Easy Learning Spanish

The preterite - Easy Learning Grammar Spanish

What is the preterite?
The preterite is a form of the verb that is used to talk about actions that were completed in the past in Spanish. It often corresponds to the simple past in English, as in I bought a new bike; Mary went to the shops on Friday; I typed two reports yesterday.

1   Using the preterite

  • In English, we use the simple past tense to talk about actions:
  • that were completed at a certain point in the past
I bought a dress yesterday.
  • that were part of a series of events
I went to the beach, undressed and put on my swimsuit.
  • that went on for a certain amount of time
The war lasted three years.
  • In English, we also use the simple past tense to describe actions which happened frequently (Our parents took us swimming in the holidays), and to describe settings (It was a dark and stormy night).
  • In Spanish, the preterite is the most common tense for talking about the past. You use the preterite for actions:
  • that were completed at a certain point in the past
Ayer compré un vestido.I bought a dress yesterday.
  • that were part of a series of events
Fui a la playa, me quité la ropa y me puse el bañador.I went to the beach, undressed and put on my swimsuit.
  • that went on for a certain amount of time
La guerra duró tres años.The war lasted for three years.
  • However, you use the imperfect tense for actions that happened frequently (where you could use used to in English) and for descriptions of settings.

2   Forming the preterite of regular verbs

  • To form the preterite of any regular -ar verb, you take off the -ar ending to form the stem, and add the endings: , -aste, , -amos, -asteis, -aron.
  • To form the preterite of any regular -er or -ir verb, you also take off the -er or -ir ending to form the stem and add the endings: , -iste, -ió, -imos, -isteis, -ieron.
  • The following table shows the preterite of three regular verbs: hablar (meaning to speak), comer (meaning to eat) and vivir (meaning to live).
(yo)hablécomívivíI spoke/ate/lived
(tú)hablastecomistevivisteyou spoke/ate/lived
(él)
(ella)

(usted)
hablócomvivhe spoke/ate/lived
she spoke/ate/lived
it spoke/ate/lived
you spoke/ate/lived
(nosotros/nosotras)hablamoscomimosvivimoswe spoke/ate/lived
(vosotros/vosotras)hablasteiscomisteisvivisteisyou spoke/ate/lived
(ellos/ellas)
(ustedes)
hablaroncomieronvivieronthey spoke/ate/lived
you spoke/ate/lived
Bailé con mi hermana.I danced with my sister.
No hablé con ella.I didn’t speak to her.
Comimos en un restaurante.We had lunch in a restaurant.
¿Cerraste la ventana?Did you close the window?
  • Note that Spanish has no direct translation of did or didn’t in questions or negative sentences. You simply use a past tense and make it a question by making your voice go up at the end or changing the word order; you make it negative by adding no.
TipRemember the accents on the yo and él/ella/usted forms of regular verbs in the preterite. Only an accent shows the difference, for example, between hablo I speak and habló he spoke.

