Spanish Preterite Tense – Conjugation and Uses

Spanish Preterite Tense, Title of the Lesson

Welcome to our grammar lesson about the Spanish Preterite Tense.

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

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

Then we will study the types of sentences where we use the Preterite, providing examples. We will also compare and contrast it with other past tenses, such as the Imperfect.

At the end you’ll find a Quiz and some Exercises for practice.

1. Conjugation of verbs in Preterite Tense

For the purpose of this lesson, we will distinguish two 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
yohablébebípartí
hablastebebistepartiste
élhablóbebpart
nosotroshablamosbebimospartimos
vosotroshablasteisbebisteispartisteis
elloshablaronbebieronpartieron


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

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

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

Examples:

 pedirrepetirsentir
yopedírepetísentí
pedisterepetistesentiste
élpidrepitsint
nosotrospedimosrepetimossentimos
vosotrospedisteisrepetisteissentisteis
ellospidieronrepitieronsintieron


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

Examples:

 dormirmorir
yodormímorí
dormistemoriste
éldurmmur
nosotrosdormimosmorimos
vosotrosdormisteismoristeis
ellosdurmieronmurieron


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

Examples:

 creercaerleer
yocreícaíleí
creístecaísteleíste
élcrecale
nosotroscreímoscaímosleímos
vosotroscreísteiscaísteisleísteis
elloscreyeroncayeronleyeron

Accent marks on Regular and Almost-Regular verbs

All regular and almost-regular verbs present accent marks on the “yo” and “él” forms.

And there is one type in particular (the last one we have studied, where a letter “y” appears) which has accent marks on even more persons.

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 “Ver”, “Dar”, “Ser” and “Ir”, which have very particular conjugations in Preterite.

Then we will see the rest of 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. Yes, “to be” and “to go” are identical in Preterite:

 ser / ir
yofui
fuiste
élfue
nosotrosfuimos
vosotrosfuisteis
ellosfueron


Rest of Very Irregular Verbs

We can treat the rest of Very Irregular Verbs as a group, because all of them conjugate in the same way:

Each one of them presents a new, irregular stem in Preterite.
We attach the endings to that stem. These endings are different from the regular ones.

In the following chart, we see the most frequent of this verbs. In the middle column, their irregular stem in Preterite. On the right side, the endings we must use for them:

VerbNew StemSet of Irregular Endings
andaranduv--e
-iste
-o
-imos
-isteis
-ieron / *-eron
estarestuv-
hacerhic-
poderpud-
ponerpus-
quererquis-
sabersup-
tenertuv-
venirvin-
decirdij-*
producirproduj-*
conducirconduj-*
traertraj-*

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


Now that we know the system, here are all those verbs fully conjugated in Preterite:

New StemFull conjugation
andaranduv-anduve, anduviste, anduvo, anduvimos, anduvisteis, anduvieron
estarestuv-estuve, estuviste, estuvo, estuvimos, estuvisteis, estuvieron
hacerhic-hice, hiciste, hizo, hicimos, hicisteis, hicieron
CAREFUL! 3rd person is "hizo", not "hico"
poderpud-pude, pudiste, pudo, pudimos, pudisteis, pudieron
ponerpus-puse, pusiste, puso, pusimos, pusisteis, pusieron
quererquis-quise, quisiste, quiso, quisimos, quisisteis, quisieron
sabersup-supe, supiste, supo, supimos, supisteis, supieron
tenertuv-tuve, tuviste, tuvo, tuvimos, tuvisteis, tuvieron
venirvin-vine, viniste, vino, vinimos, vinisteis, vinieron
decirdij-dije, dijiste, dijo, dijimos, dijisteis, dijeron
producirproduj-produje, produjiste, produjo, produjimos, produjisteis, produjeron
conducirconduj-conduje, condujiste, condujo, condujimos, condujisteis, condujeron
traertraj-traje, trajiste, trajo, trajimos, trajisteis, trajeron

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

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

It doesn’t matter how long the 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 talking about the past, 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 Preterite

The following are some keywords and expressions that work well in sentences in Preterite tense:

  • 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

Here are a couple more sentences including some keywords:

El otro día pintaste un cuadro bonito.
The other day you painted a beautiful painting.

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

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

4. The Spanish Preterite Vs. Other Past Tenses

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

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 (“what happened”), and the Imperfect for background information (“what was going on”). We have a whole lesson about their differences, read it here: Spanish Preterite Vs Imperfect.

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 (“what happened”), 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 in the 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

Take this Quiz about the Spanish Preterite Tense!:

Exercise 1

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

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

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 (the second use of the Preterite explained in this lesson). Fill the gaps using verb forms Preterite Tense. Then check the solutions below.

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

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 explained in this lesson). Fill the gaps using verb forms in Preterite Tense. Then check the solutions below:

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

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