If you're learning Spanish, figuring out which of the different past tense forms to use in each situation is one of the first major roadblocks you'll face.
“What do you mean there is more than one past tense?” is a common question and one I asked myself when I learned my first foreign language.
But did you know that English has multiple past tense forms as well?
Look at the following sentences by way of example:
- “We were swimming when it started to rain.”
- “They had been eating for thirty minutes already when I got there.”
Just by reading these sentences, you can tell what happened in what order.
- They were already swimming when it started to rain (the “were” tells you that).
- You know dinner was underway when I arrived thanks to the “had been”.
Different past tenses in Spanish do the same thing.
In this article, we'll focus on the two most common past tense forms: the preterite vs imperfect in Spanish.
By the end of the post, you'll be able to clear the most common past tense road blocks and express yourself with ease.
For a quick walkthrough the past tenses in Spanish, you can check out this video from my Fluent Spanish Academy YouTube channel. Or if you prefer a more thorough explanation of the preterite vs imperfect in Spanish or just prefer to see it in print, scroll down and read on!
By the way, if you want to learn Spanish through stories, not rules, my top recommendation for language learners is my Uncovered courses, which teach you through StoryLearning®. Click here to find out more and try out the method for free.
The Preterite Tense
In English, the preterite is also known as the “simple past tense”. Here are some examples:
- I ate
- She sang
- They danced
In English this tense is used to talk about actions that were completed in the past and it has the same use in Spanish. Here are some examples:
- Yo comí (I ate)
- Ella cantó (She sang)
- Ellos bailaron (They danced)
How Do You Conjugate The Preterite In Spanish?
Let start with some good news… conjugating the preterite in Spanish is relatively simple!
Start with the root of each verb (which you get by removing the infinite ending –ar, –er, or –ir), as you would when conjugating in the present tense. Then simply add the endings you see in the graphics below.
As you can see, it's pretty simple! The difference lies in the preterite endings, which are not the same as the present tense endings you're already familiar with.
Pay close attention to the accents at the ends of words. Sometimes, an accent is the only clue that a sentence is in the past tense.
- “Como dos tortillas” (I am eating two tortillas) is similar to
- “Comió dos tortillas” (He ate two tortillas), even though the subject and time are very different.
Here are a few sample sentences to help you get familiar with the conjugation:
- Ayer, comí pollo y arroz. (Yesterday, I ate chicken and rice.)
- Mario me llamó por teléfono. (Mario called me on the phone.)
- Ellos caminaron a la playa. (They walked to the beach.)
With the basic endings down, you can conjugate most verbs correctly. But as you know, some of the most commonly used verbs in Spanish take irregular forms.
8 Must-Know Irregular Spanish Preterite Tense Verbs
Since many irregular verbs, such as ser/estar (to be) and tener (to have), are so vital to everyday communication, it's worth simply memorizing the irregular preterite forms of these common verbs from the beginning.
Here are eight of the most common irregular verbs conjugated in the preterite tense.
And yes, ser and ir really are conjugated the same way in the preterite tense!
1. Ser (To Be) & Ir (To Go)
- yo fui
- tú fuiste
- él/ella/usted fue
- nosotros fuimos
- vosotros fuisteis
- ellos/ellas/ustedes fueron
- yo estuve
- tú estuviste
- él/ella/usted estuvo
- nosotros estuvimos
- vosotros estuvisteis
- ellos/ellas/ustedes estuvieron
- yo tuve
- tú tuviste
- él/ella/usted tuvo
- nosotros tuvimos
- vosotros tuvisteis
- ellos/ellas/ustedes tuvieron
- yo hice
- tú hiciste
- él/ella/usted hizo
- nosotros hicimos
- vosotros hicisteis
- ellos/ellas/ustedes hicieron
- yo di
- tú diste
- él/ella/usted dio
- nosotros dimos
- vosotros disteis
- ellos/ellas/ustedes dieron
- yo vi
- tú viste
- él/ella/usted vio
- nosotros vimos
- vosotros visteis
- ellos/ellas/ustedes vieron
- yo dije
- tú dijiste
- él/ella/usted dijó
- nosotros dijimos
- vosotros dijisteis
- ellos/ellas/ustedes dijieron
- yo quise
- tú quisiste
- él/ella/usted quiso
- nosotros quisimos
- vosotros quisisteis
- ellos/ellas/ustedes quisieron
Reading through these irregular conjugations, you probably noticed a few patterns.
Estar and tener are incredibly similar in the preterite, for example, while ser and ir are exactly the same.
