Preterite Tense Spanish: The Ultimate Guide with Examples

I saw you in the pool yesterday: preterite tense Spanish

When speaking in the past tense in Spanish, we use the preterite tense, or pretérito simple.

There are other past tenses in Spanish, but you only use the preterite when you are talking about actions in the past that have been completed, and that have a definitive beginning and end.

So, we don’t use preterite tense Spanish to describe a scene, or to talk about actions that were habits or a process. We mean one-and-done, clear-cut actions in the past. It happened, it’s over. That’s the preterite.

The Spanish preterite is most similar to the simple past tense in English, comparable to adding -ed to the end of a word, although there are some important differences that we’ll get into. The other Spanish simple past tense is called imperfect, so we’ll cover its details as well in order to compare preterite vs imperfect.

Preterite conjugations can get a little bit spicy, so here we’ll go over the preterite conjugation and preterite endings, including the preterite irregulars and preterite stem-changing verbs. We’ll finish up with a nice list of preterite conjugations for many of the most common verbs in Spanish.

Let’s get started!

What is Preterite Tense

Preterite is one of the most common tenses used to speak about the past in Spanish. It’s used to describe events that happened and ended in the past, such as events that have a clear beginning and end. The preterite is often referred to as simple past Spanish, or even just the Spanish past tense.

When do we use preterite tense Spanish?

To talk  about something that happened at a specific point in the past

  • I saw you in the pool yesterday. – Te vi en la piscina ayer.

In this example, the fact that we said “yesterday” is a tip-off that we should use preterite because it shows we are talking about something that happened at a specific moment.

To list a series of events

  • I saw you, I closed my laptop, and I went over to say hi. – Te vi, cerré mi compu, y fui a saludarte.

To talk about an action that interrupted another action

  • I was crossing the street when the waitress shouted at me. – Yo estaba cruzando la calle cuando la mesera me gritó.

To talk about an action that went on for a specific amount of time

  • I worked in the cafe for three hours, but I never paid my bill! – Trabajé en el café durante tres horas, ¡pero nunca pagué la cuenta!

In this example, the fact that we listed a specific amount of time, three hours, is a sign that we’re talking about something that began and ended, so it should be in the preterite tense.

When speaking about the beginning or end of something

  • I started running. – Empecé a correr.

Some words and phrases that trigger the preterite tense

These words show that you’re talking about a specific time and a specific moment, so although they don’t always mean preterite, they should definitely make your ears perk up and show you that you will most likely be using preterite.

Spanish English
Ayer Yesterday
Anoche Last night
Anteayer The day before yesterday
Una vez Once, One time
El otro día The other day
El año pasado Last year
Desde el primer momento From the first moment
En aquel / ese momento In that moment
La semana pasada Last week
Entonces So, Then

Verbs Almost Always Used in the Preterite

Some verbs, simply because their meaning represents an interruption, a beginning or end, or a specific one-time event, are almost always used in the preterite tense.

Spanish English
Cumplir (años) To turn (a certain age), To have a birthday
Llegar To arrive, To get somewhere
Salir To leave, To go out
Casarse To get married
Graduarse To graduate
Darse cuenta To realize, To notice
Nacer To be born
Morir To die
Dar a luz, Parir To give birth
Decidir To decide
Descubrir To discover

Preterite vs Imperfect

You can often translate simple past in English to the preterite, with a few important exceptions. Past tense Spanish has another major player in this game called the imperfect.

The imperfect tense is a more general tense, used to talk about events that perhaps are still ongoing, or that do not have a definitive beginning and end.

The difference between preterite and imperfect is that preterite is used for more specific points in time, whereas with imperfect, it may not be clear when the event started or ended, perhaps because it’s a habit or condition.

The imperfect is like the wind. It can’t be contained within clear beginning and endpoints or labeled with a date, it’s just an easy breeze.

Meanwhile, the preterite is like a bird flying into your window. You know when it happened, and you know that it’s over.

When do we use the imperfect tense in Spanish?

So when to use preterite vs imperfect Spanish? Let’s take a look at some of the identifying features of the Spanish imperfect tense.

When talking about habits

  • When I was a little girl, I would visit my grandma every weekend. – Cuando era niña, visitaba a mi abuela todos los fines de semana.

When describing the environment in a story, or setting the stage for another event

  • It was sunny when I left this morning. – Hacía sol cuando salí esta mañana.

To talk about a person’s age in the past

  • I was nine when my sister was born. – Tenía nueve años cuando nació mi hermana.

Physical or mental states

  • I felt pretty sick so I didn’t go to the office. – Me sentía bastante enfermo así que no fui a la oficina.

