Preterite vs. Imperfect Tense (Which to Use & When)
To be honest, learning the differences between the two Spanish past tenses was ridiculously difficult for me, as I had lived my whole life speaking English, where verb tenses are not nearly as clearly defined. Today, I'll make it easier for you by explaining the differences that I learned as I was mastering Spanish verb tenses.
Here's a little help from our friend Jordan at Gringo Español
Spanish Preterite Tense
The preterite is used when referring to actions that were completed in the past. When you use the preterite, it also implies that the action had a definite beginning and a definite end. In English, you might say a sentence like Yesterday I cleaned the house for two hours—in this sentence, the timeframe is very specific. Translating this sentence into Spanish, you would use the preterite tense. Another example of the preterite might be I ate five strawberries.
Preterite -ar endings
For regular -ar verbs, to form the preterite you drop the -ar and replace it with the correct preterite ending. Here's an example with the verb caminar (to walk):
+ Preterite Ending
Preterite -er/ir endings
We do the same thing will verbs ending in -er and -ir. Here's an example with the verb comer (to eat):
+ Preterite Ending
Irregular Preterite Verbs
Of course, some verbs will have irregular conjugations in the preterite. Some of the most common of these include: ser, ir, dar, hacer, estar, poner, tener, haber, querer, venir, andar, poder, and saber. You will need to memorize the six preterite forms for each of these irregular verbs.
Irregular Preterite Verbs
Spanish Imperfect Tense
The imperfect is used to denote an action that took place in the past, but the specifics of the timeframe are left up in the air. We use the imperfect in English, too.
They were eating dinner when I arrived.
Using "were" plus the gerund denotes the imperfect past in English. Here, we know that the action of eating dinner took place in the past, but it does not have a definite beginning or end, nor does it matter for the sentence's purpose. We don't know when they stopped eating dinner, but in this sentence it doesn't matter because we are more focused on the fact that they were eating.
Another example of the imperfect in English might be:
I used to go fishing with my dad.
"I used to go" denotes that something used to occur before but now it doesn't. Again when using the imperfect we don't care so much about the details of what happened (when I do, how did I, when did I stop going) the important fact in this sentence is that there was a time when I would go but I no longer go anymore.
Imperfect -ar endings
When forming the imperfect for a regular -ar verb, drop the -ar just like in the preterite conjugation but this time we add the imperfect ending. Here's an example using caminar again:
+ Imperfect Ending
Imperfect -er/-ir endings
Same deal with -er/-ir endings, just drop the infinitive ending and add the imperfect. Here's an example using comer again:
Irregular Imperfect Verbs
Luckily, there are only three verbs that are irregular in the imperfect past: ser, ver, and ir.
Irregular Imperfect Verbs
Some Verbs Change Meaning Depending on Tense
For some verbs, using it in the preterite versus the imperfect can create a slightly different meaning. Compare the translations of these sentences in the preterite versus in the imperfect:
Enter your text here...
Conocí al primer ministro.
(I met the prime minister).
Ya superion de la película.
(They already found out about the movie.)
Tuvo una carta de su abuela.
(He received a letter from his grandmother.)
Quise encontrar el libro.
(I tried to find the book.)
Yo no quise ir al supermercado.
(I refused to go to the supermarket.)
Pudieron comprar un carro.
(They succeeded in buying a car.)
No pudimos abrir la puerta.
(We failed to open the door.)
Conocía al primer ministro.
(I knew the prime minister).
Ya sabían de la película.
(They already knew about the movie.)
Tenía una carta de su abuela.
(He had a letter from his grandmother.)
Quería encontrar el libro.
(I wanted to find the book.)
Yo no quería ir al supermercado.
(I did not want to go to the supermarket.)
Podían comprar un carro.
(They were able to buy a car.)
No podíamos abrir la puerta.
(We weren't able to open the door.)
