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The Spanish preterite: A comprehensive guide

Alicia Fernández • Nov 22, 2023 • 10 minutes
Updated Jan 31, 2024
The Spanish preterite: A comprehensive guide
The Graf Method for Spanish Language

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In this volume, we discuss the alphabet, definite and indefinite articles, and verbs ser and estar, among other topics.


There are many ways to express past actions in Spanish. Sometimes those events or activities we are referring to are completed, some still have an effect or result in the present, sometimes an action or event was in progress or ongoing in the past, or perhaps we are referring to an activity that was habitual or repeated.

In this article, we will focus on the preterite tense or pretérito perfecto simple in Spanish, which is a completed action in the past. We will see when and how to use it. You will learn regular verbs, and yes, you guessed it! you will also learn some irregular verbs. Finally, we will take a look at some common time expressions, and you will also get a chance to practice what you learned.

We have a lot to cover, so let’s get started!

The preterite tense

As mentioned previously, the preterite is a completed past tense. It refers to a specific event or action that happened and has no relation to the present tense. Compare these two examples:

Hice la cena para mis compañeros de trabajo. (I made dinner for my coworkers.)

He hecho la cena para mis compañeros de trabajo. (I’ve made dinner for my coworkers.)

In the first example, the verb is conjugated in the preterite tense (past simple in English) which means a specific action was completed in the past with no relation to the present. However, in the second example, the verb is conjugated in the préterito perfecto compuesto (present perfect in English), which is still a past tense but with relation to the present. In the second example, although the dinner has already been made, it is something that has happened recently, and the speaker may be about to share it with his coworkers; it has relevance in the present tense.

This difference between these two tenses is what is called the perfective aspect. An aspect is a subcategory within a tense that has to do with how an action progresses through time. The perfective aspect indicates that an action has been completed in the past with no reference to time. Let’s take a look at more examples:

David estudiaba español todos los días. (David studied/used to study Spanish every day.)

Although the action has occurred in the past (imperfecto), it is an action that was in progress and was not completed. It indicates that it happened in the past habitually. In this case, it has an imperfective aspect, an action that used to happen continuously. Does that make sense?


So now you know that the preterite tense in Spanish is used for specific completed actions in the past. Let’s see some specific uses and examples:

Completed actions in the past

Hablé con Eva hace dos días. (I spoke with Eva two days ago.)

Compramos los regalos de Navidad la semana pasada. (We bought Christmas gifts last week.)

Beginning or end of an action

Empecé a estudiar Portugués el año pasado. (I started studying Portuguese last year.)

Francisco terminó la carrera en el 2019. (Francisco finished his degree in 2019.)

Specific dates / times

Mi hermano nació el 29 de diciembre. (My brother was born on December 29.)

Salió de casa a las 7 de la mañana. (He left his home at 7 a.m.)

A series of actions

Llegaronalmorzaron y se fueron. (They arrived, ate lunch, and left.)

Anoche bailamoscomimos y hablamos durante horas. (Last night, we danced, ate, and talked for hours.)

Photographs of memories

Regular verbs in the preterite

Now you know when and how we use the preterite tense in Spanish. Take a look at how we conjugate regular verbs. In English it’s pretty simple: we just add -ed to regular verbs (talked, played, danced). What about in Spanish?

-AR verbs


Bailar (to dance):


Don’t forget the tilde or accent mark! Sometimes forgetting to include the accent mark can completely change the meaning (bailo = I dance, bailó = he/she/you danced).

-ER and -IR verbs


Comer (to eat):


Vivir (to live):


Have you noticed that the 1st person plural of regular -ar and -ir verbs have the same conjugation as the present tense? So how do we know if we are using the present or past tense? By the context, especially by using time expressions. Take a look at these two examples:

Nosotros vivimos en Barcelona. (We live in Barcelona.)

Nosotros vivimos en Barcelona durante 10 años. (We lived in Barcelona for 10 years.)

An infographic showing the endings for Spanish regular verbs in the preterite (pretétito perfecto simple)

Preterite time expressions

Have you noticed the time expressions used throughout this article so far? If you go back, you will see expressions such as: el año pasado, el viernes pasado, la semana pasada, anoche, and ayer. Time expressions indicate when something happened, is happening, or will happen.

Here are some common Spanish preterite time expressions:

  • ayer (yesterday)
  • ayer por la mañana (yesterday morning)
  • ayer por la tarde (yesterday afternoon)
  • anteayer or antes de ayer (the day before yesterday)
  • anoche (last night)
  • después (afterwards)
  • el año pasado (last year)
  • el mes pasado (last month)
  • la semana pasada (last week)
  • el lunes por la mañana/tarde/noche (Monday morning/afternoon/night)
  • el otro día (the other day)
  • en ese momento (at that moment)
  • entonces (then)
  • esta mañana (this morning)
  • esta tarde (this afternoon)
  • hace dos días (two days ago)
  • hace cinco años (five years ago)
Remember we do not capitalize days of the week in Spanish! We use the definite article el (el lunes, el martes,...) or los (los viernes, los domingos,...) with the days of the week. Because in English we use on with the days of the week (on Monday, on Tuesday..) Spanish learners are sometimes tempted to use the preposition en, which would be incorrect.
A woman holding an old picture of children in front of an old house

Irregular verbs in the preterite

There are many irregular verbs in the preterite tense. English has them, too! (eat - ate, catch - caught, see - saw, etc.). Let’s see the most common ones in Spanish:

Ser (to be)


Ir (to go)


Yes, you’ve seen that correctly! Your eyes are not deceiving you! Both verbs (ser and ir) have the same conjugation in the preterite!

