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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How do you write “Merry Christmas” in Spanish? “Feliz navidad” or “Feliz Navidad”?

How do you write “Merry Christmas” in Spanish? “Feliz navidad” or “Feliz Navidad”?

If you need to write it on Facebook, a greeting card, or an email, you may write:

Feliz navidad

However, you may also write it with capital N, but the meaning changes a little bit. According to the Spanish Royal Academy, “Navidad” with capital E means the season between the night of December 24th and and January 6th . Therefore, if you write,

Feliz Navidad

You are wishing happy Christmas/New Year season, including the Epiphany.

You can also make it plural, las “Navidades,” which in some regions is more common than in others. But you can also say,

Felices pascuas

Which has the same meaning as “Feliz Navidad.” The word “pascua” (pass – quah) can also be capitalized. It means “easter” and “passover,” although you may say “pascua judía” or “Jewish Easter” to be more precise. “Pascua” also means the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and any other solemn celebration in the Catholic Church. Thus, “felices pascuas” is an expression for Easter, Passover, and Christmas, and the Epiphany.

Nochebuena is the night before Christmas, and the name of the red plant (or flower?) known as “poinsettia” in the United States. The “Epiphany” or “Epifanía” is also known as The Three Kings Day (los Santos Reyes Magos).

Should you write Christmas or christmas, Pascua or pascua? It all depends on you. My suggestion is that if you are not a Christian, you do not need to capitalize these words, but if you are a Christian, then capitalize them, please. Now, if you are a Christian AND a bad speller, then you're saved, since both spellings are accepted.

In any case, the most common phrases that mean “Merry Christmas” are:

¡Feliz Navidad! ¡Felices Pascuas!

If you need to add “Happy New Year,” you may say, “¡Feliz año nuevo! Or, you guessed it, ¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

Thanks for reading. I hope this helped.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What are the uses of “por”?

“Por” is a preposition. There are several prepositions in English that mean “por” in Spanish. The Spanish Academy has a long list of the meanings of por. Although this list is intended for native speakers, most examples are very easy to understand.

One of the most common problems for non-native speakers of Spanish is to use por and para correctly. The main problem is that both prepositions have more than ten meanings each! One more problem is that “por” sounds a lot like “for.” I will attempt to give you a hint of when to use “por.” On a later post, I will attempt to do the same with “para.”

Por comes from “pro” and “per” in Latin. Therefore, most of the time “per” in English will mean “por” in Spanish. It also means exchange, because, about to do something, percentage, duration of time or lapse of time, going by or around a place when the name of the place comes after “por,” ways or means of communication, passive voice (made by X), counting by, and why. There are also several idiomatic expressions with por. Here are a few of them:

por ejemplo (for example)
por favor (please)
por Dios (by God)
por lo menos (at least)
por lo general (in general)
por nada (for nothing, or it's nothing)
gracias por todo (thanks for everything)
por lo visto (evidently)

Whenever I explain por and para in the classroom, I tell the students that I'm a cavewoman for that class. I draw childish symbols and figures on the board. I also make some of those drawings with my hand when I'm speaking. I walk around the classroom to give a better idea of por (walking by, going around).

Here are my POR drawings:

Reason, why something happens.
Lo hago por amor. = I do it because of love.
Fuimos a Toledo por la fiesta de Andrea. - We went to Toledo because of Andrea's party.

About to do something.
Estoy por comprar una casa en Santiago. = I'm about to buy a house in Santiago.
Estamos por salir. = We're about to leave.

Math (times) and exchange/substitution.
2 x 3 = 6 – Dos por seis es igual a seis. Two times three is six.
Mi madre trabajó por mi tía ayer. - My mother worked instead of my aunt yesterday.
20% = veinte por ciento – twenty per cent.
El dólar está a 10 pesos por un dólar. The dollar is 10 pesos for one dollar.
Ellos pagaron mucho dinero por la casa. They paid a lot of money for the house. (exchange of money)
Se fueron de la fiesta uno por uno. - They left the party one by one.

