Spanish Preterite: When and how to use this past tense
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The Spanish preterite tense is likely to be your first exploration into past tense Spanish. Preterite Spanish is used to describe past actions that were already completed, with a clear beginning or ending.
In Spanish, this simple past tense is usually called el préterito indefinido, while it’s also sometimes known as el pasado simple. In English, this tense is often referred to as the Spanish simple past tense, but since the Spanish imperfect is also a simple tense, we generally refer to this tense by its direct translation: the Spanish preterite tense.
There are five common ways to talk about the past in Spanish, which we introduce individually in our post on past tense Spanish.
In this post we’ll focus specifically on preterite tense Spanish. We’ll start by explaining when to use preterite in Spanish, followed by a section where we compare préterito vs imperfecto.
Then we’ll dive into preterite conjugation. We’ll see the various preterite endings for the three groups of regular verbs, and then we’ll spend some time looking at irregular preterite forms. As we do with all of our posts, we’ll demonstrate everything with plenty of examples. We’ll finish up with a set of exercises where you can practice your preterite conjugations.
Now let’s get started to learn everything we need to know about this Spanish past tense!
When to use the Spanish preterite tense
Before we explore the Spanish preterite conjugation, we need to clarify exactly when and where you can use this Spanish past tense.
As we already mentioned, this tense is used to talk about a past action that had a clear beginning or ending. Let’s see these contexts in more detail.
Completed event or action
The preterite allows us to describe a completed action, process, or series of events.
- Comimos pizza ayer. – We ate pizza yesterday.
- Yo estudié piano por cinco años. – I studied piano for five years.
- Yo le regalé ese libro a Claudia. – I gave Claudia that book.
An action that took place at a specific time or date
We use the preterite to describe an action that took place at a specific point in the past (like a date, a day, or a time).
- Eso pasó antes de que llegáramos. – That happened before we arrived.
- Ana trabajó esa noche. – Ana worked that night.
- En 1901, Theodore Roosevelt se convirtió en Presidente de los Estados Unidos. – In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States.
The start or end of a completed action
The Spanish preterite helps us to describe an action that has a clear beginning or ending. This use is frequently applied with verbs like empezar (to start) or terminar (to finish).
- Comencé a escuchar su discografía hoy. – I started to listen to his discography today.
- Finalmente terminé de leer el libro que comencé hace tres meses. – I finally finished reading the book that I started three months ago.
Actions in a sequence
When we mention several past actions that happened in succession, regardless of how long each one may have taken, each action had to start and finish for the next one to take place. Therefore, we use the Spanish preterite when listing a sequence of past actions.
- Luego de hablar con él, sus amigos fueron a su casa a saludar, dejaron algo de comida para él y se fueron. – After talking with him, his friends went to his house to say hello, left some food for him, and then left.
How to stop confusing preterite vs imperfect
A common problem for many Spanish students is knowing which past tense to use: preterite vs imperfect. Let’s just do a quick review of the general situations for when to use preterite in Spanish vs when to use imperfect.
- Past completed actions
- An event that interrupts another action
- Series of completed events
- Ongoing actions
- Habitual past actions
- Descriptions or background information that sets the scene for a second action
- Telling time or age in the past
We’ll wrap up this section with a couple of Spanish preterite examples, contrasted with imperfect examples, to demonstrate these contexts. Check out our detailed anti-confusion guide for a more in-depth explanation on when to use preterite vs imperfect.
- Preterite: Me comí 2 platos de cereal antes de salir. – I ate 2 bowls of cereal before going out.
- Imperfect: Comía mientras esperaba a que llegaran. – I was eating while I waited for them to arrive.
- Preterite: Me despedí, cerré la puerta y me fui a mi trabajo. – I said goodbye, closed the door, and left for work.
- Imperfect: Me despedía cuando empezó a llover. – I was saying goodbye when it started to rain.
