The preterite, also known as the simple past, is one of the Spanish past tenses. The preterite is used for finished actions in a specific moment in the past, for example: Anoche terminé la serie. (Last night, I finished the series.) Today we’ll cover how to form regular and irregular verbs in the preterite and how to use them correctly. Finally, we will go over the Spanish verbs that change meaning when used in their preterite form. Ready? Let’s see how you can incorporate the preterite in your Spanish conversations!
Table of Contents
What is the preterite?
The preterite is a tense that is used in Spanish to express an action, an event, or a state that occurred and was finished at a specific time in the past. For example:
Action → Viví cinco años en Lima.
Event → La fiesta fue en el parque.
State → María estuvo enferma la semana pasada.
I lived in Lima for five years.
The party took place at the park.
María was sick last week.
Just like with any other tense in Spanish, the preterite has its own set of endings.
|ella, él, usted||-ó|
|ellas, ellos, |
* vosotros/vosotras is only used in Spain
Check out these Spanish conjugation tables that will help you learn the patterns for regular and irregular verbs.
Notice three things about the conjugations of the preterite:
- -er and -ir conjugations have the same endings.
- The conjugation in the third-person singular (él, ella, usted) is quite similar to that of the first person singular (yo) in the present tense. There’s one thing that makes all the difference and that is the pronunciation, indicated with the accent mark:
Simple present (first-person singular): Yo trabajo en la tienda. I work at the shop.
Preterite (third-person singular): Ella trabajó en la tienda. She worked at the shop.
This interesting and important difference only happens in verbs ending in -ar.
3. The conjugation of the preterite for verbs ending in -ar and -ir in the first person plural (nosotros, nosotras) is the same as the conjugation for the same subjects in the simple present. Because they look and sound the same, we use time markers to distinguish them.
Simple present: Usualmente trabajamos nueve horas. Usually we work nine hours.
Preterite: Ayer trabajamos nueve horas. Yesterday we worked nine hours.
Simple present: Nosotros vivimos en la calle Vicuña. We live on Vicuña street.
Preterite: El año pasado nosotros vivimos en esa casa. Last year we lived in that house.
Did you know that you can also use other tenses in Spanish to refer to the past? The imperfect, the present perfect, and the simple present can all be used to express past actions, although each has its own specific uses. For the time being, we’ll focus on the preterite. Now that you know how to form it, let’s learn how to use it.
To talk about completed events in the past
- Completed events/actions
El verano pasado fui a Colombia. Last summer I went to Colombia.Phrases like el verano pasado (last summer) are time markers commonly used with the preterite. We’ve created this list for you with the most common ones.
- Habitual actions limited in time
Use the preterite when talking about habits or routines from a specific time in the past:
Mi mamá me llevó a la escuela durante tres años.
My mom took me to school for three years.
- Repeated completed actions
You can also use the preterite for repeated completed actions in the past:
Mi mamá me llevó al parque tres veces el año pasado.
My mom took me to the park three times last year.
To talk about a sequence of actions or events
When we want to list a sequence of events or actions that happened in a specific moment in the past that are now finished, we also need the preterite. This is frequently used in narrations and biographies.
- Single and consecutive actions in general
Imagine you’re telling your friends about the sequence of events that happened on August 4th, before you took your flight to Colombia:
Desperté a las 7, me bañé, desayuné y llamé un taxi para ir al aeropuerto.
I woke up at 7, took a shower, had breakfast, and called a taxi to go to the airport.
Let’s continue with our summer vacation story. Imagine you’re talking about the tour you took on August 5th and you want to list all the things you did that day. Let’s see how that would look using the preterite:
Primero visitamos la catedral. Después fuimos a la bahía. Luego estuvimos en el castillo de San Felipe, donde aprendimos sobre piratas.
First, we visited the cathedral. Then we went to the bay. Later, we were in San Felipe’s castle, where we learned about pirates.
In biographies, we list the most important events in a person’s life. It’s also appropriate to use the preterite here:
La guía habló sobre el pirata Francis Drake. Él nació en 1540, empezó su carrera como marino a los 13 años, exploró todos los mares del mundo, participó en guerras y murió en Panamá en 1596.
The guide talked about the pirate Francis Drake. He was born in 1540, started his sailing career at the age of 13, explored all the seas in the world, participated in wars, and died in Panama in 1596.
If you want to sound more fluent when using the preterite, we’ve gathered some useful connectors for a sequence of events. Make sure you check it out!
To refer to the definite time of a completed action in the past
- The duration of an action
If we emphasize how long an activity took in the past, then the preterite is our go-to tense:
El recorrido por la ciudad tomó 5 horas.
The city tour took 5 hours.
You can also use the preterite in Spanish to emphasize:
- The beginning or end of an action
You can indicate when an action started:
Empecé a planear mi viaje en abril.
I started to plan my trip in April.
- Or, if you know when an action ended:
Ayer caminé por la ciudad hasta las 9 de la noche.
Yesterday I walked around the city until 9 pm.
To talk about interruptions
Combined with a verb in the imperfect, the preterite can be used to talk about an interrupting action or event in progress:
Caminaba por Cartagena cuando vi a mi amiga Diana.
I was walking around Cartagena when I saw my friend Diana.
To indicate change in a condition or belief
We can use the preterite when talking about a change in a condition or belief. In this particular case, the belief or condition is expressed in the preterite, and the change is expressed with the Spanish imperfect:
Creí que me iba a caer. I thought I was going to fall down.