Time (duration of time).
Me baño por cinco minutos. - I bathe for five minutes.
Dormí por 10 horas el sábado pasado. - I slept for 10 hours last Saturday.
Fuimos de vacaciones por una semana. - We went on vacation for a week.

Ways or means of communication and transportation.
Ellos hablan por teléfono y por correo electrónico. - They talk by phone and by email.
Enviamos la carta por correo certificado. - We sent the letter by certified mail.
Carlos salió por tren a Nueva York. - Carlos left by train to New York.
Tú vas por carro a las montañas. You go by car to the mountains.
To go arround a place or to pass by a place
Ustedes pasaron por mi casa anoche. - You all passed by (or around) my house last night.
Vamos por la carretera I-95 de Richmond a Atlanta. - We go by I-95 from Richmond to Atlanta. (We use, we go by the highway)
Dimos la vuelta por la manzana de tu casa. – We went around the block where your house is.

Passive voice / the author/director of something.
El libro fue escrito por Augusto Monterroso. - The book was written by Augusto Monterroso.
El dibujo fue hecho por Lulú. - The drawing was made by Lulú.
Dirigida por Robert Rodríguez. - Directed by Robert Rodríguez.
Patrocinado por la letra X. - Sponsored by the letter X.

No por
In some cases, we don't need “por” even if the phrase in English sounds like we need it in Spanish. Usually is a verb in English that needs the preposition “for.”

To pay for – pagar - They pay for the tacos. - Ellos pagan los tacos.
To look for – buscar – I'm looking for a book. - Estoy buscando un libro.
To search for – buscar – They looked for the dog on the street. Ellos buscaron al perro en la calle.
To wait for – esperar – My aunt was waiting for my mother. - Mi tía estaba esperando a mi madre.

However, sometimes we use por with pagar. Consider this example:

¿Cuánto dinero pagaste por ese juguete? - How much money did you pay for that toy?
Here we need “por” because there is a more specific exchange, money for a toy.

And “to thank for” needs por:
Gracias por el libro. - Thanks for the book.
Por nada. - You're welcome.

Basically, por means: reason, exchange, substitution, percentage, per, multiplication, done by X person, going around, going by, communicating by, time duration, and about to do X.

I hope this helps. If it does, please write a comment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What Are “Subjunctive in Adjective Clauses?”

Necesito un amigo que sea famoso. (I need a friend who is famous.)

Does this friend exist? Maybe, but for now he is in my mind. I have an idea of what I need or I'm looking for. However, THAT IS AN IDEA. This is why we need the subjunctive to describe the friend I'm looking for.

¿Conoces a alguien que tenga dos perros? (Do you know anybody who has two dogs?)

In this question, the person asking has no clue if you know a person who has two dogs. Ok, there is no adjectve here, but the description works like an adjective.

The “subjunctive in adjective clauses” simply means that the clause with subjunctive contains an adjective (description) of a noun (person, thing, place, etc.) that may or may not exist. The phrase in this case is formed with two sentences,

sentence 1: indicative (noun) + que + sentence 2: subjunctive (adjective that modifies the noun from sentence 1)

Let's see more examples.

El libro trata de la vida en América Central. (The book is about the life in Central America.)

There is no subjunctive here, because we are talking about “THE BOOK,” which means that the book is known to either the speaker or the listener of this sentence.

But now,

Busco el libro que se trata de la vida en América Central. (I'm looking for the book that is about life in Central America)

There is certainty here. This is why there is no need for subjunctive. The next sentence is similar to the previous one, but it has subjunctive,

Busco un libro que se trate de la vida en América Central. (I'm looking for a book that is about the life in Central America)

Usually the key is the indefinite article (un, una, unos, unas), and indefinite words like something, somebody or someone (alguien, algún, alguna, alguno, algunos, algunas, algo).

Some of the verbs we use often with these structures are: buscar (to look for), necesitar (to need), conocer (to know), querer (to want, to love).

