We English-speaking plebs might not be all too familiar with this tense, not by this name anyway. But, of course, we use it all the time. No matter what language you speak or learn, if there’s a tense, you have used it. It’s that simple. No matter how alien the name might sound, you have used that tense. Don’t worry, you will recall your acquaintance with the preterite tense soon enough.
The problem with Spanish verb tenses is that there is way too much granularity in there. Yes English has tons of tenses too but your verb still looks more or less the same in all those forms. Spanish has this concept of conjugation that totally mutilates the verbs; to the extent that a verb conjugated in one tense doesn’t look anything like the same verb conjugated in another. This has the effect of making Spanish look harder than it actually is. With a little wacky ingenuity though, you can put an end to this struggle right away. By the time you finish reading this post, the Spanish preterite tense and its conjugation will no longer be any of your problem – How cool is that?
What Is Preterite?
Preterite is the tense you talk in when you describe actions that have completed for sure. These actions have a well-defined point of completion with no ambiguity around the fact. This is in sharp contrast to the imperfect tense where the completion is not clear. Let the following examples illustrate the preterite tense:
Corrimos hacia el bosque (We ran toward the woods).
Yo le disparé al alguacil (I shot the sheriff).
Fue el tercer incendio en una década (It was the third fire in a decade).
Creo que mi perro se comió un rodenticida (I think my dog ate some rat poison).
As you can see in each of the above examples, the actions described have taken place in the past and also concluded in the past, not to be repeated. This is the property that sets preterite apart from the imperfect which is more about habitual, repetitive, or continuous actions. This distinction is an extremely important one to make in Spanish. Take the following scenario, for instance:
I ate tacos
In English, we call this the simple past tense. But don’t let the word simple fool you; the tense is far from that. Depending on the context, this extremely simple-looking sentence could be interpreted in two different ways! One would be as a simple one-time action – I went to this new Mexican joint in my neighborhood last weekend and had some tacos from there. This is a one-time action that concluded well in the past. Another interpretation could be that of a repetitive or habitual action over a period of time in the past – I was in Mexico last month and all I ate during the whole period was tacos. These two interpretations are totally context-driven in English but in Spanish, they must be wired into your verb. The first interpretation corresponds to the preterite and the second to the imperfect tense:
Comí tacos (I ate tacos – one-time action)
Comía tacos (I ate tacos – repetitive, habitual action)
So you see, Spanish leaves little room for ambiguity in interpretation when it comes to its tenses. This is how all Romance languages behave so don’t blame Spanish for being too fussy. Now take a good look at the conjugation rules for the preterite tense below:
Preterite Conjugation for “-ar” VerbsThis example uses the verb “cantar” for illustration.
The pattern for verbs ending in “-er” and “-ir” is not much different and if you nail one, you should easily be able to conjugate for the rest. See for yourself:
Preterite Conjugation for “-er” VerbsThis example uses the verb “beber” for illustration.
So your job is to somehow memorize the conjugation pattern for, say, “-ar” verbs and you’ll be good to go. This is what we’ll attempt to accomplish here except without any rote rehearsal.
The Donut Trick
First of all, I want you to forget what this tense is called. Doesn’t matter if they call it the preterite or something else; all that matters is that this tense is about past events that occurred once and concluded with certainty. So our mnemonic must, in some way, incorporate this bit of information along with the verb-endings in an easy-to-remember package. For the sake of simplicity (actually, out of sheer laziness on my part), we’re going to completely disregard the vosotros form here. Look at the conjugated verb endings for the “-ar” verbs once again. It intuitively goes from first person singular to third person plural: -é, -aste, -ó, -amos, -aron. This is the pattern we will attempt to ace using our “donut” mnemonic:
Yesterday, I ate a tasty donut.
That’s one drool-worthy mnemonic right there, no? Just make sure it’s tasty. Not yummy, not delicious, not delectable – tasty and only tasty. I bet you’ll have a hard time trying to get that out of your head now. But that’s not all. For starters, did you notice the general tense of this sentence? It’s the preterite form! I finished eating the donuts already. The action is complete. Thus, the first thing this mnemonic will help you with is remembering the essence of the tense without bothering with its grammatical name. Next, note the parts in red. See a familiar pattern there? Here, lemme help you:
ate – corresponds to -é
tasty – corresponds to -aste
donut – corresponds to -ó
This should have you covered for the singular side of things for all persons. As for the plurals, the first person – the nosotros form – conjugation is exactly the same as in the simple present or present indicative tense. Thus, cantamos could mean both we sing and we sang depending entirely on the context. So if you know your simple present conjugations, you have nothing to worry about.
The third-person plural ending is -aron and it rhymes with ron, Spanish for rum. Now just expand your donut story a little to include this bit of information:
I ate tasty donuts with rum.
Now it should cover the -aron bit as well. To make it more robust, imagine sharing your donuts and rum with a very dear friend named Ron. You are, of course, free to be your own Harry Potter if it makes you happier. Think you will easily forget the preterite conjugation for -ar verbs again? I highly doubt.
By the way, here’s some fun trivia just to tickle your curiosity. Donut is rosquilla in Spanish, but only if it has a hole. If it doesn’t, it’s buñuelo. But if you ever visit Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, or Puerto Rico, you’re more likely to hear dona instead.
The Pistachio Trick
As if donuts weren’t enough already, here’s some pistachios for you. Looks like the preterite conjugation was meant for food-lovers! While the donut mnemonic seamlessly works for all “-ar” verbs, it doesn’t quite address our struggles with conjugating “-er” and “-ir” verbs. That’s where the “pistachio” trick comes in. Let’s review the conjugated endings for these verbs once again: -í, -iste, -ió, -imos, -ieron. This is what our mnemonic has to deal with. Let’s see if it does the job well:
Yesterday, I had pistachios.
Like its donut counterpart, this one only deals with the singular forms:
I – corresponds to -í
pistachios – corresponds to -iste
pistachios – corresponds to -ió
As for the plural, the rules are the same as for the “-ar” verbs discussed above. For the first person plural, the verb conjugates just as it would in the present indicative form which means vivimos could mean either we live and we lived depending on the context. The third person plural form is almost the same as its counterpart in “-ar” verbs with only one slight change – the “-a-” becomes “-ie-.”
That should be it for the Spanish preterite tense. And we haven’t even clocked 10 minutes. Of course, there are unruly irregular verbs that refuse to follow this pattern but for the most part these tricks would work well. The irregular verbs are extremely important but they’re very few in numbers so shouldn’t be hard to ace. Besides, you could always come up with your own special tricks for those. Or have you already? If so, please join the conversation below and let us in on your secret. We’re eager, very eager, to hear you!