The preterite is probably the first Spanish past tense you’ll learn, as it’s used to talk about past events which have been completed.
Once you’ve learned the basics of verb conjugation in the present tense, you’ll quickly realise that the next important grammar step is conjugating verbs in the past tense.
After all, trying to describe your weekend without knowing the Spanish past tense endings is practically impossible!
With five different past tenses in Spanish, the idea of learning them all can be daunting! That’s why we recommend starting with the most commonly used tense – the preterite (pretérito indefinido).
The preterite is a great one to start with as it’s used to talk about past events that have been completed – such as what you got up to on the weekend or on holiday. It’s used in the same way as the ‘Simple Past’ in English.
And because it’s fairly easy to understand, it’s just a matter of learning the preterite endings and you’ll be on your way!
Verb endings not only tell you when the action occurs, but it will also give you a better idea of who is performing the action.
So let’s take a look at how to conjugate verbs in the preterite.
Regular preterite verb endings
How to conjugate the preterite tense
To conjugate a regular verb, you simply:
- drop the infinitive ending, –ar, –er or –ir
- add the preterite ending, according to who’s performing the action.
How many sets of regular preterite endings are there?
The good news is there are only two sets of endings for regular preterite verbs: one for –ar verbs and another one for –er and –ir verbs.
Less conjugations to memorise – that’s a win!
Preterite verbs ending in -ar
|Person||-ar ending||Verb: trabajar||Translation: to work|
|él / ella / usted||-ó||trabajó||he / she worked|
|nosotros / nosotras||-amos||trabajamos||we worked|
|vosotros / vosotras||-asteis||trabajasteis||you all worked (informal)|
|ellos / ellas / ustedes||-aron||trabajaron||they worked / you all worked (formal)|
Worth noting: The third person singular form (él, ella, usted) for -ar verbs looks almost identical to the first person form (yo) in the present tense, except for the accent above the ‘o’.
Yo trabajo (I work).
Él trabajó (he worked).
The pronunciation in Spanish is also quite different, with more emphasis on the last syllable in trabajó.
Don’t forget that the written accent will change the tense and even the person performing the action!
Preterite verbs ending in -er and -ir
|Person||-er / -ir endings||Verbs: comer / vivir||Translation: to eat / to live|
|yo||-í||comí / viví||I ate / I lived|
|tú||-iste||comiste / viviste||you ate / you lived|
|él / ella / usted||-ió||comió / vivió||he / she ate / lived|
|nosotros / nosotras||-imos||comimos / vivimos||we ate / lived|
|vosotros / vosotras||-isteis||comisteis / vivisteis||you all ate / you all lived (informal)|
|ellos / ellas / ustedes||-ieron||comieron / vivieron||they ate / they lived you all ate / you all lived (formal)|
The endings for nosotros in the -ar and -ir verbs are the same in the preterite and in the present tense. But the context will always help you figure out if it refers to the past or the present.
|Normalmente cenamos fuera los viernes por la noche.|
|We usually go out for dinner on Friday nights.|
|Cenamos fuera ayer por la noche.|
|We went out for dinner last night.|
Remember, Spain is the only Spanish speaking country where you use vosotros / vosotras to address a group of people informally. Ustedes is only used in formal situations.
But in all Latin American countries, as well as in the Canary Islands, ustedes is always used to address a group of people, whether it’s a formal or an informal situation.
Keen to learn Spanish for an upcoming trip? Try Busuu’s dedicated Spanish for travel course.
Irregular preterite verb endings
While regular verbs are pretty simple, the preterite tense does have a large number of irregular conjugations.
But don’t give up just yet. We are not going to learn a never-ending list of irregular forms.
Instead, we are just going to focus on a few sneaky irregular verbs that you will use the most. And we’ll give you a few tips to help you learn their conjugation.
The best thing about all these verbs is that they share the same endings. So you won’t have to memorise lots of different sets of endings for each verb.
|Estar (to be)||estuv-||yo||-e|
|Tener (to have)||tuv-||tú||-iste|
|Venir (to come)||vin-||él / ella / usted||-o|
|Hacer (to do)||hic-*||nosotros / nosotras||-imos|
|Poder (to be able to)||pud-||vosotros / vosotras||-isteis|
|Poner (to put)||pus-||ellos / ellas / ustedes||-ieron|
*The verb hacer changes the c for a z in the third person singular. It becomes hizo (he / she / you formal did)
- Yo hice la compra. (I did the shopping.)
- María hizo la compra. (María did the shopping.)
And to make things even easier, estar and tener have very similar forms. For example, you only have to learn estar, and then remove the first two letters “es” and you’ll know the verb tener.
Let’s carry on with two of the most common irregular verbs in the preterite tense.
|Ser (to be)||Ir (to go)|
No, you are not seeing double. Both ser and ir have exactly the same forms in the preterite tense. That can only mean one thing: less conjugations to learn!
Final words of advice on preterite endings
We know, memorising verb endings is certainly not the most exciting part of learning Spanish.
But think of it this way – once you’ve learned them, you’ll be able to start having great conversations and really express yourself in Spanish!
A little bit of practice is all it takes!
Do you want to put all your newly acquired conjugation knowledge into practice? Take our quiz and see how you go!
- Juan y yo no __________ el fin de semana pasado.
- Anoche yo _________ con Marta.
- La fiesta __________ muy tarde.
- Alicia ______ a trabajar en metro.
- Mis amigos _________ un accidente la semana pasada.
- ¿Qué _______ Julia ayer?
- ¿A qué hora ________ tú a casa anoche?
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