Remember that you need to have two sentences (two conjugated verbs).

Consider this example:

Necesito un trabajo bueno. (I need a good job.)

There is no subjunctive. There is only one verb.

The next example contains subjunctive:

Necesito un trabajo que sea bueno.
(I need a job that is good.)

Again, it has subjunctive because there is uncertainty.

Here are a few more examples:

Necesito el apartamento que está en el centro de la ciudad. (I need the apartment that is in downtown.)
Necesito un apartamento que esté en el centro de la ciudad. (I need an apartment that is in downtown.)

Ella busca al chico que es guapo e inteligente. (She is looking for a boy who is handsome and intelligent.)
Ella busca a un chico que sea guapo e inteligente. (She is looking for a boy who is handsome and intelligent.)

Conozco a la chica que se llama Lupita. (I know the girl whose name is Lupita.)
Conozco a una chica que se llama Lupita. (I know a girl whose name is Lupita.)

No conozco a una chica que se llame Lupita. ( I don't know any girls whose...)

El libro es caro. (The book is expensive.) There is no subjunctive here.

Necesito el libro que es caro. (I need the book that is expensive.)
Necesito un libro que sea caro. (I need a book that is expensive.)

¿Conocieron ustedes al chico que se llama Pancho? (Did you meet the boy whose name is Pancho?)
¿Conocieron ustedes a un chico que se llama Pancho? (Did you meet a boy or any boys whose...?)

I hope this helps.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lo vs. Le

A former student suggested this topic. I had draw some cartoons to explain to my current students the object pronouns, so I am recycling those drawings, not because they're good drawing, but because they may help to explain the differences between “lo” and “le.”

Perhaps “lo” and “le” are confusing because of the following:

  1. Both are singular,
  2. In Spain, “le” is used instead of “lo” in some cases, and
  3. In English, both mean “it” and “him.”

But what is an object pronoun?

Basically, we use a proun instead of the noun. When we don't want to repeat a name (noun), we say, you, it, we, us, etc. Object pronouns are related to nouns (people, institutions, places, ideas, animals) who are part of a sentece, but they are NOT the subject (the noun doing the action) of the sentence. For example,

He reads a book.

He = subject
reads = verb
a book = noun that is not the subject = object

Juliet kissed Romeo.

Juliet = subject
kissed = verb
Romeo = noun that is not the subject = object

These are the pronouns and the rules (formulas) to use them:

1 verbo =
s + po + v
ejemplo: Yo lo leo.

2 verbos=
s + po + v1 + v2
ejemplo: Yo lo voy a leer.

s + v1 + v2po
ejemplo: Yo voy a leerlo.

(+) imperativo (one word) 

Lee el libro. 


(-) no pronoun imperativo (three words or more)

No leas el libro.

No lo leas

Objeto                        POD       POI
A mí                           me           me
A ti                             te             te
A él/ella/usted           lo/la         le
A nosotros/as            nos           nos
A vosotros/as            os             os
A ustedes/ellos/as     los/las     les

A direct object is involved in the action, while the indirect object receives the benefit of the action. These are my drawings to explain the direct object.

 Here, the person is the subject who is reading (verb) a book (direct object).

Now, one person (subject) loves (verb) another person (direct object)

There is not a problem when using these verbs with noun that are not people. The problem arises when we talk about other people, family pets, or institutions. Most verbs related to feelings—such as amar (to love), odiar (to hate), and extrañar (to miss)–need a direct object. Think about in this way, “I love you, you are the object of my love.” Other verbs that use a direct object are pintar (to paint), dibujar (to draw), tocar (to touch), etc.


Julieta ama a Romeo. → Julieta lo ama.
No me toques. → Don't touch me.
Picasso no pintó a Dalí. → Picasso no lo pintó.
Mi madre extraña a mi padre. → Mi madre lo extraña.

Notice that in order to include a person who is not the subject, we need to connect him/her with the preposition “a.” This is just to distinguish that this other person is not the subject.

