The Spanish Preterite Tense of the Indicative Mood (“Pretérito Indefinido” or “Pretérito Perfecto Simple”) is a verb tense used to talk about past actions in Spanish.
The Preterite is the most used of the several past tenses that exist in Spanish. So even if it presents some challenges, your effort will be rewarded in the end with this very useful tense 🙂
In this post we will learn how to conjugate and use verbs in Spanish Preterite Tense, and also how to use it, providing example sentences for each use. We will also and also compare and contrast the Preterite with other Spanish past tenses.
We will go through the following points:
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:
- 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
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:
|yo||habl é||beb í||part í|
|tú||habl aste||beb iste||part iste|
|él||habl ó||beb ió||part ió|
|nosotros||habl amos||beb imos||part imos|
|vosotros||habl asteis||beb isteis||part isteis|
|ellos||habl aron||beb ieron||part ieron|
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:
Note: About accent marks on Regular and Almost-Regular verbs
All verbs that are regular or almost-regular present accent marks on at least the first and third person singular (“yo” and “él”) forms. Have you noticed that in the tables above? 🙂
1.2 – Very Irregular Verbs
Now let’s see them in detail. We will first learn the verbs “Ver”, “Dar”, “Ser” and “Ir”, which have very particular conjugations in Preterite. Then we will see other Very Irregular Verbs, treating them all as a group:
“Ver” presents the normal endings of a regular verb. What makes it irregular is just that it has no accent marks:
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).
The verbs “Ser” and “Ir” have exactly the same conjugation in Preterite Tense:
|Ser / Ir|
Rest of Very Irregular Verbs
The rest of Very Irregular Verbs are all conjugated in common way. They all present a new stem in Preterite tense that must be learned. Then, we need to attach the proper suffix to that stem depending on the person. These suffixes are different from the regular ones, and they are found at the right side of the following table:
|Verb||New Stem||List 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 pattern we just described:
|New Stem||Full conjugation|
|Poner||pus-||puse, pusiste, puso, pusimos, pusisteis, pusieron|
|Decir||dij-||dije, dijiste, dijo, dijimos, dijisteis, dijeron|
Note: No accent marks on Very Irregular verbs
Verbs that are Very Irregular in Preterite don’t present any accent mark, for any person. Have you noticed that in the tables above? 🙂
2. Uses of the Spanish 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 fits are:
Past actions which happened once or a stated number of times (no matter how long they took)
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.
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.
A sequence of past actions, one after another:
This is perhaps the clearest case for the Preterite: narrating a series of actions, one after another: “This happened, then that happened, etc.” It doesn’t matter how long each individual action takes.
We can illustrate the idea with the graph above. Look at it and then read the following sentences, which follow the pattern: they are sequences of 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.
3. Keywords to use with the Preterite
Here are examples of keywords and expressions that work well as time frames for actions in Preterite. They can help you when writing a text or telling a story:
- 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 example sentences we have seen in this lesson include some of the keywords. Try to find them! 🙂
4. The Spanish Preterite Vs. Other Past Tenses
As you probably know, the Preterite is not the only tense used in Spanish to talk about the past. The contrast between the Preterite and other past tenses is one of the big challenges for Spanish learners.
Spanish Preterite Vs. Imperfect
The Imperfect is another past tense, used for descriptions and ongoing situations in the past.
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 a tense similar to the Preterite in its uses, but with one difference regarding the time frame:
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)
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 we have learned in this lesson: “ayer”, “la semana pasada”…
Ayer comí pasta.
Yesterday I ate pasta. (Preterite)
5. Practice: A Quiz
Take this short Quiz to test your knowledge about the Spanish Preterite Tense:
6. Practice: An Exercise
In the following conversation, fill the gaps in your mind or on a piece of paper, and check the solutions at the end of this post:
– Antonio, ¿Qué ______ 1.(hacer, tú) ayer?
– Pues mira… por la mañana _______ 2.(quedar, yo) con Miguel para jugar al tenis. _______ 3.(jugar, nosotros) dos partidos. Yo _______ 4.(ganar) el primero y Miguel _______ 5.(ganar) el segundo.
Después del tenis, los dos _______ 6.(ir) a la Plaza Mayor y _______ 7.(comer) unas hamburguesas. En mitad de la comida, _______ 8.(llegar) Ana y Laura.
A las seis de la tarde, todos _______ 9.(ir, nosotros) al cine y _______ 10.(ver, nosotros) una película de acción.
Y vosotros, ¿qué _______ 11.(hacer) ayer?
Solutions to the Exercise: 1 = hiciste, 2 = quedé, 3 = jugamos, 4 = gané, 5 = ganó, 6 = fuimos, 7 = comimos, 8 = llegaron, 9 = fuimos, 10 = vimos, 11 = hicisteis