Spanish preterite tense conjugations
Now that we’ve seen when and where the Spanish preterite is used, it’s time to learn how to conjugate this Spanish past tense.
While this section may look long, the good news for Spanish learners is that, aside from a few highly-irregular verbs that need to be learned on their own, most preterite Spanish conjugations can be grouped into just three sets of endings. One set of preterite endings applies to regular -ar verbs, another applies to regular -er and -ir verbs, and the third set applies to most verbs with irregular preterite stems.
We’ll start with the two sets of regular preterite endings, and then we’ll learn the third set of preterite forms along with the irregular stems for 15 common verbs. We’ll end with the full preterite conjugation charts for five highly-irregular verbs: ir, ser, ver, dar, and hacer.
Now let’s dive in to our full lesson on Spanish preterite tense conjugations!
Spanish Preterite Endings: Regular Verbs
When dealing with regular verbs, there are only two sets of Spanish preterite endings that need to be learned: endings for -ar verbs, and endings for -er and -ir verbs. Let’s start with each set of preterite endings for regular verbs.
|Subject||Preterite endings: ‑ar verbs||Preterite endings: ‑er and ‑ir verbs|
|él, ella, usted||-ó||-ió|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes||-aron||-ieron|
Now let’s see each of these preterite endings applied to typical regular verbs. We’ll use trabajar (to work), entender (to understand), and vivir (to live) to demonstrate our regular preterite conjugations:
|él, ella, usted||trabajó||entendió||vivió|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes||trabajaron||entendieron||vivieron|
Did you notice that the first person plural (nosotros) endings in the Spanish preterite tense and the simple present tense are exactly the same for regular -ar and -ir verbs? That’s right! Let’s compare both tenses with their nosotros conjugations:
- Simple present tense: Nosotros trabajamos en la oficina. – We work at the office.
- Preterite past tense: Nosotros trabajamos en la oficina esta mañana. – We worked at the office this morning.
- Simple present tense: Nosotros escribimos una carta. – We write a letter.
- Preterite past tense: Nosotros escribimos una carta el otro día. – We wrote a letter the other day.
Normally, native speakers can differentiate both tenses depending the context of the sentence. Often, adverbs of time are included as helpful hints that we’re speaking about the past, such as ayer (yesterday) or anoche (last night).
Spanish preterite endings: Irregular verbs
Throughout Spanish grammar, there are some irregular verbs that must be conjugated differently. The Spanish preterite tense is no different. Fortunately, we have one main set of preterite endings that apply to a majority of irregular verbs: the only thing that needs to be memorized is the irregular stem.
That being said, there are several subsets of irregular preterite conjugations that follow slightly different rules. In the next section we’ll cover five of the most-important Spanish verbs that exhibit highly-irregular preterite conjugations, while for the others we’ll point you to our dedicated post that looks specifically at the different groups of irregular preterite verbs.
Here’s our set of Spanish preterite tense endings for the majority of irregular verbs:
|Subject||Preterite endings: irregular verbs|
|él, ella, usted||-o|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes||-ieron|
Since we need the stem in order to apply these irregular Spanish preterite conjugations, let’s review 15 of the most common irregular verbs to see their stems.
Since these are such important verbs, we have specific posts that examine many of them in detail. Where we’ve included links, click through to go deep on these Spanish verbs! At the end of this chart of irregular preterite verbs, we’ll provide example preterite sentences in Spanish with each one.
|Verb, Spanish||Irregular stem||English|
|andar||anduv-||to walk, to go about|
|descomponer||descompus-||to break down|
|detener||detuv-||to stop, to detain|
|poder||pud-||to be able to|
|querer||quis-||to want to|
Now, for all of the irregular verb stems we’ve seen here, presented in the same order as above, let’s see some preterite examples in Spanish. Notice that regardless of the stem, they all just take the same preterite endings (in bold) that we saw in the conjugation chart.
- Anduve muy ocupado toda la tarde. – I was running around very busily the entire afternoon.
