Preterit(e) Verbs

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Preterite tense


In traditional grammar, the preterit(e) is the simple past tense of the verb, such as walked or said. In English, the preterit(e) is typically formed by adding the suffix -ed or -t to the base form of a verb. This form is sometimes referred to as the dental preterit(e).

The term is usually spelled preterit in American English, preterite in British English.

Examples of Preterit(e) Verbs

  • "They jumped and laughed and pointed at the solemn guards."
    (Terry Goodkind, Temple of the Winds, 1997)
  • "I removed the crucible from the wire stand and poured the silver. Some of the metal ran into the mold, some of it spilled over the outside, and some of it adhered to the crucible."
    (John Adair, The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths, 1944)
  • "We climbed the mountain sides, and clambered among sagebrush, rocks and snow."
    (Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872)
  • "Ben snatched the squash from her, sprinted across the living room, tripped over a toy he'd left there and spilt the entire contents of the glass over the sofa."
    (Sarah Morgan, The Christmas Marriage Rescue, 2015)
  • "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."  (Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991) 
  • "During many of the group sessions, the women and I painted, glued, cut, pasted, talked, listened, ate, drank, laughed, cried, and engaged in collaborative processes of reflection and action."​
    (Alice McIntyre, Women in Belfast: How Violence Shapes Identity. Praeger Publishers, 2004)

Backshifting Tense

  • "[Another] use of the preterite shows up in indirect reported speech. Notice the contrast between has and had in this pair.
[37i] Kim has blue eyes. [original utterance: present tense]
[37ii] I told Stacy that Kim had blue eyes. [indirect report: preterite]
  • If I say [i] to Stacy, I can use [ii] as an indirect report to tell you what I said to Stacy. I'm repeating the content of what I said to Stacy, but not the exact wording. My utterance to Stacy contained the present tense form has, but my report of it contains preterite had. Nonetheless, my report is entirely accurate. This kind of change in tense is referred to as backshift.
  • "The most obvious cases of backshift are with verbs of reporting that are in the preterite, like told or said." (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

The Preterite and the Present-Perfect

  • - "[W]ith most verbs the difference between the form of the present perfect and the form of the preterite is slight in present-day English, especially in informal speech, which explains why in a long-term perspective the distinction may eventually be lost. . . .
  • "Reference to distinct past time without any obvious kind of anchoring has emerged as an area where usage is far from settled in present-day English. The selection of the preterite in such cases appears to be on the increase . . .."(Johan Elsness, The Perfect and the Preterite in Contemporary and Earlier English. Mouton de Gruyter, 1997)
  • - "[T]he systematic marking of perfect aspect in LModE [Late Modern English] has partially relieved the simple Preterite of its burden of indicating past time. Since perfectivity implies the completion of an event prior to the actual time of utterance, a Present Perfect form carries an automatic implication of pastness. The actual point of completion in past time may be very close, as in (18), or vaguely more distant, as in (19).
(18) I've just eaten my dinner.
(19) John Keegan has written a history of war.

. . . [T]he growing acceptability of the vague degree of pastness in sentences such as (19) indicates that LModE may be starting on the road that led the Perfect to replace the Simple Past in a number of Romance languages." (Jacek Fisiak, Language History and Linguistic Modelling. Mouton de Gruyter, 1997)

From the Latin, "to go by"

Pronunciation: PRET-er-it

Also Known As: simple-past tense

Alternate Spellings: preterite

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Preterit(e) Verbs." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Preterit(e) Verbs. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Preterit(e) Verbs." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).