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All about the Preterite tense (US spelling: preterit)

This is used quite frequently. It is not the easiest tense of them all (yes, it's a bit of a pain) but I shall try to simplify things as best I can. I shall explain how to form it before I explain all about it.
Like any other tense, you just decide whether the verb ends in -AR or it doesn't. You then remove the last two letters like you do in the present tense and then select the endings that you want. Unfortunately that trick of replacing -mos with -is in the vosotros form doesn't work with this tense (but it does with the others).
Subject pronoun AR verb Not AR
(familiar) tú -aste -iste
él / ella / usted -ió
nosotros -amos
(familiar) vosotros -asteis
ellos / ellas / ustedes -aron -ieron
On regular verbs (and ones that sound regular) you put the STRESS ON THE ENDINGS. If a verb has just one syllable, then you don't need an accent because it makes no difference when you say it for example, the verb dar, di = I gave, dio = he gave or the verb ver (vi, vio).
One of the reasons why it is important to put the stress in the correct place is to know what tense you are using:
Hablo = I speak (present tense)
Habló = he / she / you spoke (preterite tense)
Michel Thomas pointed out that you can remember the yo and él / ella / usted endings by saying a sort of tango to yourself:
é and ó... í and ió
é and ó and í and ió

Notice that some verbs the the nosotros (we) form will sound exactly the same as the present tense so hablamos could mean we speak or we spoke. Vivimos could mean we live or we lived. The context should make this clear what you mean.
Some examples:
hablar = to speak
hablé = I spoke
hablaron = they / you all spoke
contar = to count
contó = he counted
contaste = you counted
invitar = to invite
invitasteis = you all invited
invitaron = they / you all invited

Spelling changes with verbs that don't end in -AR

Sometimes the spelling changes with some verbs but doesn't affect how you say it. When the 'i' of  ió and ieron are between vowels, they change to a y (I have noticed that Spanish generally doesn't seem to like putting three vowels next to each other). Also a stress mark is needed to force the stress in the same place where you would expect it to be. Let's have a look at the verb caer:
Subject pronoun Caer Means
yo caí I fell
(familiar) tú caíste you fell
él / ella / ustedcayóhe / she / you fell
nosotroscaímoswe fell
(familiar) vosotroscaísteisyou fell
ellos / ellas / ustedescayeronthey / you all fell
As you can see, when you say it, it still sounds exactly the same. You can play with the word to see why an accent is put in. If you missed the accent on caíste, the stress would be in a different place.
There are other verbs that do this such as leer and oír.

The compromise endings - used with some irregular verbs

There is one other set of endings which I call the compromise endings. This is NOT AN OFFICIAL name for it, it is just what I call it because it seems to be a compromise of both endings mentioned above.
Unfortunately, some verbs also change the bit in front of the endings. When they do this, they use these compromise endings. Also when irregular verbs have a 'j' in front of the ending -ieron, the 'i' is missed out dijeron, tradujeron etc.

Subject pronoun Compromise
yo -e
(familiar) tú -iste
él / ella / usted -o
nosotros -imos
(familiar) vosotros -isteis
ellos / ellas / ustedes -ieron
Here, there are no accents on the endings and you follow the normal rule for pronunciation (the second to last syllable is stressed).
Hopefully, this will make things a little clearer as to where these endings come from:
Subject pronoun AR verb Compromise Not AR
yo -é → -e
(familiar) tú -aste -iste ← -iste
él / ella / usted -ó → -o
nosotros -amos
-imos ← -imos
(familiar) vosotros -asteis
-isteis ← -isteis
ellos / ellas / ustedes -aron -ieron ← -ieron

Examples of some irregular verbs:
contener = to contain
contuvo = it contained
contuvieron = they contained
estar = to be
estuve = I was
estuvieron = they / you all were
decir = to say
dije = I said
dijeron = they / you all said
Notice the absence of 'i' in dijeron

I'm not going to list all the verbs that are irregular. You can learn them when you come across them but I will show you an example with poder:
Subject pronoun Poder
pud + compromise
yo pude I had been able
(familiar) tú pudiste you had been able
él / ella / usted pudo he / she / you had been able
nosotros pudimos we had been able
(familiar) vosotros pudisteis you all had been able
ellos / ellas / ustedes pudieron they / you all had been able
Numerous common verbs do this such as estar (add the compromise endings to estuv... e.g. estuvimos) and tener (add the compromise endings to tuv... e.g. tuvieron)

Two verbs that deserve a special mention are the verbs ir (to go) and ser (to be). Their forms are completely irregular and also are the same as each other:
Subject pronoun ir / ser Meaning
yo fui I went / was
(familiar) tú fuiste you went / was
él / ella / usted fue he / she / you went / was
nosotros fuimos we went / was
(familiar) vosotros fuisteis you went / was
ellos / ellas / ustedes fueron they / you all went / was

When to use the preterite tense

This is used when you want to talk about something that has happened in the past (with no relevance to the present). You are looking back at an event after it has finished. The event has a beginning and an end (but you don't have to say when it started or ended).
Me levanté a las seis = I got up at 6 o'clock
Me duché = I showered
Bebí un café = I drank a coffee
Fui masajista durante diez años = I was a masseur for ten years

It is used to interrupt another event:
Yo estaba durmiendo cuando llegó mi amigo = I was sleeping (at that time) when my friend arrived

If you want to talk about something that has relevance to the present (especially if you use the word 'this' e.g. "I went to France THIS year" or "I saw him THIS week") then you use the 'perfect tense' which is easier to use too.
If you want to describe something that was happening (without referring to their ending so it could be still going on) then you use the 'imperfect tense' (which is also very easy to use).

So when you use this tense, the event has ended. Compare these sentences:
Tuvimos que decírselo = We had to tell him (using the preterite tense shows a completed event so you are saying that you had to tell him, and you did tell him)
Teníamos que decirselo = We had to tell him (using the imperfect tense shows that you are merely describing that we had to tell him but we may or may not have told him)

One other tense that is called the preterite continuous (say I was, we were etc. with the -ing form of a verb called the gerund). It stresses that an event lasted a long time:
Estuvimos esperando varias horas = we was waiting for several hours
although you can say it just with the preterite:
Esperamos varias horas = we waited for several hours (this doesn't stress the length of time - it is just a statement of fact)

[ENGLISH]Have you found an error or do you want to add more information to these pages?
You can contact me at the bottom of the home page.

[ESPAÑOL] ¿Ha encontrado un error o tiene información adicional?
Puede mandarme un mensaje al final de la página principal

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