To help you learn irregular verbs, let’s categorize them by their stem. As a reminder, the stem or root is the part of the verb that appears in all the forms and carries the general or fundamental meaning. We have 3 types of stems in the preterite: U stem, J stem, and I stem. 

Irregular verbs have one group of endings, with the exception of the 3rd person plural for J-stem verbs which is -eron instead of -ieron

U-stem verbs

Saber (to know): Supe, supiste, supo, supimos, supisteis, supieron

Tener (to have): Tuve, tuviste, tuvo, tuvimos, tuvisteis, tuvieron

Other verbs: poner, poder, estar.

J-stem verbs

Traer (to bring): traje, trajiste, trajo, trajimos, trajisteis, trajeron

Decir (to say): dije, dijiste, dijo, dijimos, dijisteis, dijeron

Other verbs: traducir, producir, conducir.

I-stem verbs

Querer (to want/to love): quise, quisiste, quiso, quisimos, quisisteis, quisieron

Hacer (to do/to make): hice, hiciste, hizo, hicimos, hicisteis, hicieron

Other verbs: venir

Remember stem-changing verbs? The good news is that -ar and -er verbs DO NOT have a stem change in the preterite tense, so they are conjugated like regular verbs. The not-so-great news? -ir verbs do have a stem change, but just e:i and o:u in the third person, singular and plural.

Spelling changes

There are other spelling changes that happen in the preterite. Verbs that end in -car, -gar, or -zar change to -qué, -gué, and -cé, respectively, in the yo form only. This mainly happens to maintain the same pronunciation in all conjugations. As you already know, the letters C and G are pronounced differently before the vowels E and I. The Z will never come before E or I, therefore we need to use the C instead. 

Here’s an example:

Buscar (to look for): The C is pronounced as a K. If we were to keep the C in the first person singular of the preterite (*Buscé) the pronunciation would be different so that is why we change C to QU, for pronunciation purposes: (Busqué = I looked for). 

Finally, remember the letter I changes to a Y between vowels so you will also see that change in verbs like leer (to read):

leyó (we changed I to Y because it was in between the vowels E and O)
leyeron (we changed I to Y because it was in between the vowels E and E)

Other verbs are: creer (to believe), oír (to hear). Try to conjugate them! Use the conjugation of leer as a reference.


That was a lot of information! Don’t be overwhelmed! Although it’s a lot to remember, the more you practice these verbs the faster you will learn their conjugation and the easier it will get. When it comes to irregular verbs, learn the most common ones for now, you do not have to know all of them.

Remember, the preterite tense is a PAST tense but the difference with other past tenses is that the preterite refers to a specific, completed action with no relation to the present tense. 

Ready to practice what you learned?


Conjugate the following regular verbs

If you don’t know a term, don’t forget to look it up in an online dictionary such as https://www.linguee.com/english-spanish

  1. Nosotros ________ (aprender) a tocar el piano.
  2. Daniel _______ (trabajar) en España hace 4 años. 
  3. Anoche mis hermanos se ________ (comer) una pizza entera.
  4. Ayer yo le _________ (escribir) una tarjeta a mi amiga por su cumpleaños.
  5. Eloísa _______ (almorzar) con su hija el viernes pasado.


Answer Key:

  1. aprendimos
  2. trabajó
  3. comieron
  4. escribí
  5. almorzó

Choose the correct conjugation of the irregular verbs

  1. Yo no _____ (poder) ir al concierto. (puedo/pude/pode)
  2. Nosotros ______ (ser) mejores amigos. (somos/fui/fuimos)
  3. La semana pasada, Francisco _______ (hacer) una lasaña para nosotros. (hizo/hico/hace)
  4. Ellos ________ (traer) un gato a casa ayer. (traeron/trajeron/traje)
  5. Evaristo ______ (ir) a la playa a pescar. (fui/fue/fuimos)


Answer Key:

  1. pude
  2. fuimos
  3. hizo
  4. trajeron
  5. fue

Conjugate the following verbs in the preterite tense

Watch out! Some of these verbs have spelling changes!

  1. Ricardo _____ (leer) el cuento en alto. 
  2. Edu _______ (pagar) la cena anoche.
  3. Yo _______ (buscar) mi cartera por mi casa.
  4. Anoche, Elena _____ (oír) un ruido extraño en su habitación.
  5. Yo _______ (jugar) al fútbol con mi sobrino hace dos semanas.


Answer Key:

  1. leyó
  2. pagó
  3. busqué
  4. oyó
  5. jugué

Past or present?

Take a look at these sentences and decide if they are referring to past or present actions and events. 

  1. El fin de semana pasado bailamos mucho.
  2. Nosotros vivimos en Madrid ahora.
  3. Alex y yo trabajamos juntos el año pasado. 
  4. Estudiamos mucho ayer.
  5. Hablamos todos los días.


Answer Key:

  1. Past
  2. Present
  3. Past
  4. Past
  5. Present
Alicia Fernández
Alicia Fernández

Alicia Fernández is a content writer at Berges Institute.

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