The Preterit Tense – Past Tense

Posted on 3rd February 2013 in Conjugation

The Preterit Tense – Past Tense

By Russell Sabo

When you want to talk about a past action that has been completed in Spanish, you use the preterit tense, or el pretérito. If you began something, finished something, or if you’re talking about something that lasted for a while, but has been ended or completed, the preterit tense is what you’ll use.

  • Simón Bolívar murió en esta cama. – Simón Bolívar died in this bed.
  • Empecé a comer el pescado – I began to eat the fish.
  • Miguel terminó el trabajo hace dos días. – Mike finished the work two days ago.
  • Él corrió dos millas. – He ran two miles.

How is the Preterit Formed?


Click here to learn more about the Preterit Tense – Learning Spanish Like Crazy Level 1 Nivel 1

  1. First, we’ll take the infinitive form of the verb: Hablar (to speak), Comer (to eat), and Vivir (to live).
  2. Remove the AR/ER/IR ending to leave the verb stem.
  3. Add the following endings to the verb stem according to the normal verb endings (AR/ER/IR).
    • For verbs that normally end with AR, add these endings to form the preterit tense.
      1. (yo) Hablar – Habl receives “-é” becoming “Hablé”. Yo hablé.
      2. (tú) Hablar – Habl receives “-aste” becoming “Hablaste”. Tú hablaste.
      3. (Usted, él, ella) Hablar – Habl receives “-ó” becoming “Habló”. Usted habló. Él habló. Ella habló.
      4. (nosotros/as) Hablar – Habl receives “-amos” becoming “Hablamos”. Nosotros/as hablamos.
      5. (vosotros/as) Hablar – Habl receives “-asteis” becoming “Hablasteis”. Vosotros/as hablasteis.
      6. (Ustedes, ellos, ellas) Hablar – Habl receives “-aron” becoming “Hablaron”. Ustedes hablaron. Ellos hablaron. Ellas hablaron.
    • For verbs that normally end with ER and IR, add these ending to form the preterit.
      1. (yo) Comer – Com receives “-í” becoming “Comí”. Yo comí.
      2. (yo) Vivir – Viv receives “-í” becoming “Viví”. Yo viví.
      3. (tú) Comer – Com receives “-iste” becoming “Comiste”. Tú comiste.
      4. (tú) Vivir – Viv receives “-iste” becoming “Viviste”. Tú viviste.
      5. (Usted, él, ella) Comer – Com receives “-ió” becoming “Comió”. Usted comió. Él comió. Ella comió.
      6. (Usted, él, ella) Vivir – Viv receives “-ió” becoming “Vivió”. Usted vivió. Él vivió. Ella vivió.
      7. (nosotros/as) Comer – Com receives “-imos” becoming “Comimos”. Nosotros/as comimos.
      8. (nosotros/as) Vivir – Viv receives “-imos” becoming “Vivimos”. Nosotros/as vivimos.
      9. (vosotros/as) Comer – Com receives “-isteis” becoming “Comisteis”. Vosotros/as vivisteis.
      10. (vosotros/as) Vivir – Viv receives “-isteis” becoming “Vivisteis”. Vosotros/as vivisteis.
      11. (Ustedes, ellos, ellas) Comer – Com receives “-ieron” becoming “Comieron”. Ustedes comieron. Ellos comieron. Ellas comieron.
      12. (Ustedes, ellos, ellas) Vivir – Viv receives “-ieron” becoming “Vivieron”. Ustedes vivieron. Ellos vivieron. Ellas vivieron.
  4. Here are the conjugated verbs once again with their meanings.
    • Habl+é=Hablé (I spoke), Com+í=Comí (I ate), Viv+í=Viví (I lived)
    • Habl+aste=Hablaste (you spoke), Com+iste=Comiste (you ate), Viv+iste=Viviste (you lived)
    • Habl+ó=Habló (You (formal) spoke, he spoke, she spoke)
    • Com+ió=Comió (You (formal) ate, he ate, she ate)
    • Viv+ió=Vivió (You (formal) lived, he lived, she lived)
    • Habl+amos=Hablamos (we spoke), Com+imos=Comimos (we ate), Viv+imos=Vivimos (we lived)
    • Habl+asteis=Hablasteis (You all (informal) spoke), Com+isteis=Comisteis (You all (informal) ate), Viv+isteis=Vivisteis (You all (informal) lived)
    • Habl+aron=Hablaron (You all (formal) spoke, They (males or a mixed group) spoke, They (all females) spoke)
    • Com+ieron=Comieron (You all (formal) ate, They (males or a mixed group) ate, They (all females) ate)
    • viv+ieron=Vivieron (You all (formal) lived, They (males or a mixed group) lived, They (all females) lived

Preterit Tense and Reflexive Verbs

The reflexive pronoun appears in front of the reflexive verb.

