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I am early in learning Spanish, and had a exercise that involved filling in the correct form of the past tense for the following:

No (tener) ... tiempo de preguntarle al conductor si (poder) ... llevarle

My teacher tells me that the correct answer is:

No tuve tiempo de preguntarle al conductor si podia llevarle

but the various simple rules I have for indefinido vs imperfecto (e.g. situation vs action, completed vs continuing) don't seem to explain why these two verb uses differ in using indefinido (tuvo) and imperfecto (podia). Can anyone give a explanation for this case?

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  • The condition of not having time to ask the driver was presumably something of short duration in the past. On the other hand the (in)ability of the driver to pick the other person up may have lasted for years.
    – mdewey
    Sep 3 at 15:13
  • @medway - thanks - but how would we know that the inability of the driver to pick the other person up was not something entirely restricted to that moment? And, if I did know that, would I use the indefinido? Sep 3 at 15:45
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    @Lambie - I am used to the terms pretérito indefinido and pretérito imperfecto. It looks like people often use pretérito as a short-hand for the pretérito indefinido. Sep 4 at 12:49
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    @MatthewBrett Grammar terminology has changed, What was once known as "pretérito indefinido" is now referred to as "pretérito perfecto simple".
    – Gustavson
    Sep 5 at 12:35
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    Here: rae.es/dpd/ayuda/modelos-de-conjugacion-verbal you have all the model conjugations with the corresponding names for each tense.
    – Gustavson
    Sep 7 at 14:47
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As regards "podía", the point is that, in indirect speech, the present tense backshifts(*) to the imperfect, not to the preterite. In my dialect, "llevarle" is a case of "leísmo", so I'll use "llevarlo" (or "llevarla") in my explanation below. However, "llevarme" would make more sense to me in that context (the person wanted to know if the driver could take him or her somewhere):

  • ¿Puedo llevarlo? (Can I take you?) => No tuve tiempo de preguntarle al conductor si podía llevarlo (I had no time to ask the driver if I could take him)

More logical:

  • ¿Puede llevarme? (Can you take me?) => No tuve tiempo de preguntarle al conductor si podía llevarme (I had no time to ask the driver if he could take me)

Notice that, just like "could" in English, "podía" in Spanish expresses past ability but not actual performance. The preterite "pude" or "pudo" would be equivalent to "was able to" or "managed to".

As regards the use of "tenía" or "tuve", both would be possible. "Tenía" refers to an ongoing state (I was not in a position to ask him) while "tuve" refers to an actual event (I had no time to ask him).

(*)Note: In indirect or reported speech, "backshifting" consists of retelling a person's statements or thoughts from a past perspective (e.g. Direct speech: Can you take me home? => Indirect speech: A asked B if he could take her home)

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  • I think this answer presupposes more knowledge than the OP has. Talking about backshifting in speech to the imperfect is pretty complicated.
    – Lambie
    Sep 3 at 22:19
  • @Gustavson - thanks - that's very helpful. So I think this means I should add another rule to my list - that the imperfecto is used in backshifting the present tense? And this is somewhat unrelated to the other rules such as 'customary' or 'situation' or 'continuing action'? Sep 4 at 12:09
  • Yes, you should add that rule. I'm happy you understood my reference to backshifting. It was not so cryptic after all :)
    – Gustavson
    Sep 4 at 16:20
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    "Backshifting" is a good term to know. I hadn't realized this myself and it's a nice shortcut for explaining this particular situation. One reason why this present→imperfect shift happens is that the present is also an imperfective tense: it shows states and events in progress. So it makes sense that the shift is to an imperfect past tense and not a perfective one.
    – pablodf76
    Sep 4 at 19:11

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