The “preterite tense” in Spanish is also known as the “past simple tense”. As there are several different past tenses in Spanish, it can be tricky for learners to work out which one they should be using and when to choose the preterite tense.
This blog post will help you work out when you should be using the preterite tense / past simple tense.
Basically you need to use the preterite tense when talking about completed actions that happened at a specific time. You could also be talking about something that happened once – NOT habits or repeated actions.
Let’s look at some examples:
Yesterday I went to the beach. – Ayer fui a la playa.
The exam was easy. – El examen fue fácil.
I prepared the dinner last night. – Yo preparé la cena anoche.
As you can see from these examples, they are all talking about a one-off specific action that took place at a certain time; yesterday, last night, one exam.
Time phrases used with the preterite tense:
ayer – yesterday
anteayer – the day before yesterday
anoche – last night
la semana pasada – last week
el año pasado – last year
el otro día – the other day
el domingo/sábado … – on Sunday/Saturday …
hace un mes – a month ago
En 2005 – in 2005
Now let’s look at the verb endings of the regular verbs. Forming the regular verbs isn’t too difficult because there are only two sets to learn; -ar verbs have one set of endings and both -er and -ir verbs have the same endings. (Unlike the present tense when you have to learn three different sets of endings.)
hablar (to speak)
Notice that you need an accent on the yo form and on the él/ella form.
You may also have seen that the nosotros form “hablamos” happens to be the same as in the present tense. In this case you just have to work
out the context and you should easily be able to work out if it means “we speak” (present) or “we spoke” (past).
Now let’s look at the -er and -ir pattern:
comer (to eat)
Again, remember the accent on the yo and él/ella forms. With -er verbs, the nosotros ending is different in the present tense: comemos.
vivir (to live)
Like with -ar verbs, the present and past tense of the nosotros forms have the same ending.
The problems come when you try to learn all of the irregular verbs because there are so many irregular verbs. Here we will list the most common to begin with learning:
ir (to go) / ser (to be) – these are the same!
You just have to work out from the context whether it means “went” or “was/were”.
estar (to be) [temporary/location]
tener (to have)
ver (to see)
hacer (to do/make)
As you can see, you can simplify your learning by grouping verbs with the same endings or the same patterns:
I would suggest learning together the following:
estar / tener / andar
poner / poder
ver / dar
As you can see, this preterite tense is a very important past tense to learn. Once you have mastered it you can use it to tell people about things you have done in the past; both recently and many years ago.
For example, you can now talk about when you started learning Spanish, where you have travelled, what you did last weekend and so on.
It allows you to talk in more detail about your background, your past experiences as well as any funny stories or incidents that happened to you!