Hubo / Había = verbo “haber” [there was/were]
This question came from a former student, via Twitter. (You may follow me at http://www.twitter.com/luluee.
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.