To state time and dates in the past

  • It was 1939 when the war started. – Era 1939 cuando empezó la guerra.

Physical characteristics or traits

  • My granddad was pretty tall. – Mi abuelo era bastante alto.

Preterite Conjugation

The preterite form can be either regular or irregular. There are two forms for the regular preterite conjugations in Spanish: one for verbs that end in -ar, and another for verbs that end in -er or -ir. So, for the Spanish preterite endings, we can focus on the -ar preterite and -ir / -er preterite.

In this section we’ll cover the basics for regular preterite conjugations, as well as for the regular irregulars (don’t worry, you’ll see what we mean by this!). The next section will list the full preterite conjugations for 15 of the most common irregular verbs that just need to be memorized.

For additional lists of conjugations for regular and irregular verbs, see the bonus section at the very end of this post.

Preterite conjugation chart: -ar preterite endings

Here are the standard preterite endings for regular verbs ending in -ar. As an example, we conjugate the regular -er verb saltar, meaning “to jump” or “to skip.”

Subject Conjugation endings Saltar preterite conjugation
Yo salté
-aste saltaste
Él, Ella, Usted saltó
Nosotros -amos saltamos
Vosotros -asteis saltasteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes -aron saltaron

Preterite conjugation chart: -er / -ir preterite endings

In this conjugation table we show the preterite endings for regular -er and -ir verbs. We use the regular -er verb comer as an example, meaning “to eat.”

Subject Conjugation endings Comer preterite conjugation
Yo comí
-iste comiste
Él, Ella, Usted -ió comió
Nosotros -imos comimos
Vosotros -isteis comisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes -ieron comieron

Conjugating “regular” preterite irregulars

Some preterite conjugations are irregular compared with the rules we listed above, although they still follow some fairly straightforward rules. The three most common only involve changes in the first person singular, essentially in order to help with their pronunciation. For the other grammatical persons, the rest of the preterite conjugations follow the regular rules we saw above.

-zar verbs: z to c

For verbs that end in -zar, change the z to c in the first person singular.

  • empezar: yo empecé – to start: I started

-car verbs: c to qu

For verbs that end in -car, change the c to qu in the first person singular.

  • sacar: yo saqué – to take out: I took out

-gar verbs: g to gu

For verbs that end in -gar, change the g to gu in the first person singular.

  • pagar: yo pagué – to pay: I paid

The preterite irregulars we just saw aren’t so different from the regular conjugations we saw in the previous conjugation tables, so we could even consider them to be “regular” preterite irregulars.

Many irregular verbs don’t follow such straightforward rules in their preterite conjugations, however, and simply have to be memorized. But fear not, we’ve created a master list for irregular preterite tense conjugations in the next section!

Preterite Conjugation: Common Irregular Verbs

Now that you have a good idea of preterite conjugations for regular verbs, it’s time to learn the conjugations for the most irregular verbs. This section is essentially a big preterite conjugation chart for 15 of the most common irregular verbs you’ll want to know.

Ir Preterite*

Ir – To go

Yo Fui
Él, Ella, Usted Fue
Nosotros Fuimos
Vosotros Fuisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Fueron

Ser Preterite*

Ser – To be

Yo Fui
Él, Ella, Usted Fue
Nosotros Fuimos
Vosotros Fuisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Fueron

*Note that the preterite form for ser and ir is identical. We differentiate them based on context.

Estar Preterite

Estar – To be

Yo Estuve
Él, Ella, Usted Estuvo
Nosotros Estuvimos
Vosotros Estuvisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Estuvieron

Hacer Preterite

Hacer – To make, To do

Yo Hice
Él, Ella, Usted Hizo
Nosotros Hicimos
Vosotros Hicisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Hicieron

Tener Preterite

Tener – To have

Yo Tuve
Él, Ella, Usted Tuvo
Nosotros Tuvimos
Vosotros Tuvisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Tuvieron

Ver Preterite

Ver – To see

Yo Vi
Él, Ella, Usted Vio
Nosotros Vimos
Vosotros Visteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Vieron

Decir Preterite

Decir – To tell, To say

Yo Dije
Él, Ella, Usted Dijo
Nosotros Dijimos
Vosotros Dijisteis
Ustedes Dijeron

Poner Preterite

Poner – To put

Yo Puse
Él, Ella, Usted Puso
Nosotros Pusimos
Vosotros Pusisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Pusieron

Poder Preterite

Poder – To be able to

Yo Pude
Él, Ella, Usted Pudo
Nosotros Pudimos
Vosotros Pudisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Pudieron