Distinguishing Between Preterite and Imperfect
What you did vs What you were doing
The basic rule of thumb when it comes to figuring out which tense to use is that the preterite talks about things you did, and the imperfect talks about things you were doing at some point in time, or that you used to do. With some practice, this is fairly easy to remember. Consider these examples:
Toqué el piano - I played the piano (and I finished the action).
Yo tocaba el piano - I used to play the piano; or, you are saying that you were playing the piano when setting the scene for a story.
Yo tocaba la guitarra (true story)
Me comí la manzana - I ate the apple. The action is complete.
Yo comía la manzana - I was eating the apple (when something else happened).
Yo leí el libro - I read the book (and now I'm done).
Yo leía el libro - I was reading the book (and the start and end times don't matter).
What happened vs The way things were
Another way to look at it is that the preterite is for talking about things that happened in the past, while the imperfect is for the way things were in the past. Using the same sentences:
Toqué el piano - I played the piano (yesterday, or that night, or whatever specific timeframe context provides)
Yo tocaba el piano - I used to play the piano at some point in the past, but I don't anymore.
Me comí la manzana - I ate the apple (yesterday night).
Yo comía manzanas - I used to eat apples (and maybe I don't anymore).
Yo leí el libro - I read the book.
Yo leía libros - I used to read books.
Use context clues
When reading or listening to Spanish, you can use context clues to figure out whether a verb phrase is in the preterite or imperfect tense. Certain temporal phrases are associated with either the preterite or the imperfect. You can also learn these phrases to help you express yourself better.
Phrases that hint toward the preterite:
ayer - yesterday
anoche - last night
después - afterward
durante dos semanas - for two weeks
el mes pasado - last monthel
otro día - the other day
en ese momento - at that moment
entonces - then
esta tarde - this afternoon
hace dos días - two days ago
Phrases that hint toward the Imperfect:
a menudo - often
a veces - sometimes
cada día - every day
muchas veces - many times
nunca - never
siempre - always
todos los días - every day
todo el tiempo - all the time
varias veces - several times
Mastering the Two Spanish Past Tenses
Practice make perfect
One of the most efficient ways to master any Spanish grammatical concept is to practice with another person who can give you feedback and constructive criticism. Story-telling is an excellent form of practicing verb tenses.
Try telling a story to your tutor or friend and having them correct you on your mistakes. Then, have them tell you a story in return, and pay attention to their choice of verb tense.
Another way you can get the hang of Spanish grammar is to watch your favorite TV shows and movies, but turn on Spanish subtitles. Pay attention to the sentences in English that are past tense, and make note of which verb tense they use in the Spanish subtitle.
Other media, such as Spanish-language movies or even videos like these can solidify your Spanish skills. Practice quizzes are also enormously helpful, such as this one.
Distinguishing between the preterite and the imperfect is one of the most challenging aspects of learning Spanish, and it's also one the most important. That being said, it's not impossible. With a little know how and a lot of practice you should be able to use both with no problems
Leave a comment if you have any questions about these two slightly tricky verb forms!
The Preterite Tense
The Preterite Tense (also spelled "preterit") is one of two ways to talk about events that happened in the past in Spanish. The preterite tense is used to indicate a single, completed action that took place at a specific point in time. For example:
Armando me llamó a las nueve.
Armando called me at nine o'clock.
Regresaron de España ayer.
They returned from Spain yesterday.
Olivia se fue esta tarde.
Olivia left this afternoon.
Preterite conjugations can be pretty tricky due to the large amount of irregular verbs and some other complicated situations. To learn how to form preterite conjugations, keep reading. For more on when to use the Preterite Tense, see Using the Imperfect and the Preterite.
Regular Preterite Tense Verbs
To conjugate regular "-ar" verbs in the preterite, take off the ending and add the following:
Don't let the "-é" in the yo form throw you off; it's still an "-ar" verb conjugation. It's absolutely critical that the "o" in the él/ella/usted form conjugation get an accent mark so it isn't confused with the present tense yo form conjugation.