There are a lot of communication and transportation verbs. When we use these verbs, something goes from one (or more) subject to another. For example, hablar (to talk), enviar (to send), dar (to give), pedir (to ask/request for something), escribir (to write), llamar por teléfono (call on the phone), etc.
These verbs are called, “transitivos” or transitive in English. Think about “transit,” which is moving from point A to point B. 

In the drawing below, a person (subject) gives (verb) his heart (direct object) to another person (indirect object).

Now consider:

Mi tía llama por teléfono a su amiga. (My aunt calls her friend on the phone)
a su amiga = indirect object

Mi tía le llama por teléfono a su amiga.

Le = indirect object pronoun

Notice that the direct object and the direct object pronoun are usually not used in the same sentence, but the indirect object and the indirect object are used in the same sentence, especially when the indirect object is singular and the second person formal (usted), or anybody from the third person (él, ella, uno).

Otros ejemplos:

Mi hermano le envía un mensaje electrónico a su novia. (My brother sends an email to his girlfriend)

Ellos me hablaron por teléfono. (They called me on the phone)
Yo les hablé por teléfono. (I called them on the phone, or by phone)
Mi madre me compó una camiseta. (My mom bought me a t-shirt)
Yo le compré un vestido a mi madre. ( I bought my mother a dress)
Nosotros le pedimos juguetes a Santa todos los años. (We ask Santa for toys every year)
Ana le regala un libro a Juan. (Ana gives a book to Juan as a present)
Ellos le dicen la verdad a la policía. (They tell the truth to the police)

If it helps, drop me a nice comment.

direct and indirect object in English =

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Conocer vs Saber

After a few months on vacation, here is Preguntolandia again.

Conocer vs Saber

Conocer and saber mean to know in English. In Spanish, conocer gives the idea of “being familiar with something or somebody,” while “saber” refers more to knowing facts, data, specific knowledge that you need to study, practice, or memorize.

Conocer + a + persona, conocer + lugar or other noun

Why is “conocer” and not “saber” used to imply that I know a person or a place? 

First, it is impossible to know everything about a person. I don't know everything about myself; my doctor may know a lot about me, and I don't have a clue. In the same way, it's almost impossible to know 100% of the information related to a place. There is history, environment, etc., that I may not have a clue about. Second, conocer comes from cognoscĕre” in Latin, which has to do more with perception, seeing, cognition, being informed about something. Even if you see the way a math problem is solved, you still have to memorize information. We know a person or a place because we see them, listen to them, smell them, etc. You get the point.

Why does conocer need the preposition “a” when we want to express that we know a person? The answer is in the question. If I can remember that in English I say, “I know a person,” the it's easier to remember that in Spanish the rule is “conocer + a + persona.” The reason is simple. If we say,

Karina knows Patricia and Héctor.

Karina is the subject (sujeto) of the sentence, the person who does something, in this case “to know.” Since what she knows is people, then we say,

Karina conoce

Now, Patricia and Héctor are not the subjects of the sentence. Sure they may know Karina as well, but the focus of the sentence is Karina, not them. Patricia and Héctor are what or who is known by Karina [ notice the passive voice here].

Karina conoce a Patricia y a Héctor.

Note that the second a, “y a Héctor,” is for more emphasis. In spoken everyday Spanish, if you forget it, it's alright. Nobody will laugh at you.

We need to connect Patricia and Héctor to the sentence with the preposition a, otherwise the sentence will sound fragmented. How? Well it will sound kind of like this,

Karina knows. Patricia and Héctor.

It makes no sense!

Think also, that conocer is more like “knowing about” or “having information about.” You cannot say in English,

She has information them.

For places we don't need the preposition “a.” We only for people or institutions, since the latter function and are treated like people. Remember that domestic animals are also treated like people, specially when the cat or dog has a name. Example:

Mi gato se llama Van Helsing. Mis amigos conocen a Van Helsing.