Dar Preterite

Dar – To give

Yo Di
Él, Ella, Usted Dio
Nosotros Dimos
Vosotros Disteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Dieron

Querer Preterite

Querer – To want, To love

Yo Quise
Él, Ella, Usted Quiso
Nosotros Quisimos
Vosotros Quisisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Quisieron

Leer Preterite

Leer – To read

Yo Leí
Él, Ella, Usted Leyó
Nosotros Leímos
Vosotros Leísteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Leyeron

Pedir Preterite

Pedir – To ask for, To order, To request

Yo Pedí
Él, Ella, Usted Pidió
Nosotros Pedimos
Vosotros Pedisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Pidieron

Dormir Preterite

Dormir – To sleep

Yo Dormí
Él, Ella, Usted Durmió
Nosotros Dormimos
Vosotros Dormisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Durmieron

Venir Preterite

Venir – To come

Yo Vine
Él, Ella, Usted Vino
Nosotros Vinimos
Vosotros Vinisteis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedes Vinieron

Preterite Tense Spanish: Conclusion

We use the Spanish preterite to speak about events that happened in the past at a clear-cut point in time. Events that we speak about in the preterite have an identifiable beginning and end.

You need to understand preterite vs imperfect, in order to know when to use which form. In general terms, the preterite is for events that started and ended at clear moments, whereas the imperfect is for describing conditions or ongoing actions.

When it comes to simple past tense Spanish conjugation, the preterite typically follows one of two regular forms for either the -ar verbs or the – er and -ir verbs. Nonetheless, some irregular verbs follow different conjugation rules in their first person singular to help with pronunciation, while other irregular verbs just need to be memorized.

We covered all of these topics through this post, with plenty of examples, so you should be well on your way to becoming a preterite master! We’re also including a huge list of full preterite conjugations below, so feel free to bookmark this page and come back to it as a reference. Soon enough, you’ll be telling stories and recounting funny events in Spanish like a native speaker!

Bonus Section: Preterite Conjugation Chart

We already covered all the conjugation rules for regular preterite conjugation, and we also included full conjugation tables for 15 of the most common irregular verbs in preterite.

In this bonus section, we’re providing a few lists of full preterite conjugations for each group of verbs. You can come back to this big reference list to study your Spanish past tense conjugation!

Regular -ar verbs in preterite

  • Comprar preterite – (Comprar – To buy) compré, compraste, compró, compramos, comprasteis, compraron
  • Hablar preterite – (Hablar – To talk, to speak) hablé, hablaste, habló, hablamos, hablasteis, hablaron
  • Tomar preterite – (Tomar – To take, to drink) tomé, tomaste, tomó, tomamos, tomasteis, tomaron
  • Estudiar preterite – (Estudiar – To study) estudié, estudiaste, estudió, estudiamos, estudiasteis, estudiaron
  • Llevar preterite – (Llevar – To take, To wear) llevé, llevaste, llevó, llevamos, llevasteis, llevaron
  • Visitar preterite – (Visitar – To visit) visité, visitaste, visitó, visitamos, visitasteis, visitaron
  • Encontrar preterite – (Encontrar – To find) encontré, encontraste, encontró, encontramos, encontrasteis, encontraron
  • Mirar preterite – (Mirar – To watch) miré, miraste, miró, miramos, mirasteis, miraron
  • Llamar preterite – (Llamar – To call) llamé, llamaste, llamó, llamamos, llamasteis, llamaron
  • Pasar preterite – (Pasar – To pass, To happen) pasé, pasaste, pasó, pasamos, pasasteis, pasaron
  • Trabajar preterite – (Trabajar – To work) trabajé, trabajaste, trabajó, trabajamos, trabajasteis, trabajaron
  • Viajar preterite – (Viajar – To travel) viajé, viajaste, viajó, viajamos, viajasteis, viajaron
  • Caminar preterite – (Caminar – To walk) caminé, caminaste, caminó, caminamos, caminasteis, caminaron

