The Preterite Tense

       

The Preterite Tense (also spelled "preterit") is one of two ways to talk about events that happened in the past in Spanish. The preterite tense is used to indicate a single, completed action that took place at a specific point in time. For example:

Armando me llamó a las nueve.
Armando called me at nine o'clock.

Regresaron de España ayer.
They returned from Spain yesterday.

Olivia se fue esta tarde.
Olivia left this afternoon.

Preterite conjugations can be pretty tricky due to the large amount of irregular verbs and some other complicated situations. To learn how to form preterite conjugations, keep reading. For more on when to use the Preterite Tense, see Using the Imperfect and the Preterite.

Regular Preterite Tense Verbs

To conjugate regular "-ar" verbs in the preterite, take off the ending and add the following:

"-ar" endings:

-amos

-aste

-asteis

-aron

Don't let the "-é" in the yo form throw you off; it's still an "-ar" verb conjugation. It's absolutely critical that the "o" in the él/ella/usted form conjugation get an accent mark so it isn't confused with the present tense yo form conjugation.

To conjugate regular "-er" and "-ir" verbs in the preterite, take off the endings and add the following:

"-er" / "-ir" endings:

-imos

-iste

-isteis

-ió

-ieron

Here are some examples:

hablar:

comer:

vivir:

hablé

hablamos

hablaste

hablasteis

habló

hablaron

comí

comimos

comiste

comisteis

comió

comieron

viví

vivimos

viviste

vivisteis

vivió

vivieron

Let's practice! Conjugate regular preterite tense verbs on ¡Practiquemos!

Preterite Spelling Change Verbs

The yo form endings for "-ar" verbs occasionally cause pronunciation problems because some letters are pronounced differently depending on the vowels that follow them. The letters "c" and "g," for example, sound different when they're followed by an "a" or an "o" than when they're followed by an "e" or "i." Since the preterite yo form ending is an "e", we need to change the spellings of the stems of "-car" verbs, "-gar" verbs, and "-zar" verbs in order to keep the pronunciation consistent. For example:

tocar (c → qu):

jugar (g → gu):

lanzar (z → c):

toqué

tocamos

tocaste

tocasteis

tocó

tocaron

jugué

jugamos

jugaste

jugasteis

jugó

jugaron

lancé

lanzamos

lanzaste

lanzasteis

lanzó

lanzaron

Tocar has a "-que" ending in the yo form to keep the original "c" sound being pronounced like a "k" rather than like an "s." Jugar now has a "-gue" ending to keep the original "g" sound pronounced like a "g" rather than like an "h." And lanzar now has a "-ce" because, well… anytime we can use a "c," we should. The "e" ending gives us an opportunity to do so.

It doesn't happen often, but "-guar" verbs will also require a spelling change. Take a verb like averiguar which means "to verify." When we conjugate in the yo form of the preterite, we need to add a "dieresis," which means the "u" becomes a "ü":

Yo averigüé los datos ayer.
I verified the facts yesterday.

The "ü" tells us to pronounce the "gu" like a "gw" so that our pronunciation will be consistent with the infinitive, averiguar.

These spelling changes only happen for "-ar" preterite verbs and only in the yo form because the "-e" is the only ending that creates problems for the "c," "g," "z" and the "gu."

More Spelling Changes

Certain "-er" and "-ir" verbs are also going to need spelling changes to keep pronunciation consistent. This time around it's the él/ella/Ud. and ellos/ellas/Uds. forms that cause problems. The endings for those conjugations are "-ió" and "-ieron." Notice how they both start with two vowels? If we have a verb whose stem ends in a vowel, and then we add one of those endings, we're going to end up with three vowels in a row. It's difficult to pronounce a word with a three vowel combination. To solve that problem, we change the "i" to a "y."

Some common trouble making verbs conjugated in the ellos/ellas/Uds. form:

infinitive:

stem:

three vowels:

i→y spelling change:

caer

ca-

caieron

cayeron

contribuir

contribu-

contribuieron

contribuyeron

creer

cre-

creieron

creyeron

leer

le-

leieron

leyeron

incluir

inclu-

incluieron

incluyeron

oír

o-

oieron

oyeron

The él/ella/Ud. form conjugations will use the same spelling change. Here is a complete set of conjugations for some common verbs:

Note: In addition to the "i" → "y" spelling change, it is necessary to add an accent mark to the , nosotros, and vosotros form endings. (The yo form already has an accent.)

caer:

leer:

oír:

caí

caímos

caíste

caísteis

cayó

cayeron

leí

leímos

leíste

leísteis

leyó

leyeron

oímos

oíste

oísteis

oyó

oyeron

As you can see, this "i" → "y" spelling change only occurs in the bottom row of conjugations.

Note: Verbs ending in "-ñir" or "-llir" use "-ó" and "-eron" endings instead of "-ió" and "-ieron" because they already have a "y" sound in their stems: gruñó, zambulleron.

