The Preterite Tense
The Preterite Tense (also spelled "preterit") is one of two ways to talk about events that happened in the past in Spanish. The preterite tense is used to indicate a single, completed action that took place at a specific point in time. For example:
Armando me llamó a las nueve.
Armando called me at nine o'clock.
Regresaron de España ayer.
They returned from Spain yesterday.
Olivia se fue esta tarde.
Olivia left this afternoon.
Preterite conjugations can be pretty tricky due to the large amount of irregular verbs and some other complicated situations. To learn how to form preterite conjugations, keep reading. For more on when to use the Preterite Tense, see Using the Imperfect and the Preterite.
Regular Preterite Tense Verbs
To conjugate regular "-ar" verbs in the preterite, take off the ending and add the following:
Don't let the "-é" in the yo form throw you off; it's still an "-ar" verb conjugation. It's absolutely critical that the "o" in the él/ella/usted form conjugation get an accent mark so it isn't confused with the present tense yo form conjugation.
To conjugate regular "-er" and "-ir" verbs in the preterite, take off the endings and add the following:
"-er" / "-ir" endings:
Here are some examples:
Preterite Spelling Change Verbs
The yo form endings for "-ar" verbs occasionally cause pronunciation problems because some letters are pronounced differently depending on the vowels that follow them. The letters "c" and "g," for example, sound different when they're followed by an "a" or an "o" than when they're followed by an "e" or "i." Since the preterite yo form ending is an "e", we need to change the spellings of the stems of "-car" verbs, "-gar" verbs, and "-zar" verbs in order to keep the pronunciation consistent. For example:
Tocar has a "-que" ending in the yo form to keep the original "c" sound being pronounced like a "k" rather than like an "s." Jugar now has a "-gue" ending to keep the original "g" sound pronounced like a "g" rather than like an "h." And lanzar now has a "-ce" because, well anytime we can use a "c," we should. The "e" ending gives us an opportunity to do so.
It doesn't happen often, but "-guar" verbs will also require a spelling change. Take a verb like averiguar which means "to verify." When we conjugate in the yo form of the preterite, we need to add a "dieresis," which means the "u" becomes a "ü":
Yo averigüé los datos ayer.
I verified the facts yesterday.
The "ü" tells us to pronounce the "gu" like a "gw" so that our pronunciation will be consistent with the infinitive, averiguar.
These spelling changes only happen for "-ar" preterite verbs and only in the yo form because the "-e" is the only ending that creates problems for the "c," "g," "z" and the "gu."
More Spelling Changes
Certain "-er" and "-ir" verbs are also going to need spelling changes to keep pronunciation consistent. This time around it's the él/ella/Ud. and ellos/ellas/Uds. forms that cause problems. The endings for those conjugations are "-ió" and "-ieron." Notice how they both start with two vowels? If we have a verb whose stem ends in a vowel, and then we add one of those endings, we're going to end up with three vowels in a row. It's difficult to pronounce a word with a three vowel combination. To solve that problem, we change the "i" to a "y."
Some common trouble making verbs conjugated in the ellos/ellas/Uds. form:
i→y spelling change:
The él/ella/Ud. form conjugations will use the same spelling change. Here is a complete set of conjugations for some common verbs:
Note: In addition to the spelling change, it is necessary to add an accent mark to the tú, nosotros, and vosotros form endings. (The yo form already has an accent.)
As you can see, this "i" → "y" spelling change only occurs in the bottom row of conjugations.
Note: Verbs ending in or use and endings instead of and because they already have a sound in their stems: gruñó, zambulleron.
An exception to the "i" → "y" spelling change rule are "-guir" verbs and "-quir" verbs. While the stems do end in a vowel, the "u" is not actually being pronounced. Because of that, we can pronounce the three vowels in a row and a "y" is not necessary.
