How to use the preterite tense to talk about the past in Spanish

When do we use the past tense?

We use the past tense to talk about what we did in the past: for example, yesterday, last week or last year.

There are some rules that can help you form the past tense.

'-ar' verbs

To form the past tense in Spanish, remove the -ar, -er or -ir from the infinitive and add the correct ending to the stem.

The infinitive is the form of the verb you find in the dictionary. In Spanish, infinitives always end in -ar, -er or -ir.

The stem is the part of the verb that is left after we remove the infinitive ending.

To make the past tense of an -ar verb, remove -ar from the infinitive and add these endings to the stem:

Subject pronounending
I
you-aste
he/she/it

Have a look at this example:

hablar - to speak

English pronounSpanish pronounStemEndingExampleEnglish
Iyohablyo habléI spoke
youhabl-astetú hablasteyou spoke
he/she/itél/ellahablél/ella hablóhe/she/it spoke

It is useful to remember that in Spanish there is a unique verb ending for each subject pronoun (yo, , él, ella).

For example:

  • Él habló con mi padre - He spoke to my dad.

Because the verb ending itself tells you who is doing the action, subject pronouns are not always needed in Spanish.

For example:

  • ¿Cuándo hablaste con Safa? - When did you speak to Safa?

Some more examples of common -ar verbs include:

escuchar - to listen

English pronounSpanish pronounStemEndingExampleEnglish
Iyoescuchyo escuchéI listened
youescuch-astetú escuchasteyou listened
he/she/itél/ellaescuchél/ella escuchóhe/she listened

For example:

  • Escuché la radio - I listened to the radio.

  • Zaid escuchó música en su dormitorio - Zaid listened to music in his room.

visitar - to visit

English pronounSpanish pronounStemEndingExampleEnglish
Iyovisityo visitéI visited
youvisit-astetú visitasteyou visited
he/she/itél/ellavisitél/ella visitóhe/she visited

For example:

  • La semana pasada visité el museo - Last week I visited the museum.

  • ¿Visitaste la galería de arte? - Did you visit the art gallery?

Mi hermano visitó Barcelona

'-er' and '-ir' verbs

To form the past tense of both -er and -ir verbs, remove the -er and -ir from the infinitive and add these endings to the stem:

Subject pronounending
I
you-iste
he/she/it-ió

Have a look at this example:

comer - to eat

English pronounSpanish pronounStemEndingExampleEnglish
Iyocomyo comí I ate
youcom-istetú comisteyou ate
he/she/itél/ellacom-ióél/ella comióhe/she/it ate

For example:

  • ¿Qué comiste a mediodía? - What did you eat at midday?

  • Comí una ensalada y bebí un zumo de naranja - I ate a salad and I drank an orange juice.

salir - to go out

English pronounSpanish pronounStemEndingExampleEnglish
Iyosalyo salíI went out
yousal-istetú salisteyou went out
he/she/itél/ellasal-ióél/ella salióhe/she/it went out

For example:

  • Salí al restaurante a las ocho - I went out to the restaurant at eight o’clock.

  • ¿A qué hora saliste anoche? - What time did you go out last night?

Irregular verbs

Some verbs are irregular in the past tense which means that they don't follow the expected pattern. It is useful to learn these off by heart.

Ser (to be) and ir (to go) have the same form in the past tense. Luckily, you can tell which one is being used from the context of the sentence.

For example:

  • El fin de semana pasado fui al cine - Last weekend I went to the cinema.

  • Ayer fue interesante - Yesterday was interesting.

Have a look at the following irregular verbs and the examples given. Can you use them in your own sentences?

There are some examples below the table to help you.

Look how ser and ir are the same in the preterite:

InfinitiveIyouhe/she/it
ser (to be)fuifuistefue
ir (to go)fuifuistefue
estar (to be)estuveestuvisteestuvo
tener (to have)tuvetuviste tuvo
hacer (to make/do)hicehicistehizo
  • El lunes hice natación - On Monday I went swimming.

  • Tuve que ir al instituto - I had to go to school.

  • ¿Estuviste en casa ayer? - Were you at home yesterday?

Irregular verbs in the first person

There are some verbs which have a spelling change only in the first person.

For example:

  • Ayer jugué al tenis pero mi hermano jugó al rugby - Yesterday I played tennis but my brother played rugby.

  • Durante las vacaciones saqué pocas fotos pero tú sacaste muchas - During the holidays I took a few pictures but you took a lot.

Have a look at the following table to see the irregularity in the I form, and how the rest of the verb is formed in the you and he/she/it forms:

InfinitiveIyouhe/she/it
practicar (to play)practiquépracticastepracticó
jugar (to play)juguéjugastejugó
sacar fotos (to take photos)saquésacastesacó

Have a go at this activity to see how much you know about using the preterite tense in Spanish.

Quiz

Find out how much you know about the preterite tense in Spanish with this short quiz!

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