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The Past Tense in Spanish: How to Master Spanish Preterite Conjugation


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Are you ready to go beyond the basics and 1-Up your Spanish grammar skills?

If you’ve already taken the time to learn the most important material first and have a basic grasp of Spanish, then you’re ready for this next step.

I don’t normally recommend starting with grammar or stressing about it too much early on.

Why?

Because… Well, grammar is boring.

Grammar is easy to stress over and can take the fun out of language learning. And the thing is, you don’t really need to learn much grammar. Think about your own childhood: you learned grammar naturally while listening and speaking. The same can be true for Spanish if you put in the right effort in the right places.

That said, there are a few points in Spanish that can be tricky. The past tense in Spanish is one of them.

So, that’s what I’ll be teaching you a bit about today. Make sure you already have a basic understanding of verb conjugation in Spanish, plus Spanish pronouns. I’ll only be explaining past tense here, so review those first if you need to.

Now, if you’re stressing about this? Take heart. You’re not alone! In fact, it was never my destiny to learn Spanish… but I did it anyway. Seriously, when I first started learning Spanish, I felt like Charlie Brown sitting in class listening to his teacher go “Wah wah wah wah…” But eventually, I changed my mindset, and my persistence paid off.

Your patience and persistence will, too!

Gear up, put on your game face, and let's learn the past tense in Spanish.

Two Ways to Use the Spanish Past Simple Tense: Preterite and Imperfect

In English, we have only one form of simple past tense. “I scored a goal.” “I ate pizza.”

But in Spanish, there are two: the preterite and imperfect tenses. Why does this get confusing? That’s because the imperfect tense has no direct equivalent in English.

For instance, “I ran a 5k race” in Spanish is Corrí una carrera de 5k. That’s simple past tense, the preterite form.

But Corría una carrera de 5k also means… “I ran a 5k race” or, “I used to/was running a 5k race.” That’s the imperfect past tense.

This may seem confusing at first. But we’re going to break down the difference, and you’ll have a total handle on the past tense situation by the time we finish.

How to Use the Past Simple Tense: The Preterite

The simple past tense, or the preterite, isn’t that hard to learn. In the Spanish past tense, -er and -ir verbs conjugate the same way, so it’s one less thing to learn! The key is to make sure to pay attention to the accent marks. Let’s look at the chart for how to form a simple past tense verb:

[Spanish Past Tense: Simple Past Tense Verbs chart]

Here are a few examples comparing present and past tense:

  • I run: Yo corro
  • I ran: Yo corrí
  • He eats: Él come
  • He ate: Él comió
  • They dance: Ellos bailan
  • They danced: Ellos bailaron

You’ll notice some similarities between the present and past tense.

Once you get used to changing Spanish verbs into the past tense, you’ll be able to talk about all kinds of new things in Spanish. You can start telling everyone about your dream last night, what you thought of last night’s episode of your favourite Spanish soap opera, and the weird things you were wearing to start small talk. Or is that last one just me?

When to Use the Past Simple Tense

When do you use the past simple tense (or preterite tense) in Spanish? It’s actually pretty straightforward. You use the preterite tense when you want to express that something happened at a specific time, with a definitive end. Or, something that only happened once. It’s not a habit or a routine.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • I worked yesterday: Trabajé ayer
  • They went to the beach last week: Fueron a la playa la semana pasada
  • I locked myself out not once, but twice: Me encerré no una vez, sino dos veces

I wish that last one weren’t true, but I’ve locked myself out of my apartment and Airbnb lately!

As you can see, all these examples are time-based. They happened once (or twice, in my case of locking myself out of the house), and had a specific end. Need an easy way to remember when to use the preterite form? If you’re using a time-related word, like “yesterday” or “last week”, more often than not you’ll use this form.