To conjugate regular "-er" and "-ir" verbs in the preterite, take off the endings and add the following:
"-er" / "-ir" endings:
Here are some examples:
Preterite Spelling Change Verbs
The yo form endings for "-ar" verbs occasionally cause pronunciation problems because some letters are pronounced differently depending on the vowels that follow them. The letters "c" and "g," for example, sound different when they're followed by an "a" or an "o" than when they're followed by an "e" or "i." Since the preterite yo form ending is an "e", we need to change the spellings of the stems of "-car" verbs, "-gar" verbs, and "-zar" verbs in order to keep the pronunciation consistent. For example:
Tocar has a "-que" ending in the yo form to keep the original "c" sound being pronounced like a "k" rather than like an "s." Jugar now has a "-gue" ending to keep the original "g" sound pronounced like a "g" rather than like an "h." And lanzar now has a "-ce" because, well anytime we can use a "c," we should. The "e" ending gives us an opportunity to do so.
It doesn't happen often, but "-guar" verbs will also require a spelling change. Take a verb like averiguar which means "to verify." When we conjugate in the yo form of the preterite, we need to add a "dieresis," which means the "u" becomes a "ü":
Yo averigüé los datos ayer.
I verified the facts yesterday.
The "ü" tells us to pronounce the "gu" like a "gw" so that our pronunciation will be consistent with the infinitive, averiguar.
These spelling changes only happen for "-ar" preterite verbs and only in the yo form because the "-e" is the only ending that creates problems for the "c," "g," "z" and the "gu."
More Spelling Changes
Certain "-er" and "-ir" verbs are also going to need spelling changes to keep pronunciation consistent. This time around it's the él/ella/Ud. and ellos/ellas/Uds. forms that cause problems. The endings for those conjugations are "-ió" and "-ieron." Notice how they both start with two vowels? If we have a verb whose stem ends in a vowel, and then we add one of those endings, we're going to end up with three vowels in a row. It's difficult to pronounce a word with a three vowel combination. To solve that problem, we change the "i" to a "y."
Some common trouble making verbs conjugated in the ellos/ellas/Uds. form:
i→y spelling change:
The él/ella/Ud. form conjugations will use the same spelling change. Here is a complete set of conjugations for some common verbs:
Note: In addition to the spelling change, it is necessary to add an accent mark to the tú, nosotros, and vosotros form endings. (The yo form already has an accent.)
As you can see, this "i" → "y" spelling change only occurs in the bottom row of conjugations.
Note: Verbs ending in or use and endings instead of and because they already have a sound in their stems: gruñó, zambulleron.
An exception to the "i" → "y" spelling change rule are "-guir" verbs and "-quir" verbs. While the stems do end in a vowel, the "u" is not actually being pronounced. Because of that, we can pronounce the three vowels in a row and a "y" is not necessary.
Preterite Stem Changing Verbs
Stem Changing "-ar" and "-er" Verbs
All "-ar" and "-er" verbs which have stem changes in the present tense are completely regular in the preterite, which is to say that they don't have stem changes in the preterite. Notice how the stem does not change in any conjugation:
Stem Changing "-ir" Verbs
Stem-changing "-ir" verbs do have a stem change which is sometimes different from the present tense stem change; "e → ie" stem changers in the present tense become "e → i" stem changers in the preterite, "e → i" stem changers remain "e → i", and "o → ue" stem changers become "o → u":
e → ie
e → i
e → i
e → i
o → ue
o → u
However, this change only happens in the él/ella/usted form and the ellos/ellas/ustedes form:
In some books verbs like these will have special notations to let you know about the additional preterite stem change: sentir (e → ie, e → i), dormir (o → ue, o → u), etc.
Because these additional changes only take place on the bottom line of the conjugation chart they are sometimes referred to as "basement buddies."
