Spanish Preterite Tense – Learn and Practice

Welcome to our grammar lesson about the Spanish Preterite Tense (“Pretérito Indefinido” or “Pretérito Perfecto Simple”).

We use the Preterite to talk about completed actions in the past.

A couple of sentences in Spanish Preterite Tense
A couple of sentences in Preterite Tense

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to conjugate verbs in Preterite Tense and use them in sentences.

At the end you’ll find a Quiz and Exercises for practice. Let’s do it!

Conjugation of verbs in Preterite Tense

For the purpose of this lesson, we will divide verbs into two grupos:

  • On one hand, regular and almost-regular verbs
  • On the other hand, very irregular verbs

Regular and almost-regular verbs

Regular verbs

If a verb is regular in Preterite, we conjugate it by attaching to its stem the endings shown in the following table:

 hablar

to speak

beber

to drink

partir

to depart

yohablébebípartí
hablastebebistepartiste
élhablóbebpart
nosotroshablamosbebimospartimos
vosotroshablasteisbebisteispartisteis
elloshablaronbebieronpartieron

Notice that the endings for verbs in “-er” and “-ir” are identical.


Almost-regular verbs

The verbs we are calling “almost-regular” attach the same endings as regular verbs.

But they have one of the following irregularities:

  • In some verbs, a vowel “e” becomes “i” for “él” and “ellos”

Examples:

 pedir

to ask for

repetir

to repeat

sentir

to feel

yopedírepetísentí
pedisterepetistesentiste
élpidrepitsint
nosotrospedimosrepetimossentimos
vosotrospedisteisrepetisteissentisteis
ellospidieronrepitieronsintieron


  • In other verbs, a vowel “o” becomes “u” for “él” and “ellos”

Examples:

 dormir

to sleep

morir

to die

yodormímorí
dormistemoriste
éldurmmur
nosotrosdormimosmorimos
vosotrosdormisteismoristeis
ellosdurmieronmurieron


  • In other verbs, a letter “y” replaces the “i” in the ending for “él” and “ellos”. Also, all persons except “ellos” have accent marks

Examples:

 creer

to believe

caer

to fall

leer

to read

yocreícaíleí
creístecaísteleíste
élcrecale
nosotroscreímoscaímosleímos
vosotroscreísteiscaísteisleísteis
elloscreyeroncayeronleyeron


Accent marks on regular and almost-regular verbs

All regular and almost-regular verbs have accent marks for “yo” and “él”.

Have you noticed that in the tables above? 🙂

*Also, verbs of the last type we have studied (where a letter “y” appears) have even more accents!



Very irregular verbs

Now let’s study some verbs we are calling “very irregular”:

  • “ver” has the regular endings. What makes it irregular is having no accent marks:
 ver

to see

yovi
viste
élvio
nosotrosvimos
vosotrosvisteis
ellosvieron


  • “dar” attaches the regular endings for verbs in “-er” and “-ir”. Also, no accent marks:
 dar

to give

yodi
diste
éldio
nosotrosdimos
vosotrosdisteis
ellosdieron


  • “ser” (to be) and “ir” (to go) are identical in Preterite Tense:
 ser / ir

to be / to go

yofui
fuiste
élfue
nosotrosfuimos
vosotrosfuisteis
ellosfueron


Rest of very irregular verbs

The rest of very irregular verbs conjugate in the following way:

Each verb has an irregular stem in Preterite.
Also, the endings are different from the regular ones.

The following table shows the most important verbs of this type.

In the middle column, we see the irregular stem we need to use in Preterite.

In the right column, the endings for each person:

VerbIrregular StemSet of Irregular Endings
andar

to walk

anduv--e (yo)
-iste (tú)
-o (él)
-imos (nosotros)
-isteis (vosotros)
-ieron / *-eron (ellos)
estar

to be

estuv-
hacer

to do

hic-
poder

can

pud-
poner

to put

pus-
querer

to want

quis-
saber

to know

sup-
tener

to have

tuv-
venir

to come

vin-
decir

to say

dij-*
producir

to produce

produj-*
conducir

to drive

conduj-*
traer

to bring

traj-*

*Notice the asterisks!: for verbs whose irregular stem ends in “j”, the ending for “ellos” is “-eron”.


Now that we understand the process, here are the verbs above, fully conjugated in Preterite:

Irregular StemFull conjugation
andar

to walk

anduv-anduve, anduviste, anduvo, anduvimos, anduvisteis, anduvieron
estar

to be

estuv-estuve, estuviste, estuvo, estuvimos, estuvisteis, estuvieron
hacer

to do

hic-hice, hiciste, hizo, hicimos, hicisteis, hicieron
CAREFUL! 3rd person is "hizo", not "hico"
poder

can

pud-pude, pudiste, pudo, pudimos, pudisteis, pudieron
poner

to put

pus-puse, pusiste, puso, pusimos, pusisteis, pusieron
querer

to want

quis-quise, quisiste, quiso, quisimos, quisisteis, quisieron
saber

to know

sup-supe, supiste, supo, supimos, supisteis, supieron
tener

to have

tuv-tuve, tuviste, tuvo, tuvimos, tuvisteis, tuvieron
venir

to come

vin-vine, viniste, vino, vinimos, vinisteis, vinieron
decir

to say

dij-dije, dijiste, dijo, dijimos, dijisteis, dijeron
producir

to produce

produj-produje, produjiste, produjo, produjimos, produjisteis, produjeron
conducir

to drive

conduj-conduje, condujiste, condujo, condujimos, condujisteis, condujeron
traer

to bring

traj-traje, trajiste, trajo, trajimos, trajisteis, trajeron


No accent marks on very irregular verbs

Very Irregular verbs don’t have accent marks, at all.

