Preterite Tense (Simple Past)

The preterite is used to talk about things in the past that have a definite beginning and end. We use preterite to specify an action at a) specific point of time or b) specific number of times or c) enclosed amount of time.


For example:
Roberto llegó a las 3 pm.    He arrived at 3 pm.   (specific point of time: 3pm)
Ella me llamó 3 veces.         She called me 3 times. (specific # of times: 3 times)
El trabajó de la 1 a las 8 pm.  He worked from 1 to 8 pm. (enclosed amount of time: 1 to 8)


Let’s see another example:
- Compré leche.            I bought milk.

- Fui a mi a la tienda. I went to the store.

The verbs of these sentences are in the preterite tense because it is implied that both actions (bought and went) were performed ONCE!

Let’s take a look at how to conjugate regular verbs in the preterite:


-AR Verbs

Drop the –ar and add:


yo                    trabajé

tú                     trabajaste

él                     trabajó

nosotros         trabajamos

ellos                trabajaron


-ER/IR Verbs

Drop the –er/ir and add:


yo                   bebí

tú                    bebiste 

él                     beb

nosotros        bebimos

ellos               bebieron



 There are some words that, when used in the preterite, slightly change their meaning. Notice that these words normally refer less to a concrete action and more to a state of mind/being. In other words, they, by their nature, don’t have a definite beginning and end. In the preterite tense, which requires a verb to have a definite beginning and end, the meaning of these words becomes a little different, so it’s more of an action. Let’s take a look: regular verbs in the preterite:



Regular Meaning

Preterite Meaning

saber to know to find out
conocer to be familiar with to meet
querer to want to try
no querer to not want to refuse
poder to be able to to manage (to do something)
no poder to not be able to to fail at doing something


Present: (to know)         Yo sé, tú sabes, él sabe, nosotros sabemos, ellos saben
Preterite: (to find out)  Yo supe, tú supieste, él supo, nosotros supimos, ellos supieron

Present: (to be familiar with)   Yo conozco, tú conoces, él conoce, nosotros conocemos, ellos conocen
Preterite: (to meet)                     Yo conocí, tú conociste, él conoció, nosotros conocimos, ellos conocieron

Present: (to want)   Yo quiero, tú quieres, él quiere, nosotros queremos, ellos quieren
Preterite: (to try)     Yo quise, tú quisiste, él quiso, nosotros quisimos, ellos quisieron

present: (to be able to)  Yo puedo, tú puedes, él puede, nosotros pudimos, ellos pueden
preteriste: (to manage)  Yo pude, tú pudiste, él pudo, nosotros pudimos, ellos pudieron



Ayer lo supe.                              I found it out yesterday.
Yo la conocí hace 3 meses.     I met her 3 months ago.
Ella no lo quiso hacer.             She refused to do it.



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