The Preterite Tense  

Preterite Tense Use of the Preterite

There are 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. The word "imperfect" doesn't mean that there is a defect, it means the past event is "unfinished". 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

    habl aste

    habl ó

    habl amos

    habl aron

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".

We bought a gift for our friend.
Nosotros compramos un regalo para nuestro amigo (nuestra amiga).
The boys bought a gift for their friend.
Los muchachos compraron un regalo para su amigo.
I spoke with the lawyer (el abogado) yesterday.
Yo hablé con el abogado ayer.
Did you speak with the lawyer yesterday?
¿Hablaste con el abogado ayer?
John spoke with the lawyer yesterday.
Juan habló con el abogado ayer.
The witnesses (los testigos) spoke with the lawyer yesterday.
Los testigos hablaron con el abogado ayer.
The word "testigo" is an exception. A female witness is "la testigo". We do not change the "o" to "a". We only change "el" to "la" to indicate female.
I took the medicine.
Yo tomé la medicina.
Did you take the medicine?
¿Tomaste la medicina?
Mary took the medicine.
María tomó la medicina.
We took the medicine.
Nosotros tomamos la medicina.
The girls took the medicine.
Las muchachas tomaron la medicina.
I took (llevar) the letter to the office.
Yo llevé la carta a la oficina.
Did you take the letter to the office?
¿Llevaste la carta a la oficina?
John took the letter to the office.
Juan llevó la carta a la oficina.
We took the letter to the office.
Nosotros llevamos la carta a la oficina.
The boys took the letter to the office.
Los muchachos llevaron la carta a la oficina.
I prepared (preparar) the lunch (el almuerzo).
Yo preparé el almuerzo.
Did you prepare the lunch?
¿Preparaste el almuerzo?
Mary prepared the lunch.
María preparó el almuerzo.
We prepared the lunch.
Nosotros preparamos el almuerzo.
The girls prepared the lunch.
Las muchachas prepararon el almuerzo.
I washed (lavar) the clothing (la ropa).
Yo lavé la ropa.
Did you wash the clothing?
¿Lavaste la ropa?
John washed the clothing.
Juan lavó la ropa.
We washed the clothing.
Nosotros lavamos la ropa.
The boys washed the clothing.
Los muchachos lavaron la ropa.
There are times when we will have a spelling change in these "preterite" past forms. For example, if the verb ends in "-gar", we will have a spelling change in the "yo" form of the "preterite". This is because the letter "g" normally has a hard sound, like "go" in English. However, when "g" is followed by either "i" or "e", it has the "soft" sound, like the English letter "h". We want to avoid the sound change, so in Spanish, to keep the "g" hard like "go" when it is followed by "e", we add a silent letter "u" after the "g". By "silent" I mean that we don't actually pronounce it, like "oo" as in "school". It's just a signal to keep the "g" from changing to the "h" sound.
Let's practice some preterite past forms using verbs which end in "-gar".
I arrived (llegar) before (antes de) five o´clock.
Yo llegué antes de las cinco.
Did you arrive before five o´clock?
¿Llegaste antes de las cinco?
John arrived before five o´clock.
Juan llegó antes de las cinco.
We arrived before five o´clock.
Nosotros llegamos antes de las cinco.
The boys arrived before five o´clock.
Los muchachos llegaron antes de las cinco.
I paid (pagar) five dollars.
Yo pagué cinco dólares.
How much (cuánto) did you pay?
¿Cuánto pagaste?
Mary paid five dollars.
María pagó cinco dólares.
We paid five dollars.
Nosotros pagamos cinco dólares.
The girls paid five dollars.
Las muchachas pagaron cinco dólares.
I delivered (entregar) the package (el paquete) to him.
Yo le entregué el paquete.
Did you deliver the package to him?
¿Le entregaste el paquete?
John delivered the package to him.
Juan le entregó el paquete.
We delivered the package to him.
Nosotros le entregamos el paquete.
The boys delivered the package to him.
Los muchachos le entregaron el paquete.
Another case where we can have a spelling change is with verbs that end in "-car". Remember that the letter "c" normally has the sound of "k". However, if the "c" is followed by either "i" or "e", in Latin America it is pronounced like "s" (in most parts of Spain, it will be pronounced like "th"). We want to avoid this pronunciation change when we change forms within one verb. To avoid the "s" sound and preserve the "k" sound when followed by "e", we change the "c" to "qu".
I explained (explicar) the words.