  • levantarse – to get up
  • me levanté
  • te levantaste
  • se levantó
  • nos levantamos
  • os levantasteis
  • se levantaron

Preterit Tense and Stem-Changing Verbs

In the preterit tense there are verbs that will change their stems in the third person singular and in the third person plural. These words will follow the pattern of: o to u, and e to i. Following are some examples of each, and make sure you notice the third person singular and third person plural changes:

  • morir – to die
  • yo morí
  • tú moriste
  • Usted, él, ella murió
  • nosotros/as morimos
  • vosotros/as moristeis
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas murieron
  • sentir(se) – to feel sorry, to regret
  • yo me sentí
  • tú te sentiste
  • Usted, él, ella se sintió
  • nosotros/as nos sentimos
  • vosotros/as os sentisteis
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas se sintieron
  • pedir – to ask for, to order, to request
  • yo pedí
  • tú pediste
  • Usted, él, ella pidió
  • nosotros/as pedimos
  • vosotros/as pedisteis
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas pidieron

Irregular Preterit Tense Words

It seems that the most commonly used words are usually irregular, and when learning the preterit tense, you’ll find this to be especially true. There are only 2 patterns that you need to know which will help you out with memorizing which words are irregular. Don’t worry if you don’t get them right away; it’s taken me about a year of reading and writing them to feel comfortable knowing

which ones are which.

Pattern 1 – Irregular Preterit

Below is a list of Pattern 1 irregular verbs in the preterit tense, followed by their changes.

  • Andar – to go, to walk / anduv-
  • Caber – to fit / cup-
  • Estar – to be / estuv-
  • Haber – to have (helping verb) / hub-
  • Hacer – to do, to make / hic- (in the 3rd person singular it is “hiz-“)
  • Poder – to be able, can / pud-
  • Poner – to place, to put / pus-
  • Querer – to want / quis-
  • Saber – to know / sup-
  • Tener – to have / tuv-
  • Venir – to come / vin-

For the irregular verbs above you will use the following conjugations for each pronoun, and notice the lack of accent marks.

  • Estar – to be
  • yo estuve – I was
  • tú estuviste – you were
  • Usted, él, ella estuvo – You (formal), he, she was
  • nosotros/as estuvimos – we were
  • vosotros/as estuvisteis – you all (informal) were
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas estuvieron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) were
  • Hacer – to do, to make
  • yo hice – I did
  • tú hiciste – you did
  • Usted, él, ella hizo – you (formal), he she did
  • nosotros/as hicimos – we did
  • vosotros/as hicisteis – you all (informal) did
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas hicieron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) did

Pattern 2 – Irregular Preterit

Below is a list of Pattern 2 irregular verbs in the preterit tense, followed by their changes.

  • Atraer – to attract / atraj-
  • Conducir – to drive / conduj-
  • Decir – to say, to tell / dij-
  • Deducir – to deduce / deduj-
  • Distraer – to distract / distraj-
  • Introducir – to introduce / introduj-
  • Producir – to produce / produj-
  • Retraer – to bring back, dissuade / retraj-
  • Sustraer – to subtract, to take away / sustraj-
  • Traducir – to translate / traduj-
  • Traer – to bring / traj-

For the irregular verbs above you will use the following conjugations for each pronoun, and notice the lack of accent marks.

  • Traer – to bring
  • yo traje – I brought
  • tú trajiste – you brought
  • Usted, él, ella trajo – you (formal), he, she brought
  • nosotros/as trajimos – we brought
  • vosotros/as trajisteis – you all (informal) brought
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas trajeron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) brought

Ir and Ser and the Preterit Tense

The words “Ir” and “Ser” are the same in the preterit tense. As long as you know the context of the sentence that the words are in, it’s not difficult to figure out which meaning is which.