- Estuve en mi casa hasta la tarde. – I was at home until the afternoon.
- Él compuso la música para esta película. – He composed the music for this movie.
- No contuve mi entusiasmo cuando lo ví. – I didn’t contain my enthusiasm when I saw him.
- El televisor se descompuso ayer. – The television set broke yesterday.
- Por suerte, se detuvieron antes de chocar. – Luckily, they stopped before crashing.
- Me dispuse a terminar esto temprano. – I decided to finish this early.
- Pude salir de la casa pero había mucho tráfico. – I was able to leave home but there was a lot of traffic.
- Puso mucha confianza en ti. – He placed a lot of trust in you.
- Propuse algunas idea pero no sé si las tomen en cuenta. – I proposed a few ideas but I don’t know if they’ll be taken into consideration.
- Quise traer varios juegos pero solo encontré este. – I wanted to bring a few games but I only found this one.
- Tuve un sueño muy raro. – I had a really weird dream.
- Él supo cómo organizar todo. – He knew how to organize everything.
- Ellos previnieron el accidente. – They prevented the accident.
- Viniste desde muy lejos. – You came from far away.
Highly-irregular preterite conjugations
So far, we’ve seen the three sets of preterite tense endings that apply to most verbs, whether regular or irregular. Even most other irregular preterite verbs just exhibit slight variations of what we’ve just seen.
Fortunately for Spanish learners, there aren’t many highly-irregular verbs that need to be learned individually. We’ll introduce the following ones here: ser (to be), ir (to go), dar (to vie), ver (to see), and hacer (to do).
Ser and ir are identical, dar and ver are similar, and hacer has a stem change. Let’s see each of these three groupings here.
Ser and Ir preterite conjugations
First, take a look at this preterite conjugation chart for ser (to be) and ir (to go):
|él, ella, usted||fue||fue|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes||fueron||fueron|
Did you notice that the ir and ser preterite conjugations are exactly the same? That’s right! So how do we differentiate them? It’s all about context.
- Ir is used to talk about going or leaving.
- Ser is used to give descriptions that are rarely subject to change.
So how does this work when you have to rely on understanding context alone? Native speakers intuitively know which verb is being used. Even when the context is known, however, Spanish students still often find it confusing to know which verb is being used, since the conjugations for ir and ser look exactly the same.
A reasonably easy and effective trick to tell these verbs apart is to remember is that the verb ir is used when something moves to somewhere else, so it is usually followed by a preposition such as a, or alternatively para.
By comparison, the verb ser is typically followed by a description.
- Fueron a todos los conciertos en el tour. Necesitaron bastante dinero para eso. – They went to every concert on the tour. They needed a lot of money for that
- Mis amigos y yo fuimos bomberos por muchos años. – My friends and I were firefighters for many years.
- Fui a ver a mi vecino. – I went to see my neighbor.
- Fui su vecino por muchos años. – I was his neighbor for many years.
Ver and Dar preterite conjugations
These two short verbs both follow the same preterite form. Notice that although these conjugations resemble endings for regular -er and -ir verbs, the first- and third-person singular preterite conjugations do not have accents.
|él, ella, usted||vio||dio|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes||vieron||dieron|
Hacer preterite conjugation
Hacer is one of the most common Spanish verbs. It has an irregular form in the first-person singular conjugation of the simple present tense (yo hago), and an irregular preterite form in the third-person singular (hizo). The rest of the hacer preterite endings use the stem hic-, followed by the endings we saw for other irregular verbs in the last section. We cover this verb in full detail in our post on hacer conjugation.
|él, ella, usted||hizo|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes||hicieron|
Conclusion: Preterite tense Spanish
Today’s post covered everything you need to know about the Spanish simple past tense known as the preterite. We started off by asking what is the preterite tense in Spanish: el préterito indefinido or el pasado simple.