Preterite Stem Changing Verbs
Stem Changing "-ar" and "-er" Verbs
All "-ar" and "-er" verbs which have stem changes in the present tense are completely regular in the preterite, which is to say that they don't have stem changes in the preterite. Notice how the stem does not change in any conjugation:
Stem Changing "-ir" Verbs
Stem-changing "-ir" verbs do have a stem change which is sometimes different from the present tense stem change; "e → ie" stem changers in the present tense become "e → i" stem changers in the preterite, "e → i" stem changers remain "e → i", and "o → ue" stem changers become "o → u":
e → ie
e → i
e → i
e → i
o → ue
o → u
However, this change only happens in the él/ella/usted form and the ellos/ellas/ustedes form:
In some books verbs like these will have special notations to let you know about the additional preterite stem change: sentir (e → ie, e → i), dormir (o → ue, o → u), etc.
Because these additional changes only take place on the bottom line of the conjugation chart they are sometimes referred to as "basement buddies."
Irregular Preterite Tense Verbs
The "U" Group, "I" Group, and "J" Group
There are many irregular preterite conjugations which have both stem changes (only in the preterite tense) and their own set of endings. It can be helpful to put them into groups to help you memorize them.
The "U" Group
Note: Any verbs based on these irregular verbs have the same irregularities; imponer → inpus-, proponer → propus-, detener → detuv-, etc.
Most of the irregular verbs have stem changes which involve the letter "u":
The "I" Group
Note: Any verbs based on these irregular verbs have the same irregularities; convenir → convin-, prevenir → previn-, etc.
There are a couple others with stem changes involving the letter "i":
For both of these groups, the "u" group "i" group, there is a different set of endings:
Note that these endings are very similar to the "-ir" verbs with the exception of the yo and él/ella/usted forms, and that there are no accent marks needed. Some examples:
The "J" Group
Note: Any verbs based on these irregular verbs have the same irregularities;
bendecir → bendij-, predecir → predij-, extraer → extraj-, etc.
There is one more group of stem changers, the "j" group:
The endings for the "j" group stems are almost identical to the "u"/"i"
Notice that there is no "i" in the ellos/ellas/ustedes form ending. Some examples:
Other Irregular Preterite Verbs
There are several other completely irregular preterite verbs. Here are the conjugations for dar, hacer, ir, and ser:
Note: The verb satisfacer (to satisfy) follows the pattern of hacer: satisfice, satisficiste, satisfizo, etc.
Even though dar is an "-ar" verb, it takes "-er" / "-ir" verb endings (minus the accent marks).
If you look carefully, you'll notice that hacer isn't completely irregular (it could fit quite nicely the "i" group) but the need for consistent pronunciation forces us to use a "z" in the él/ella/usted form.
That's not a typothe conjugations of ir and ser are identicalcontext makes the meaning clear.
And there is one more (slightly) irregular preterite verb:
The yo and él/ella/Ud. forms of ver do not have accent marks.
The Spanish preterite tense (elpretéritoo el pretérito perfectosimple) is used to describe actions completed at a point in the past.
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
|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.
Siemprecocinamospaella los domingos.
We always cook paella on Sundays.
Ayercocinamospaella para mi familia.
Yesterday we cooked paella for my family.
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
|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.
Compréun coche nuevo.
I bought a new car.
Ben y Cristinase casaron.
Ben and Cristina got married.
Robertonacióen Costa Rica.
Roberto was born in Costa Rica.
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).
It began to snow.
La películaterminócon una sorpresa.
The movie ended with a surprise.
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.
Regreséanoche a las diez.
I got back last night at ten.
Vivióen Perú por tres meses.
He lived in Peru for three months.
Leísteeste libro el mes pasado.
You read this book last month.
Nachonacióel tres de agosto.
Nacho was born on August third.
4. Events in a Sequence
The preterite is used for listing past events that took place in a sequence.
Me levanté, me vestí,ysalípara la fiesta.
I got up, got dressed, and left for the party.
Túentraste, bebisteun vaso de agua ycomisteuna hamburguesa.
You came in, drank a glass of water, and ate a hamburger.
Looking for information on the differences between the preterite and the imperfect? Check out this article!