  • Ir – to go and Ser – to be
  • yo fui – I went / I was
  • tú fuiste – you went / you were
  • Usted, él, ella fue – you (formal), he, she went / you (formal), he, she was
  • nosotros fuimos – we went / we were
  • vosotros fuisteis – you all (informal) went / you all (informal) were
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas fueron – you all (formal), they (males or mixed group), they (all females) went / you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) were

Dar and Ver and the Preterit Tense

The words “Dar” and “Ver” march to the beat of their own drummer in the preterit tense. However, it’s an easy beat to remember. Below are the conjugation examples:

  • Dar – to give
  • yo di – I gave
  • tú diste – you gave
  • Usted, él, ella dio – you (formal), he, she gave
  • nosotros/as dimos – we gave
  • vosotros/as disteis – you all (informal) gave
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas dieron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) gave
  • Ver – to see
  • yo vi – I saw
  • tú diste – you saw
  • Usted, él, ella vio – you (formal), he, she saw
  • nosotros/as vimos – we saw
  • vosotros/as visteis – you all (informal) saw
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas vieron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) saw

Spelling Changes and the Preterit Tense

Stem-changing verbs, irregular verbs, individual cases that you have to memorize; what’s next? Verbs that have spelling changes in the preterit tense, of course! Personally, I just lump all of

these words into the “irregular verbs” category when I’m studying by myself, but in the interest of order and providing a bit of stewardship for the Spanish language, I’m keeping them separate on this website.

There are 5 different patterns that require spelling changes and I’ll provide a list of words and an example conjugation for each pattern below.

Pattern 1. -Gar to -Gué

The first pattern requires that words that end with -gar in the infinitive form have a spelling change to -gué in the preterit tense. This spelling change takes place only in the first person (yo) conjugation.

  • agregar – to add
  • apagar – to put out (a light)
  • cargar – to load
  • castigar – to punish
  • conjugar – to conjugate
  • entregar – to deliver
  • llegar – to arrive
  • jugar – to play
  • negar – to deny
  • pagar – to pay for
  • pegar – to glue, to pick up
  • regar – to water (a garden or plant)
  • segar – to mow (the grass)
  • tragar – to swallow
  • vagar – to wander
  • Pagar – to pay for
  • yo pagué – I paid for
  • tú pagaste – you paid for
  • Usted, él, ella pagó – you (formal), he, she paid for
  • nosotros/as pagamos – we paid for
  • vosotros/as pagasteis – you all (informal) paid for
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas pagaron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) paid for

Pattern 2. -Car to -Qué

The second pattern requires that words that end with -car in the infinitive form have a spelling change to -qué in the preterit tense. This spelling change takes place only in the first person (yo) conjugation.

  • aparcar – to park
  • atacar – to attack
  • buscar – to look for
  • chocar – to crash
  • clarificar – to clarify
  • clasificar – to classify
  • colocar – to place
  • complicar – to complicate
  • destacar – to stand out
  • empacar – to pack
  • explicar – to explain
  • justificar – to justify
  • pescar – to fish
  • practicar – to practice
  • sacar – to take, to take a photograph
  • tocar – to play an instrument, to touch
  • Practicar – to practice
  • yo practiqué – I practiced
  • tú practicaste – you practiced
  • Usted, él, ella practicó – you (formal), he, she practiced
  • nosotros/as practicamos – we practiced
  • vosotros/as practicasteis – you all (informal) practiced
  • Usted, ellos, ellas practicaron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) practiced

Pattern 3. -Zar to – Cé

The third pattern requires that words that end with -zar in the infinitive form have a spelling change to -cé in the preterit tense. This spelling change takes place only in the first person (yo) conjugation.

  • abrazar – to hug
  • alcanzar – to reach
  • almorzar – to eat lunch
  • autorizar – to authorize
  • comenzar – to begin
  • cruzar – to cross
  • empezar – to begin
  • gozar – to enjoy
  • lanzar – to throw
  • organizar – to organize
  • rezar – to pray
  • simbolizar – to symbolize
  • tranquilizar – to calm
  • trazar – to trace
  • tropezarse (con) – to stumble (into)
  • Autorizar – to authorize
  • yo autoricé – I authorized
  • tú autorizaste – you authorized
  • Usted, él, ella autorizó – you (formal), he, she authorized
  • nosotros/as autorizamos – we authorized
  • vosotros/as autorizasteis – you all (infomal) authorized
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas autorizaron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) authorized

Pattern 4. -I to -Y

The fourth pattern requires that the -i in the following words be changed to a -y because of its placement between two vowels. This makes perfect sense when you imagine trying to pronounce the word without the change. This change occurs in the third person singular (Usted, él, ella) and the third person plural (Ustedes, ellos, ellas) conjugations.