Irregular Preterite Tense Verbs
The "U" Group, "I" Group, and "J" Group
There are many irregular preterite conjugations which have both stem changes (only in the preterite tense) and their own set of endings. It can be helpful to put them into groups to help you memorize them.
The "U" Group
Note: Any verbs based on these irregular verbs have the same irregularities; imponer → inpus-, proponer → propus-, detener → detuv-, etc.
Most of the irregular verbs have stem changes which involve the letter "u":
The "I" Group
Note: Any verbs based on these irregular verbs have the same irregularities; convenir → convin-, prevenir → previn-, etc.
There are a couple others with stem changes involving the letter "i":
For both of these groups, the "u" group "i" group, there is a different set of endings:
Note that these endings are very similar to the "-ir" verbs with the exception of the yo and él/ella/usted forms, and that there are no accent marks needed. Some examples:
The "J" Group
Note: Any verbs based on these irregular verbs have the same irregularities;
bendecir → bendij-, predecir → predij-, extraer → extraj-, etc.
There is one more group of stem changers, the "j" group:
The endings for the "j" group stems are almost identical to the "u"/"i"
Notice that there is no "i" in the ellos/ellas/ustedes form ending. Some examples:
Other Irregular Preterite Verbs
There are several other completely irregular preterite verbs. Here are the conjugations for dar, hacer, ir, and ser:
Note: The verb satisfacer (to satisfy) follows the pattern of hacer: satisfice, satisficiste, satisfizo, etc.
Even though dar is an "-ar" verb, it takes "-er" / "-ir" verb endings (minus the accent marks).
If you look carefully, you'll notice that hacer isn't completely irregular (it could fit quite nicely the "i" group) but the need for consistent pronunciation forces us to use a "z" in the él/ella/usted form.
That's not a typothe conjugations of ir and ser are identicalcontext makes the meaning clear.
And there is one more (slightly) irregular preterite verb:
The yo and él/ella/Ud. forms of ver do not have accent marks.
The Spanish preterite tense (elpretéritoo el pretérito perfectosimple) is used to describe actions completed at a point in the past.
The Spanish preterite is not used to describe habitual or continuous actions in the past with no specific beginning or end. In such cases, the imperfect tense is used.
Regular Spanish Preterite Forms
There are only two sets of endings for regular preterite verbs, one for -ar verbs and one for both -er and -ir verbs. To conjugate a regular verb in the preterite tense, simply remove the infinitive ending (-ar, -er, or -ir) and add the preterite ending that matches the subject. Check out the table of regular preterite endings below.
Regular Preterite Verb Endings
|él, ella, usted||-ó||-ió|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes||-aron||-ieron|
Keep an Eye on the Accents
Note that the first person singular (yo), third person singular (él, ella), and second person formal singular (usted) preterite forms have tildes(written accents) on the final vowel. Keep in mind that one little tilde can change both the tense and subject of a sentence. For example:
With a tilde:
Without a tilde:
Present and Past Nosotros
The first person plural (nosotros) endings for regular -ar and -ir verbs are the same for both the preterite and present tenses. Context clues, such as adverbs like siempre (always) and ayer (yesterday), can help you figure out if a nosotros form refers to the past or the present.
Siemprecocinamospaella los domingos.
We always cook paella on Sundays.
Ayercocinamospaella para mi familia.
Yesterday we cooked paella for my family.
Irregular Spanish Preterite Forms
Four of the most common verbs with irregular preterite forms are ser, ir, dar, and ver. For more on tricky preterite forms, check out our article here.
Irregular Preterite Verb Conjugations
|él, ella, usted|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes|
Note that ser and ir have the exact same forms in the preterite.
Uses of the Preterite
The preterite is used to talk about completed actions in the past. More specifically, it is used to talk about beginnings and ends, things that took place on specific days or dates, at specific times or during specific time periods, and events in a sequence.
1. Completed Events
The preterite is used to talk about completed events, especially those with very clear beginnings and ends.
