What Is the Preterite Tense?

Grammar Glossary for Spanish Students

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Definition of the Preterite Tense

The preterite (often spelled "preterite") verb tense is the tense that expresses an action that took place at a definite time in the past. It is contrasted with the imperfect tense, which expresses an action that took place at an indefinite time or has not been completed. The preterite is the tense that would normally be thought of as the past tense in English. The preterite is also known as the simple past tense in English and as the pretérito indefinido or pretérito perfecto simple in Spanish.

When To Use the Preterite

In general, the preterite is used in referring to events that happened at a specific time or to repeated events that happened over a specific time. A simple example would be "Ayer yo buscaba las llaves" (I looked for the keys yesterday) because the event happened at a specific time. If you're talking about something that didn't occur at a particular time, you usually would use the imperfect tense. For example, you might say, "Yo buscaba las llaves en todas partes" (I looked for the keys everywhere), as it's unspecified when you did the searching.

There are a number of Spanish words and phrases, sometimes known as indicators, that always or nearly always are used with the preterite. Among the common ones:

  • anoche (last night)
  • anteayer (the day before yesterday)
  • el año pasado (last year)
  • ayer (yesterday)
  • hace _____ (_____ ago)
  • el mes pasado (last month)
  • el otro día (the other day)
  • la semana pasada (last week)

Conjugation of the Preterite

Here are the regular conjugations for the preterite -ar-er, and -ir verbs. The endings, added to the verb stems, are shown in boldface:

Example -ar verb cantar (to sing):

  • yo canté (I sang)
  • tú cantaste (you sang)
  • usted/él/ella cantó (you/he/she/it sang)
  • nosotros/nosotras cantamos (we sang)
  • vosotros/vosotras cantasteis (you sang)
  • ustedes/ellos/ellas cantaron (you/they sang)

Example -er verb temer (to fear):

  • yo temí (I feared)
  • tú temiste (you feared)
  • usted/él/ella tem (you/he/she/it feared)
  • nosotros/nosotras temimos (we feared)
  • vosotros/vosotras temisteis (you feared)
  • ustedes/ellos/ellas temieron (you/they feared)

Example -ir verb partir (to divide):

  • yo partí (I divided)
  • tú partiste (you divided)
  • usted/él/ella part (you/he/she/it divided)
  • nosotros/nosotras partimos (we divided)
  • vosotros/vosotras partisteis (you divided)
  • ustedes/ellos/ellas partieron (you/they divided)

Note that in the first-person plural or "we" forms, the forms are the same for both the present and imperfect tenses. In other words, cantamos can mean either "we sing" or "we sang." Contenxt will nearly always tell you which translation is appropriate.

Sample Sentences Using the Preterite

  • Pablo me habló. (Pablo spoke to me.)
  • Ana escribió la carta. (Ana wrote the letter).
  • Hace dos años fuimos a Nueva Zelanda. (Two years ago we went to New Zealand.)
  • Guillermo conocí a mi madre. (Guillermo met my mother.) (Note that conocer can mean "to know" or "to meet." The translation of "met" is used because the use of the preterite indicates that an event happened at a specific time.)
  • Se puso el sol. (The sun set.)
  • Anteayer estudiamos la epidemia de Barcelona de 1821. (The day before yesterday we studied the 1821 Barcelona epidemic. Note that without anteayear, the sentence would be ambiguous as to whether the studying occurred in the past or is currently taking place.)
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Erichsen, Gerald. "What Is the Preterite Tense?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/preterite-in-spanish-3079940. Erichsen, Gerald. (2017, August 23). What Is the Preterite Tense? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/preterite-in-spanish-3079940 Erichsen, Gerald. "What Is the Preterite Tense?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/preterite-in-spanish-3079940 (accessed March 24, 2018).