A simple guide to Spanish preterite tense

A simple guide to Spanish preterite tense

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated December 2, 2022

Do you know what the Spanish preterite tense is? If not, we’ve got you. It’s one of the main verb forms we can use to talk about the past. Sure, there’s no time like the present, but being able to express actions that have already happened is also necessary.

Think about how many times you refer to past events in your daily life. What about when you tell your colleagues stories about your weekend?

This is why it’s key that we study it and practice it when learning a new language. Spanish is no exception. Ready to dive in?

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What is the preterite tense in Spanish?

The preterite tense (pretérito) is used to describe actions or events that have been completed at a particular moment in the past. In English, we would think of it as the simple past tense. Take a look at these cues to recognize the preterite tense:

  • There’s a reference to the specific date or time that the event occurred (yesterday, in the Winter, last year, etc.).
    Sofía regresó del mercado hace dos horas (Sofía returned from the market two hours ago).
  • The event happened when a certain condition occurred.
    Me fui de la fiesta cuando empezó a llover (I left the party when it started to rain).
  • In a sequence of events.
    Julia estudió para su examen, cenó y descansó (Julia studied for her exam, had dinner and rested).
  • It’s referring to the start or end of an action that is now completed.
    La clase de español empezó a las 9:00 a.m. y terminó a las 11:00 a.m. (the Spanish lesson began at 9:00 a.m. and ended at 11:00 a.m.).
  • Maybe there’s no reference to time, but we can tell without a doubt that the action is finished.
    Sally horneó un pay (Sally baked a pie).

When should we not use the Spanish preterite tense?

We don’t use it for actions that happened repeatedly, or were progressing, in the past (I used to, I was…). Additionally, we don’t use it when we’re describing conditions, people or places. This is because we don’t know how long the conditions persisted. We also don’t know if the event/action happened at a particular time. For these exceptions, we turn to the imperfect past tense

Take a look at this example that shows the difference between the two:

  • Imperfect past tense: Mariana se sentía cansada (Mariana was feeling tired). 
  • Preterite tense: Mariana se sintió cansada toda la semana pasada (Mariana felt tired all throughout last week).

In the first sentence, we don’t know when Mariana was feeling tired or if she’s still feeling tired. In the second sentence, the preterite tense is used because it clearly states when.

How do we form the Spanish preterite tense?

The preterite tense in Spanish requires us to change the endings and sometimes the stems of the verb. This will be determined by whether the verb is regular or irregular and by who exactly performed the action (the subject).

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Preterite tense in Spanish: Regular verbs

To conjugate the preterite tense for regular verbs, we first remove the -ar, -ir or -er ending of their infinitive form. We then add the appropriate ending according to the subject. Here’s a preterite tense chart for Spanish verbs:

SubjectEnding for -ar verbsEnding for -er and -ir verbs
Yo (I)
Tú (you)-aste-iste
Él, ella, usted (he, she, formal ‘you’)-ió
Nosotros, nosotras (masculine ‘we’, feminine ‘we’)-amos-imos
Ellos, ellas, ustedes (masculine ‘they’, feminine ‘they’, plural ‘you’)-aron-ieron

Here are some examples:

  • Comer (to eat): yo comí sushi (I ate sushi).
  • Cantar (to sing): ellas cantaron anoche (they sang last night).
  • Sentir (to feel): nos sentimos tristes cuando te fuiste esta mañana (we felt sad when you left this morning).

Notice that, for -ar and -ir verbs, the nosotros form is conjugated the same way in the preterite and the simple present tense. 

Preterite tense in Spanish: Irregular verbs

In the case of irregular verbs, the stems will also suffer a change. The best course of action here is to memorize the conjugations. Fortunately, you will find patterns. 

Here are a few of the most common irregular verbs and their preterite conjugations (with the new stem in bold):

SubjectDecir (to say)Ir (to go)Estar (to be)Tener (to have)Ver (to see)Hacer (to make)
Yo (I)DijeFuiFuiTuveViHice
Tú (you)DijisteFuisteFuisteTuvisteVisteHiciste
Él, ella, usted (he, she, formal ‘you’)DijoFueFueTuvoVioHizo
Nosotros,nosotras (masculine ‘we’, feminine ‘we’)DijimosFuimosFuimosTuvimosVimosHicimos
Ellos, ellas,ustedes (masculine ‘they’, feminine ‘they’, plural ‘you’) DijeronFueronFueronTuvieronVieronHicieron

Did you notice something peculiar? The preterite for ir and estar is the same. Yes! These two verbs should be part of your Spanish vocabulary.

Tips to learn the Spanish preterite tense

The best way to learn the Spanish preterite tense is to practice and… practice some more! We’ve got some ideas to help you do it:

  • Write down your own preterite charts in Spanish. Did you know that writing by hand helps us memorize information and focus better?
  • Start journaling in Spanish. Try to do this a few times a week (or every day if you can). We guarantee you’ll be using the preterite tense often. It’s also a great way to measure your progress with the language!
  • Watch movies, listen to podcasts or read the news in Spanish (BBC Mundo is a good start). These will all be filled with preterite conjugations and will help you learn them.

Simple indeed

Learning the Spanish preterite tense doesn’t have to take us down a grammar rabbit hole. In reality, it’s simple after some easy memorization. Is the action or event completed? If yes, use preterite. After that, consider the exceptions to the rules outlined above. You’ll be ready to do some storytelling in Spanish in no time!

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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