Have you noticed that in the tables above? 🙂

Uses of the Preterite

We use the Preterite to talk about completed actions in the past.

It answers the question: “What happened?”

To be more specific, the typical cases where we use the Preterite are:

Past actions that happened once or a stated number of times

It doesn’t matter how long the action took.

What matters is that we express it as a completed action that happened once or a stated number of times:

Juan compró una lavadora ayer.
Juan bought a washing machine yesterday.

Yo estudié Biología en la Universidad de Madrid.
I studied Biology at the University of Madrid.

Ana y María fueron al cine cuatro veces el mes pasado.
Ana and María went to the movies four times last month.

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


Past actions with a stated duration

Yo 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 throughout their childhood.


Beginnings and endings in the past

Verbs that express beginnings or endings, such as:

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

… when we talk about the past, we tend to conjugate these verbs in Preterite tense:

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

Las personas comenzaron a hablar.
People started talking.

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 in the past, one after another

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

It can be illustrated with the following graphic. Look at it and then read the examples below: each example is a chain of events, one after another.

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

Ayer, Laura se levantó a las siete de la mañana. Luego se duchó, desayunó, se vistió y fue a hacer la compra.
Yesterday, Laura got up at seven in the morning. Then she showered, had breakfast, got dressed, and went 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.

Keywords with the Preterite

The following keywords tend to work well in sentences with the 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 X días = X days ago
  • hace X semanas = X weeks ago
  • hace X meses = X months ago
  • hace X años = X years ago
  • hace mucho tiempo = a long time ago

Examples:

pintaste un cuadro bonito el otro día.
You painted a beautiful painting the other day.

El año pasado aprendimos italiano.
Last year we learned Italian.

Ellos fueron a Argentina hace seis meses.
They went to Argentina six months ago.

Preterite vs Imperfect

The Preterite is not the only tense we use to talk about the past.

For example, another important tense is the Imperfect.

In general, we use the Preterite for main actions (“what happened”), and the Imperfect for background information (“what was going on at the time”).

We have a whole lesson on how to choose between Preterite and Imperfect, including extensive practice: Spanish Preterite vs. Imperfect

Practice

Quiz

Take this Quiz about the Preterite Tense:


Exercise 1

In this exercise we practice the 1st use of the Preterite: past actions that happened once or a stated number of times.

Fill the gaps conjugating the verbs in brackets in Preterite Tense.

(all verbs in this exercise are completely regular)

1) Yo ___ (comprar) una revista ayer.
I bought a magazine yesterday.

2) Marta ___ (ganar) el partido de bádminton.
Marta won the badminton match.

3) La semana pasada, tú ___ (salir) el viernes y el sábado.
Last week, you went out on Friday and Saturday.

4) Nosotros ___ (bailar) salsa cuatro veces el mes pasado.
We danced salsa four times last month.

5) El año pasado, ellos ___ (correr) en tres campeonatos de atletismo.
Last year, they ran in three track and field championships.

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

Exercise 2

In this exercise we practice the 2nd use of the Preterite: past actions with a stated duration.

(all verbs in this exercise are what we have called “almost-regular”)

1) Anoche, Ángela ___ (dormir) solo cuatro horas.
Last night, Angela slept only four hours.

2) Yo ___ (dormir) ocho horas.
I slept eight hours.

3) Los alumnos ___ (leer) toda la tarde.
The students read all afternoon.

4) El paciente ___ (sentir) dolor durante varias horas.
The patient felt pain for several hours.

Solutions:
1) durmió
2) dormí
3) leyeron
4) sintió

Exercise 3

In this exercise we practice the 3rd use of the Preterite: past actions expressing beginnings and endings:

1) Ayer, yo ___ (empezar) a trabajar a las nueve.
Yesterday, I started work at nine.

2) Lidia ___ (terminar) de trabajar a las cinco.
Lidia finished work at five.

3) Los festejos ___ (comenzar) el viernes.
The festivities began on Friday.

4) Vosotros ___ (acabar) las tareas por la noche.
You guys finished your homework at night.

Solutions:
1) empecé
2) terminó
3) comenzaron
4) acabasteis

Exercise 4

Let’s practice the 4th use of the Preterite: a chain of events, one after another:

Anteayer, mis amigos y yo ___ 1.(comer) en un restaurante italiano. Luego ___ 2.(ir) al cine y ___ 3.(ver) una película de acción.
The day before yesterday, my friends and I ate at an Italian restaurant. Then we went to the movies and watched an action film.

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.
Ana arrived at the hotel and put her suitcase by the bed. Then she called her boyfriend and told him that the hotel was very nice.

Mi hermano ___ 8.(venir) a mi casa. Él y yo ___ 9.(jugar) un rato a la consola, y luego ___ 10.(hacer) una comida muy rica.
My brother came to my house. He and I played the game console for a while, and then we made a really tasty meal.

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

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