spanish preterite past tense

Preterite Tense in Spanish: How to Talk in the Past Tense

Dennys Caldera Boka Published on December 29, 2023

Picture this: You’re in the heart of a bustling Spanish-speaking city, immersing yourself in the vibrant culture and engaging conversations. You want to talk about the past and share your experiences. To do this effectively, you need to master the preterite tense (simple past) in Spanish, a key tool for recounting past events with precision and flair.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the depths of the preterite tense. We’ll demystify its formation, explore regular and irregular conjugations, and uncover the various scenarios where this tense shines. By the end, you’ll be equipped to weave compelling narratives and converse fluently about past experiences in Spanish.

spanish preterite past tense

How Do You Form the Preterite Tense in Spanish?

Before we delve into the intricacies of the preterite tense, let’s uncover its foundation – how it’s formed. In Spanish, the preterite is used to describe actions in the past or events that have been completed. The conjugation of verbs in the preterite differs from the present tense, and it’s essential to grasp the rules to wield this powerful tool.

Regular Spanish Preterite Forms

In Spanish, there are three types of verb endings: -ar, -ir, and -er. These verbs change, or conjugate, and have sets of endings based on who did the action and when it happened. To make the preterite tense with regular verbs, just take away the -ar, -ir, or -er and put the right ending depending on the subject, as you’ll see below. 

Verbs that End in -AR

For regular -AR verbs, you remove the ending and add specific preterite tense endings. The preterite endings for regular -AR verbs are -é, -aste, -ó, -amos, -asteis, or -aron. Verbs such as “hablar” (to speak) and “llegar” (to arrive), follow a common conjugation pattern when applied in the preterite. You can see an example of the conjugation of “llegar” in the chart below.

PronounPreterite Tense Conjugation
Usted / Él / Ellallegó
Ustedes / Ellos / Ellasllegaron

Verbs That End in -ER

-ER verbs, like “beber” (to drink) and “comer” (to eat), adhere to the -ER preterite pattern. To conjugate them in the preterite, you replace the -ER ending with the regular preterite endings. These are -í, -iste, -ió, -imos, -isteis, or -ieron. In the chart below, you can see how to conjugate the regular verb “comer”

PronounPreterite Tense Conjugation
Usted / Él / Ellacomió
Ustedes / Ellos / Ellascomieron

Verbs That End in -IR

Finally, verbs ending in -IR, such as “vivir” (to live) and “escribir” (to write), follow the -IR preterite conjugation pattern. To conjugate regular -IR verbs in the preterite tense, substitute the -IR ending with -í, -iste, -ió, -imos, -isteis, or -ieron, just like with the verbs ending in -ER. Below you can see an example conjugation of the verb vivir (to live).

PronounPreterite Tense Conjugation
Usted / Él / Ellavivió  
Ustedes / Ellos / Ellasvivieron

Irregular Preterite Verb Conjugations

While regular verbs follow predictable conjugation patterns, irregular verbs in the preterite tense keep us on our toes. Luckily, a significant number of irregular verbs in Spanish follow a common set of preterite endings. The only thing you’ll need to remember is the unique irregular stem for each Spanish verb.

As we require the irregular verb stems to utilize these preterite forms in Spanish, let’s take a look at the stems of 5 of the most common irregular verbs. Then, you’ll be able to apply the correct preterite ending depending on the subject:

Verb in SpanishIrregular StemEnglish
EstarEstuv-To be
PoderPud-To be able to
PonerPus-To put
QuererQuis-To want
SaberSup-To know

Below are the endings for the majority of irregular verbs in the Spanish preterite:

SubjectPreterite Ending
Usted / Él / Ella-o
Vosotros / Vosotras-isteis
Ustedes / Ellos / Ellas-ieron

Let’s put the stems and endings together with some examples: 

-Yo estuve en casa ayer en la tarde. / I was at home yesterday afternoon.

Pudiste llegar a tiempo! / You were able to arrive on time!

-Ella puso el informe sobre su escritorio. / She put the report on her desk.

Quisimos cenar afuera anoche. / We wanted to go out for dinner last night.

-Ellos supieron lo que pasó de inmediato. / They knew what happened immediately.

Highly irregular preterite conjugations

Some highly irregular preterite conjugations don’t adhere to any particular pattern, making them unique challenges for learners. These preterite forms can’t be easily predicted, so the best way to approach them is through memorization. Thankfully, you won’t have to tackle too many highly-irregular verbs on an individual basis. Let’s have a look at three of the most important highly irregular verbs in Spanish: “ir” (to go), “hacer” (to do), and “ser” (to be).

It’s essential to recognize that the preterite forms for “ir” and “ser” are identical. To distinguish between them, careful attention to the context is necessary. “Ir” is employed when discussing movement or departures, while “ser” is utilized for providing descriptions that remain largely constant.

Usted / Él / Ellafuefue
Vosotros / Vosotrasfuisteisfuisteis
Ustedes / Ellos / Ellasfueronfueron

A relatively simple and efficient method for distinguishing these verbs is to recall that the verb “ir” is used when something moves from one place to another, often accompanied by a preposition like ‘a’, ‘al’, or ‘para’. Conversely, the verb “ser” is typically linked to descriptions.


