Overview

The preterite tense (el pretérito) is one of several past tenses in Spanish and it is used to describe actions completed at one point in the past or that lasted a specific amount of time in the past and are now completed. The preterite is not used to describe habitual or continuous actions in the past with no specific ending or beginning. The imperfect tense is used for these instances. If the habitual action does have a specific beginning and end, the preterite can be used.

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Uses

In General,

The Preterite is used to describe completed actions in the past at specific points in time.

1. To Indicate Single Events Took Place in the Past

These actions began and ended in the past. They are usually verbs that communicate an instant change in the action.

  • Compré un coche nuevo. (I bought a new car.)
  • Ben y Cristina se casaron. (Ben and Cristina got married.)
  • Roberto nació. (Roberto was born.)

Verbs that are Preterite by Nature

casarse to get married graduarse to graduate
cumplir años to turn a certain age llegar to arrive
darse cuenta de to realize morir to die
decidir to decide nacer to be born
descubrir to discover salir to leave

2. To Indicate an Action that Happened at or for a Specific Amount of Time

These actions are completed at a definite moment in the past. They are easy to spot since they usually have a time frame in the sentence.

  • Regresé anoche a la medianoche. (I returned last night at midnight.)
  • Vivió en Perú desde hace tres meses. (He lived in Peru for three months.)
  • Leíste este libro cinco veces. (You read this book 5 times.)

Useful Phrases that Indicate Specific Moments in the Past

a esa hora at that time ayer por la tarde yesterday afternoon en ese momento at that moment
anoche last night ayer por la noche last night hace (dos) años (two) years ago
anteanoche the night before last el año pasado last year hoy por la mañana this morning
anteayer the day before yesterday el (lunes) pasado last (Monday) la semana pasada last week
ayer al mediodía yesterday at noon el mes pasado last month una vez one time
ayer por la mañana yesterday morning el otro día the other day

3. To Narrate Individual Events

This is common in relating a story line where there are multiple actions presented.

  • Me levanté, me vestí, y salí para la fiesta. (I got up, got dressed, and left for the party.)
  • entraste, bebiste un vaso de agua, y comiste una hamburguesa. (You came in, drank a glass of water, and ate a hamburger.)

4. To Indicate the Beginning or End of an Action in the Past

  • Empezó a nevar. (It began to snow.)
  • La película terminó con una sorpresa. (The movie ended with a surprise.)

Regular Preterite

There are only two sets of endings for regular preterite verbs, one for -ar verbs and one for both -er and -ir verbs. Simply remove the infinitive ending and add the correct preterite ending depending on who the subject of the action is.

Preterite Verb Endings

-ar verbs -er and -ir verbs
yo
-aste -iste
usted, él, ella -ió
nosotros -amos -imos
vosotros -asteis -isteis
ustedes, ellos, ellas -aron -ieron

Watch those Tildes!

The 1st and 3rd person singular have tildes (written accents) to differentiate them from present tense conjugations.

  • Mandó una carta. (He/She sent a letter.)
  • Mando una carta. (I send a letter.)

Ambiguous Endings Need Clarification

The 1st person plural endings for -ar and -ir verbs are the same for preterite and present tenses. The tense must be deduced from the given context.

  • Siempre cocinamos paella los domingos. (We always cook paella on Sundays.)
  • Ayer cocinamos paella para mi familia. (Yesterday, we cooked paella for my family.)

Irregular Preterite

There are really only three "really irregular" verbs in the preterite tense. These are irregular in both their stems and their endings.

Irregular Conjugations

dar - to give ser - to be ir - to go
yo di fui fui
diste fuiste fuiste
usted, él, ella dio fue fue
nosotros dimos fuimos fuimos
vosotros disteis fuisteis fuisteis
ustedes, ellos, ellas dieron fueron fueron

Twins in the Preterite

Ser and ir share the exact same forms in the preterite.

There are several "somewhat irregular" verbs in the preterite tense. These are irregular in their stems, and follow a separate ending set with no tildes: -e, -iste, -o, -imos, -isteis, -ieron. They are grouped together according to the following stem changes:

UV (andar, estar, tener)

andar anduve anduviste anduvo anduvimos anduvisteis anduvieron
estar estuve estuviste estuvo estuvimos estuvisteis estuvieron
tener tuve tuviste tuvo tuvimos tuvisteis tuvieron

U (caber, haber, poder, poner, saber)

caber cupe cupiste cupo cupimos cupisteis cupieron
haber hube hubiste hubo hubimos hubisteis hubieron
poder pude pudiste pudo pudimos pudisteis pudieron
poner puse pusiste puso pusimos pusisteis pusieron
saber supe supiste supo supimos supisteis supieron

I (hacer, querer, venir)

hacer hice hiciste hizo hicimos hicisteis hicieron
querer quise quisiste quiso quisimos quisisteis quisieron
venir vine viniste vino vinimos vinisteis vinieron

Hacer Has to be Different

  • In the 3rd person singular for hacer, the c changes to a z to maintain pronunciation.