The similarities between the irregular preterite verbs will help you master the common irregular verbs in no time!
2 Situations Where You Always Use The Preterite Tense In Spanish
In addition to simple actions completed in the past, there are a few situations that always use the preterite:
#1. Something That Happened At A Specific Time Or Date
Since the preterite describes actions that have a defined beginning and end, a specific time or date is a huge clue that you should use the preterite:
- La niña nació el cinco de febrero. (The girl was born on February fifth.)
- Viví en España por tres meses. (I lived in Spain for three months.)
#2. When Talking About The Beginning Or End Of Something
Most times that you use the following verbs you'll need the preterite:
- empezar (to begin) or
- terminar (to end)
That's because a beginning or ending describes the specific time when an event occurred:
- Empezamos a comer. (We started to eat.)
- ¿Cómo terminó el libro? (How did the book end?)
The Past Imperfect Tense
The past imperfect describes past actions that occurred repeatedly or continuously (as opposed to a single event).
In English, there are multiple ways to modify a verb to form the past imperfect. Here are two examples:
- “I used to walk to work.”
- “She was visiting her grandmother all summer.”
In these examples, “used to” and “was” tell us that these actions happened more than once in the past.
In Spanish, the verb conjugation does all of the work.
Like with the preterite tense, there are only two endings in the past imperfect:
- one for –ar verbs
- and another for –er/–ir verbs
-Ar Verb Endings
-Er & -Ir Verb Endings
Let's look at another set of sample sentences to help you practice the past imperfect tense.
Try reading this out loud to get a feel for how it sounds.
- Todo los domingos, me levantaba a las nueve. (Every Sunday, I would wake up at nine.)
- Nos íbamos de compras cada semana. (We used to go shopping every week.)
Now that you have the basic conjugations down, let's move on to the irregular conjugations.
The great news is that there are only three irregular verbs in the past imperfect tense:
- ser (to be)
- ir (to go)
- ver (to see)
That's it! Compared to other verb tenses, the past imperfect is incredibly simple to master thanks to the small number of irregular verbs.
3 Situations Where You Need To Use The Past Imperfect
The past imperfect tense is often used to describe the condition or situation of a past event, as in these specific cases:
#1. The Time Or Date In The Past
While the preterite describes actions that happened at a certain time, use the past imperfect when telling the date or time of a past event:
- Eran diez de la mañana. (It was ten in the morning.)
- Era el 22 de junio. (It was June 22.)
#2. Descriptions, Feelings And Conditions
Use the past imperfect any time you are talking about a condition or characteristic in the past. Wondering why? You aren't describing one single event, so you wouldn't use the preterite. Instead, you're talking about something that took place over time:
- Hacía frio esa semana. (It was cold that week.)
- Mi amiga era alta y guapa. (My friend was tall and good looking.)
While age really is just another characteristic, I've mentioned it here specifically because new Spanish learners sometimes get confused when talking about their age. If you are telling a story that happened in the past, use the past imperfect when you relate your (or someone else's) age:
- Los niños tenían diez años. (The boys were ten year's old.)
- Tenía seis años. (I was six year's old.)
The Preterite vs The Past Imperfect in Spanish: How To Use Both Tenses Together
You may look at those last two examples and wonder how often you will be stating someone's age without any other details. Probably not very often! More likely, you'll start the story with your age when something else occurred:
- Tenía seis años cuando mi familia nos mudamos a Perú. (I was six years old when my family moved to Peru.)
In fact, you will likely use both the preterite and past imperfect together most of the time you speak in the past tense.
Here are three more sentences, using some of the same examples we practiced with earlier:
- Hacía frio esa semana antes de compré un calentador. (It was cold that week before we bought a heater.)
- !Cuando Mario me llamó por teléfono, era once de la noche! (When Mario called me on the phone, it was eleven o'clock at night!)
- Como no tenían un coche, ellos caminaron a la playa. (Since they didn't have a car, they walked to the beach.)
How To Make The Spanish Past Tenses Feel Natural
The best way to master Spanish past tenses is the same way I suggest you practice all Spanish lessons: speak, speak, speak!
In addition to using a high-quality text or workbook, read and listen to as much as you can and find a language tutor or partner you can practice speaking with.
If you're taking advantage of a language tutor on Italki, tell them you'd like to practice speaking in the past tense. And then jump right in.
You may make mistakes at first, but the more you practice using the preterite and past imperfect tenses, the more natural they will feel.
If you want to get some exposure to the Spanish past tenses through listening, then watch the short story below to hear the preterite and the past imperfect in context.
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