Spanish Preterite Tense – Conjugation and Uses

Spanish Preterite Tense

The Spanish Preterite Tense of the Indicative Mood (“Pretérito Indefinido” or “Pretérito Perfecto Simple de Indicativo”) is a verb tense in Spanish, used to talk about completed actions in the past.

The Preterite is probably the most frequent of the Spanish past tenses. That means even if it presents some challenges, your effort will be rewarded with this very useful tense 🙂

In this grammar lesson, we will first learn how to conjugate verbs in Preterite, both regular and irregular verbs.

Then we will study the most typical cases where we use the Preterite, providing example sentences. We will also compare and contrast the Preterite to other Spanish past tenses, such as the Imperfect.

Finally, there is a Quiz and some Exercises for practice.

1. Conjugation of verbs in Spanish Preterite Tense

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

  • On one hand, Regular and Almost-Regular Verbs.
  • On the other hand, Very Irregular Verbs.

Let’s study each type in detail:

1.1. Regular and Almost-Regular Verbs

Regular Verbs

If a verb is Regular in Preterite Tense, it conjugates by attaching to its stem the endings shown in the following table. Notice that the there are two sets of endings: endings for “-ar” verbs, and endings for “-er” and “-ir” verbs:

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

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

The verbs we will call in this lesson “almost-regular” are conjugated by adding the same endings as regular verbs, but they present one of the following irregular patterns:

  • Verbs in whose stem, for the “él” and “ellos” form, a vowel “e” becomes “i”.

Examples:

 PedirRepetirSentir
yopedírepetísentí
pedisterepetistesentiste
élpidrepitsint
nosotrospedimosrepetimossentimos
vosotrospedisteisrepetisteissentisteis
ellospidieronrepitieronsintieron


  • Verbs in whose stem, for the “él” and “ellos” form, a vowel “o” becomes “u”.

Examples:

 DormirMorir
yodormímorí
dormistemoriste
éldurmmur
nosotrosdormimosmorimos
vosotrosdormisteismoristeis
ellosdurmieronmurieron


  • Verbs in whose ending for the “él” and “ellos” form, a letter “y” replaces the “i”. Also, for this verbs, all persons’ forms present accent marks, except “ellos”.

Examples:

 CreerCaerLeer
yocreícaíleí
creístecaísteleíste
élcrecale
nosotroscreímoscaímosleímos
vosotroscreísteiscaísteisleísteis
elloscreyeroncayeronleyeron

Note: About accent marks on Regular and Almost-Regular verbs

Regular or almost-regular verbs present accent marks on at least the “yo” and “él” forms. Have you noticed that in the tables above? 🙂

1.2. Very Irregular Verbs

Now let’s study the verbs we are calling “very irregular”.

We will first cover the verbs “Ver”, “Dar”, “Ser” and “Ir”, which have very particular conjugations in Spanish Preterite.

Then we will see the rest of the Very Irregular Verbs, treating them all as a group because they all conjugate in the same way:

“Ver”

“Ver” presents the normal endings of a regular verb. What makes it irregular is having no accent marks:

 Ver
yovi
viste
élvio
nosotrosvimos
vosotrosvisteis
ellosvieron

“Dar”

Although it ends in “-ar”, the verb “Dar” conjugates by adding the endings for regular verbs in “-er” and “-ir”. Also, no accent marks:

 Dar
yodi
diste
éldio
nosotrosdimos
vosotrosdisteis
ellosdieron

“Ser”,  “Ir”

The very important verbs “Ser” and “Ir” have exactly the same conjugation in Preterite Tense:

 Ser / Ir
yofui
fuiste
élfue
nosotrosfuimos
vosotrosfuisteis
ellosfueron

Rest of Very Irregular Verbs

The rest of Very Irregular Verbs form a group, because all of them conjugate in the same way. Each one of them presents a new, irregular stem in Preterite tense which must be learned. Then, we attach the proper ending to that stem depending on the person. These endings are different from the regular ones, and they are found at the right side of the following table: 

VerbNew StemSet of Irregular Endings
Andaranduv--e
-iste
-o
-imos
-isteis
-ieron / *-eron
Estarestuv-
Hacerhic-
Poderpud-
Ponerpus-
Quererquis-
Sabersup-
Tenertuv-
Venirvin-
Decirdij-*
Producirproduj-*
Traducirtraduj-*
Traertraj-*

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

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

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

Note: No accent marks on Very Irregular verbs

Verbs that are Very Irregular in Spanish Preterite don’t present accent marks for any person. Have you noticed that in the tables above? 🙂

2. Uses of the Preterite Tense

The Spanish Preterite is a tense for actions. We use it to talk about completed actions that happened in the past. It tends to answer the question: “What happened?”.

The most typical cases where the Preterite applies are:

Past actions which happened once or a stated number of times

Example sentences:

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.

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

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

Look at the second sentence again: “Estudié Medicina…”. We have used the Preterite, even though it takes years to study Medicine. But it doesn’t matter how long it takes. What matter is that we have expressed it as a completed, main action (“what happened”).

Past actions whose duration is stated (no matter how long they took)

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.

Beginnings and ends in the past

Verbs that signal the beginning or end of something, such as…

  • empezar = to begin / start
  • comenzar = to begin / start
  • terminar = to finish / end
  • acabar = to finish / end

… when they refer to past actions, they tend to be conjugated in Preterite tense:

La película empezó a las diez.
The movie started at ten.

