The Preterite Tense
There are actually two forms of the past in Spanish. One indicates that an event continued happening for a period of time or was repeated. This is called the "imperfect" past. In Latin, the word "imperfect" doesn't mean that there is a defect or something is wrong. It means the "unfinished" past event. The other past form in Spanish is what we call the "preterite". It indicates that an event took place at some point in the past. Let's look at some examples in English to see what we mean.
John used to sell cars.
In this case, are we speaking of a one time event or something that continued, or was repeated over a period of time? We can see that this isn't a single one time event at a point of time, and then it was done. He was selling cars over a period of time. We aren't pointing to a particular moment and saying that at that point something different happened which wasn't happening before, or it stopped happening at that point. As a matter of fact, we aren't really specifying a point in time.
Let's look at another example.
John was selling cars.
Again, we are seeing something which continued happening for a while and we can't point out a particular moment when something different happened that wasn't happening before.
When we say that something "used to happen" or it "was happening" we would use the "imperfect" past in Spanish. But now let's look at another way of expressing the past in English.
John sold cars.
Notice that here we use "sold" with the same meaning as "was selling" or "used to sell". We could say, "When John worked at the Ford dealership he sold cars". In other words, he continued selling cars for a period of time.
Now let's take another look at the form "sold".
John sold the car.
In this case it is obvious that we are speaking of a one time event and we can focus in on a particular moment. We could pin down a specific moment, when the money was exchanged or when they signed the bill of sale. This is the idea that we express with the "preterite". For most verbs in English we simply add "-ed" to the end of the verb for the past. In many cases, however, English uses unpredictable irregular forms for the past. The form "sold" would be an example of this. Actually, "sold" really means "selled" (although, of course, we don't actually say it that way). What's important to remember is that in English, the simple past can be interpreted to mean "used to do" or "was doing", but also it can mean a single one time event that took place at a particular moment in the past. This is what we want to focus on now.
Let's see another example of a contrast between the "imperfect" past and the "preterite" past in Spanish. First, let's assume that I have an ongoing medical problem such as asthma, diabetes, etc. Let's say there is a new drug store which has better prices which has just opened. A friend sees me in the new drug store and might ask me, "where did you buy the medicine before?" He could have asked, "where did you used to buy the medicine?" or "where were you buying it before?" In any of these cases, he would be asking me about a continuing or repeated action in the past. In this case I would use the "imperfect" past in Spanish (the middle of the verb would change "a" to "aba"). On the other hand, we could have a different situation. Let's say that last night I got a headache. I went to the drug store and bought a bottle of aspirin. One trip to the drug store, at a particular point in time (last night). In this case, if he asked me, "where did you buy the medicine?", he would not mean, "where did you used to buy?" I would say, "I bought the medicine", not meaning "I used to buy" or (back then) "I was buying", but rather, at a point in time (last night) I made a one time trip to the drug store and I bought (one time) the medicine.
Here are the forms that we use in the Spanish "preterite" forms to express one time events that took place at a particular moment in the past. Notice that instead of dividing the verb into three parts, we only have two parts, the stem and the ending. For now, we are going to focus on "A" category verbs.
I spoke - yo hablé
you spoke - tú hablaste
he/she spoke - él/ella habló
we spoke - nosotros hablamos
they spoke - ellos/ellas hablaron
One point that it's important to notice. The preterite past form for "nosotros" looks and is pronounced exactly the same way that the present form would be. For example, "nosotros hablamos" could mean "we are speaking" or "we spoke". We would have to get the exact meaning from the context in which it is used in the sentence.
Let's break the forms down into stem and ending so that we can see a little more clearly how this form is constructed.
habl é (example sentences)
habl aste (example sentences)
habl ó (example sentences)
habl amos (example sentences)
habl aron (example sentences)
Now let's practice building some sentences in which we use the "preterite" past form of the verb to express a one time event at a particular point of time in the past.
I bought a gift (un regalo) for my friend.
Yo compré un regalo para mi amigo (mi amiga).
A female friend would be "amiga", but "mi" would not have to change. It can match either "o" or "a".
Did you buy a gift for your friend?
¿ Compraste un regalo para tu amigo(tu amiga)?