How to Use the Imperfect Tense

The imperfect tense, also called the el pretérito imperfecto or copretérito, describes past habits. You can also use it to talk about something you were doing but that didn’t have a definite end. Again, the -er and -ir verbs conjugate the same way. Something to point out, too, is that this form only has three verbs with irregular conjugations. They are ir (“to go”), ver (“to see”), and ser (“to be”). Otherwise, you’ll use the following endings:

[Spanish Past Tense: Imperfect Tense Verbs chart]

Let’s take a look at a few examples again, using the same verbs as last time.

  • I run: Yo corro
  • I ran: Yo corrí
  • I ran/I was running: Yo corría
  • He eats: Él come
  • He ate: Él comió
  • He ate/He was eating: Él comía
  • They dance: Ellos bailan
  • They danced: Ellos bailaron
  • They danced/They were dancing: Ellos bailaban

Now, these two forms can be used together as well. If you’re talking about an action that was interrupted, the action that was happening will be in the imperfect form. The interrupting action will be in the preterite form. An example:

Cocinaba comida cuando se disparó el detector de humo. – “I was cooking food when the smoke detector went off.”

The verb cocinar (“to cook”) takes the imperfect form because it’s the action I was performing. The verb disparar (“to shoot” or “to go off”) is in the preterite form because the smoke detector is what interrupted me. I only burned it a little

When to Use the Imperfect Tense

When you use the imperfect tense, you’re expressing an action that doesn’t have a definite end. It’s usually used to describe habits or past actions that you used to do continually but have since stopped doing or were interrupted. You can also use this form to talk about age, characteristics or feelings that were true in the past but not true anymore, and past time. Things like “He was 3 years old in this picture,” Tenía 3 años en esta foto.

Since these verbs can mean an old habit or something that was interrupted, you have to understand the meaning from context. For example, take Yo corría from above. This could mean “I was in the habit of running every day” or “I was running (but then I was interrupted; something else happened).”

Phew! That’s a lot of ways to use this tense. Let’s look at some examples so it clicks:

  • When I lived there, I used to go to the beach every weekend: Cuando vivía allí, solía ir a la playa todos los fines de semana.
  • He used to be so little: Solía ser tan pequeño.
  • It was very hot last summer: Hacía mucho calor el verano pasado.

You can see how the imperfect tense works in the above examples. I “used to live” (a continued past action), “He used to be” (a past characteristic), and “It was very hot” (a continued state in the past).

In many cases, you could use either the preterite or the imperfect tense to describe a situation. In both situations, the meaning would be the same, but the nuance is different. When deciding which one to use, you must think about your true meaning. Was it a habit or something ongoing? Or a one-off action in the past? Then conjugate accordingly.

What About All the Other Past Tenses?

Yes, it’s true, there are more ways to express the past in Spanish. The same is true for English — we say things like “I did it”, “I used to do it”, “I was doing it”, “I have done it”, and “I did do it”. All of these are forms of past tense in some way. Spanish uses these forms too, but they combine with helping verbs to form them.

The helping verbs usually used are haber, or “to have”, and estar, “to be”. They combine with other verbs in the past or “-ing” tense to express something “did happen” or “was happening.”

This grammar point isn’t the main topic of this lesson, but just know there are other forms to learn still. And that these focus on helping verbs.

The easiest forms to start getting your point across, though, are the simple and imperfect past tenses. Once you become comfortable with these forms and learn to add and conjugate the helping + main verbs, the other tenses are easier to pick up.

Over to You!

Now that we’ve covered the past tense, you can tell all kinds of stories from your past! You can share how you began learning Spanish. Or when you went to Cabo, forgot your el protector solar on the beach, and turned red as a lobster. Or share that time you tried some delicious homemade albondigas, only to discover you ate squid meatballs.

Whatever silly story or past action you decide to share, now you know the two most important ways to talk about them! Get used to writing these stories down in past tense for some helpful practice. The more you use them (and the sillier the stories!), the easier these forms will stick in your mind.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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