A Step-By-Step Conjugation of Simple Past-Tense Verbs in Spanish

Guide to Speaking and Writing Preterite Verb Forms

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As one of Spanish's two simple past tenses, the preterite (often spelled as "preterit") has a conjugation that is essential to learn. It is the verb form used most often to tell of events that have already happened and that are seen as completed.

The other simple past tense, the imperfect, is used for past actions that aren't necessarily completed, meaning the past action did not have a stated end (or, sometimes, beginning).

How to Conjugate the Preterite Tense

The concept of verb conjugation for Spanish is similar to that of English, but it is much more complex. In English, the preterite for regular verbs is formed by adding "-ed" to the verb unless its final letter is "e," when only a "-d" is added. In Spanish, however there are six endings depending on whether the noun performing the action is singular or plural and is in the first, second, or third person.

As is the case with standard Spanish conjugation rules, the preterite verb forms are made by removing the two-letter ending of the verb, such as -ar, -er, or -ir, and replacing it with an ending that indicates who is performing the action of the verb. Verbs agree in person and number with the noun performing their action.

For example, the infinitive or base form of the verb that means "to speak" is hablar. Its infinitive ending is -ar, and the verb stem is habl-.

To say "I spoke," remove the -ar, add to the stem, forming hablé. Yo hablé is "I spoke." To say "you spoke," singular "you" in an informal way, remove the -ar, add -aste to the stem, forming hablaste: Tu hablaste is "You spoke." Other forms exist for other personal pronouns.

The endings are slightly different for verbs that end in -er and -ir, but the principle is the same. Remove the infinitive ending, then add the appropriate ending to the remaining stem.

Conjugation of Regular -AR Verbs in the Preterite Tense

Person -Ar Ending Infinitive: Hablar Translation: To Speak
yo hablé I spoke
-aste hablaste you (informal) spoke
él, ella, usted habló he/she spoke, you (formal) spoke
nosotros, nosotras -amos hablamos we spoke
vosotros, vosotras -asteis hablasteis you spoke (informal)
ellos, ellas, ustedes -aron hablaron they spoke, you (formal) spoke

Conjugation of Regular -ER Verbs in the Preterite Tense

Person -Er Ending Infinitive: Aprender Translation: To Learn
yo aprendí I learned
-iste aprendiste you (informal) learned
él, ella, usted -ió aprendió he/she learned, you (formal) learned
nosotros, nosotras -imos aprendimos we learned
vosotros, vosotras -isteis aprendisteis you learned (informal)
ellos, ellas, ustedes -ieron aprendieron they learned, you (formal) learned

Conjugation of Regular -IR Verbs in the Preterite Tense

Person -Ir Ending Infinitive: Escribir Translation: To Write
yo escribí I wrote
-iste escribiste you (informal) wrote
él, ella, usted -ió escribió he/she wrote, you (formal) wrote
nosotros, nosotras -imos escribimos we wrote
vosotros, vosotras -isteis escribisteis you wrote (informal)
ellos, ellas, ustedes -ieron escribieron they wrote, you (formal) wrote

You may note that in the preterite tense, regular -er and -ir verbs use the same pattern of endings.

Additionally, the first-person plural, the "we" form of nosotros and nosotras, has the same conjugation for both the present indicative tense and the preterite past tense for -ar and -ir verbs. The word hablamos can mean either "we speak" or "we spoke," and escribimos can mean either "we write" or "we wrote." In most cases, the context of the sentence makes clear which tense is intended. This conjugational ambiguity doesn't exist for for -er verbs.

Conjugations of Common Irregular Verbs

Below are the preterite-tense for the irregular verbs you are most likely to use. Irregular forms are shown in boldface; the forms given follow the same order as in the charts above, beginning with the first-person singular and continuing to the third-person plural as in the charts above.

dar (to give): di, diste, dio, dimos, disteis, dieron.

decir (to say, to tell): dije, dijiste, dijo, dijimos, dijisteis, dijeron.

estar (to be): estuve, estuviste, estuvo, estuvimos, estuvisteis, estuvieron.

haber (to have as an auxiliary verb): hube, hubiste, hubo, hubimos, hubisteis, hubieron.

hacer (to make, to do): hice, hiciste, hizo, hizimos, hicisteis, hicieron.

ir (to go): fui, fuiste, fue, fuimos, fuisteis, fueron. (Note that the preterite conjugations of ir and ser are identical.)

llegar (to arrive): llegué, llegaste, llegó, llegamos, llegasteis, llegaron.

poder (to be able, can): pude, pudiste, pudo, pudimos, pudisteis, pudieron.

poner (to put): puse, pusiste, puso, pusimos, pusisteis, pusieron.

querer (to be): quise, quisiste, quiso, quisimos, quisisteis, quisieron.

saber (to know): supe, supiste, supo, supimos, supisteis, supieron.

ser (to be): fui, fuiste, fue, fuimos, fuisteis, fueron.

tener (to have or possess): tuve, tuviste, tuvo, tuvimos, tuvisteis, tuvieron.

ver (to see): vi, viste, vio, vimos, visteis, vieron.

Key Takeaways

  • The preterite is one of the two simple past tenses in Spanish and is used for verbs indicating an end to their action.
  • The preterite conjugation is identical for -er and -ir verbs.
  • Irregular preterite conjugations can be substantially different than the regular forms.