Spanish Preterite Tense – Learn This Peculiar Form of Spanish Verbs

spanish preterite tenseThe Spanish preterite tense is another topic that seems to confuse English speakers of Spanish. English speakers learning Spanish have a tendency to confuse the preterite with the imperfect and vice versa.

Both tenses describe actions that took place in the past. But I think English speakers just learning Spanish have a tendency to confuse the two because in English in certain instances we sometimes use the same form of a verb to describe an action that took place in the past.

But in Spanish, in the same instance, you cannot use both the preterite or the imperfect. Only one would be correct.

For example, in English , we can use the past tense of the verb “to go” (i.e. “went”) to describe two different actions that took place in the past.

1. I went to the shopping mall three times.
2. When I was young, I went to the shopping mall.

(Note: In English, for number “2” you could also say “When I was young, I used to go to the shopping mall.)

Both sentences use the same verb “went” to describe the action that took place in the past. But in Spanish, you cannot use the same verb tense. In the first sentence, you must use the preterite of “ir” (fui), and the imperfect verb tense (iba) in the latter.

Yo fui al almacén tres veces.
Cuando yo era joven, yo iba al almacén.

We will cover the “imperfect” verb tense in greater detail in a future lesson. But for now, think of the “imperfect” as a verb tense used to describe “how things used to be” or to describe an action that was continuous or habitual in the past.

Spanish Preterite Tense – Examples

The Spanish preterite tense is generally used to tell what happened (1) during a fixed period of time (either stated or implied), (2) a specific number of times, (3) or during an enclosed period of time. Here are some examples.

(1) During a fixed period of time:

Ayer compré un martillo. = Yesterday, I bought a hammer.

(2) A specific number of times (either state or implied):

Él perdió mi destornillador dos veces. = He lost my screwdriver two times.
Yo fui a la ferretería. = I went to the hardware store.

(It is implied that you went to the hardware store one time).

(3) During an enclosed period of time.

You hammered the nail for an hour. = Tú martillaste el clavo por una hora.

Spanish Preterite Tense – The Preterite Tense of regular verbs

The following are some regular verbs in the Spanish preterite tense.

“AR” Verbs (hablar)

Yo hablé
Tú hablaste
Él/ella/usted habló
Nosotros/nosotras hablamos
Ellos/ellas/ustedes hablaron

“ER” Verbs (beber)

Yo bebí
Tú bebiste
Él/ella/usted bebió
Nosotros/nosotras bebimos
Ellos/ellas/ustedes bebieron

“IR” Verbs Vivir

Yo viví
Tú viviste
Él/ella/usted vivió
Nosotros/nosotras vivimos
Ellos/ellas/ustedes vivieron

Here are more examples:

Last week you bought a saw. = La semana pasada, tú compraste una sierra.
Yesterday, the man needed a hammer. = Ayer, el hombre necesitó un martillo.
They used the rake nine times. = Ellos usaron el rastrillo nueve veces.
The brother-in-law put the leaves in the bag. = El cuñado metió las hojas en la bolsa.
This morning the women sewed the clothes. = Esta mañana las mujeres cosieron la ropa.
Last night, I covered the dessert. = Anoche yo cubrí el postre.

Spanish Preterite Tense – Exercises

Now let’s try some on your own. The answers follow:

1. The son-in law ate shrimp two times.
2. Today they decided to tell the truth
3. Did you use the hoe in the yard today? (Familiar)
4. The daughter-in-law turned on the oven a two o’clock.
5. Last summer, the soldiers marched in the parade.
6. He suffered a lot in the war this year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patrick Jackson is the Founder of the Learning Spanish Like Crazy system of learning Spanish. To learn more about his system of learning Spanish visit his web site at


Spanish Preterite Tense – Answers

1. El yerno comió camarones dos veces.
2. Hoy ellos decidieron a decir la verdad.
3. ¿Usaste tú el azadón en el jardín hoy?
4. La nuera encendió el horno a las dos.
5. El verano pasado los soldados marcharon en el desfile.
6. El sufrió mucho en la guerra este año.

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