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
|Subject||-ar Verbs||-er and -ir Verbs|
|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.
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
|Subject||Ser (to be)||Ir (to go)||Dar (to give)||Ver (to see)|
|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.
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).
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.
4. Events in a Sequence
The preterite is used for listing past events that took place in a sequence.