The Spanish Preterite (Past) Tense
The Spanish preterite tense is one of five forms used to describe actions or events that occurred in the past. The preterite is used to describe actions which have been completed.
Spanish verbs come in three categories (-ar, -ir, and -er) and change (“conjugate”) according to who performed it and when the action occurred.
To form the preterite in Spanish with regular verbs, remove the -ar, -ir, or -er and add the appropriate ending from the chart below.
|Person||Verbs ending in -ar||Verbs ending in -er and -ir|
|él, ella, usted||-ó||-ió|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes||-aron||-ieron|
Note that the nosotros form is the same as the present tense form. Adding temporal expressions such as ayer (yesterday) helps speakers distinguish when something took place.
See our guide on Spanish pronouns if you need to brush up on the subject pronouns found in the “Person” category above.
Irregular Preterite Verbs
All regular verbs can be transformed into the preterite tense easily. Irregular verb conjugations take some memorization.
Fortunately, many of the most common irregular preterite verbs follow patterns, consisting of a new stem and different endings for a few subjects.
Another interesting phenomenon to note is that the ser and ir preterite conjugations are identical.
|Verb||Preterite Stem||Irregular Endings|
|ser & ir||fu-||él fue, ellos fueron|
|estar||estuv-||yo estuve, tu estuviste, él estuvo, nosotros estuvimos, vosotros estuvisteis, ellos estuvieron|
|tener||tuv-||yo tuve, él tuvo|
|poder||pud-||yo pude, él pudo|
|hacer||hic- (most subjects), hiz- (third person singular)||yo hice, él hizo|
|poner||pus-||yo puse, él puso|
|decir||dij-||yo dije, él dijo|
|ver||vi-||yo vi, él vio|
|querer||quis-||yo quise, él quiso|
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When to Use Preterite
The preterite form of past tense should feel familiar to English speakers, as it is very similar to the English simple past tense (jump + -ed = jumped). However, English speakers should be careful not to overuse the preterite when other Spanish past tense forms would be more appropriate, such as the imperfect for ongoing actions.
Completed Actions in the Past
Spanish past tense forms allow speakers to use a convenient verb ending to express for how long an action occurred, whether it is habitual, or whether it was completed. English still expresses these important distinctions, but often with a combination of verb tenses and extra auxiliary verbs.
As we are focusing on the preterite in this guide, we will illustrate what a “completed” action means by contrasting it with an “ongoing” action. In English, we often use “have been” or “used to” to denote that an action is continuous (“progressive”), ongoing, or habitual. Consider the difference in meaning between the following examples:
1a) I have been attending class / I used to attend class. (habitual) 1b) I attended class.
2a) I am building a house. (continuous/ongoing) 2b) I built a house.
1a denotes a habitual action and is interpreted to mean that someone has been attending class regularly for some time.
2a denotes a continuous action, which has occurred in the past but is still ongoing. In English we use the present continuous to describe this action, while Spanish uses a similar form made up of the verb estar + the gerund (gerundio a.k.a. verb form ending in -ing in English and -iendo/-ando). If the action was ongoing or in progress in the past, the imperfecto (imperfect) form is used.
In 1b and 2b, it is clear that the specific action is complete. 1b conveys that you attended a specific occurrence of a class (which one is implied from the context of the conversation, perhaps a class earlier that day). 2b conveys that the house is complete.
Now that you have an idea of what we mean when we say that an action is complete, let’s see other examples of when to use the preterite tense.
Starts and Stops
The Spanish preterite is used to talk about beginnings and endings of events, often using the verbs comenzar (to begin), empezar (to start), terminar (to finish), and acabar (to end).
La fiesta terminó cuando se fue (The party ended when he left).
This may be confusing when speaking about the beginning of something, as it seems that the event described is ongoing. However, consider the difference between the duration of the action here:
1a) Empezóa llover ayer (It started raining yesterday). 1b) Recuerdo que siempre llovía en aquel pueblo (I remember it always rained in that village).
When Mentioning Specific Dates or Times
The preterite is appropriate whenever you include a temporal phrase denoting a specific time or day that something occurred.