Saber + a = to taste like

Don't ever use saber + a + person, unless you're talking in metaphorical way. “Saber” also means to taste like or to have the flavor of. If you want to say, “My mother knows President Obama [or the president of your choice],” you need to say,

Mi madre conoce al presidente Obama. [remember that a + el = al]

Be careful, never say or write,

Mi madre sabe al presidente Obama.

Because the translation for this sentence is,

My mother tastes like president Obama.

Other examples with conocer:

Mi hermana conoce a Luis Carlos. [ My sister knows Luis Carlos.]
Tu amigo no conoce a Ester. [Your friend doesn't know Ester.]
Ellos conocen Madrid. [They know Madrid.]
Elisa y yo conocemos la tienda de Lola. [Elisa and I know Lola's store.]
Tú no conoces el disco nuevo de Luis Miguel. [You don't know Luis Miguel's new CD.]
Mi abuela conoció a mi perrito ayer. [My grandmother met my little dog yesterday.]

Conocer + a + person in the preterite tense [pretérito] means to meet somebody for the first time. In the last example, my grandmother met my dog, means that she saw the dog for the first time in her life.

Saber comes from the latin “sapĕre,” and it refers more to being an expert on something, to have the facts, to acquire the knowledge of X. “Sapere” is from the same family of words of “sapiens” as in the term “homo sapiens.”

Here are a few examples of saber:

Ellas saben mi número de teléfono. [They know my phone number.]
Gerardo no sabe mi correo electrónico. [Gerardo doesn't know my email.]
Mi abuelo sabe hablar alemán. [My grandfather knows how to speak German.]
Mi profesor sabe latín. [My professor knows Latin.]
Mi padre sabe mucho de agricultura. [My father knows a lot about agriculture.]
Tú sabes muchas canciones de amor. [You know a lot of love songs.]
¿Sabes la canción “Qué viva España”? [Do you know the song “Qué viva España”?

Saber + verb
In order to say “to know how to do something” we need to use saber + an infinitive verb. A few examples:

Usted sabe cantar muy bien. [You know how to sing very well.]
Mi tío sabe tocar el piano. [ My uncle knows how to play the piano.]
Ofelia no sabía cocinar chorizo. [ Ofelia didn't know how to cook chorizo.]

Saber que + oración completa
Other common phrases that use saber are phrases with “Saber que.” Phrases like, “Do you know what...?” or “Did you know that...?” need “que” because these are actually two sentences. Example:

Did you know that Salvador Dalí made a movie with Luis Buñuel?
¿Sabías que Salvador Dalí hizo una película con Luis Buñuel?

Did you know” is the question, and “you” is the subject of the question. “Salvador Dalí made a movie with Luis Buñuel” is the second sentence, in which Salvador Dalí is the subject. The two sentences are linked in English with the relative pronoun “that,” which in this case means “que” in Spanish.

¿Sabes qué? Te amo.
Do you know what? I love you.

¿Saber or conocer?

Sometimes the use of saber and conocer depend on the context. For example, I am familiar with the song “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga. I heard it on the radio, TV and the Internet a couple of times. I know the title. I recognize the song, but I don't know the lyrics. So, I can say the following,

Yo conozco a Lady Gaga. No la conozco en persona pero conozco sus canciones.
[I know Lady Gaga. I don't know her in person, but I know her songs]

Conozco la canción “Alejandro” de Lady Gaga.
[I know the song “Alejandro” by LG, I'm familiar with it.]

Sé el título de la canción.
[ I know the title of the song, I had to memorize it.]

No sé la canción “Alejandro”.
[I don't know the song.]

Solamente sé el coro: “Alejandro, Alejandro”.
[I only know the chorus, “Alejandro, Alejandro.”]

I hope it helps. If it does, great!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Verbos irregulares

Verbos irregulares que cambian de raíz

Irregular stem changing verbs.

There is not that much to say about these verbs, but that you really have to memorize them. The best way is to write and write and write sentences.

I'll talk about flash cards later.

