the answer by himself. So he knew (somehow), but he couldn't access his knowledge within the timeframe given.

Hope it works for you.

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To me, as Randolf and Martin have pointed out in their answers, there is a slight difference in the timeframe. "No supo la respuesta" sounds to me like "no supo qué responder en ese momento".

So for example, about an exam, you could say, "me preguntaron X, y no supe la respuesta". It doesn't mean I didn't have the knowledge, but I was unable to give a correct answer at that moment.

Also, if instead of "la respuesta" you use "qué responder", as in "no supe qué responder", it can mean or sound like "I didn't answer because I had no valid or convincing answer". For example: "cuando mi madre me preguntó cómo se había roto el jarrón chino, no supe qué responder" (of course, I knew I had been using it as a basket to play basketball, but that would not be convincing enough).

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Supo seems more like a verb, while sabia is more a statement of fact. So I think the more verby word in this case enables a more "active" narrative style, the kind that you would use if you were sharing gossip. :)

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Actually both are linguistically and grammatically identical and correct.

Depending on the country you are listening that it would be more common to use one or the other but there is no difference whatsoever, in this particular context, in which you would use one or the other.

That being said, in some other contexts it will be the case in that "Supo" means "Found out" and you could say it in very many ways since Spanish is a very rich language.

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