The Spanish pretérito indefinido, or the Spanish preterite tense, is used to talk about actions that took place in the past, which have no relation to the present. Usually it is restricted to a period of time that has terminated and describes actions that either have a definite start or a definite ending. Let’s look deeper into the Spanish pretérito indefinido, also called pretérito perfecto simple.

How to conjugate the Spanish pretérito indefinido

When it comes to conjugating verbs in the Spanish preterite tense, we have to consider both regular and irregular verbs.

Regular verbs

The regular verbs follow a very simple pattern, which is identical for -er and -ir verbs, and slightly different for -ar verbs. Here is how to conjugate all regular verbs in the preterite tense:

-ar verbs: remove the -ar ending and replace it with (yo), -aste (tú), (él, ella, Usted), -amos (nosotros), -asteis (vosotros) or -aron (ellos, ustedes).
-er and -ir verbs: remove the -er or -ir ending and replace it with  (yo), -iste (tú), -ió (él, ella, Usted), -imos (nosotros), -isteis (vosotros) or -ieron (ellos, ustedes).

 HablarComerVivir

Yo

Hablé
I spoke
Comí
I ate
Viví
I lived

Hablaste
You spoke
Comiste
You ate
Viviste
You lived

Él/ella/Usted

Habló
He/she spoke
Com
He/she ate
Viv
He/she lived

Nosotros

Hablamos
We spoke
Comimos
We ate
Vivimos
We lived

Vosotros

Hablasteis
You spoke
Comisteis
You ate
Vivisteis
You lived

Ellos/ellas/ustedes

Hablaron
They spoke
Comieron
They ate
Vivieron
They lived

Notice that the ending in first person singular and third person singular ALWAYS has an accent. You will also notice that when it comes to -ar and -ir verbs, the first person plural form (nosotros) is identical to the present indicative tense. Here we must rely on the context to tell us if the verb is in the present or past tense.

Remember that Spanish verbs can be regular in one tense and irregular in another. A regular verb in the preterite tense is not necessarily regular in for example the present tense

Irregular verbs

The irregular verbs in the preterite tense can have many different forms, but if you look closely you will notice patterns. The best way to learn these conjugations is to practice once in a while, and to read Spanish texts regularly. This way the most common verbs will very soon become second nature to you. Let’s take a look at some of the most common Spanish verbs that are irregular in the preterite tense:

 Ser AND irEstarTenerHacerQuererDecirPoner

Yo

Fui
I was/went
Estuve
I was
Tuve
I had
Hice
I did
Quise
I wanted
Dije
I said
Puse
I put

Fuiste
You were/went
Estuviste
You were
Tuviste
You had
Hiciste
You did
Quisiste
You wanted
Dijiste
You said
Pusiste
You put

Él/ella/Usted

Fue
He/she was/went
Estuvo
He/she was
Tuvo
He/she had
Hizo
He/she did
Quiso
He/she wanted
Dijo
He/she said
Puso
He/she put

Nosotros

Fuimos
We were/went
Estuvimos
We were
Tuvimos
We had
Hicimos
We did
Quisimos
We wanted
Dijimos
We said
Pusimos
We put

Vosotros

Fuisteis
You were/went
Estuvisteis
You were
Tuvisteis
You had
Hicisteis
You did
Quisisteis
You wanted
Dijisteis
You said
Pusisteis
You put

Ellos/ellas/ustedes

Fueron
They were/went
Estuvieron
They were
Tuvieron
They had
Hicieron
They did
Quisieron
They wanted
Dijieron
They said
Pusieron
They put

The first thing you might notice here is that the verbs ser and ir have the exact same conjugation in the Spanish preterite tense. This means that we must look at the context to find out which verb it is.

You will also notice that sometimes the letters change in the ending of the verb (for example empezarempecé, explicarexpliqué and llegarllegué. There is a simple reason for this; it is to make sure the pronunciation of the consonant stays the same.

Example: If explicar had been conjugated “explicé” in the preterite, then the “c” would have been pronunciated differently (like an “s” in South America, or “th” in Spain). Therefore the “q” and the “u” is added to maintain the k-sound in the end of the verb

How to use the Spanish pretérito indefinido

Some important keywords when it comes to the preterite tense are specific, completed and single.

1. Actions that have happened one time in the past

We use this tense to describe actions that are finished and not connected to the present. It describes a single event at some point in the past, and it may contain a specific date or point in time (yesterday, last year, last week, a specific date, etc).
Nací en Buenos Aires – I was born in Buenos Aires
Jorge fue a casa ayer – Jorge went home yesterday
Nos conocimos hace dos años – We met each other two years ago
¿Qué compraste aquel día? – What did you buy that day?
El 8 de junio fueron a México – On the 8th of June they went to Mexico
La semana pasada estuve en Londres – Last week I was in London

2. Past actions within a closed and completed time period

With this tense you can talk about a specific event at a specific point in time, or in a time period that has a definite beginning or end.
Viví aquí por un año  – I lived here for one year
Trabajé desde las 8 hasta las 4 – I worked from 8 to 4 o’clock
Leonardo Da Vinci vivió entre 1452 y 1519 – Da Vinci lived between 1452 and 1519

3. Events that are listed after each other

We often use the pretérito indefinido when we speak about actions that happened after each other, actions that did not happen at the same time but rather followed each other.
Ayer María se levantó, se duchó y fue al trabajo – Yesterday María got up, took a shower and went to work
Primero limpié la cocina, y entonces hice la cena – First I cleaned the kitchen, and then I made dinner

4. Stating beginnings and ends

When we talk about a beginning or an end of something we also use the preterite tense.
Empecé a estudiar hace un año – I started studying one year ago
La Segunda Guerra Mundial terminó en 1945  – World War II ended in 1945

Being one of the most common past tenses in Spanish, you will run into the preterite tense all the time.

Practice the Spanish preterite tense now

Now what?

One of the other common past tenses is the pretérito imperfecto, which is used in many of the same time perspectives as the pretérito indefinido. Therefore, many students mix up these two tenses. If you want to learn more about the difference between them, check out this useful article: Spanish pretérito indefinido vs imperfecto

To learn more about the use of the Spanish preterite tense, read our short story in the past tense, Un Excelente Mentiroso.