Here is a link to work on these verbs.
I created the quizzes, so if you have any comments, I'll be happy to
read them. Good luck.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Imperfecto vs. Pretérito

The imperfect = el imperfecto. The –aba and –ía tense. [a.k.a. pretérito imperfecto, copretérito]
Verbos –ar = --aba
Yo caminaba, tú caminabas, él/ella/usted caminaba, nosotros caminábamos, vosotros caminabais, ustedes/ellos caminaban. I walked (an unknown number of times) used to walk or I was walking, etc.

Verbos –er/ --ir = --ía Yo comía, tú comías, él/ella/usted comía, nosotros comíamos, vosotros comíais, ustedes/ellos/ellas comían. I ate (un unknown number of times), I used to eat or I was eating, etc.

This is a verbal tense that we use to describe the context, habitual situations, age, time, the weather, health conditions, most of the idiomatic expressions with tener (tener frío, tener calor, etc.), human relationships, actions that happened so many times that we have forgotten how many times they occurred... in one phrase: how things used to be in the past or at a certain period in the past. USUALLY, NOTHING (NO ACTION) HAPPENS IN THE STORY IF WE USE THE IMPERFECT, that’s why I emphasized describe at the beginning of this paragraph.

When I was 5 years-old, I lived in California.
Cuando tenía 5 años, yo vivía en California.

Yesterday it was raining cats and dogs when I got home.
Ayer llovía a cántaros cuando llegué a casa.

Open a novel in English on the first page and read the first lines. Usually, the first lines tell you about the context, the place, the time, the people, etc. This is IMPERFECTO.

Think of IMPERFECTO as something that happens, but we don’t know when it starts and when it ends, or how many times it happened.

But the difficult part between imperfecto and pretérito is when we use both at the same time.

[Link: youtube video, about the 6:20 mins.: ]

Dave Chappelle has a very good routine about the difference between men and women. He says that a man tells a story kind of like this: “I went to the store, I bought a loaf of bread, came back home, made a sandwich and ate it.” But a woman tells the same story with a lot more of information: “I wanted to go to the store, but I had a headache, took an aspirin and then I went to the store. It was raining. It was cold. I got to the store. The guy was so handsome. Then I talked to him and he was mad about something... etc.” [These are not exactly Chappelle’s words, but they’re pretty close]

As you can see, according to Chappelle, men tell a story with action verbs only, while women add background and context. Men use the perfect preterite and women use perfect and imperfect. It is not 100% true, but it is a good way to explain the difference between preterite and imperfect.

Ask yourself how many times something happened or when exactly it happened. If you know it or can tell, then it is preterite. If not, it is imperfect. If something usually happens only once, it is preterite.

Elvis died.
How many times did he die? Once! Then it is preterite.
Elvis murió.

Elvis used to live in Graceland.

How many times or for how long? According to the information given in the sentence, we don’t know. Then it is imperfect:

Elvis vivía en Graceland.

So, what is the difference between:
Elvis vivió en Graceland en 1970
Elvis vivía en Graceland en 1970?

The second one is either the context for a story, context information, or some trivial information. Maybe he lived there at some point in 1970.
The first one is a fact (preterite), maybe only sentence o comment. It's more emphatic. Maybe he lived there the entire year.

You can use either one without any problem. Unless you are telling a story in which the context dictates that this information is part of the description of how and where Elvis used to live, then you will have to choose.  If you are making a list of facts that happened to Elvis, you can use the sentence in the preterite:

Elvis vivió en Tupelo en 1950, en Nashville en 1960, en la calle X de Memphis en 1965 y en Graceland en 1970.

(This is made up information, by the way)

The sentence in the imperfect can help you with a story like this,

Elvis vivía en Graceland en 1970 cuando compró dos aviones y tres televisiones.
(Again, made up information)

There are two more uses of imperfecto: parallel actions and paraphrases.

Parallel actions: The imperfect is the least important action and the important one is preterite.

Yo veía la televisión cuando mi hermana me llamó por teléfono.
I was watching TV when my sister called me on the phone.
Tenía dolor de cabeza por eso tomé Tylenol.
I had a headache that's why I took Tylenol.
Cuado estaba cocinando me corté el dedo.
When I was cooking I cut my finger.