Regular -er / -ir verbs in preterite

  • Comer preterite – (Comer – To eat) comí, comiste, comió, comimos, comisteis, comieron
  • Salir preterite – (Salir – To leave, to go out) salí, saliste, salió, salimos, salisteis, salieron
  • Conocer preterite – (Conocer – To know, To meet) conocí, conociste, conoció, conocimos, conocisteis, conocieron
  • Escribir preterite – (Escribir – To write) escribí, escribiste, escribió, escribimos, escribisteis, escribieron
  • Vivir preterite – (Vivir – To live) viví, viviste, vivió, vivimos, vivisteis, vivieron
  • Decidir preterite – (Decidir – To decide) decidí, decidiste, decidió, decidimos, decidisteis, decidieron
  • Volver preterite – (Volver – To return) volví, volviste, volvió, volvimos, volvisteis, volvieron
  • Correr preterite – (Correr – To run) corrí, corriste, corrió, corrimos, corristeis, corrieron
  • Perder preterite – (Perder – To lose) perdí, perdiste, perdió, perdimos, perdisteis, perdieron
  • Beber preterite – (Beber – To drink) bebí, bebiste, bebió, bebimos, bebisteis, bebieron
  • Abrir preterite – (Abrir – To open) abrí, abriste, abrió, abrimos, abristeis, abrieron
  • Aprender preterite – (Aprender – To learn) aprendí, aprendiste, aprendió, aprendimos, aprendisteis, aprendieron

Irregular verbs in preterite

  • Saber preterite – (Saber – To know) supe, supiste, supo, supimos, supisteis, supieron
  • Traer preterite – (Traer – To bring) traje, trajiste, trajo, trajimos, trajisteis, trajeron
  • Llegar preterite – (Llegar – To arrive, To get somewhere) llegué, llegaste, llegó, llegamos, llegasteis, llegaron
  • Jugar preterite – (Jugar – To play) jugué, jugaste, jugó, jugamos, jugasteis, jugaron
  • Preferir preterite – (Preferir – To prefer) preferí, preferiste, prefirió, preferimos, preferisteis, prefirieron
  • Oír preterite – (Oír – To hear, To listen to) oí, oíste, oyó, oímos, oísteis, oyeron
  • Servir preterite – (Servir – To serve, To be useful, To work) serví, serviste, sirvió, servimos, servisteis, sirvieron
  • Haber preterite – (Haber – To have, There is / There are) hube, hubiste, hubo, hubimos, hubisteis, hubieron
  • Seguir preterite – (Seguir – To follow) seguí, seguiste, siguió, seguimos, seguisteis, siguieron
  • Conducir preterite – (Conducir – To drive, To lead) conduje, condujiste, condujo, condujimos, condujisteis, condujeron
  • Conseguir preterite – (Conseguir – To get, To acquire) conseguí, conseguiste, consiguió, conseguimos, conseguisteis, consiguieron
  • Buscar preterite – (Buscar – To look for, To search) busqué, buscaste, buscó, buscamos, buscasteis, buscaron
  • Caer preterite – (Caer – To fall) caí, caíste, cayó, caímos, caísteis, cayeron
  • Caerse preterite – (Caerse – To fall) me caí, te caíste, se cayó, nos caímos, os caísteis, se cayeron
  • Morir preterite – (Morir – To die) morí, moriste, murió, morimos, moristeis, murieron
  • Comenzar preterite – (Comenzar – To begin, To start) comencé, comenzaste, comenzó, comenzamos, comenzasteis, comenzaron
  • Andar preterite – (Andar – To walk) anduve, anduviste, anduvo, anduvimos, anduvisteis, anduvieron
  • Creer preterite – (Creer – To believe) creí, creíste, creyó, creímos, creísteis, creyeron
  • Pagar preterite – (Pagar – To pay, To pay for) pagué, pagaste, pagó, pagamos, pagasteis, pagaron
  • Vestirse preterite – (Vestirse – To get dressed) me vestí, te vestiste, se vistió, nos vestimos, os vestisteis, se vistieron
  • Sentir preterite – (Sentir – To feel) sentí, sentiste, sintió, sentimos, sentisteis, sintieron
  • Sentirse preterite – (Sentirse – To feel) me sentí, te sentiste, se sintió, nos sentimos, os sentisteis, se sintieron
  • Divertirse preterite – (Divertirse – To have fun) me devertí, te divertiste, se divirtió, nos divertimos, os divertisteis, se divirtieron
  • Almorzar preterite – (Almorzar – To have lunch) almorcé, almorzaste, almorzó, almorzamos, almorzasteis, almorzaron
  • Sacar preterite – (Sacar – To take out) saqué, sacaste, sacó, sacamos, sacasteis, sacaron
  • Repetir preterite – (Repetir – To repeat) repetí, repetiste, repitió, repetimos, repetisteis, repitieron
  • Tocar preterite – (Tocar – To touch, To play an instrument) toqué, tocaste, tocó, tocamos, tocasteis, tocaron
  • Traducir preterite – (Traducir – To translate) traduje, tradujiste, tradujo, tradujimos, tradujisteis, tradujeron
  • Dormirse preterite – (Dormirse – To go to sleep) me dormí, te dormiste, se durmió, nos dormimos, os dormisteis, se durmieron

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