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.
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 -é (yo), -aste (tú), -ó (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 -í (yo), -iste (tú), -ió (él, ella, Usted), -imos (nosotros), -isteis (vosotros) or -ieron (ellos, ustedes).
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
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 ir||Estar||Tener||Hacer||Querer||Decir||Poner|
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 empezar – empecé, explicar – expliqué and llegar – llegué. 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.
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.