Spanish Preterite Tense

Unfortunately, you can't handle many conversational topics by just talking about what is happening right now. To express yourself fully, you need to be able to talk about what happened yesterday, or last week, or last year.

Talking about What Happened in the Past in Spanish

This is where the past tense comes in. The past tense will enable you to talk about events in the past, actions that started and ended in the past, and actions that started in the past and continue up until now.

The Two Major Past Tenses – Preterite & Imperfect

There is more than one past tense in Spanish. The two most common past tenses are the preterite and the imperfect. Get used to these terms! These tenses are used all the time to refer to actions that occur in the past. Just like ser and estar, you'll have to learn the difference between the preterite and imperfect, even though we don't have that difference in English.

The preterite tense is used to describe events that happened at a definite point in the past. For example, if you were describing a trip you had by saying, "We did this, then we did this, and finally we did this," you would use the preterite tense quite often.

Take note that you should probably use the preterite if you come across one of the following words or phrases:

el otro día

the other day

el año pasado

last year

ayer

yesterday

una vez

once

anoche

last night

la semana pasada

last week

The imperfect tense, on the other hand, is different. It is used to describe continuous actions in the past. These actions will not usually have a specific date associated with them. For example, if you are talking about how old you were, or what you used to do when you were in school, or what you were doing when something else happened, you would generally use the imperfect.

The preterite is actually the more difficult to conjugate of the two past tenses. Therefore, we'll start on it so that you can get the hard stuff out of the way!

Starting with the Preterite

Like all conjugations in Spanish, you'll have to memorize the verb endings. I promise that they'll all become second nature after time. The best way to memorize them is simply practice, practice, practice!

Study the verb endings in the following table:

Subject Pronoun

ar verbs hablar (to talk)

er verbs comer (to eat)

ir verbs vivir (to live)

yo

habl-é

com-í

viv-í

habl-aste

com-iste

viv-iste

Ud., él, ella

habl-ó

com-ió

viv-ió

nosotros/as

habl-amos

com-imos

viv-imos

vosotros/as

habl-asteis

com-isteis

viv-isteis

Uds., ellos, ellas

habl-aron

com-ieron

viv-ieron

The first thing you should notice is that there are only two sets of endings: one for –ar verbs and the second for –er and –ir verbs.

Notice that the verb endings for nosotros are the same as in the present tense. This means that when you hear a sentence about something "we" did or are doing, you'll have to guess from the context whether it occurred in the past or the present.

Another important thing to notice is that the third person singular form (Ud., él, ella) for –ar verbs looks almost identical to the first person form … except for the accent mark over the 'o'. So don't forget it!

Por ejemplo:

El domingo pasado, mis padres y yo hablamos por una hora.

Last Sunday, my parents and I spoke for an hour.

El año pasado viviste en Argentina, ¿no?

You lived in Argentina last year, right?

¿Qué comieron ustedes ayer?

What did you eat yesterday?

Ayer comimos una hamburguesa para la cena.

Yesterday we ate a hamburger for dinner.


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