The pretérito indefinido is one of the two main Spanish past tenses, used to indicate a specific action in the past.
It must not be confused with the preterito imperfecto (often known simply as imperfecto), which describes habitual actions or characteristics in the past. For more on the difference between the two tenses, see this article.
Ella fue al teatro anoche.
She went to the theatre last night
Nosotros cenamos a las nueve.
We had dinner at nine pm.
How to conjugate the Spanish Preterite Tense
There are only two sets of endings in the Pretérito Indefinido, with IR and ER verbs sharing the same endings.
|Form||AR Verbs||IR / ER Verbs|
|Él / ella / usted||-ó||-ió|
|Ellos / ellas / ustedes||-aron||-ieron|
This means that in AR and IR verbs, the nosotros form is the same in both presente and preterite tenses. Although the vosotros endings in AR and ER are similar to the present tense, it’s important to note that in the Preterite the vosotros form does not have any accents.
The Spanish Preterite tense is a tricky one, with lots of patterns and irregular conjugations to remember? How will you fare?
(For extra kudos from your profesor/a, here’s how to type Spanish accents correctly.)
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Irregular Verbs in the Pretérito Indefinido Tense
The Preterite Tense has many irregular verbs, but the patterns of irregularity are different to verbs in the Present Tense, even where the same verb is involved.
Completely Irregular Verbs
The verbs ser, ir, dar, hacer, decir, traer and ver are completely unique, and have no pattern shared with any other verbs, other than their “children” (eg deshacer, atraer, bendecir etc).
Stem-changing verbs in the Pretérito Indefinido
Some verbs change their stems in the Preterite, but in different patterns to changes in the Present tense.
These verbs use slightly different endings, which don’t conform to the standard AR/ER/IR patterns.
Irregular Patterns in the Pretérito Indefinido Tense
Verbs with common endings have similar patterns of irregularity. Common patterns include:
In the first person singular, the ending is gué, not gé.
In the first person singular, the ending is qué, not cé.
In the first person singular, the ending is cé, not zé.
ir verbs (with stem changes in presente)
IR verbs which change their stems in the present tense will change in the preteiite, but only in the third person singular and plural, when the o becomes a u. For instance
The remaining cases do not change.
-Aer, -eer, -oir, -oer, -uir verbs
In these verbs, third person singular and plural use -yó and -yeron, with an accent now required on the -í in all other cases, except for -uir verbs, where it is only required for the final -í.
Links to Other Verbs
It’s worth making an effort to memorise the third person plural of the pretérito indefinido, as this forms the stem for the subjuntivo imperfecto tense, which is introduced at upper intermediate levels.