  • caer – to fall
  • caerse – to fall down
  • creer – to believe
  • leer – to read
  • oír – to hear
  • poseer – to possess
  • proveer – to provide
  • Creer – to believe
  • yo creí – I believed
  • tú creiste – you believed
  • Usted, él, ella creyó – you (formal), he, she believed
  • nosotros/as creímos – we believed
  • vosotros/as creísteis – you all (informal) believed
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas creyeron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) believed

Pattern 5. -I to -Y and -Uir Verbs

The fifth pattern requires that the -i in the following words be changed to a -y because of its placement between two vowels. This change occurs in the third person singular (Usted, él, ella) and the third person plural (Ustedes, ellos, ellas) conjugations. Also, in the first person (yo) conjugation will receive an accent mark

  • construir – to construct, to build
  • contribuir – to contribute
  • destruir – to destroy
  • fluir – to flow
  • huir – to flee
  • incluir – to include
  • influir – to influence
  • Construir – to construct, to build
  • yo construí – I built
  • tú construiste – you built
  • Usted, él, ella construyó – you (formal), he, she built
  • nosotros/as construimos – we built
  • vosotros/as construisteis – you all (informal) built
  • Ustedes, ellos, ellas construyeron – you all (formal), they (males or a mixed group), they (all females) built

Some Preterit Verbs Change Their Meanings

Some verbs will change their meaning in the preterit tense. Some of the changes are minor, and some can end a conversation before it begins (learned from personal experience). Luckily, this list of verbs is small. However, they are often-used verbs so they can be easy to forget about when you’re used to their normal meanings.

  • conocer – to know (a person) – in the preterit, this means “met” – Conociste a Alicia la semana pasada. – You met Alicia last week.
  • Poder – to be able, can – in the preterit, this means “managed”- Pudó comer toda la hamburguesa. – He managed to eat the entire hamburger.
  • No poder – to not be able – in the preterit, this means “failed” – No pudiste traer las uvas. – You failed to bring the grapes.
  • Querer – to want – in the preterit, this means “tried” – Quise decir: Hola. – I tried to say hello.
  • No querer – to not want – in the preterit, this means “refused” – Ella no quiso comer las arañas fritas. – She refused to eat the fried spiders.
  • Saber – to know (a fact) – in the preterit, this means “found out” – Supimos la verdad. – We found out the truth.
  • Sentir – to feel – in the preterit, this means “to regret, to be sorry” – Sentiste matarlo. – You regretted killing him. You were sorry you killed him.
  • Tener – to have – in the preterit, this means “received” – Tuviste un carro para mi cumpleaños. – You received a car for your birthday.

When to Use the Preterit

Knowing when to use the preterit tense in Spanish can be tricky at times, especially since you have the choice between the preterit and the imperfect tenses. Any time you are referring to a specific action that has been completed or that has happened a certain number of times, you will use the preterit tense.

DO NOT use the preterit if the action you’re referring to is something that used to happen, or something you used to do; that’s reserved for the imperfect tense.

Below I’ve listed three times when you will use the preterit tense and I’ve included some examples for each:

Referring to a Set Point in Time

  • Manejé al restaurante de mariscos anoche. – I drove to the seafood restaurant last night.
  • No entendí la leccion a las once. – I didn’t understand the lesson at 11 o’clock.
  • Se lo di a él la semana pasada. – I gave it to him last week.

Referring to a Certain Number of Actions

  • Comí allí cinco veces. – I ate there five times.
  • Corriste diez millas. – You ran ten miles.
  • Hablé con siete personas. – I spoke with seven people.

Referring to an Enclosed Amount of Time

  • Estudiaste inglés por cuatro horas. – You studied English for four hours.
  • Construyeron la casa por tres años. – They built the house for three years.
  • La cena duró dos horas. – The dinner lasted two hours.
  • Some Helpful Phrases

    Below are some helpful phrases, that, when you know you’re going to use them, you’ll be reasonable sure you need to use the preterit. These phrases will refer to a specific time.

    • a esa hora – at that time
    • anoche – last night
    • anteanoche – the night before last
    • anteayer – the day before yesterday
    • ayer – yesterday
    • ayer por la mañana – yesterday morning
    • ayer por la tarde – yesterday afternoon
    • el año pasado – last year
    • el mes pasado – last month
    • la semana pasada – last week
    • el viernes pasado – last Friday
    • en ese momento – at that moment
    • esta mañana – this morning
    • esta tarde – this afternoon
    • hace cinco días – five days ago
    • hace un año – a year ago

     

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