Introduction to the Preterite

Spanish has another past tense called the pretérito. This is the tense you use to talk about everything else in the past. For example, you use the imperfect to describe habitual or ongoing actions, but use the preterite to relate non-habitual actions or a sequence of actions in the past. Let's review the preter-ite conjugations, and then we can talk more about when and how this past tense is used.

Regular Verbs in the Preterite

Subject Pronoun

Hablar

Comer

Vivir

yo

hablé

comí

viví

hablaste

comiste

viviste

él, ella, usted

habló

comió

vivió

nosotros

hablamos

comimos

vivimos

vosotros

hablasteis

comisteis

vivisteis

ellos, ellas, ustedes

hablaron

comieron

vivieron

You may have noticed that the nosotros forms of the -ar and -ir verb categories are identical in the preterite and the simple present. Don't let it throw you. The context will usually make it clear whether the verb refers to a past or present event.

The first- and third-person conjugations of regular verbs in the preterite all have an accent mark on the last vowel. Don't get lazy and leave it off! This little accent makes a big difference between, for example, habló (he, she, you spoke) and hablo (I speak).

Most verbs with stem changes in the present tense are completely regular in the preterite. For example, the stem-changing verb acostarse, which changes from o > ue in all the present tense conjugations except the nosotros and vosotros forms, retains the o of the stem in all of the preterite conjugations: me acuesto (I go to bed) but me acosté (I went to bed), te acostaste, se acostó, nos acostamos, os acostasteis, se acostaron.

Practice: Regular Preterite

Before we go any further, let's practice what you've learned about the regular preterite conjugations. Complete each of the following sentences with the preterite of the verb in parentheses. Then check your work in Appendix D.

  • Alberto __________ (levantarse) a las siete, __________ (bañarse) y __________ (desayunar) antes de ir al trabajo.

  • Yo __________ (ver) a Alberto a las nueve y nosotros __________ (tomar) un café.

  • Alberto y sus colegas __________ (hablar) varias horas sobre un problema. Finalmente __________ (decidir) votar por una solución.

  • ¿Por qué __________ (llegar) tú tarde al trabajo ayer? ¿ __________ (comer) con Alberto después de la reunión?

  • Yo __________ (salir) con Eliana y ella me __________ (llevar) a un restaurante salvadoreño muy bueno.

Preterite Stem and Spelling Changes

Remember that we said most stem-changing verbs were regular in the preterite? Well, a few stem-changers have special stem changes in the preter-ite. These vowel changes occur only in the third-person singular and plural:él, ella, usted and ellos, ellas, ustedes. Look at these examples:

<tgroup cols="2"> <colspec colname="col1" colnum="1" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="50%"/> <colspec colname="col2" colnum="2" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="50%"/> <thead> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>o > u: dormir(se)</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>morir</emphasis></p></td> </tr> </thead> <tbody> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>(se) durmió, (se) durmieron</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>murió, murieron</emphasis></p></td> </tr> </tbody> </tgroup> </table> <table frame="none" width="100%"> <title/> <tgroup cols="2"> <colspec colname="col1" colnum="1" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="50%"/> <colspec colname="col2" colnum="2" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="50%"/> <thead> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>e > i: divertir(se)</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>vestir(se)</emphasis></p></td> </tr> </thead> <tbody> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>(se) divirtió, (se) divirtieron</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>(se) vistió, (se) vistieron</emphasis></p></td> </tr> </tbody> </tgroup> </table> <p>Additionally, verbs that end in <emphasis>-car, –gar</emphasis>, and <emphasis>-zar</emphasis> have minor spelling changes in the preterite. These changes occur in the first-person singular and are made for pronunciation purposes. Look at the following examples:</p> <p><emphasis>c > qu: buscar Yo busqué el libro.</emphasis> <B>(I looked for the book.)</B></p> <p><emphasis>g > gu: jugar Yo jugué al fútbol con Sonia.</emphasis> <B>(I played soccer with Sonia.)</B></p> <p><emphasis>z > c: almorzar Yo almorcé en la cafetería.</emphasis> <B>(I ate lunch in the cafeteria.)</B></p> <p>The reason for the spelling change is obvious for <emphasis>busqué</emphasis> and <emphasis>jugué</emphasis>. You have to add the <emphasis>u</emphasis> before the <emphasis>é</emphasis> to retain the pronunciation of the hard <emphasis>/ k/</emphasis> and <emphasis>/g/</emphasis> sounds. Without the change you would have to pronounce the <emphasis>yo</emphasis> form of these two verbs in the preterite something like “boo say” and “hoo hay,” neither of which would communicate effectively. The change from <emphasis>z</emphasis> to <emphasis>c</emphasis> has an historic origin that doesn't have much to do with the modern phonetics of the language. Nevertheless, the change continues to be made.</p> <h2>A Few Irregular Preterite Verbs: Ser, Ir, Hacer, Estar, Tener</h2> <p>No verb tense in Spanish is complete without some irregular verbs, and the preterite tense actually has quite a few. The good news is that many of the irregular preterites fall into categories of similar irregularities. Let's start with five of the most common irregular verbs: <emphasis>ser</emphasis>, <emphasis>ir</emphasis>, <emphasis>hacer</emphasis>, <emphasis>estar</emphasis>, <emphasis>tener</emphasis>.</p> <div class="npsb"> <h2></h2> <p>The preterite of the expression hay is hubo. To say “There was a cat” or “There were some cats,” for example, you would say: Hubo un gato or Hubo unos gatos. It would be more common, however, to use the imperfect: había.</p> </div> <table frame="none" width="100%"> <title/> <tgroup cols="6"> <colspec colname="col1" colnum="1" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="20%"/> <colspec colname="col2" colnum="2" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="20%"/> <colspec colname="col3" colnum="3" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="15%"/> <colspec colname="col4" colnum="4" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="15%"/> <colspec colname="col5" colnum="5" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="15%"/> <colspec colname="col6" colnum="6" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="center" colwidth="15%"/> <thead> <tr> <td><p>Subject Pronoun</p></td> <td><p><emphasis>Ser</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>Ir</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>Hacer</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>Estar</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>Tener</emphasis></p></td> </tr> </thead> <tbody> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>yo</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fui</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fui</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>hice</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>estuve</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>tuve</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>tú</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fuiste</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fuiste</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>hiciste</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>estuviste</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>tuviste</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>él, ella, usted</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fue</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fue</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>hizo</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>estuvo</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>tuvo</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>nosotros</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fuimos</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fuimos</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>hicimos</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>estuvimos</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>tuvimos</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>vosotros</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fuisteis</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fuisteis</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>hicisteis</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>estuvisteis</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>tuvisteis</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p><emphasis>ellos, ellas, ustedes</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fueron</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>fueron</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>hicieron</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>estuvieron</emphasis></p></td> <td><p><emphasis>tuvieron</emphasis></p></td> </tr> </tbody> </tgroup> </table> <p>Let's review some of the unique features of these irregular conjugations. First, in contrast with the regular forms, there is no accent mark on the first- or third-person singular conjugation in the irregulars. Next, <emphasis>ser</emphasis> and <emphasis>ir</emphasis> have identical irregular conjugations in the preterite. As always, context will enable you to distinguish one from the other. Now, look at the stem change for <emphasis>hacer, estar,</emphasis> and <emphasis>tener</emphasis>. The <emphasis>ha-</emphasis> of <emphasis>hacer</emphasis> changes to <emphasis>hi-</emphasis>; <emphasis>est-</emphasis> and <emphasis>ten-</emphasis> change to <emphasis>estuv-</emphasis> and <emphasis>tuv-</emphasis>; and all three verbs take <emphasis>-er/-ir</emphasis> type endings even though <emphasis>estar</emphasis> is an <emphasis>-ar</emphasis> verb. In summary, these five verbs have the following irregular characteristics in the preterite:</p> <itemizedlist spacing="compact" role="bullet"> <li><p>First- and third-person singular conjugations are without accents.</p></li> <li><p><emphasis>ser</emphasis> and <emphasis>ir</emphasis> have identical conjugations</p></li> <li><p><emphasis>hacer > hi-: hice, hiciste, hizo, hicimos, hicisteis, hicieron</emphasis></p></li> <li><p><emphasis>estar</emphasis> and <emphasis>tener > estuv-</emphasis> and <emphasis>tuv-</emphasis></p></li> <li><p><emphasis>estar</emphasis> takes <emphasis>-er/-ir</emphasis> type endings</p></li> </ul> <p>You'll learn more irregular preterite in future chapters. Some of them fall into these same categories; some are in categories all their own. Stay tuned!</p> <div class="npsb"> <h2></h2> <p>The third-person singular conjugation of hacer in the preterite is spelled with a <emphasis>z: hizo.</emphasis> This spelling change is to maintain the soft /<emphasis>s</emphasis>/ sound. As you know, the combination -co would result in a hard /<emphasis>k</emphasis>/ sound.</p> </div> <bridgehead>Irregular Preterite</bridgehead> <div class="npmo"> <img src="http://0.tqn.com/d/np/intermediate-spanish/cd.jpg"> <div class="npcp"><p>TRACK 41</p></div> </div> <p>Listen to Track 41 and answer the questions using the preterite. (The text is not given here because this is meant to be a more challenging exercise.)You can find a translation of each question as well as a sample answer in Appendix D.</p> <p>A great way to get more practice with the preterite is to keep a journal. Tuck a small spiral notebook in your pocket or purse and jot down what you, your friends, family, and colleagues did throughout the day. If you don't know the verb in Spanish, write it down in English and then look it up. Do this for about a week and you'll know more verbs in the preterite than you could ever imagine!</p> <!--/gc--> <div id="pagination"><ul><li class="prev"><a href="http://www.netplaces.com/intermediate-spanish/using-the-past-tenses/the-imperfect-tense.htm" title="The Imperfect Tense">The Imperfect Tense</a></li><li class="next"><a href="http://www.netplaces.com/intermediate-spanish/using-the-past-tenses/narrate-using-imperfect-and-preterite.htm" title="Narrate Using Imperfect and Preterite">Narrate Using Imperfect and Preterite</a> </li></ul></div></div> <div id="coda"> <div id="rel"><div class="n5">Related Articles</div><ul> <li><a href="http://www.netplaces.com/intermediate-spanish/using-the-past-tenses/introduction-to-the-preterite.htm" zT="18/1YL/Zn"> Introduction to the Preterite - Intermediate Spanish </a></li> <li><a href="http://www.netplaces.com/intermediate-spanish/narrate-with-preterite-and-imperfect-verbs/irregular-preterite-verbs.htm" zT="18/1YL/Zn"> Irregular Preterite 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