3   Irregular verbs in the preterite

  • A number of verbs have very irregular forms in the preterite. The table shows some of the most common.
Verb(yo)(tú)(él)
(ella)
(usted)
(nosotros)
(nosotras)
(vosotros)
(vosotras)
(ellos)
(ellas)
(ustedes)
andar
to walk
anduveanduvisteanduvoanduvimosanduvisteisanduvieron
conducir
to drive
condujecondujistecondujocondujimoscondujisteiscondujeron
dar
to give
didistediodimosdisteisdieron
decir
to say
dijedijistedijodijimosdijisteisdijeron
estar
to be
estuveestuvisteestuvoestuvimosestuvisteisestuvieron
hacer
to do,
to make
hicehicistehizohicimoshicisteishicieron
ir
to go
fuifuistefuefuimosfuisteisfueron
poder
to be
able to
pudepudistepudopudimospudisteispudieron
poner
to put
pusepusistepusopusimospusisteispusieron
querer
to want
quisequisistequisoquisimosquisisteisquisieron
saber
to know
supesupistesuposupimossupisteissupieron
ser
to be
fuifuistefuefuimosfuisteisfueron
tener
to have
tuvetuvistetuvotuvimostuvisteistuvieron
traer
to bring
trajetrajistetrajotrajimostrajisteistrajeron
venir
to come
vinevinistevinovinimosvinisteisvinieron
ver
to see
vivisteviovimosvisteisvieron
  • Note that hizo (the él/ella/usted form of hacer) is spelt with a z.
  • For more information on Spelling, see Spelling.
Fue a Madrid.He went to Madrid.
Te vi en el parque.I saw you in the park.
No vinieron.They didn’t come.
¿Qué hizo?What did she do?
Se lo di a Teresa.I gave it to Teresa.
Fue en 1999.It was in 1999.
TipThe preterite forms of ser (meaning to be) are the same as the preterite forms of ir (meaning to go).
  • Some other verbs are regular except for the él/ella/usted and ellos/ellas/ustedes forms (third persons singular and plural). In these forms the stem vowel changes.
Verb(yo)(tú)(él)
(ella)
(usted)
(nosotros)
(nosotras)
(vosotros)
(vosotras)
(ellos)
(ellas)
(ustedes)
dormir
to sleep
dormídormistedurmiódormimosdormisteisdurmieron
morir
to die
morímoristemuriómorimosmoristeismurieron
pedir
to ask for
pedípedistepidiópedimospedisteispidieron
reír
to laugh
reíreísterioreímosreísteisrieron
seguir
to follow
seguíseguistesiguióseguimosseguisteissiguieron
sentir
to feel
sentísentistesintiósentimossentisteissintieron
  • Note that reír also has an accent in all persons apart from the él/ella/usted and ellos/ellas/ustedes (third persons singular and plural) forms.
Antonio durmió diez horas.Antonio slept for ten hours.
Murió en 1066.He died in 1066.
Pidió paella.He asked for paella.
¿Los siguió?Did she follow them?
Sintió un dolor en la pierna.He felt a pain in his leg.
Nos reímos mucho.We laughed a lot.
Juan no se rio.Juan didn’t laugh.
  • caer (meaning to fall) and leer (meaning to read) have an accent in all persons apart from the ellos/ellas/ustedes form (third person plural). In addition, the vowel changes to y in the él/ella/usted and ellos/ellas/ustedes forms (third persons singular and plural).
Verb(yo)(tú)(él)
(ella)
(usted)
(nosotros)
(nosotras)
(vosotros)
(vosotras)
(ellos)
(ellas)
(ustedes)
caer
to fall
caícaístecayócaímoscaísteiscayeron
construir
to build
construíconstruisteconstruyóconstruimosconstruisteisconstruyeron
leer
to read
leíleísteleyóleímosleísteisleyeron
  • Note that construir also changes to y in the él/ella/usted and ellos/ellas/ustedes forms (third persons singular and plural), but only has accents in the yo and él/ella/usted forms.
Se cayó por la ventana.He fell out of the window.
Ayer leí un artículo muy interesante.I read a very interesting article yesterday.
Construyeron una nueva autopista.They built a new motorway.

4   Other spelling changes in the preterite

  • Spanish verbs that end in -zar, -gar and -car in the infinitive change the z to c, the g to gu and the c to qu in the yo form (first person singular).
Verb(yo)(tú)(él)
(ella)
(usted)
(nosotros)
(nosotras)
(vosotros)
(vosotras)
(ellos)
(ellas)
(ustedes)
cruzar
to cross
crucécruzastecruzócruzamoscruzasteiscruzaron
empezar
to begin
empecéempezasteempezóempezamosempezasteisempezaron
pagar
to pay for
paguépagastepagópagamospagasteispagaron
sacar
to take out
saquésacastesacósacamossacasteissacaron
Crucé el río.I crossed the river.
Empecé a hacer mis deberes.I began doing my homework.
No pagué la cuenta.I didn’t pay the bill.
Me saqué las llaves del bolsillo.I took my keys out of my pocket.
  • Note that the change from g to gu and c to qu before e is to keep the sound hard.
  • For more information on Spelling, see Spelling.

5   Reflexive verbs in the preterite

  • The preterite of reflexive verbs is formed in just the same way as for ordinary verbs, except that you have to remember to give the reflexive pronoun (me, te, se, nos, os, se).
Me levanté a las siete.I got up at seven.
Key points
  • The preterite is the most common way to talk about the past in Spanish.
  • To form the preterite of regular -ar verbs, take off the -ar ending and add the endings: -é, -aste, -ó, -amos, -asteis, -aron.
  • To form the preterite of regular -er and -ir verbs, take off the -er and -ir endings and add the endings: -í, -iste, -ió, -imos, -isteis, -ieron.
  • There are a number of verbs which are irregular in the preterite. These forms have to be learnt.
  • With some verbs, the accents and spelling change in certain forms.

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