Linguim allows you to learn new languages completely free of charge. Choose a language and start learning!

Join | Login

Poder and deber in Spanish

The subject of this lesson is two frequency verbs in Spanish: poder and deber.


Poder can be used as a noun and as an auxiliary verb. If it’s used as a noun, it means “power”. The subject of this lesson is on the other hand its use an auxiliary verb.

Poder, as a verb, has many different uses and it is used in different conjugated forms. Its use in imperfect and conditional forms is not rare either. Therefore, sometimes it can be confusing to use this verb.  Let us first summarize its indicative conjugations.



(yo) puedo

(tú) puedes

(usted/él/ella) puede

(nosotros/as) podemos

(vosotros/as) podéis

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) pueden


(yo) pude

(tu) pudiste

(usted/él/ella) pudo

(nosotros/as) pudimos

(vosotros/as) pudisteis

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) pudieron


(yo) podia

(tú) podías

(usted/él/ella) podía

(nosotros/as) podíamos

(vosotros/as) podíais

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) podían


(yo) podré

(tú) podrás

(usted/él/ella) podrá

(nosotros/as) podremos

(vosotros/as) podréis

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) podrán


(yo) podría

(tú) podrías

(usted/él/ella) podría

(nosotros/as) podríamos

(vosotros/as) podríais

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) podrían

When to use

The primary meaning of poder is “can or to be able to”. Poder is followed by an infinitive, just like “can” and “to be able to” are used in English.

Below, various uses of poder are summarized.

  • Poder is not a total replacement for the English “can”. As stated above, it can be used as “can” if the meaning is supposed to be “to be able to”.

In this respect, one can use poder in present and also in future tenses to express the ability to do something.

puedo trabajar 15 horas al día. I am able to work 15 hours a day

puedo hacerlo solo I can do it myself

puedo trabajar los domingos I can work on Sundays

No podrá venir. He won’t be able to come

  • Poder can be used as the English “can/could” as well, when you want to ask for something in a polite way. For this purpose, present, imperfect and conditional forms can be applied.

¿Puedes repetir? Can you repeat?

¿Podías darme un bolígrafo? Could you give me a pen?

As stated above, conditional can be used to express a similar politeness:

¿Podrías darme un bolígrafo Could you give me a pen?

  • Its use in the past tenses requires special attention. Depending on whether the event has completed with no definite time or occurred at a specific time, you need to choose imperfect or preterite. Please refer to the related sections to review the general facts about these tenses.

Also, recall that as we mentioned when discussing the differences between the preterite and imperfect, we drew attention to some verbs which change their meaning when used in preterite and imperfect. Poder is an example of such verbs. When used in imperfect, its meaning is still related to “to be able to/capable of/can”, but if it is used in the preterite its meaning changes; it means “to manage to” in the preterite.

podías hablar español muy bien you were able to speak Spanish very well

            pude salir. I managed to leave

  • Poder is used to express what could have happened. Generally, the preterite is used for this purpose:

Pudo haber sido peor it could have been worse

¡podías habérmelo dicho! you could o might have told me!


We already covered the verb deber in an earlier lesson when discussing how to express necessities in Spanish. Now that you learned the imperfect, the preterite and the future tenses, it is a good idea to add some new remarks about its use.



(yo) debo

(tú) debes

(usted/él/ella) debe

(nosotros/as) debemos

(vosotros/as) debéis

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) deben


(yo) debí

(tu) debiste

(usted/él/ella) debió

(nosotros/as) debimos

(vosotros/as) debisteis

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) debieron


(yo) debía

(tú) debías

(usted/él/ella) debía

(nosotros/as) debíamos

(vosotros/as) debíais

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) debían


(yo) deberé

(tú) deberás

(usted/él/ella) deberá

(nosotros/as) deberemos

(vosotros/as) deberéis

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) deberán


(yo) debería

(tú)  deberías

(usted/él/ella) debería

(nosotros/as) deberíamos

(vosotros/as) deberíais

(ustedes/ellos/ellas) deberían

When to use

obligation revisited

As you know ” deber”  is used to mean “to have to” or “must”.  It can be used also to make or ask for suggestions. Let’s first remember how it is used in the present tense:

Debo hacer mi tarea. I must do my homework.

Debes estudiar tus lecciones. You have to study your lessons.

So, use the present form of the “deber” and add the infinitive to express obligation.


¿Que camiseta debo comprar? Which t-shirt should I buy?

Son las palabras que no debiste decir. You shouldn't have said those words.

Its use to express probability

At times you may hear the expression “deber de” used to indicate probability.

Its use with the past tenses

When it is to be used in the past tense, take into account the following information:

If you would like to use deber, to mean “something should have happened”, use the preterite

Carlos debió trabajar. Carlos should have worked

But, instead if you would like to say something should happen, use imperfect.

Carlos debía trabajar. Carlos should work


Practical expressions with poder

a más no poder as much as possible

¿Se puede? Can I come in?

¿puedo? may I?

poder con to deal with

Let's Practice

Answer the following questions

All Exercises