Compréun coche nuevo.
I bought a new car.
Ben y Cristinase casaron.
Ben and Cristina got married.
Robertonacióen Costa Rica.
Roberto was born in Costa Rica.
2. Beginnings and Ends
Beginnings and ends themselves are also talked about using the preterite. Key verbs you'll see used to talk about beginnings and ends in the past are empezar (to begin), comenzar (to begin), terminar (to finish), and acabar (to end).
It began to snow.
La películaterminócon una sorpresa.
The movie ended with a surprise.
3. Specific Times and Dates
The preterite is used to talk about past events or actions that occurred on specific days or dates, at specific times, and during specific time periods.
Regreséanoche a las diez.
I got back last night at ten.
Vivióen Perú por tres meses.
He lived in Peru for three months.
Leísteeste libro el mes pasado.
You read this book last month.
Nachonacióel tres de agosto.
Nacho was born on August third.
4. Events in a Sequence
The preterite is used for listing past events that took place in a sequence.
Me levanté, me vestí,ysalípara la fiesta.
I got up, got dressed, and left for the party.
Túentraste, bebisteun vaso de agua ycomisteuna hamburguesa.
You came in, drank a glass of water, and ate a hamburger.
Looking for information on the differences between the preterite and the imperfect? Check out this article!
Spanish Grammar: Preterite Past Tense with Regular [-AR] Verbs
Here is how you conjugate [-AR] verbs in the preterite (past) tense!
|Preterite Tense [-AR] Verb Endings|
Notice that the nosotros form, [-AMOS], is identical to the present tense nosotros form. You’ll just have to use the context of the sentence in order to figure out what time frame is being discussed.
These sentences look and sound alike!
Nosotros hablamos : we speak (present tense)
Nosotros hablamos : we spoke (preterite past tense)
Here are some common [-AR] verbs that are regular in the preterite tense!
AYUDAR : To help
Yo le ayudé.
I helped him.
CAMINAR : To walk
Ellos caminaron allá.
They walked over there.
CANTAR : To sing
El cantó en la ducha.
H sang in the shower.
COCINAR : To cook
Nosotros cocinamos una gran cena.
We cooked a big dinner.
ENSEÑAR : To teach
¿Tú enseñaste la clase ya?
You taught the class already?
ESTUDIAR : To study
Ella estudió toda la noche.
She studied all night.
And more …
Endings spanish preterite
Preterite - Irregular - Accented endings
The preterite is the tense with the most irregularities. One group of irregular verbs has accented endings in the first and third-person singular forms.
The table below shows how three irregular verbs are formed in the preterite tense. The verbs oír (to hear), leer (to read), and caer (to fall) each have an accent on the ending in the first and third-person singular forms.
|vosotros||oísteis||(you guys heard)|
|Uds./ellos/ellas||oyeron||(you all/they heard)|
|vosotros||leísteis||(you guys read)|
|Uds./ellos/ellas||leyeron||(you all/they read)|
|vosotros||caísteis||(you guys fell)|
|Uds./ellos/ellas||cayeron||(you all/they fell)|
Other verbs which follow the same pattern:
creer (to believe) yo form becomes creí
poseer (to possess) yo form becomes poseí
proveer (to provide) yo form becomes proveí
Use of Verbs with Accented Endings
Irregular Preterite Verbs: Past Tense Spanish Made Simple
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Past tense Spanish is something that tends to confuse many Spanish students, especially when dealing with irregular preterite verbs.
Let’s back up a bit about the most important Spanish past tenses.
In the indicative mood, there are two ways to speak about the past tense: the preterite (aka simple past) tense and the imperfect tense.
The Spanish preterite tense is used to describe actions completed at a specific point in the past; whereas the imperfect is used to describe habitual or continuous actions in the past with no specific beginning or end.
For more on preterite vs imperfect tense, read here.
How To Conjugate Irregular Preterite Verbs In Spanish
All verbs listed in the post can be considered irregular.