Again, "amiga" would be used if we speak of a female friend, but "tu" would not change.
In these sentences, we are assuming that we are speaking to a friend with whom we would use a first name (the "tu" form, not the "usted" form).
Mary bought a gift for her friend.
María compró un regalo para su amigo (su amiga).
If the friend is a female, we would use "amiga". We would not have to change "su". It will match either "o" or "a".
Nosotros compramos un regalo para nuestro amigo (nuestra amiga).
Los muchachos compraron un regalo para su amigo.
Yo hablé con el abogado ayer.
¿Hablaste con el abogado ayer?
Juan habló con el abogado ayer.
Los testigos hablaron con el abogado ayer.
Yo tomé la medicina.
¿Tomaste la medicina?
María tomó la medicina.
Nosotros tomamos la medicina.
Las muchachas tomaron la medicina.
Yo llevé la carta a la oficina.
¿Llevaste la carta a la oficina?
Juan llevó la carta a la oficina.
Nosotros llevamos la carta a la oficina.
Los muchachos llevaron la carta a la oficina.
Yo preparé el almuerzo.
¿Preparaste el almuerzo?
María preparó el almuerzo.
Nosotros preparamos el almuerzo.
Las muchachas prepararon el almuerzo.
Yo lavé la ropa.
¿Lavaste la ropa?
Juan lavó la ropa.
Nosotros lavamos la ropa.
Los muchachos lavaron la ropa.
Yo llegué antes de las cinco.
¿Llegaste antes de las cinco?
Juan llegó antes de las cinco.
Nosotros llegamos antes de las cinco.
Los muchachos llegaron antes de las cinco.
Yo pagué cinco dólares.
María pagó cinco dólares.
Nosotros pagamos cinco dólares.
Las muchachas pagaron cinco dólares.
Yo le entregué el paquete.
¿Le entregaste el paquete?
Juan le entregó el paquete.
Nosotros le entregamos el paquete.
Los muchachos le entregaron el paquete.
Yo expliqué las palabras.
¿Explicaste las palabras?
El profesor explicó las palabras.
Nosotros explicamos las palabras.
Los alumnos explicaron las palabras.
Yo toqué la guitarra.
¿Tocaste la guitarra?
Juan tocó la guitarra.
Nosotros tocamos la guitarra.
Los muchachos tocaron la guitarra.
Yo saqué una foto.
¿Sacaste una foto?
María sacó una foto.
Nosotros sacamos una foto.
Las muchachas sacaron una foto.
Yo pinté las paredes.
¿Pintaste las paredes?
Juan pintó las paredes.
Nosotros pintamos las paredes.
Los muchachos pintaron las paredes.
Yo limpié la cocina.
¿Limpiaste la cocina?
María limpió la cocina.
Nosotros limpiamos la cocina.
Las muchachas limpiaron la cocina.
Yo cerré la ventana.
¿Cerraste la ventana?
Juan cerró la ventana.
Nosotros cerramos la ventana.
Los muchachos cerraron la ventana.
Yo cambié un cheque en el banco.
¿Cambiaste un cheque en el banco?
María cambió un cheque en el banco.
Nosotros cambiamos un cheque en el banco.
Las muchachas cambiaron un cheque en el banco.
Yo estudié la lección.
¿Estudiaste la lección?
Juan estudió la lección.
Nosotros estudiamos la lección.
Los muchachos estudiaron la lección.
Yo escuché la música.
¿Escuchaste la música?
María escuchó la música.
Nosotros escuchamos la música.
Las muchachas escucharon la música.
Yo contesté la pregunta.
¿Contestaste la pregunta?
Juan contestó la pregunta.
Nosotros contestamos la pregunta.
Los muchachos contestaron la pregunta.
Yo visité a mi abuela.
¿Visitaste a tu abuela?
María visitó a su abuela.
Nosotros visitamos a nuestra abuela.
Las muchachas visitaron a su abuela.
Yo olvidé el número de teléfono.
¿Olvidaste el número de teléfono?
Juan olvidó el número de teléfono.
Nosotros olvidamos el número de teléfono.
Los muchachos olvidaron el número de teléfono.