Everthing You Need to Know About Spanish Preterite Tense

Kirsten has been fascinated by foreign languages since childhood and has made it her mission to inspire others with her passion for Spanish. She has a master’s degree in Hispanic Studies from Boston College and has tutored and taught students of all ages.
Kirsten Agla
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If you are reading this article, you are likely competent in the present tense in Spanish and are looking to advance to the next level by learning to talk about the past. Or perhaps you simply want to be able to say a few things in Spanish using the past tense and have stumbled upon the preterite tense without really knowing what it is. Either way, welcome! 

Spanish Preterite Verbs
Unsplash Credit to Julian Hochgesang

The Spanish preterite tense is used to talk about completed past actions, and once learned will allow you to talk about when you went on that school trip a few years ago, a funny travel story about a guy who tried to take a monkey through security at the airport, or just what you did yesterday. 

Here you will learn everything about the Spanish preterite tense; how to conjugate regular verbs, which verbs are irregular, how to conjugate all of the irregular verbs, and when it is appropriate to use the preterite tense versus other tenses. Feel free to skip around and practice using the Lingodeer app!

Regular Verbs In Spanish Preterite Tense

Much like the present tense, to conjugate in the preterite simply remove the infinitive verb ending (-ar, -er, -ir) then attach the appropriate ending to the remaining root. Below are the regular preterite endings for each pronoun.

AR Spanish Preterite Verbs

Yo

Nosotros/as -amos

-aste

Vosotros/as

-asteis

Él/Ella/Usted Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes

-aron

Note the accent marks in the yo and él/ella/usted endings. It is important to use these accent marks because hablo means “I speak” while habló means “he/she/you formal speak.” 

Also, the nosotros form has the exact same ending as the present tense, so when you see a verb like cocinamos it could mean “we cook” or “we cooked.” Context will show whether it is referring to the past or the present!

Here are some examples of regular -ar preterite conjugations:

  • Tú + Hablar = Hablaste

¿Hablaste con tu marido ayer?

Did you speak to your husband yesterday?

  • Nosotros + Gastar = Gastamos

La semana pasada gastamos mucho dinero en la tienda.

Last week we spent a lot of money at the store.

  • Ella + Escuchar = Escuchó

Mi amiga escuchó música en el concerto.

My friend listened to music at the concert.

 

ER and IR Spanish Preterite Verbs

Yo

Nosotros/as -imos

-iste

Vosotros/as

-isteis

Él/Ella/Usted

-ió

Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes

-ieron

Since -er and -ir verbs have the same preterite endings there is less to study! However, a common mistake made by beginners is to make up a new -er ending and say comemos instead of comimos. Just remember that -er and -ir are the same and that all of these endings start with the letter I.

Here are some examples of regular -er and -ir preterite conjugations:

  • Nosotros + comer = comimos

Comimos pizza el lunes.

We ate pizza on Monday.

  • Ustedes + salir = salieron

¿Salieron ustedes el fin de semana?

Did you all go out on the weekend?

  • Yo + escribir = escribí

Escribí en mi cuaderno esta mañana.

I wrote in my notebook this morning.

Irregular Verbs In Spanish Preterite Tense

It is important to note that just because a verb is irregular in the present does not mean that it is irregular in the preterite. There are quite a few irregulars, and many are commonly used verbs, but here they are broken down into easy-to-study groups so you can learn them a few at a time.

SER and IR

For some reason ser and ir are totally irregular and look exactly the same in the preterite tense. Fui could mean “I was” or “I went”! You will know which verb is being used through context, as fui al supermercado obviously means “I went to the supermarket” not “I was to the supermarket.” Below is the conjugation.

Yo

fui

Nosotros/as

fuimos

fuiste

Vosotros/as

fuisteis

Él/Ella/Usted

fue

Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes

fueron

CAR, -GAR, -ZAR Verbs

Verbs ending in -car, -gar, and -zar are irregular in the yo form only, otherwise, they follow the usual regular endings. If you know Spanish formal commands, then these irregulars will look familiar. The preterite yo form for these verbs is as follows:

  • Tocar → toqué
  • Cargar → cargué
  • Empezar → empecé

As you can see, -car becomes -qué, -gar becomes gué, -zar becomes . When said out loud these verbs sound like regular verbs, and the irregularity in spelling is there in order to preserve the sound.

Y Verbs

This category is called Y verbs because in the third person singular (él/ella/usted) and third person plural (ellos/ellas/ustedes) the letter “y” is in the verb ending. Additionally, there are accent marks in every conjugation except for ellos/ellas/ustedes. Only a handful of verbs, the most common being leer, creer, and oír, are in this group. It is easier to understand with a visual, so here is the full conjugation for leer.

  • Leer – to read

Yo

leí Nosotros/as leímos

leíste

Vosotros/as

leísteis

Él/Ella/Usted

leyó

Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes

leyeron

Stem Changers

If a verb is a stem changer in the present tense, this does not mean that it is a stem changer in the preterite. There are only a few verbs that have a stem change like in the present tense. The two most common are dormir and preferir, “to sleep” and “to prefer.”

Dormir has an o → u change in the third person only and uses the regular preterite endings. So the weird ones are él durmió and ellos durmieron.

Preferir follows these same rules but has an e → i change. Therefore the irregulars are él prefirió and ellos prefirieron.

VER and DAR

Ver – “to see” acts normally except there are no accents. So this one is easy! Dar – “to give” actually uses the regular -er/-ir preterite endings with no accents, therefore it looks just like ver.

Irregular Ending Verbs

These last few irregular verbs have their own set of preterite endings and have a stem change of sorts.

  1. The first step is to know what is the preterite stem for the verb.
  2. Next, attach the appropriate ending to the stem. 