Las personas comenzaron a quejarse.
The people began to complain.

La película terminó a las doce.
The movie ended at twelve.

Acabé de contar la historia.
I finished telling the story.

A chain of events or actions in the past, one after another:

We use the Preterite when narrating a series of events, one after another: “This happened, then that happened, etc.”

A graphic that represents a series of actions expressed in Preterite Tense

We can illustrate the idea with the graph above. Look at it and then read the following sentences: They are chains of events, 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.

3. Keywords and phrases with the Spanish Preterite

Here are some keywords and expressions that work well as time frames for actions in Preterite. They can help you write texts in Spanish Preterite:

  • Ayer = yesterday
  • Anteayer = the day before yesterday
  • El otro día = the other day
  • La semana pasada = last week
  • El mes pasado = last month
  • El año pasado = last year
  • Hace tres días = three days ago
  • Hace cuatro semanas = four weeks ago
  • Hace cinco meses = five months ago
  • Hace seis años = six years ago
  • Hace mucho tiempo = a long time ago

Some of the sentences we have read in this lesson include some of those keywords. Try to find them! 🙂

4. The Spanish Preterite Vs. Other Past Tenses

The Preterite is not the only tense used in Spanish to talk about the past. Comparing and contrasting the Preterite and other past tenses is one of the big challenges for Spanish learners:

Spanish Preterite Vs. Imperfect Tense

The Imperfect Tense is another Spanish past tense, used for ongoing situations in the past: habitual actions, descriptions, background information…

In general, we can say that we use the Preterite for main actions, and the Imperfect for background information. We have a whole lesson about the contrast between the Preterite and the Imperfect. Click here to read it!

Spanish Preterite Vs. Present Perfect

The Present Perfect is another past tense. Just like the Preterite, it is used to express main actions in the past, but with one difference: the time frame we refer to.

We use the Preterite when both the action and the time frame we refer to (or imply) are past. Examples of time frames are the keywords and phrases we have learned in this lesson: “ayer”, “la semana pasada”…

Ayer comí pasta.
Yesterday I ate pasta. (Preterite)

We use the Present Perfect when the action is past, but the time frame we refer to (or imply) reaches the present. For example, that time frame could be “hoy”, “esta semana”…

Hoy he comido pasta.
Today I’ve eaten pasta. (Present perfect)

5. Practice the Spanish Preterite: Quiz and Exercises

Quiz

First, take this Quiz about the Spanish Preterite: it will help you know if you understood the theory about this tense:

Exercise 1

The following sentences are about past actions that happened once or a stated number of times (first use of the Preterite learned in this lesson). Fill the gaps using verb forms in Preterite Tense. Then check the solutions right after the exercise.

A clue: all the verbs in this exercise are completely regular:

1. Ayer _______ (comprar, yo) una revista de informática.
2. Marta _______ (ganar) el partido de bádminton.
3. La semana pasada ________ (salir, tú) el viernes y el sábado.
4. El mes pasado ________ (bailar, nosotros) salsa cuatro veces.
5. El año pasado, Antonio y Luis ________ (correr) en tres campeonatos de atletismo.

Solutions: 1 = compré, 2 = ganó, 3 = saliste, 4 = bailamos, 5 = corrieron

Exercise 2

The following sentences are about past actions whose duration is stated (second use of the Preterite learned in this lesson). Fill the gaps using verb forms Preterite Tense. Then check the solutions right after the exercise.

A clue: all the verbs in this exercise are what we have called “almost-regular”:

1. Anoche, Ángela _______ (dormir) solo cuatro horas.
2. Yo _______ (dormir) ocho horas.
3. Los alumnos _______ (leer) toda la tarde.
4. El paciente _______ (sentir) mucho dolor durante varias horas.

Solutions: 1 = durmió, 2 = dormí, 3 = leyeron, 4 = sintió

Exercise 3

The following sentences are about past actions expressing beginnings and ends (third use of the Preterite learned in this lesson). Fill the gaps using verb forms in Preterite Tense. Then check the solutions right after the exercise.

1. Ayer, yo _______ (empezar) a trabajar a las nueve.
2. Lidia _______ (terminar) de trabajar a las cinco.
3. Las fiestas _______ (comenzar) el viernes.
4. Vosotros _______ (acabar) vuestras tareas por la noche.

Solutions: 1 = empecé, 2 = terminó, 3 = comenzaron, 4 = acabasteis

Exercise 4

Each one of the following sentences expresses a chain of actions or events, one after another (fourth use of the Preterite learned in this lesson). Fill the gaps using verb forms in Preterite Tense. Then check the solutions right after the exercise.

A clue: some of the verbs are very irregular:

Anteayer, mis amigos y yo _______ 1.(comer) en un restaurante italiano. Luego _______ 2.(ir, nosotros) al cine y _______ 3.(ver) una película de acción.

Ana _______ 4.(llegar) al hotel y _______ 5.(poner) su maleta junto a la cama. A continuación _______ 6.(llamar) a su novio y le _______ 7.(decir) que el hotel era muy bonito.

Mi hermano _______ 8.(venir) a mi casa. Él y yo _______ 9.(jugar) un rato a la consola, y luego _______ 10.(hacer, nosotros) una comida muy rica.

Solutions: 1 = comimos, 2 = fuimos, 3 = vimos, 4 = llegó, 5 = puso, 6 = llamó, 7 = dijo, 8 = vino, 9 = jugamos, 10 = hicimos