However, you’ll see that some verbs only require subtle changes, others undergo drastic spelling changes and some, quite frankly, do not abide by any rules whatsoever.
In this post, we are going to categorize irregular verbs into the following:
- Verbs that require significant changes: Ser, Ir, Dar, Hacer, Ver
- Verbs that require a stem change, but use regular endings
- Verbs ending in -ir that require a stem change
- Verbs ending in -ucir
- Verbs that are irregular in the “yo” form
1) Verbs that require significant changes
These verbs belong in the wild west of conjugations.
In other words, they are completely irregular as they do not follow any pattern whatsoever.
- Ser (to be)
- Ir (to go)
- Dar (to give)
- Hacer (to do)
- Ver (to see).
These five verbs are probably the most commonly used irregular verbs in the preterite, and so it’s important to memorize the conjugations by heart.
Let’s dive in.
|Subject||Verb: Ser (to be)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Ir (to go)||English Equivalent|
Hopefully, you noticed that Ser and Ir verbs have identical conjugations in the preterite.
While this may seem confusing, a reasonably easy and effective trick to tell both verbs apart is to remember that the verb Ir is used when something moves somewhere else, and so it will most likely include prepositions such as the “a”, or alternatively “para”. The only time it doesn’t need a preposition is when a location is already mentioned – usually naming a physical place.
Let’s compare the two below.
- I went to see my neighbor – Fui a ver a mi vecino
- I was his neighbor for many years – Fui su vecino por muchos años
Good. Let’s move on.
|Subject||Verb: Dar (to give)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Hacer (to do or to make)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Ver (to see)||English Equivalent|
Moving on, we can look at steam changing verbs in the preterite.
The good news is the following verbs follow certain patterns, making them easier to memorize.
2) Irregular Preterite Verbs That Have Stem Changes, But Regular Endings
This group of verbs undergo a stem change when conjugated in the preterite, but use the same endings that are shown in the table below.
Once you learn these endings, simply add them to the new stem for the verb you wish to use..
|Verbs||Preterite Stem||English Equivalent|
|Poder||Pud-||Be able to|
And that’s it.
Relatively straightforward, no?
3) Irregular Preterite Verbs Ending In -IR
IR verbs that change stems in the simple present tense also require a change in the preterite.
However, once the stem changes, you can use the same preterite endings for all regular IR verbs.
Before we elaborate on this, let’s review the endings for IR verbs in the preterite tense.
|Personal pronoun||-IR verb Ending|
The above is quite straightforward.
Verbs ending in -IR that changes stem in the simple present tense, will also change in the preterite, but only for the personal pronouns: él,ella,usted,ustedes,ellos,ellas.
The required stem change can be summarized into two groups, according to its changes:
|Changes in Preterite tense|
|From (e) – to (i)|
|From (o) – to (u)|
Let’s see some examples of these changes applied in the preterite tense.
|Personal pronoun||Repetir (To repeat)||Morir (To die)|
|e – i||o – u|
Other verbs that require a similar change.
- To have fun – Divertirse
- To sleep – Dormir
- To lie – Mentir
- To ask for – Pedir
- To prefer – Preferir
- To feel – Sentir
- To suggest – Sugerir
- To wear/to get dressed – Vestir/se
4) Irregular Preterite Verbs Ending In -UCIR
All Spanish verbs ending in -ucir, such as: conducir (to drive), producir (to produce), traducir (to translate), etc, plus the verbs traer (to bring) and decir (to say), have the following endings in the preterite:
Let’s see the proper conjugation for the previously mentioned verbs :
|Subject||Verb: Traer (to bring)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Decir (to say)||English Equivalent|
The verb Decir keeps the same vowel change (e to i) from the simple present tense (decir to digo) in all the pronouns for all tenses (except the imperfect tense).
|Subject||Verb: Conducir (to drive)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Producir (to produce)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Traducir (to translate)||English Equivalent|
- There is no accent in the Third Person Singular (él/ella/usted) -jo ending.
