For many Spanish learners, the first few weeks are easy. There’s no new alphabet, and other than a few pronunciation differences, speaking isn’t all that hard. Even the idea of a stem-changing verb makes sense; after all, languages have to preserve sound, not spelling.
And then, just when one thinks that they were absolutely correct in not taking French or Chinese or German, there comes the two past tenses - the preterite and the imperfect.
Figuring out the usage of each, as well as how to confidently use the preterite, is one of the crucial steps that will help take a learner from beginning to intermediate Spanish, while also setting them up for understanding just how important verbs are to the entire language.
In English, the past tense is normally indicated by -ed at the end of a word.
If one were to say that she learned Spanish, the verb ‘learn’ has an -ed at the end. However, there’s some incomplete information in that sentence.
The reader or listener, unless other information is provided, does not know whether she studied Spanish one day and then never again, or she studied the language for quite some time.
In English, context is normally provided to address this, but it is easy to see how this could cause some misunderstandings.
In Spanish, one has to be precise as to if the action happened throughout the past or at a relatively finite moment.
Therefore, there are two simple (i.e. one word) Spanish past tenses, the preterite and the imperfect.
The imperfect is the Spanish past tense best thought of as the ‘used to do’ case. If someone is trying to express a thought that refers to a past habitual action, i.e. something that they ‘used to do,’ then the imperfect is the tense to use.
However, if one needs a Spanish past tense that describes an occurrence where something was shorter or more finite, then the preterite is called upon.
One may have ‘used to gone’ to school, but she likely only graduated once.
Likewise, his childhood would likely be referred to in the imperfect, but the act of having a first day of school is definitely spoken about in the preterite.
Obviously, there can be some overlap here. In that case, it may come down to simply having been exposed to enough of the language to know what is going on.
For example, one may use the preterite to express having gone to summer camp once, but will use the imperfect to describe the action of going canoeing every day while at summer camp.
For many Spanish learners, there is a temptation to rely more on the imperfect, because it is the easier simple past tense to form.
However, while native speakers will be sympathetic to anyone trying to speak, it sounds a bit like someone who forms the future tense in English by saying ‘he is going + infinitive’ all the time without understanding how to use the word ‘will.’ Sure, it gets the point across, but there’s a better way.
In short, for those who really want to know Spanish well, the preterite is a fact of life, and a vital simple past tense.
Also, there are two other times where the preterite is especially useful. If someone is describing a series of events in the past, then the preterite is the tense to use. After all, each of these is a finite event in sequence, so it makes sense to do so.
Additionally, if a shorter action is complete, use the preferite.
For a quick way to remember this, remember that the imperfect is not complete, i.e. perfect, so events that had a definite beginning and end have to use the preterite.
In each of the following pairs of clauses, one verb should be in the preterite, and one should note.
The one that would be in the preterite in Spanish has been put in bold to help make it easier to recognize when to use this tense:
I took a test last week, but studied for a month before.
They dated for several months. They broke up last June.
The Spanish Civil War lasted for years, during which the Nazis bombed Guernica.
Again, a lot of non-natives tend to be afraid of the preterite, but it is a great chance to show off how much Spanish someone actually knows.
There are a number of reasons for this apprehension, ranging from the imperfect/preterite debate from earlier, the number of accented vowels involved in producing the preterite, and even the large number of irregular verbs.
However, none of them are going to be a good excuse. Therefore, here are the most common preterite conjugations:
For most Spanish learners, -AR verbs are the first ones learned, and they also make up a plurality of verbs in the language.
Here is the preterite conjugation for -AR verbs:
For the first person singular (e.g. yo), use é.
For the second person singular (e.g. tú), use aste.
For the third person singular (e.g. él, ella, or usted), use ó.
For the first person plural (e.g. nosotros), use amos.
For the second person plural (e.g. vosotros), use -asteis.
For the third person plural (e.g. ellos, ellas, or ustedes), use -aron.
Here are some examples of the word being used with a verb that just about everyone understands, hablar.
Hablé en la clase. - I talked in class.
¿Hablaste con mi novia? - Did you talk to my girlfriend?
Habló en español con el doctor. - He spoke in Spanish with the doctor.
Hablamos en la biblioteca. - We spoke in the library.
Hablaron en la tienda. - They spoke in the store.
Yes, it is a new conjugation, but it really isn't that bad. Whether it is flashcards, frequent use, or writing it until it sinks in, this is definitely a conjugation worth learning. Of course, the ER/IR conjugation is also useful:
Luckily for learners, the -ER and -IR forms of verbs in Spanish share the same conjugations; here is the -ER and -IR preterite conjugation:
For the first person singular (e.g. yo), use í.
For the second person singular (e.g. tú), use iste.
For the third person singular (e.g. él, ella, or usted), use ió.
For the first person plural (e.g. nosotros), use imos.
For the second person plural (e.g. vosotros), use -isteis.
For the third person plural (e.g. ellos, ellas, or ustedes), use -ieron.
There are definitely a few things noticing right off the bat. First, in three of the conjugations, the a just changes to an i.
That is easy enough to remember, right? Additionally, in the third person plural, both the e and the i are represented.
Here are some sample sentences, again using a very common verb (this time, vivir).
Viví en Cuba.
I lived in Cuba.
Viviste en esa casa.
You lived in that house.
We lived here.
They lived there.
Remember that each of these carries the meaning of a specific point in history. In the first example sentence, the assumption is that the speaker lived in Cuba for a finite period of time, much shorter than if they had merely said that they had lived.
Unfortunately, the preterite is not that easy. Instead, there are a number of irregular verbs that have irregular conjugations when using the preterite.
As if that were not confusing enough, two of the most common verbs (ser and ir) have the same exact conjugations for the preterite. Note that these are the complete words, not the endings:
For the first person singular (e.g. yo), use fui.
For the second person singular (e.g. tú), use fuiste.
For the third person singular (e.g. él, ella, or usted), use fue.
For the first person plural (e.g. nosotros), use fuimos.
For the second person plural (e.g. vosotros), use fuisteis.
For the third person plural (e.g. ellos, ellas, or ustedes), use fueron.
Speakers will have to rely on context here to know if the verb is meaning to go or to be. There could well be some deeper philosophical meaning to this, but that is best left to philosophers and linguists rather than language learners.
Still, some verbs have irregular roots for their preterites. Normally, the root (or stem) is found by knocking off the -AR, -ER, or -IR. However, a number of Spanish words have stems that change pretty dramatically.
English speakers should not get too upset about this. After all, go becomes went. Here are some of the most common verbs that have stem changes in the preterite:
estar becomes estuv
saber becomes sup
tener becomes tuv
decir becomes dij
poner becomes pus
poder becomes pud
Unfortunately, these simply must be memorized, along with the other few dozen or so. However, outside of a handful, most are more common in writing than in speaking, so learners can expect to absorb the words over time.
While the preterite can be frustrating, being able to use this tense is one of the hallmarks of a fluent Spanish speaker and will help one make the jump from a beginning Spanish learner to an intermediate one.
Additionally, it will help make sure that learners understand the precision that Spanish verbs offer, something that will be especially useful in the two other big hurdles that await learners, the subjunctive and the compound tenses.
See my list of Spanish resources to help you learn the preterite and more.