Yo expliqué las palabras.
Did you explain the words?
¿Explicaste las palabras?
The teacher explained the words.
El profesor explicó las palabras.
We explained the words.
Nosotros explicamos las palabras.
The students (alumnos) explained the words.
Los alumnos explicaron las palabras.
I played (tocar) the guitar (guitarra).
Yo toqué la guitarra.
Did you play the guitar?
¿Tocaste la guitarra?
John played the guitar.
Juan tocó la guitarra.
We played the guitar.
Nosotros tocamos la guitarra.
The boys played the guitar.
Los muchachos tocaron la guitarra.
I took (sacar) a photo (foto).
Yo saqué una foto.
Notice that "foto" is an exception. It ends in "o", but we say "una foto". This is because the original word was "fotografía", ending in "a".
Did you take a photo?
¿Sacaste una foto?
Mary took a photo.
María sacó una foto.
We took a photo.
Nosotros sacamos una foto.
The girls took a photo.
Las muchachas sacaron una foto.
Now let's go back to some more plain old regular verbs, just to get some more practice. We can toss in some more new vocabulary to learn also.
I painted (pintar) the walls (las paredes).
Yo pinté las paredes.
Did you paint the walls?
¿Pintaste las paredes?
John painted the walls.
Juan pintó las paredes.
We painted the walls.
Nosotros pintamos las paredes.
The boys painted the walls.
Los muchachos pintaron las paredes.
I cleaned (limpiar) the kitchen (la cocina).
Yo limpié la cocina.
Did you clean the kitchen?
¿Limpiaste la cocina?
Mary cleaned the kitchen.
María limpió la cocina.
We cleaned the kitchen.
Nosotros limpiamos la cocina.
The girls cleaned the kitchen.
Las muchachas limpiaron la cocina.
I closed (cerrar) the window (la ventana).
Yo cerré la ventana.
Did you close the window?
¿Cerraste la ventana?
John closed the window.
Juan cerró la ventana.
We closed the window.
Nosotros cerramos la ventana.
The boys closed the window.
Los muchachos cerraron la ventana.
I cashed (cambiar) a check (un cheque) at the bank (en el banco).
Yo cambié un cheque en el banco.
Did you cash a check at the bank?
¿Cambiaste un cheque en el banco?
Mary cashed a check at the bank.
María cambió un cheque en el banco.
We cashed a check at the bank.
Nosotros cambiamos un cheque en el banco.
The girls cashed a check at the bank.
Las muchachas cambiaron un cheque en el banco.
I studied the lesson (la lección).
Yo estudié la lección.
Did you study the lesson?
¿Estudiaste la lección?
John studied the lesson.
Juan estudió la lección.
We studied the lesson.
Nosotros estudiamos la lección.
The boys studied the lesson.
Los muchachos estudiaron la lección.
I listened (escuchar) to the music (la música).
Yo escuché la música.
Did you listen to the music?
¿Escuchaste la música?
Mary listened to the music.
María escuchó la música.
We listened to the music.
Nosotros escuchamos la música.
The girls listened to the music.
Las muchachas escucharon la música.
I answered (contestar) the question (la pregunta).
Yo contesté la pregunta.
Did you answer the question?
¿Contestaste la pregunta?
John answered the question.
Juan contestó la pregunta.
We answered the question.
Nosotros contestamos la pregunta.
The boys answered the question.
Los muchachos contestaron la pregunta.
I visited (visitar) my grandmother (a mi abuela).
Yo visité a mi abuela.
Notice that when we have a human direct object, we have to use the preposition "a", even though we wouldn't translate it as the English word "to". It's called the "personal" use of "a", since it refers to persons used as direct objects.
Did you visit your grandmother?
¿Visitaste a tu abuela?
Mary visited her grandmother.
María visitó a su abuela.
We visited our grandmother.
Nosotros visitamos a nuestra abuela.
Remember that the possessive word, "nuestro" must change "o" to "a" when used with a noun in the "A" category. Females are treated as "A" words.
The girls visited their grandmother.
Las muchachas visitaron a su abuela.
Notice that we do not add an "s" to "su". This is because "su" means "his", "her" and "their". We would only add the "s" if "grandmothers" were plural.
I forgot (olvidar) the telephone number (el número de teléfono).
Yo olvidé el número de teléfono.
Did you forget the telephone number?
¿Olvidaste el número de teléfono?
John forgot the telephone number.
Juan olvidó el número de teléfono.
We forgot the telephone number.
Nosotros olvidamos el número de teléfono.
The boys forgot the telephone number.
Los muchachos olvidaron el número de teléfono.

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