Mi hermana nació el pasado abril (My sister was born last April).
Ella vivió en Costa Rica durante un mes (She lived in Costa Rica for one month).
Lleguéal hotel ayer a las siete de la tarde (I arrived at the hotel yesterday at seven in the evening).
The preterite can also communicate that actions were part of a chain of events or were repeated a certain number of times.
Abrióla caja, vio al gatito, y sonrió (He/She opened the box, saw the kitten, and smiled).
Comítres churros ayer (I ate three churros yesterday).
The preterite is used when an ongoing event (denoted with the verb phrase “estar” (in imperfect) + gerund (verb form ending with -iendo or -ando in Spanish and -ing in English) was interrupted by another event.
Estaba (imperfect) durmiendo (gerund) cuando mi perroladró (preterite) ruidosamente (I was sleeping when my dog barked loudly).
Estaba (imperfect) corriendo (gerund) cuando se me rompió (preterite) el zapato (I was running when my shoe broke).
With Certain Verbs and Phrases
Some verbs and temporal phrases are often found with the Spanish preterite.
Check out these examples of temporal phrases that can trigger the preterite:
- una vez (one time)
- ayer (yesterday)
- anteayer (the day before yesterday)
- anoche (last night)
- la semana pasada (last week)
- el año pasado (last year)
- el otro día (the other day)
- entonces (then)
- en aquel momento (at that moment)
- desde el primer momento (from the first moment)*
*Desde el primer momentoalways triggers use of the preterite.
Some verbs inherently express actions which fall into the semantic categories we described above. Just like the phrases above, these verbs can be used with preterite or imperfect (for descriptive/non-specific cases). For example, these verbs interrupt another ongoing event or state of being:
- cumplir años (to turn an age)
- darse cuenta de (to realize)
- decidir (to decide)
- descubrir (to discover)
- salir (to leave)
- llegar (to arrive)
These verbs describe an event with a very specific, implied ending. When used in the past, these are most often used with the preterite:
- casarse (to get married)
- graduarse (to graduate)
- morir (to die)
- nacer (to be born)
Note that these verbs can also be used with the imperfecto to set the scene (descriptive) or non-specific contexts, but that their meaning changes. For example, notice the difference in meaning in the following sentences:
Ayer estaba en casa y, de repente, llamaron a la puerta. Yesterday I was at home, and, suddenly, there was a knock at the door.
Ayer estuve en casa todo el día. Yesterday I was at home all day.
Don’t forget the tilde
All written accent marks are called tildes in Spanish (tilde = singular). In English, the word “tilde” only refers to the mark found above the letter “n” in Spanish (ñ). Since this article is written in English, we’ll refer to tildes as “accent marks.” The accent marks in Spanish include: á, é, í, ó, ú, ñ, and the symbol diéresis, which looks like this: ü
Accent marks denote a slightly different pronunciation of a given letter and are often crucial to distinguishing between two words written with the same letters. For example, the subject pronountú means “you,” while it’s accent-less brother tu is the possessive adjective used to denote that something belongs to the addressee (“your”).
Also, the meanings of words distinguished by accent marks are not always related like the above tú/tu example, e.g., mas (“but”) versus más (“more”). Therefore, it’s important to spend some time listening to the different sounds associated with these letters so that you can correctly produce the different forms of these verbs.
As we are unaccustomed to paying attention to accent marks in English, it is tempting to brush them aside to figure out later. In the case of the Spanish preterite and present tense conjugations, the accent mark is the only thing differentiating the tense and person in first person singular (yo), third person singular (él, ella), and second person formal singular (usted). Because it is customary to leave the subject pronoun out in Spanish, this means that the accent is the only way to differentiate between tenses in the following sentences:
Cantémuchas canciones en la fiesta del sábado pasado (I sang many songs at the party last Saturday).
Quieren que cante en la fiesta del sábado (They want me to sing at the party on Saturday).