The next section looked at when do you use preterite in Spanish. For the most part, we saw that the Spanish preterite tense is used when describing past actions that have been completed, including when listing a series of past actions.
Then we got into the preterite conjugations Spanish uses for regular and irregular verbs. We saw that regular verbs have just two sets of preterite Spanish endings, while most irregular verbs have a third set of preterite endings. We saw the preterite stems for some of the most important irregular preterite verbs, and then we took a closer look at five highly-irregular preterite tense conjugations: ir, ser, ver, dar, and hacer.
We also included a quick review of the two simple Spanish past tenses: preterite vs imperfect, noting that the imperfect is generally used for unfinished or ongoing actions. In that section, as well as throughout the post, we provided links to some of our other detailed posts covering specific lessons that we referenced here.
Through all this, you should now have a good grasp of the Spanish preterite tense: how to recognize it, when to use it, and how to apply each preterite conjugation. We encourage you to practice this Spanish past tense whenever you’re speaking, and to notice it whenever you read spanish text. For now, we’ll leave you with a set of exercises to put your new preterite conjugation knowledge into practice!
Spanish preterite practice exercises
A lot of today’s post on preterite tense Spanish focused on conjugation. Now it’s time to practice using the Spanish preterite tense by applying the correct conjugations in each of these sentences.
We provide the verb for each of the preterite examples in Spanish, and we’re helping you out by including the stem for all of the irregular preterite verbs. If we don’t mention the stem, then the verb has a regular preterite form. The answers and translations are below.
1. Yo le _____ ese libro a Claudia. (prestar)
2. Nosotros _____ al restaurante. (ir: highly irregular)
3. Tú le _____ un regalo a mi madre en su cumpleaños. (dar: highly irregular)
4. Ayer _____ en la piscina con unos amigos. (estar: estuv-)
5. No _____ muy amigas en la universidad. (ser: highly irregular)
6. No _____ nada de lo que pasaba. (entender)
7. Ella _____ toda la tarde sobre eso. (hablar)
8. No _____ lo que debía. (pagar)
9. De pequeño no _____ perro, pero sí _____ otras mascotas. (tener: tuv-; tener: tuv-)
10. Ellos _____ por mucho tiempo. (viajar)
11. Yo _____ que tenía que irme de inmediato. (sentir)
12. Eso, nosotros lo _____ entre los dos. (hacer: highly irregular)
13. Yo _____ temprano, disculpa. (salir)
14. Ustedes _____ por la ventana justo a tiempo. (mirar)
15. Open-ended question for more preterite practice: ¿Qué hiciste la semana pasada?
Preterite conjugation practice: Answers
1. Yo le presté ese libro a Claudia. – I lent that book to Claudia.
2. Nosotros fuimos al restaurante. – We went to the restaurant.
3. Tú le diste un regalo a mi madre en su cumpleaños. – You gave my mom a gift on her birthday.
4. Ayer estuviste en la piscina con unos amigos. – Yesterday you were at the pool with some friends.
5. No fuimos muy amigas en la universidad. – We were not good friends in college.
6. No entendí nada de lo que pasaba. – I did not understand what was happening.
7. Ella habló toda la tarde sobre eso. – She talked the entire afternoon about that.
8. No pagué lo que debía. – I didn’t pay what I had to.
9. De pequeño no tuve perro, pero sí tuve otras mascotas. – As a kid I didn’t have a dog, but I did have other pets.
10. Ellos viajaron por mucho tiempo. – They traveled for a long time.
11. Yo sentí que tenía que irme de inmediato. – I felt that I had to leave immediately.
12. Eso, nosotros lo hicimos entre los dos. – We did that, the two of us.
13. Yo salí temprano, disculpa. – I left early, sorry.
14. Ustedes miraron por la ventana justo a tiempo. – You looked out the window right on time.
15. What did you do last week? For completed actions, including those listed in sequence, be sure to use the Spanish preterite tense!