Spanish Preterite Tense – Conjugation and Use

The Spanish Preterite Tense («Pretérito Indefinido») is one of the several verb tenses in Spanish to talk about past actions.

In this post, we will go through the following points:

  1. Conjugation in Spanish Preterite
  2. Uses of the Preterite
  3. Quiz about the Preterite!

1. Conjugation in Spanish Preterite

For the purpose of this lesson, we will group verbs into 2 types, regarding their conjugation in Preterite:

On one hand, Regular and Almost-Regular Verbs.

On the other, Very Irregular Verbs.

Let’s study each type in detail:

1.1 – Regular and Almost-Regular Verbs

As you will notice in the tables below, all verbs that are regular or almost-regular present accent marks on at least the first and third person singular («yo» and «él») forms. There is one exception: «Ver», which is regular but presents no accent marks.

1.1.1 – Regular Verbs

If a verb is Regular in Preterite Tense, it conjugates by adding to its stem the suffixes shown in the following table. Notice that the suffixes for verbs ending in «-er» and «-ir» are exactly the same:

yohabl ébeb ípart í
habl astebeb istepart iste
élhabl óbeb part
nosotroshabl amosbeb imospart imos
vosotroshabl asteisbeb isteispart isteis
elloshabl aronbeb ieronpart ieron

1.1.2 – Almost-Regular Verbs, with a small irregularity for some persons

These verbs are conjugated by adding the same suffixes as regular verbs, but they present one of the following irregular patterns:

  • Verbs in whose stem, for the third person singular and plural, a vowel «e» becomes «i». Examples:

  • Verbs in whose stem, for the third person singular and plural, a vowel «o» becomes «u». Examples:

  • Verbs in whose suffix for the third person singular and plural, a letter «y» replaces the «i». Also, for this verbs, the forms for all persons except «ellos» have accent marks. Examples:

1.2 – Very Irregular Verbs

Verbs that are Very Irregular in Preterite don’t present any accent mark, for any person, as you will see in all the tables below.

We will first see the verbs «Dar», «Ser» and «Ir». Then we will see all the other Very Irregular Verbs as a group:

1.2.1 – «Dar»

Although it ends in «-ar», the verb «Dar» conjugates by adding the regular suffixes for verbs ending in «-er», «-ir» (but with no accent marks):


1.2.2 – «Ser»,  «Ir»

The verbs «Ser» and «Ir» have exactly the same conjugation in Preterite Tense:

 Ser / Ir

1.2.3 – Rest of Very Irregular Verbs

The rest of Very Irregular Verbs follow a common pattern. They all present a new stem in Preterite tense that must be learned. Then, we need to attach to that new stem the proper suffix depending on the person. These suffixes, which are different from the regular ones, can be seen at the right side of this table: 

VerbNew StemList of Suffixes
-ieron / *-eron

Notice the asterisk!: For most of these Irregulars, the suffix for the person «ellos» is «ieron». However, for the verbs whose new stem ends in the letter «j», the suffix for «ellos» is «eron».

Here are two examples of Very Irregular Verbs fully conjugated in Preterite following the system we just described:

New StemFull conjugation
Ponerpus-puse, pusiste, puso, pusimos, pusisteis, pusieron
Decirdij-dije, dijiste, dijo, dijimos, dijisteis, dijeron

2. Uses of the Preterite

The Spanish Preterite is a tense for actions in the past. We use it to talk about completed actions which happened at some point.

The problem is, there are other past tenses in Spanish apart from the Preterite, and each one is used in different circumstances. Here are some cases where the Preterite tends to fit very well:

– Past actions which happened once or a stated number of times (no matter how long they take):

Juan compró una lavadora nueva ayer = Juan bought a new laundry machine yesterday.

Estudié Medicina en la universidad de Madrid = I studied medicine in the University of Madrid.

El año pasado estuve enfermo dos veces = Last year I was sick twice.

Ana y María fueron al cine la semana pasada = Ana and María went to the movies last week.

– Past actions whose duration is stated (no matter how long they take):

Viví diez años en Perú = I lived in Peru for ten years.

Lola y Pablo fueron amigos durante toda su infancia. = Lola and Pablo were friends during all their childhood.

– A sequence of past actions, one after another:

Ayer, Laura se levantó a las siete de la mañana. Luego se duchó, desayunó, se vistió y se fue a hacer la compra. = Yesterday, Laura got up at 7 A.M. Then she showered, had breakfast, got dressed and went to do the shopping.

Primero estudié en un colegio público. Más tarde mis padres me metieron en uno privado. = I first studied in a public school. Later my parents put me in a private one.

Preterite Vs. Imperfect tense

As explained, there are several past tenses in Spanish apart from the Preterite. A very important one is the Imperfect Tense, whose contrast to the Preterite is one of the big challenges of the Spanish language. Click here to learn the differences between the Preterite and the Imperfect.

3. Quiz about the Preterite!

Take this short Quiz to test your knowledge!:

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