An exception to the "i" → "y" spelling change rule are "-guir" verbs and "-quir" verbs. While the stems do end in a vowel, the "u" is not actually being pronounced. Because of that, we can pronounce the three vowels in a row and a "y" is not necessary.

infinitive:

stem:

preterite:

extinguir

extingu-

extinguieron

Let's practice! Conjugate preterite spelling change verbs on ¡Practiquemos!

Preterite Stem Changing Verbs

Stem Changing "-ar" and "-er" Verbs

All "-ar" and "-er" verbs which have stem changes in the present tense are completely regular in the preterite, which is to say that they don't have stem changes in the preterite. Notice how the stem does not change in any conjugation:

pensar (e → ie):

perder (e → ie):

pensé

pensamos

pensaste

pensasteis

pensó

pensaron

perdí

perdimos

perdiste

perdisteis

perdió

perdieron

Stem Changing "-ir" Verbs

Stem-changing "-ir" verbs do have a stem change which is sometimes different from the present tense stem change; "e → ie" stem changers in the present tense become "e → i" stem changers in the preterite, "e → i" stem changers remain "e → i", and "o → ue" stem changers become "o → u":

present tense:

preterite tense:

e → ie
e → i
o → ue

e → i
e → i
o → u

However, this change only happens in the él/ella/usted form and the ellos/ellas/ustedes form:

sentir (e → ie):

mentir (e → i):

dormir (o → ue):

sentí

sentimos

sentiste

sentisteis

sintió

sintieron

mentí

mentimos

mentiste

mentisteis

mintió

mintieron

dormí

dormimos

dormiste

dormisteis

durmió

durmieron

In some books verbs like these will have special notations to let you know about the additional preterite stem change: sentir (e → ie, e → i), dormir (o → ue, o → u), etc.

Because these additional changes only take place on the bottom line of the conjugation chart they are sometimes referred to as "basement buddies."

Let's practice! Conjugate preterite stem changing verbs on ¡Practiquemos!

Irregular Preterite Tense Verbs

The "U" Group, "I" Group, and "J" Group

There are many irregular preterite conjugations which have both stem changes (only in the preterite tense) and their own set of endings. It can be helpful to put them into groups to help you memorize them.

The "U" Group

Note: Any verbs based on these irregular verbs have the same irregularities; imponer → inpus-, proponer → propus-, detener → detuv-, etc.

Most of the irregular verbs have stem changes which involve the letter "u":

andar
caber
estar
poder
poner
saber
tener







anduv-
cup-
estuv-
pud-
pus-
sup-
tuv-

The "I" Group

Note: Any verbs based on these irregular verbs have the same irregularities; convenir → convin-, prevenir → previn-, etc.

There are a couple others with stem changes involving the letter "i":

querer
venir


quis-
vin-

For both of these groups, the "u" group and the "i" group, there is a different set of endings:

-e

-imos

-iste

-isteis

-o

-ieron

Note that these endings are very similar to the "-ir" verbs with the exception of the yo and él/ella/usted forms, and that there are no accent marks needed. Some examples:

saber:

tener:

venir:

supe

supimos

supiste

supisteis

supo

supieron

tuve

tuvimos

tuviste

tuvisteis

tuvo

tuvieron

vine

vinimos

viniste

vinisteis

vino

vinieron

Let's practice! Conjugate irregular preterite u- and i-group verbs on ¡Practiquemos!

The "J" Group

Note: Any verbs based on these irregular verbs have the same irregularities;
bendecir
 → bendij-, predecir → predij-, extraer → extraj-, etc.

There is one more group of stem changers, the "j" group:

conducir
decir
producir
traer




conduj-
dij-
produj-
traj-

The endings for the "j" group stems are almost identical to the "u"/"i" group verbs:

-e

-imos

-iste

-isteis

-o

-eron

Notice that there is no "i" in the ellos/ellas/ustedes form ending. Some examples:

decir:

traer:

dije

dijimos

dijiste

dijisteis

dijo

dijeron

traje

trajimos

trajiste

trajisteis

trajo

trajeron

Let's practice! Conjugate irregular preterite j-group verbs on ¡Practiquemos!

Other Irregular Preterite Verbs

There are several other completely irregular preterite verbs. Here are the conjugations for dar, hacer, ir, and ser.

dar:

hacer:

di

dimos

diste

disteis

dio

dieron

hice

hicimos

hiciste

hicisteis

hizo

hicieron

ir:

ser:

fui

fuimos

fuiste

fuisteis

fue

fueron

fui

fuimos

fuiste

fuisteis

fue

fueron

Note: The verb satisfacer (to satisfy) follows the pattern of hacer: satisfice, satisficiste, satisfizo, etc.

That's not a typo—the conjugations of ir and ser are identical—context makes the meaning clear.

If you look carefully, you'll notice that hacer isn't completely irregular (it could fit quite nicely the "i" group) but the need for consistent pronunciation forces us to use a "z" in the él/ella/usted form.

Let's practice! Conjugate irregular preterite tense verbs on ¡Practiquemos!

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