¡Hola! In this article, we’ll be looking at what the Spanish preterite is, and how to use it. Enjoy!
The preterite (known in Spanish as the pretérito indefinido) is a Spanish past tense. It is used differently from the perfect tense and the imperfect tense, which are separate types of past tense.
The preterite is used to describe things that were completed in the past. They’re over. This could include a series of completed events in a sequence, a completed single event, or something that happened a specific number of times or over a specified time period.
It takes practice to get to grips with which past tense you need, but here’s a general guide:
The preterite is for completed events that happened at a specific moment in time.
The imperfect is for something that used to happen, or happened over an unspecified period.
The perfect is for something that has happened.
The differences are subtle but they are there!
First, remove the stem.
Hablar → habl-
Then, just add the appropriate ending from this table:
*using ‘@’ instead of ‘o’ or ‘a’ can be a way to cover both masculine and feminine subjects.Using hablar as an example, we get:
Let’s take a look at some example sentences:
Bailé hasta la madrugada.
I danced until the early hours.
Did you arrive yet?*
Manolo nadó dos kilómetros .
Manolo swam two kilometers.
Terminamos el proyecto anteayer.
We finished the project the day before yesterday.
¿Os pasasteis bien a la fiesta?
Did you (plural) have fun at the party?
Al verme, empezaron a cantar.
Upon seeing me, they started to sing.
*Note that these forms are more common in Latin America and the US. Over in Europe, Spaniards would use, “¿Ya has llegado?” which Brits would translate as, “Have you arrived yet?”
Again, the first step is to take off the stem.
Comer → com-
Vivir → viv-
Then add whichever ending you need from this table:
So, if we use comer and vivir as examples, we get:
Here are some more -er examples:
Vendí la casa.
I sold the house.
¿Bebiste mi zumo de naranja?
Did you drink my orange juice?
Teresa nació en Japón.
Teresa was born in Japan.
Nos conocimos hace cinco años.
We first met each other five years ago.
Niños, ¿qué aprendisteis en la escuela hoy?
Kids, what did you learn at school today?
Anabel y sus amigos aparecieron en un programa de tele esta mañana.
Anabel and her friends appeared on a TV show this morning.
We use the same endings in the -ir examples:
Recibí dos cartas de él.
I received two letters from him.
¿Cuántos años cumpliste ayer?
How old did you turn yesterday?
Juana descubrió que Miguel le había puesto los cuernos.
Juana discovered that Miguel had cheated on her.
Al final, decidimos quedarnos en casa y ver la tele.
In the end, we decided to stay home and watch TV.
Escribisteis unos libros muy interesantes.
You (plural) wrote some very interesting books.
Después del concierto, aplaudieron.
After the concert, they applauded.
You might notice that for -ar and -ir verbs, the nosotr@s form is the same in the preterite as it is in the present tense. To differentiate, just use context and common sense, for example:
En general no hablamos mucho.
In general we don’t speak much.
Ayer hablamos con los profes.
Yesterday we spoke to the teachers.
Normalmente escribimos poemas.
Normally we write poems.
El martes pasado, escribimos una canción.
Last Tuesday, we wrote a song.
Quite a few verbs are irregular in the preterite tense, but don’t panic! As we list them below, you might start to notice that some of them follow similar patterns.
Let’s get the super irregular ones out the way first:
Ser (to be)/Ir (to go)Ser and ir actually have the same conjugation in the preterite, even though they have completely different meanings!
Luckily, the rest of the verbs aren’t quite that bad, and they all follow pretty much the same pattern. You’ll notice that they have irregular stems, but the endings are pretty similar, and go something like this:
So try to remember the stems, e.g. the stem for estar is estuv-.Estar (to be)
Estuve por Perú.
I was in/went to Peru.
Tener (to have)
Tuvieron que ir corriendo.
They had to rush off.
Hacer (to do/to make)
Hicisteis mucho ruido.
You (plural) made a lot of noise.
Poder (to be able to)
Al final Sofía pudo entrar en el piso.
In the end Sofía managed to get into the apartment.
Poner (to put)
¿Por qué pusiste tu maleta allí?
Why did you put your suitcase over there?
Saber (to taste/to know/to find out)
Anoche supe algo interesante...
Last night I found out something interesting...
Decir (to say)
¿Te dijeron algo?
Did they say something to you?
Venir (to come)
Vinimos para ganar.
We came here to win.
Ver (to see)
La semana pasada, Verónica vio a su ex.
Last week, Verónica saw her ex.
Dar (to give)
Te di todo.
I gave you everything.
Traer (to bring)
Trajisteis mucha comida, ¡gracias!
You (plural) brought lots of food, thanks!
Conducir (to drive), traducir (to translate), introducir (to introduce)*
*Notice that these verbs all end in -ucir, and their preterite endings are basically the same. Apply this conjugation to pretty much any common -ucir verb and you’ll be safe:
conduje, traduje, introduje
condujimos, tradujimos, introdujimos
condujiste, tradujiste, introdujiste
condujisteis, tradujisteis, introdujisteis
condujo, tradujo, introdujo
condujeron, tradujeron, introdujeron
Conduje a la estación.
I drove to the station.
Querer (to want)
Quise saber así que pregunté.
I wanted to know so I asked.
There are some situations where slight spelling changes are made, for example in order to maintain the same pronunciation, or because they’re stem-changing verbs.
For example, llegar → llegué NOT llegé.
There aren’t too many of these, and you’ll learn to recognise them as you advance, so don’t worry too much about them right now.
There’s a handful of verbs that actually change meaning depending on whether they’re used in the preterite or the imperfect. Here are some of them to give you an idea of how subtle the differences can be.
I met him for the first time.
I used to know him.
I could (I managed to).
I could (the ability was there).
I found out.
Testing yourself is a great way to see how well you understand something. Read these sentences and try to identify the correct answers. The infinitive has been given in brackets.
We hope you’ve learnt something from this article. Remember to practice little and often, and if you’re stuck then take it step by step: start with the infinitive, find the stem, then add on the ending.
For more Spanish lessons, get the complete method Spanish e-book with audio. Check out My Spanish Routine below!
Annabel is a language-enthusiast from the UK. She studied Spanish and French at the University of Southampton (with an Erasmus study year in Madrid!) and recently graduated. She has interests across the Spanish-speaking world, and is a fan of language in general.
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