Typically a change in condition is is expressed simply by using a preterite verb:
Me casé en abril. (change from unmarried to married)
I got married in April.
The preterite for actions or events that are not usually repeated
The preterite is used to refer to events that typically happen once in a lifetime or that are not typically recurrent. For example, we’re only born once and we only die once. So, these types of verbs, such as nacer (to be born) and morir (to die) are used in the preterite. Some other events, like milestones, typically only happen once (or rarely), so we use the preterite for verbs such as graduarse (to graduate), cumplir años (to turn a specific age), and jubilarse (to retire), etc. As you can see, all of these actions refer to specific stages in life. Let’s look at some examples (featuring my grandfather):
|Life stage||Preterite action|
|Nació en 1945.|
He was born in 1945.
|Se graduó de la escuela de música de la ciudad.|
He graduated from the city’s music school.
|Se casó con mi abuela.|
He married my grandma.
|Se jubiló a los 60 años.|
He retired at the age of 60.
Verbs that change meaning in the preterite
There is a group of verbs such as poder (to be able to) and saber (to know) that change meaning when they are in the preterite. That is, in the present they mean something different than in the past. Let’s go over these verbs!
|To know / to be acquainted with|
Conozco al amigo de tu hermana.
I know your sister’s friend.
|To meet / to become familar|
Conocí a los nuevos vecinos anoche.
I met the new neighbors last night.
When we talk about getting together with someone that you already know, we use the verb encontrarse con.
Me encontré con mis amigas en el café.
I met my friends at the coffee shop.
|To know information / to know how to do something.|
Saben el nombre del profesor.
They know the teacher’s name.
|To find out |
Supieron cómo resolver el problema.
They found out how to work out the problem.
|Can / to be able to |
Puedo explicarte la situación.
I can explain the situation.
Pude llegar a tiempo.
I managed to arrive on time.
In a negative sentence, poder also has a different meaning:
negative → no poder (to fail)
No pude leer el libro.
I failed to read the book.
Quiero comer helado.
I want to eat ice cream.
Quise hablar con el gerente.
I tried to talk to the manager.
In a negative sentence, querer also has a different meaning:
negative → no querer (to refuse)
No quisimos quedarnos en ese hotel.
We refused to stay in that hotel.
‘Tener que’Tener que (have to) + infinitive is used to talk about obligations or things you have to do. The expression in the preterite tuve que + infinitive (had to + verb) is used to express a fulfilled obligation in the past. It usually refers to an activity that was not planned.
|To have to (obligation)|
Tengo que preparar mi almuerzo.
I have to prepare my lunch.
|Had to (fulfilled obligation)|
Carmen tuvo que comprar un sándwich porque olvidó el suyo en casa.
Carmen had to buy herself a sandwich because she forgot hers at home.
Notice that with tener que if the obligation was not necessarily fulfilled, then you need the imperfect tense:
Tenía que preparar el almuerzo, pero se me hizo tarde.
I had to prepare lunch, but I was running late.
Some of the verbs described above belong to a category of verbs called Modal verbs. If you are interested in knowing more about them, head over to our post on Modal verbs in Spanish!
‘Ser’ and ‘ir’ have the same conjugation in the preterite
The verbs ser (to be) and ir (to go) have different meanings, but they happen to be twins in the preterite — meaning they have the same forms! Because of this, it’s very important to rely on the context of the sentence or conversation to distinguish them.
To refresh your memory on the conjugations, we’ve added a table for you (p. 10).
Let’s see some examples:
Fui al mercado a comprar fruta. I went to the market to buy fruit.
“The market” indicates a place, so it’s likely that you’re going to the market and not that you are the market, right? So logically, this sentence refers to the verb ir rather than ser.
⤷ TIP Remember to use estar (to be) for location if you want to say you were at the market:
Estuve en el mercado. I was at the market.
Now, let’s look at an example with ser:
Fui capitán del equipo en el 2002. I was captain of the team in 2002.
Being captain of the team indicates a role that I had. In this case, it is more likely that the sentence refers to ser rather than ir.
Because the meanings of ser and ir are so different, it’s difficult to mix them up. But to help you know whether the verb is ser or ir, keep the following contextual cues in mind:
‘Ser’ in the preterite is used to assess past facts or situations
As you already know, the verb ser is used to describe the qualities or characteristics of a person or thing. We can use ser to express opinions, such as making assessments of a past fact or situation that has been completed. Some situations that are typically completed include life stages, experiences, or events. For example:
- A life stage
Mi adolescencia fue caótica. My teenage years were chaotic.
- An experience
El recorrido en barco fue emocionante. The ship tour was exciting.
La boda de mi primo fue muy elegante. My cousin’s wedding was very elegant.
To sum up
In this post we have discussed when to use the preterite in Spanish. Let’s have a quick recap. Use the preterite:
- when talking about actions that happened in a specific moment in the past that are now finished
- when listing a sequence of finished actions in the past
- when emphasizing the duration of a past event
- when talking about interrupting actions in the past
- when indicating changes in a condition or belief
- to express actions or events that are not usually repeated.
Also, keep in mind that:
- the meanings of some verbs change in the preterite
- the verbs ser and ir have the same conjugation in the preterite
- Ser in the preterite is used to assess past facts or situations.