The Preterit


  1. Formation of the preterit for regular verbs: The stem is the infinitive minus the last two letters, e.g.: hablar > habl-.

    Endings for -ar verbs: -é, -aste, -ó, -amos, -asteis, -aron. Endings for -er and -ir verbs: -í, -iste, -ió, -imos, -isteis, -ieron.






    hablé hablamos comí comimos viví vivimos
    hablaste hablasteis comiste comisteis viviste vivisteis
    habló hablaron comió comieron vivió vivieron


    1. The singular forms of the first and third persons must be written with a accent mark. With -ar verbs, this accent mark distinguishes between hable (I /he/she [might] speak, present subjunctive) and hablé (I spoke, preterit), and between hablo (I speak, first person singular of the present indicative ) and habló (he/she spoke, preterit third person singular).

    2. The forms of the first person plural (nosotros) for -ar and -ir regular verbs [not -er] are identical in the present and preterit. Hablamos can be we speak or we spoke, depending on the context, and the same thing occurs with vivimos.

    3. If the stem of an -er or -ir verb ends in a vowel, the -i- of the third person forms changes to a -y-: leer: ella leyó, ustedes leyeron.

    4. -ar and -er stem-changing verbs do not experience the stem changes found in the present tense, for example, volver: volví, volviste, volvió... -ir stem changing verbs do undergo a stem change which will be discussed below.

  2. Verbs with orthgraphic changes. Spelling changes occur in certain forms of some verbs to maintain the pronunciation of the consonant occurring immediately before the infinitive ending.

    Verbs whose infinitive ends in -car, -gar, and -zar have a spelling change in the first person singular of the preterit:

    buscar: look for busqué buscaste buscó buscamos buscasteis buscaron
    pagar: pay pagué pagaste pagó pagamos pagasteis pagaron
    empezar: begin empe empezaste empezó empezamos empezasteis empezaron

  3. Third conjugation (-ir) stem-changing verbs. Unlike -ar and -er stem-changing verbs, -ir stem-changing verbs have a stem change in the preterit, but it occurs only in the third person singular and plural forms, where the stem vowel e changes to i, or o changes to u. Examples:

    sentir (e > ie > i)1


    dormir (o > ue > u)1


    pedir (e > i > i)1

    sentí sentimos dormí dormimos pedí pedimos
    sentiste sentisteis dormiste dormisteis pediste pedisteis
    sintió sintieron durmió durmieron pidió pidieron

    1 When these three sets of vowels are listed in this way (for example: e > ie > i): the first element indicates the stem vowel which occurs in the infinitive [e: sentir]; the second indicates the change that occurs when the stem vowel is stressed in the present tense of the indicative and usually in the present subjunctive [ie: sientes, siente, siente, sienten]; the third indicates the change which occurs in the third person singular and plural of the preterit, and in the gerund [i: sintió, sintieron, sintiendo].

    Similar verbs include:

      despedir (e > i > i) to say goodbye         repetir (e > i > i) to repeat
      divertir (e > ie > i) to amuse, entertain   seguir (e > i > i) to follow, continue
      dormir (o > ue > u) to sleep   sentir (e > ie > i) to feel
      morir (o > ue > u) to die   servir (e > i > i) to serve
      pedir (e > i > i) to ask, request 2sonreír (e > i > i) to smile
      preferir (e > ie > i) to prefer   vestir (e > i > i) to clothe, dress
    2reír (e > i > i) to laugh

    2 Note that when the stem ends in an -i- and the ending starts with the same vowel, the two are merged: reír: reí, reíste, rio [ri-ió], reímos, reíste, rieron [ri-ieron]

  4. Strong stem preterits. A special class of verbs are referred to as strong stem preterits since they have a special stem which is “strong” enough to carry the stress in the yo and él/ella/usted forms, instead of the ending being stressed such as occurs in the forms hablé and habló. These verbs also have a special set of endings, none of which carries a written accent mark: -e, -iste, -o, -imos, -isteis, -(i)eron.3

    E.g.: andar: anduve, anduviste, anduvo, anduvimos, anduvisteis, anduvieron

    Some of the most frequently used verbs in this class are:

      andar: anduv- to walk, go          poner: pus- to put, place
    3conducir: conduj- to drive, lead   querer: quis- to want, love
    3decir: dij- to tell, say   saber: sup- to know
      estar: estuv- to be   tener: tuv- to have
      haber: hub- to have 3traducir: traduj- to translate
    4hacer: hic- to do, make 3traer: traj- to bring
      poder: pud- to be able   venir: vin- to come

