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.

Using 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 (s)-aste
he/she/it
we-amos
you (pl)-asteis
they-aron

Have a look at this example:

hablar - to speak

English pronounSpanish pronounStemEndingExampleEnglish
Iyohabl(yo) habléI spoke
you (s)habl-aste(tú) hablasteyou spoke (s)
he/she/itél/ellahabl(él/ella) hablóhe/she/it spoke
wenosotroshabl-amos(nosotros) hablamoswe spoke
you (pl)vosotroshabl-asteis(vosotros) hablasteisyou spoke (pl)
theyellos/ellashabl-aron(ellos/ellas) hablaronthey 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
Iyoescuch(yo) escuchéI listened
you (s)escuch-aste(tú) escuchasteyou listened (s)
he/she/itél/ellaescuchél/ella escuchóhe/she listened
wenosotrosescuch-amos(nosotros) escuchamoswe listened
you (pl)vosotrosescuch-asteis(vosotros) escuchasteisyou listened (pl)
theyellos/ellasescuch-aron(ellos/ellas) escucharonthey 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
Iyovisit(yo) visitéI visited
you (s)visit-aste(tú) visitasteyou visited (s)
he/she/itél/ellavisit(él/ella) visitóhe/she visited
wenosotrosvisit-amos(nosotros) visitamoswe visited
you (pl)vosotrosvisit-asteis(vosotros) visitasteisyou visited (pl)
theyellos/ellasvisit-aron(ellos/ellas) visitaronthey 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

Using 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 (s)-iste
he/she/it-ió
we-ímos
you (pl)-isteis
they-ieron

Have a look at this example:

comer - to eat

English pronounSpanish pronounStemEndingExampleEnglish
Iyocom(yo) comí I ate
you (s)com-iste(tú) comisteyou ate (s)
he/she/itél/ellacom-ióél/ella comióhe/she/it ate
wenosotroscom-ímos(nosotros) comimoswe ate
you (pl)vosotroscom-isteis(vosotros) comisteisyou ate (pl)
theyellos/ellascom-ieron(ellos/ellas) comieronthey 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
Iyosal(yo) salíI went out
you (s)sal-iste(tú) salisteyou went out (s)
he/she/itél/ellasal-ió(él/ella) salióhe/she/it went out
wenosotrossal-ímos(nosotros) salimosI went out
you (pl)vosotrossal-isteis(vosotros) salisteisyou went out (pl)
theyellos/ellassal-ieron(ellos/ellas) salieronthey 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/ItWeYouThey
ser (to be)fuifuistefuefuimosfuisteisfueron
ir (to go)fuifuistefuefuimosfuisteisfueron
estar (to be)estuveestuvisteestuvoestuvimosestuvisteisestuvieron
tener (to have)tuvetuvistetuvotuvimostuvisteistuvieron
hacer (to make/do)hicehicistehizohicimoshicisteishicieron
  • 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 (ending in -car and -gar) which have a spelling change only in the first person.

For example:

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

  • Sacar : 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!