What Is the Preterite Tense?

Tense used in discussing past actions

Cadiz cityscape and ocean under clouds, Andalusia, Spain
Jeremy Woodhouse / Getty Images

Definition of the Preterite Tense

The preterite (often spelled "preterit") 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.

Some Spanish words and phrases, sometimes known as indicators, always or nearly always are used with the preterite. Among the common ones:

  • anoche (last night)
  • anteayer (the day before yesterday)<h3>Miscellaneous Facts About the Preterite</h3>
  • 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." Context 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.)

Se se cayó tu celular al agua y no sabes que hacer, no desesperes. (If your cellphone fell into the water and you don't know what to do, don't worry.)

Se puso el sol. (The sun set.)

Compraron dos respiradores para el hospital. (They bought two respirators for the hospital.)

El añ año pasado, esperamos las lluvias, pero nunca llegaron. (Last year we expected the rains, but they never came.)

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.)

Ayear fui el mejor día de mi vida. (Yesterday was the best day of my life.)

Miré a la derecha y ella miró a la izquierda. (I looked to the right and she looked to the left.) 

Miscellaneous Facts About Using the Preterite

The preterite is nearly always used in discussing events that happened only one time.

El concierto fue un éxito. (The concert was a success.)

One use of the preterite is to indicate that a process has become complete. La estudiante alcanzó el título de campeón. (The student took the title of champion.)

The preterite can also be used to indicate the beginning of a process:

  • 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 it refers to the moment that the two people began to know each other.)
  • Tuve el coche perfecto. (I got the perfect car. If you used the imperfect form, tenía, the verb would indicate ownership of the car rather than the obtaining of it.)


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "What Is the Preterite Tense?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 28, 2018, thoughtco.com/preterite-in-spanish-3079940. Erichsen, Gerald. (2018, April 28). 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 May 23, 2018).