5) Verbs that are irregular in the “yo” form
And last, but certainly not least, this group of verbs falls into a category called “Orthographically Irregular Verbs”
So what exactly does this mean?
In this group of verbs, most of the conjugation can be treated as regular, but first person singular (yo) requires a small spelling change when conjugated in the preterite.
There are three categories of verbs where this happens:
- Verbs ending in -car change c to qu
- Verbs ending in -gar change g to gu
- Verbs ending in -zar change z to c
a) Verbs ending in -car change c to qu
Let’s see some examples.
|Subject||Verb: Tocar (to touch)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Secar (to dry)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Buscar (to look for)||English Equivalent|
|Yo||busqué||I looked for|
|Tú||buscaste||You looked for|
|Él/Ella/Usted||buscó||He/She looked for|
|Nosotros/Nosotras||buscamos||We looked for|
|Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes||buscaron||They looked for|
B) Verbs ending in -gar change g to gu
|Subject||Verb: Regar (to water)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Pagar (to pay)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Llegar (to arrive)||English Equivalent|
C) Verbs ending in -zar change z to c
|Subject||Verb: Cazar (to hunt)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Empezar (to start)||English Equivalent|
|Subject||Verb: Rezar (to pray)||English Equivalent|
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Irregular Preterite Verbs: Practice
Conjugate the verb into the correct Preterite form
- El año pasado mi hermana y yo (ir) ____ a Chile
- La semana pasada mi esposa (cocinar) ____ una pasta deliciosa con albóndigas
- Mi hermano (ser) ____ un buen estudiante. Siempre sacaba buenas notas en las pruebas de Matemáticas
- Mis padres (tener) ____ abandonar sus estudios, porque eran muy costosos
- Mi familia no (traer) ____ nada de comida o pasapalos a la fiesta pasada de cumpleaños.
- La película (comenzar) hace media hora. (Llegar) (Tú) ____ muy tarde
- Al fin (encontrar) (yo) ____ mis llaves. Las había dejado dentro de la gaveta de la cocina
- Ella me (pedir) ____ un carro nuevo la navidad pasada. Desafortunadamente no (poder) (yo) ____ comprarlo porque no tenía dinero suficiente
- Karla no (traducir) el documento completo, es por eso que ahora tiene mucho más trabajo por hacer.
- Hace dos años mi familia y yo (viajar) a Estados Unidos de vacaciones. (Ser) ___ un viaje genial.
- El año pasado mi hermana y yo fuimos a Chile
- La semana pasada mi esposa cocinó una pasta deliciosa con albóndigas
- Mi hermano fue un buen estudiante. Siempre sacaba buenas notas en las pruebas de Matemáticas
- Mis padres tuvieron que abandonar sus estudios, porque eran muy costosos
- Mi familia no trajo nada de comida o pasapalos a la fiesta pasada de cumpleaños
- La película comenzó hace media hora. Llegaste muy tarde
- Al fin encontré mis llaves. Las había dejado dentro de la gaveta de la cocina.
- Ella me pidió un carro nuevo la navidad pasada. Desafortunadamente no pude comprarlo porque no tenía dinero suficiente.
- Karla no tradujo el documento completo, es por eso que ahora tiene mucho más trabajo por hacer.
- Hace dos años mi familia y yo viajamos a Estados Unidos de vacaciones. Fue un viaje genial.
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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.
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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!
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
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:
¿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
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?
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.
–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 cé. When said out loud these verbs sound like regular verbs, and the irregularity in spelling is there in order to preserve the sound.
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.
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.
- The first step is to know what is the preterite stem for the verb.
- 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.
Now to see these verbs in action!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
- We went to Disneyland last year
- Fuimos a Disneyland el año pasado.
- One time I tried octopus!
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.
- 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.
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.
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!
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.