Knowing the rules for Spanish preterite conjugation is an essential first step to learning how to talk about things that occurred in the past. Memorizing conjugation tables may be helpful at first, but without a lot of practice forming full sentences, you will always be delayed in natural communication while you remember how to apply the rule.
Sign up for Lingvist’s online Spanish course to begin practicing these conjugations in context, and before you know it the preterite will begin to feel automatic and natural!
Preterite regular verbs in Spanish
The Spanish Preterite tense with regular verbs
Grammar notes on the preterite with regular verbs
We use the preterite to talk about past events and facts that happened at a specific point in time. In order to form the preterite we need to remember certain rules. Let's start first with the preterite regular verbs. Regular verbs have three different endings in the infinitive form, so by applying this rule you can conjugate them all. Then we have the irregular preterite verbs. The changes in these verbs not always follow a clear pattern and so you will need to memorize many of them.
Preterite Regular Verbs - Verbos Regulares
|Ud., él, ella||habló||comió||vivió|
|Uds., ellos, ellas||hablaron||comieron||vivieron|
As you can see, the verbs ending in –ar have a set of endings, whereas the verbs ending in –er and –ir share the same set of endings. The letters that are not coloured, are the stem of the verb, which do not change in regular verbs.
Look at these examples of conjugation:
Pedro habló (hablar) con María por teléfono ayer.
Pedro spoke to María on the phone yesterday.
Ellos comieron (comer) mucho anoche
Note: In the preterite, the nosotros form of –ar verbs looks the same as in the present. The context will help you understand if a text or speech refers to the present or the past.
Grammar Exercises - Preterite
Interactive Grammar Exercise
Complete the following sentences with the Preterite of the regular verbs given in brackets.
Note: Try to use the correct written accents if you can e.g.: á, é, í, ó, ú, ñ, ü.
(Install "Spanish Characters" from the Chrome Web Store for easy use of accents)
If you don't know the correct answer, type '?' to reveal it.
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Regular preterite endings spanish
Regular Preterite Verbs
The following lesson provides a summary overview of the preterite tense in Spanish. For deeper study, we have more in-depth lessons that cover this topic, starting with Preterite vs Imperfect I and Preterite I.
The preterite tense is used to refer to actions that occurred at a fixed point in time.
I called at
Llamé a la una.
The preterite tense is also used to refer to actions in the past that were performed a specific number of times.
I called you twice.
Te llamé dos veces.
The preterite tense is also used to refer to actions that occurred during a specific enclosed period of time.
He lived there for 5 years.
Él vivió allí por cinco años.
The preterite is also used for actions that are part of a chain of events.
I bought a hat, sat down on a bench and fell asleep.
Compré un sombrero, me senté en un banco y me dormí.
The preterite is also used for sudden changes of mood, feelings or opinions.
At that moment, I was not afraid.
En ese momento, no tuve miedo.
The preterite is frequently associated with phrases that pinpoint a particular occasion or specific time frame.
ayer por la mañana
ayer por la tarde
the day before yesterday
desde el primer momento
from the first moment
durante dos siglos
for two centuries
el año pasado
el lunes por la noche
el mes pasado
el otro día
the other day
en ese momento
at that moment
hace dos días, años
two days, years ago
la semana pasada
If the action is in the past, and you can determine precisely when it occurred, or how many times it occurred, then you will use the preterite.
Regular forms of the preterite are formed by adding the following endings to the stem of the verb:
|-ar verbs||example: hablar|
|-er verbs, -ir verbs||examples: comer, vivir|
The UAZ was shaking violently, the suburban highway was replaced by a dirt road half an hour ago. From the eyes of my wife, I saw that the idea of going to visit Yegor Stanislavovich no longer seems to her as fun and pleasant a walk. As before. A young driver, a guy in a military uniform with stripes in which I absolutely do not understand, on the contrary, apparently.
Experienced sheer pleasure from delivering guests, and especially from a guest.
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Yes, madam, five more minutes. Came a man's voice from the kitchen. Jane realized that the guy himself would not just get off and for herself had already decided how she would act. He was already very close, young and even handsome, but insolent and threatening.