-Ella fue al cine el sábado pasado. / She went to the movies last Saturday.

-Ella fue una excelente alumna en la escuela. / She was an excellent student at school.

It’s crucial to observe the transformation from “a” to “i” in the stem (-hic) when “hacer” is applied in its preterite form. All the conjugations in this tense adhere to this irregular pattern.

SubjectPreterite Conjugation
Usted / Él / Ellahizo
Vosotros / Vosotrashicisteis
Ustedes / Ellos / Ellashicieron


-Yo hice lo mejor que pude en el examen. / I did the best I could in the exam.

-Mi hija hizo la tarea antes de la cena. / My daughter did the homework before dinner.

-Ustedes hicieron un trabajo extraordinario. / You did an outstanding job.

Uses of the Preterite Tense

1. Completed Events

The preterite tense is your go-to choice when you want to express actions that are marked as finished. Whether you’re recounting your last summer vacation, detailing a thrilling adventure, or narrating a sequence of events, the preterite provides a sense of finality and completion. 

Visité Madrid en mis últimas vacaciones. / I visited Madrid on my last vacation.

-Ellos cocinaron un deliciosa cena anoche. / They cooked a delicious dinner last night.

-Nosotros fuimos al cine el sábado en la noche. / We went to the movies on Saturday night.

2. The start or end of a completed action

When you need to emphasize the beginning or competition of a past action, the preterite is your trusty companion. It helps you pinpoint the moment something commenced or concluded, adding a vivid touch to your storytelling. 

Comencé a estudiar alemán hace tres meses. / I started studying German three months ago.

-Él terminó su pasantía la semana pasada. / He finished his internship last week.

-El semestre empezó en septiembre. / The semester began in September.

3. Actions in a sequence

The preterite tense is perfect for narrating a series of events that happened in a specific order. It enables you to articulate your stories with clarity and coherence, ensuring your audience follows the sequence of actions. 

-Después de la graduación, fueron a cenar, compartieron anécdotas divertidas y luego volvieron a casa. / After the graduation, they went out to dinner, shared funny stories, and then returned home.

-Durante la reunión, revisamos los indicadores, analizamos los resultados y comparamos las conclusiones. / During the meeting, we reviewed the indicators, analyzed the results, and compared the conclusions.

4. Specific Times and Dates

When you want to reference precise dates or times in the past, the preterite is your linguistic time machine. It’s ideal for reporting events that occurred at a distinct moment in history. 

Tuve mi primera clase a las 3 de la tarde. / I had my first class at 3 in the afternoon.

-Nosotros Abrimos nuestro primer restaurante en 1998. / We opened our first restaurant in 1998.

Ganamos el campeonato el 20 de enero de 2019. / We won the championship on January 20th, 2019.

5. Interrupted Actions

The preterite tense is used when an ongoing event is suddenly interrupted by another event. This combination is indicated by the verb “estar” in the imperfect tense and the gerund form of the verb. In this case, these verbs end with -iendo or -ando in Spanish, equivalent to -ing in English.

-Estaba estudiando cuando mi hermano me llamó con una noticia emocionante. / I was studying when my brother called me with exciting news.

-Estábamos cocinando cuando se fue la luz en toda la casa. / We were cooking when the power went out in the whole house.

-Los niños estaban haciendo la tarea cuando sonó el timbre. / The children were doing their homework when the bell rang.

 How to Practice the Spanish Preterite Tense

There are many  Spanish resources you can use to practice the preterite tense. Start by immersing yourself in the written word, diving into Spanish literature, short stories, and articles written in the preterite tense. This exposure will introduce you to different contexts and styles of using this tense. Additionally, engage in Spanish conversations, whether with native speakers or language partners. Apply the preterite tense to talk about past experiences and stories, as it’s a great way to refine your spoken skills.

Consider enrolling in online Spanish courses that specifically address the preterite tense. Interactive lessons and exercises within these courses will enhance your skills and provide valuable guidance on using the preterite tense correctly. Talk with Spanish speakers about a past action or event that marked you to improve your speaking skills. You can also rely on a Spanish textbook to tackle important Spanish grammar topics like regular and irregular verbs. Combining these methods will lead to a comprehensive and immersive learning experience. This way, you’ll feel more confident when using the Spanish preterite tense.

Final Thoughts

The preterite tense in Spanish is your gateway to the past, allowing you to talk about completed events and actions. Learning how to use the preterite in Spanish is a stepping stone to becoming a more skilled and expressive speaker. As you continue your Spanish language learning path, embrace the intricacies of this tense, and you’ll find yourself telling captivating stories, recounting past experiences, and conversing fluently with newfound confidence. So, embark on this linguistic adventure and relish the art of storytelling in Spanish!

Dennys Caldera Boka

Dennys is a content writer at Langoly. He’s passionate about language learning and has been helping others achieve their goals and develop their language skills for many years. He’s interested in emerging technologies and how they can help people reskill and upskill. He loves cooking, watching sci-fi movies, and listening to podcasts. Connect with Dennys on LinkedIn.

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