It is possible to write the same sentences but with the preterite first:
Cuando mi hermana llamó por teléfono yo veía la televisión.
Tomé Tylenol porque me dolía la cabeza.
Me corté el dedo cuando estaba cocinando.

Paraphrases: when we re-tell a story, some verbs--that were in the present at the time the story happened—become imperfect.

Carolina said, “I want a burger.” (preterite + present)

If we re-tell the story, it goes like this:

Carolina said that she wanted a burger. (preterite + preterite)

Carolina dijo: --Quiero una hamburguesa. (preterite + present)
Carolina dijo que quería una hamburguesa. (preterite + imperfect)

I hope this helps.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Hubo / Había = verbo “haber” [there was/were]

This question came from a former student, via Twitter. (You may follow me at

First, when translated into English, these two forms of the verb haber mean “there was.” The key is that “hubo” is the third person singular of haber in the preterite tense, while “había” is the third person singular of the same verb but in the imperfect. This is grammatically speaking. In actuality, “haber” by itself is an impersonal verb. It is also the auxiliary verb of compound tenses, example: “Yo había terminado la tarea antes de las 5:00 p.m” = I had finished my homework before 5:00 pm. In modern Latin American Spanish, “hube terminado” is rarely used, but if you need to use it, think of it as “once I had finished doing something.”

Now, let's see: the difference between the preterite (hubo) and the imperfect (hubo).

Both verbal tenses refer to the past, but the imperfect offers the context and the preterite provides the action. The imperfect—or imperfecto, which is also known as “copretérito” meaning next to the preterite—will only give us information about how people, places, animals, objects, etc. were or used to be in the past, for a period of time. When I say,

Había un accidente en la carretera 64.

[“There was an accident on highway 64.” / Think about it in this way, “An accident occurred at some time on 64” or “An accident was occurring/happening on 64.”]

The accident is not the most important part of my speech. It is only a reference to something else that I consider much important than the accident. In other words, this is the background information. In fact, we have no idea for how long that accident was there. It just happens that when I was on 64, I saw that there was an accident. However, when I change to the preterite, the meaning changes:

Hubo un accidente en la carretera 64.

[“There was an accident on highway 64.” / Think of it as “An accident happened on 64,” in other words, the accident begun and finished already.]

Here the focus IS the accident. After this sentence, I will probably provide more specific information, such as the time, the place, etc., but the information will not be as important as the accident.

How do I know when to use either one? It is a matter of context and taste.

Hubo is simply more dramatic and more important than había. But don't ditch the latter just yet, because it serves a very important purpose: we can start a story with it. Examples:

  • Había una vez una princesa que vivía en un palacio. [Once upon a time there was a princess who lived in a palace.]
  • Cuando mi abuela tenía 20 años no había computadoras personales. [When my grandmother was 20-years-old there were no personal computers.]
  • El semestre pasado no había muchos estudiantes en la clase de honores. [Last semester there were not that many students in the honors class.]
  • Cuando llegamos al pueblo había una fiesta muy animada. [When we arrived to the town there was a very animated party.]

The first three phrases use the imperfect only, therefore they are pure context. The last one mixes preterite and imperfect, which is a very common situation. In this sentence, “when we arrived to the town” is more important; we have no idea when the party begun or finished. Probably “we arrived” in the middle of it. If we flip the sentence, the meaning is the same, but the emphasis changes,

Había una fiesta muy animada cuando llegamos al pueblo [There was a very animated party when we arrived to the town.]

But it all depends on what the speaker believes the most important part is.

A few more examples with “hubo.”

Ayer hubo una elección. [There was an election yesterday.]
Hubo dos huracanes el año pasado. [There were two hurricanes last year.]
Hace dos años hubo una conferencia sobre Cervantes en nuestra universidad. [There was a lecture on Cervantes in our university two years ago.]

I hope this helps.