J (conducir, decir, traducir, traer)

conducir conduje condujiste condujo condujimos condujisteis condujeron
decir dije dijiste dijo dijimos dijisteis dijeron
traducir traduje tradujiste tradujo tradujimos tradujisteis tradujeron
traer traje trajiste trajo trajimos trajisteis trajeron*

3rd Person Plural Change

The 3rd person plural of the J group is -eron and not -ieron.

Spelling Changes

To preserve the consonant sounds in the infinitives, several verbs change the spelling in the stem. Endings are regular.

-car, -gar, and -zar verbs

To maintain the /k/, /g/, and /s/ sounds in the first person singular, the [c], [g], and [z] change to [qu], [gu], and [c] respectively. All other persons and all endings are regular.

Conjugation Examples

buscar (to look for) jugar (to play) cruzar (to cross)
busqué buscamos jugué jugamos crucé cruzamos
buscaste buscasteis jugaste jugasteis cruzaste cruzasteis
buscó buscaron jugó jugaron cruzó cruzaron

Some Common -car, -gar, and -z Verbs

-car verbs -gar verbs -zar verbs
acercar educar agregar entregar abrazar gozar
aparcar empacar apagar jugar almorzar lanzar
atacar pecar cargar llegar aterrorizar memorizar
buscar roncar castigar negar comenzar organizar
colocar sacar conjugar pagar danzar rezar
edificar tocar enjuagar pegar destrozar tropezar

-caer, -eer, -oer, -oír, and uir verbs

To prevent the creation of a triphthong, the i changes to a y in the 3rd person singular and plural of these verbs.

Conjugation Examples

caer (to fall) leer (to read) roer (to gnaw) oír (to listen) concluir (to conclude)
caí caímos leí leímos roí roímos oímos concluí concluímos
caíste caísteis leíste leísteis roíste roísteis oíste oísteis concluíste concluísteis
cayó cayeron leyó leyeron royó royeron oyó oyeron conculyó concluyeron

Some Common -caer, -eer, -oer, -oír, and -uír Verbs

-caer verbs -eer verbs -oer verbs -oír verbs -uir verbs
decaer creer corroer entreoír atribuir distribuir
recaer poseer constituir huir
proveer construir incluir
releer contribuir influir
destituir intuir
destruir obstruir
diluir recluir
disminuir sustituir

Stem Changes

Stem-changing -ir verbs (e->ie, e->i, and o->u) in the present tense keep the e or o of the infinitive in preterite conjugations except for 3rd person singular and plural where they change:e->i and o->u in the 3rd person

Conjugation Examples

sentir (to feel) pedir (to order) dormir (to sleep)
sentí sentimos pedí pedimos dormí dormimos
sentiste sentisteis pediste pedisteis dormiste dormisteis
sintió sintieron pidió pidieron durmió durmieron

Other stem-changing verbs can be found in the stem-changing verbs reference.

Verbs that Change Meaning in the Preterite

Due to a change in when an action happens, some verbs' English meaning changes from the present tense to the preterite.

  • Supe la verdad. (I found out the truth.)
  • Tuvo una carta. (He received a letter.)

Compare Present and Preterite

present preterite
conocer to know to meet
poder to be able to to manage
querer to want to refuse/to try
saber to know to find out
tener to have to receive

Exercises

1) Write the preterite form for each verb in parenthesis to complete each sentence.

Example: ¿Qué (hacer) tú anoche? -> hiciste

  1. Anoche, yo (salir) de casa a las once.
  2. Esta mañana, ellos (leer) los periódicos.
  3. El otro día, ellos (ir) al concierto de Madonna.
  4. Mi hermana (nacer) el 8 de junio.
  5. Ana María (dormir) 10 horas anoche.
  6. Yo (huir) de la conferencia aburrida.
  7. Mis abuelos (construir) su casa hace 70 años.
  8. Vosotros me (dar) el mejor regalo.
  9. ¡Ustedes (andar) por mi jardín y (destruir) mis flores!
  10. El año pasado, Eva (hacer) un pastel chocolate.

Answers

  1. salí
  2. leyeron
  3. fueron
  4. nació
  5. durmió
  6. huí
  7. construyeron
  8. disteis
  9. anduvieron, destruyeron
  10. hizo