Notes from ¿Qué tal? – Talking About the Past (the Preterite Verb Tense)

To talk about all aspects of the past in Spanish, you need to know how to use two simple tenses (tenses formed without an auxiliary or “helping” verb): the preterite and the imperfect.

The preterite (el pretérito) has several equivalents in English. For example, hablé can mean I spoke or I did speak. The preterite is used to report finished, completed actions or states of being in the past. If the action or state of being is viewed as completed–no matter how long it lasted or took to complete–it will be expressed with the preterite.

Preterite of Regular Verbs

Hablé – I spoke (did speak)
Hablaste – you spoke
Habló – you/he/she spoke
Hablamos – we spoke
Hablasteis – you spoke
Hablaron – you/they spoke
comí – I ate (did eat)
comiste – you ate
com – you/he/she ate
comimos – we ate
comisteis – you ate
comieron – you/they ate
viví – I lived (did live)
viviste – you lived
viv – you/he/she lived
vivimos – we lived
vivisteis – you lived
vivieron – you/they lived

Note the accent marks on the first and third person singular of the preterite tense. These accent marks are dropped in the conjugation of ver: vi, vio.

Pronunciation hint: Some English words are distinguished from each other solely by the position of stress: objéct (to express disagreement) or óbject (thing); súspect (one who is suspected) or suspéct (to be suspicious). The same is true in Spanish: tomas (you take) or Tomás (Thomas). It is particularly important to pay attention to stress in preterite verb forms, because many of them are identical–except for the written accent–to other forms you have learned: hablo (I speak) versus habló (you/he/she spoke), hable (speak, Ud. command) versus hablé (I spoke), and so on.

Also, note the following about regular preterite forms.

  • The forms of the first person plural (nosotros) in the preterite of -ar and -ir verbs are identical to those of the present. You will know the difference because of the context.
  • Verbs that end in -car, -gar, and -zar show a spelling change in the first person singular of the preterite.
  • buscar: busqué, buscaste, …
    pagar: pagué, pagaste, …
    empezar: empecé, empezaste, …

  • -Ar and -er stem..changing verbs show no stem change in the preterite: desperté, volví. -Ir stem-changing verbs do show a change.
  • An unstressed -i- between two vowels becomes -y-.
  • creer: creyó, creyeron
    leer: leyó, leyeron

Irregular Preterite Forms


The preterite endings for dar are the same as those used for regular -er/-ir verbs in the preterite, except that the accent marks are dropped. The third person singular of hacerhizo–is spelled with a z to keep the {s] sound of the infinitive. Ser and ir nave identical forms in the preterite. Context will make the meaning clear.
Fui profesora. – I was a professor
Fui al centro anoche. – I went downtown last night.

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