A lot of these irregulars are common verbs used in daily conversation and are easy to learn with practice. Here is the list of verbs and their preterite stems:

  • Estar → estuv-
  • Andar → anduv-
  • Venir → vin-
  • Poder → pud-
  • Poner → pus-
  • Querer → quis-
  • Saber → sup-
  • Tener → tuv-
  • Hacer → hic-/hiz-(él/ella/usted only)
  • *Conducir → conduj-
  • *Decir → dij-
  • *Traer → traj-

This last starred group is slightly different because in the ellos/ellas/ustedes conjugation it uses -eron instead of -ieron.

Next, attach the appropriate ending to the stem. 

Yo

-e

Nosotros/as

-imos

-iste

Vosotros/as

-isteis

Él/Ella/Usted

-o

Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes

*-ieron

Now to see these verbs in action!

  • Tú + Poder = Pudiste

Pudiste hacer la tarea.

You were able to do the homework.

  • Nosotros + Estar = Estuvimos

No estuvimos en clase el miércoles.

We were not in class on Wednesday.

  • Ella + Tener = Tuvo

Ayer ella tuvo que lavar los platos.

Yesterday she had to wash the dishes.

  • Ustedes + Saber = Supieron

¿Ustedes supieron la noticia?

Did you all find out the news?

  • Ellos + Decir = *Dijeron

Me dijeron que no.

They told me no.

When to Use Spanish Preterite Tense

The preterite tense is not the only way to talk about the past in Spanish, much like how in English “I slept on the floor,” “I used to sleep on the floor,” “I have slept on the floor” etc are all referring to the past but have different meanings. The preterite is more akin to the first sentence “I slept on the floor” as it is a single completed action. On a timeline, the preterite is either a dot on the timeline or a specific range of time – we know when or for how long the action happened.

when to use Spanish perterite tense? timeline

 

A good way to remember the Spanish preterite tense’s uses is with the acronym SIMBA (the famous Lion King character) which stands for Single Action, Interruption, Main Event, Beginning Action, Arrival and Departure. This section will elaborate on these instances and give examples.

Single Action

A single action in the past is expressed with the preterite. If you are unsure whether or not something classifies as a single action, here are a few keywords that often accompany the preterite and indicate that an action occurred only once.

  • Yesterday – Ayer
  • Last night – Anoche
  • Last week – La semana pasada
  • Last year – El año pasado
  • One time – Una vez
  • One day – Un día
  • Last month – El mes pasado 
  • Last … – … pasado

Here are some examples of these words used with the preterite:

  • Yesterday I ate a salad.
    • Ayer comí una ensalada.
  • We went to Disneyland last year
    • Fuimos a Disneyland el año pasado.
  • One time I tried octopus!
    • ¡Una vez probé pulpo!

Another indicator of a single action is if a range of time is specified. For example, we know that the sentence “she wrote in her journal for four hours” is a single action. 

Remember, if you see something that shows habituality like “every day” or “all of the time” then this is NOT the preterite.

Interruption

  • I was riding the train, when suddenly the lights went out!
    • Estaba tomando el tren, ¡cuando de repente se fue la luz! 

This sentence demonstrates an interruption. It is a single action that disrupts the story and therefore is in the preterite tense. 

Main Event

Looking again at a story being told, the preterite is the perfect way to express the key plot points that occurred. All of the cliffnotes, sparknotes, whatever you call them, would be in the preterite since they talk about major events that happened. 

To summarize the main events of Cinderella, we would use the preterite and say:

  • Cinderella’s father died.
    • El padre de Cenicienta murió.
  • Her stepmother treated her poorly
    • Su madrastra le trató mal.
  • She met a fairy godmother and went to the ball.
    • Conoció a una hada madrina y fue al baile.
  • She lost her shoe, and was later discovered by the prince.. 
    • Perdió su zapato, y luego fue descubierta por el príncipe.

Any additional information such as describing her dress, talking about how she was feeling, and other embellishments would likely use a different past tense form given that they are not main events.

Beginning Action

The verbs empezar, comenzar, and others that mean “to begin” are almost always in the preterite because the beginning of something is a single action. In other words, the start of something is a single dot on a timeline.

  • I started college last year.
    • Empecé la universidad el año pasado.
  • Miguel began to yell at his coach.
    • Miguel comenzó a gritar a su entrenador.

Arrival and Departure

Llegar – “to arrive” and verbs like salir and irse that mean “to leave” are often in the preterite when referring to the past. This is because an arrival happens once – it is a single action that happens at a specific point in time.

  • The girls arrived at the house at seven o’clock.
    • Las chicas llegaron a la casa a las siete.
  • We left the hotel this morning.
    • Salimos del hotel esta mañana.

Verbs That Change Meaning In Spanish Preterite Tense

Due to the nature of the preterite, some verbs change meaning slightly when in this past tense form. For example, conocer usually means “to know” while in the preterite it means “to meet.” It makes sense when you think about it – if the preterite is a single completed action then meeting someone is basically knowing someone for the first time.

Another verb that does this is saber. What is knowing within the context of a single completed action? Saber in the preterite means “to find out” as in to know information for the first time. You only find out something once, much like a realization it happens in an instant and then it’s over. 

Here are the remaining verbs that change meaning in the preterite. As you will see, the affirmative and negative forms are different!

  • Querer – to try

Yo quise cerrar la puerta

I tried to close the door.

  • No querer – to refuse

No quisiste comer la fruta.

You refused to eat the fruit.

  • Poder – to manage to

Pudimos aprobar la clase difícil.

We managed to pass the difficult class.

  • No poder – to fail to (as in tried and failed)

Ayer no pude correr cinco millas, solo corrí cuatro.

Yesterday I failed to run five miles, I only ran four.

 

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