Mastering the Preterite Tense Spanish: A Comprehensive Guide to 6 Use Cases of El Pretérito

Unlock the storytelling potential of the Spanish language by mastering one of its most crucial elements: preterite tense Spanish!

This blog post offers an exploration into the different ways of using the preterite tense.

If you’re keen to sharpen your Spanish grammar skills and want to enhance your ability to communicate past events clearly, this guide is designed for you. Also, check out this great guide by Spring Spanish. It’s a great project that I co-founded with my friend and colleague, Gabriel Gelman.

Keep reading to learn more about the preterite tense, understand its uses, and practice conjugation with precision.

1. What is preterite tense in Spanish?

Effortless Answers

The preterite tense (el pretérito) is a form of the past tense in Spanish. It is used to describe actions or events that have been completed in the past, at a specific point in time, or during a clearly defined period.

Unlike the imperfect tense, which describes ongoing or habitual past actions, the preterite tense is used when the focus is on the action’s completion.

2. When to use Spanish preterite tense?

Discussing finished events from the past

The preterite tense is like a time machine for talking about stuff that already happened. It’s for things in the past that don’t really matter right now and don’t have direct consequences today.

For example:

  • Ayer visité a mis abuelos.” (Yesterday, I visited my grandparents.)
  • Escribí ese libro hace cinco años.” (I wrote that book five years ago.)

Describing actions or occurrences in a chronological order

When telling a story about what happened, the preterite tense helps us talk about each action that occurred, one after the other, like putting the events in order.

  • Me levanté, me vestí, y salí de la casa.” (I got up, got dressed, and left the house.)
  • Llegaron, cenaron, y se fueron a dormir.” (They arrived, had dinner, and went to sleep.)

Mentioning the specific timing of an action that was finished in the past

The preterite tense can place an action at a specific point in time, such as a date, day, or any other time frame that indicates when the action took place.

preterite tense spanish hourglasses on a beach in sunset
  • La guerra terminó en 1945.” (The war ended in 1945.)
  • El concierto empezó a las ocho en punto.” (The concert started at eight o’clock sharp.)

For ongoing actions that get interrupted

If an ongoing action gets interrupted by another action, the preterite tense is used to describe the interrupting action.

  • Estaba leyendo cuando sonó el teléfono.” (I was reading when the phone rang.)
  • Veíamos la película cuando se cortó la luz.” (We were watching the movie when the power went out.)

Signaling a shift in a state or opinion

The preterite tense in Spanish is a special tense that helps us talk about something that happened and caused a big change. It’s like saying “something happened and everything was different!”

preterite tense spanish picture of a woman changing wooden cubicle from change to chance
  • De repente, lo entendí todo.” (Suddenly, I understood everything.)
  • Se hizo vegetariano después de visitar la granja.” (He became vegetarian after visiting the farm.)

For unique actions or non-recurring events

When something happens only once, we use a special way of talking about it. It helps us explain that it’s something that happened in the past and won’t happen again, a one-time event.

  • Nació el 3 de marzo.” (He was born on March 3rd.)
  • Me quebré la pierna en ese partido.” (I broke my leg in that match.)

3. How to conjugate regular verbs in the preterite tense in Spanish

Conjugating regular verbs in the preterite tense involves removing the infinitive ending (-ar, -er, or -ir) and adding the preterite endings.

Conjugation chart for -AR ending verbs in Spanish Preterite Tense

PronounHablar (to speak)
Yo (I)hablé
Tú (You, singular informal)hablaste
Él/Ella/Usted (He/She/You, singular formal)habló
Nosotros/Nosotras (We)hablamos
Vosotros/Vosotras (You all, plural informal)hablasteis
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes (They/You all, plural formal)hablaron

Conjugation chart for -ER/-IR ending verbs in Spanish Preterite Tense

PronounComer (to eat)Vivir (to live)
Yo (I)comíviví
Tú (You, singular informal)comisteviviste
Él/Ella/Usted (He/She/You, singular formal)comióvivió
Nosotros/Nosotras (We)comimosvivimos
Vosotros/Vosotras (You all, plural informal)comisteisvivisteis
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes (They/You all, plural formal)comieronvivieron

4. Irregular verbs in preterite tense Spanish: stem change in the conjugation

Irregular preterite verbs and their conjugations can vary widely and are a common irregularity encountered by Spanish learners.

Some of the most common irregular verbs include:

  • Ser (to be) and ir (to go) are conjugated identically in the preterite tense, despite their different meanings.
  • Verbs like tener (to have), estar (to be), and poder (to be able to) also change stems in the preterite but maintain regular preterite endings for -er and -ir verbs.

Conjugation chart for Ser and Ir in Spanish Preterite Tense

Yo (I)fui
Tú (You, singular informal)fuiste
Él/Ella/Usted (He/She/You, singular formal)fue
Nosotros/Nosotras (We)fuimos
Vosotros/Vosotras (You all, plural informal)fuisteis
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes (They/You all, plural formal)fueron

Keep in mind that ser and ir are conjugated in the same way in the Spanish preterite tense.

Conjugation chart for estar in Spanish Preterite Tense

Yo (I)estuve
Tú (You, singular informal)estuviste
Él/Ella/Usted (He/She/You, singular formal)estuvo
Nosotros/Nosotras (We)estuvimos
Vosotros/Vosotras (You all, plural informal)estuvisteis
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes (They/You all, plural formal)estuvieron

5. When to use the preterite tense and when imperfect

Knowing when to use the preterite and imperfect tenses is important for talking about the past.

In simple terms:

  • the preterite is for things that happened once and are finished,
  • while the imperfect is for things that happened often or for describing how things were in the past.

Let’s take a look at the following examples:


  • Ayer llovió. (Yesterday, it rained.)
  • Él visitó Madrid el verano pasado. (He visited Madrid last summer.)
  • Escribí un libro durante las vacaciones de 2010. (I wrote a book during the 2010 holidays.)
  • La película empezó a las ocho y terminó a las diez. (The movie started at eight and ended at ten.)


  • Cuando éramos niños, llovía mucho. (When we were children, it used to rain a lot.)
  • Él visitaba Madrid todos los veranos. (He used to visit Madrid every summer.)
  • Cuando era niño, mi familia vivía en una granja. (When I was a child, my family lived on a farm.)
  • La casa estaba silenciosa y las luces estaban apagadas. (The house was silent and the lights were off.)

6. Practice Worksheet for Spanish Grammar: Preterite Tense Spanish with regular and irregular verbs

I. Complete the sentences by conjugating the verbs in parentheses into the preterite tense.

This is just one of our exercises from the Exercise Library. If you sign up now, you’ll get a lot more and can practice Spanish whenever you want to!

7. Learn Preterite Tense conjugations with Conversation Based Chunking

A method that can be particularly effective when learning verb tenses like the preterite is Conversation Based Chunking.

This method involves studying and practicing phrases or ‘lexical chunks’ of language within the context of a conversation. This way, you can understand how the preterite tense is used in real-life situations and make it easier to remember the forms and uses.

A chunk like “Ayer comí en un restaurante” (Yesterday I ate at a restaurant) helps cement the preterite form of comer and its natural use in a sentence.

So, make sure to use practice worksheets and Conversation Based Chunking to reinforce your command of the preterite tense in Spanish. If you sign up to the Starter Pack by clicking the button below, you’ll get access to much more!

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