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The preterit 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 preterit 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 preterit can be used.

Regular Preterit Forms

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

Note that 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.)
  • Caminé con Miguel. (I walked with Miguel.)
  • Camina con Miguel. (He walks with Miguel.)

Also, the 1st person plural (nosotros) endings for -AR and -IR verbs are the same for both preterit and present tenses. The tense must be deduced from the given context and words that signify the preterit.

  • 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 Preterit

There are really only three "really irregular" verbs in the preterit 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

Note that ser and ir share the exact same forms in the preterit.

Uses of the Preterit

In general, the preterit is used to describe completed actions in the past at specific points in time.

1. To Indicate a Single Event that 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.)

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 por tres meses. (He lived in Peru for three months.)
  • Leíste este libro cinco veces. (You read this book 5 times.)

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.)

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