    3 If the preterit stem ends in a -j-, the -i- of the third person plural form is dropped: dijeron, trajeron.

    4 The third person singular form of hacer has a spelling change: hice, hiciste, hizo, hicimos, hicisteis, hicieron

  5. Irregular verbs. Some verbs are completely irregular in the preterit:

    dar: to give di diste dio dimos disteis dieron
    ir: to go fui fuiste fue fuimos fuisteis fueron
    ser: to be fui fuiste fue fuimos fuisteis fueron

    Note that the preterit forms of ir and ser are identical; context should determine which verb is being used.

  6. Meaning and use of the preterit. The English form of a verb in the preterit is usually the simple past tense: hablé = I spoke; comiste = you ate; vivimos = we lived. The preterit views an action or state as: 1) being in the past, and 2) over and done with (as opposed to the imperfect, which often views it as being in progress). It is often used to indicate a series of actions in the past.

    Fuimos al restaurante Equis.   We went to Equis restaurant.
    Vine, vi, vencí. I came, I saw, I conquered.
    Ella trabajó tres horas. She worked for three hours.

  7. Verbs which appear to “change meaning in the preterit. Since the preterit focuses on the action as being over and done with, the preterit sometimes connotes a different meaning when compared to other tenses. This happens most frequently with the following verbs:

    conocer: to know > met, made the acquaintance (of someone)
         La conocí en Buenos Aires.   I met her in Buenos Aires.
    La conocía en Buenos Aires. I knew (used to know) her in Buenos Aires.

    poder: to be able > managed (to do something)

          Pudimos llegar a tiempo.   We managed to arrive on time (we were able to do it and actually did it).
    Podíamos ir o por tren o por avión. We were able to go (could have gone) either by train or plane.

    haber: there to be > occurred
         Hubo un accidente aquí.   An accident occurred here. (OR: There was an accident here.)
    Había treinta coches en el lote. There were 30 cars in the lot.

    querer: to want, love > tried, attempted
         Quise encontrar el perro.   I tried to find the dog (wanted to find him and put that desire into action).
    Quería encontrar el perro (pero no salí a buscarlo). I wanted to find the dog (but I didn't go out looking for him).

    no querer: not to want > refused
         Jorge no quiso venir.   Jorge refused to come (didn't want to and thus didn't come).
    Elena no quería venir, pero vino de todos modos. Elena didn't want to come, but came anyway.

  8. Special case: hacer plus an expression of time with the preterit or imperfect.

    To express the idea ago, Spanish typically uses the preterit —or sometmes the imperfect— of a verb plus hace (present tense) plus an expression of time:

    Hace una semana que desapareció.    She disappeared a week ago.
    Lo vimos hace una hora. We saw him an hour ago.
    ¿Dónde estabas hace 30 minutos? Where were you 30 minutes ago?


    1. Que and desde are normally not used when the hace clause comes after the verb, as in example number two above.

    2. Remember: Hacía (in the imperfect tense) plus an expression of time is also used with a verb in the imperfect, but in that case it means for, and refers to an action that started prior to simple past time, and continues on into past time: I had been studying for an hour = Hacía una hora que estudiaba.

    3. Compare/contrast the following examples of time with the present, imperfect, and preterit tenses (with and without hacer and prepositions):

      Hacía tres horas que cantaban (cuando llegó la policía). [O: Cantaban desde hacía tres horas. O: Llevaban tres horas cantando.]    They had been singing for three hours ([and were still singing] when the police arrived).
      Hace tres horas que cantan. [O: Cantan desde hace tres horas. O: Llevan tres horas cantando.] They've been singing for three hours [and are still singing].
      Cantaron hace tres horas. [O: Hace tres horas cantaron.] They sang three hours ago.
      Cantaban hace tres horas. [O: Hace tres horas cantaban.] They were singing three hours ago.
      Cantaron por tres horas. [O: Cantaron durante tres horas. O: Cantaron tres horas.] They sang for three hours.



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Contact: Fred F. Jehle


Indiana University - Purdue University Ft. Wayne
Fort Wayne, IN 46805-1499 USA