When I first started learning Spanish, getting through the Past Tenses was a huge challenge.
I was still learning the verbs necessary for my everyday life and still struggling with their present conjugation.
I am sure many of you can identify.
However, I quickly discovered that my conversations in Spanish commonly revolved around what I have done lately, what I did the day before, or what I used to do in the past.
There was no escape from the Spanish Past Tenses. Slowly and painfully, but I simply had to start using them.
Here’s what I have learned about them:
4 Main Types of Past Tenses in Spanish:
- Pretérito Indefinido / Preterite Indefinite – equivalent to the English Simple Past. It describes actions / events that happened at a given time in the past
🇪🇸 Ayer almorzé con Lucas.
🇬🇧 Yesterday I had lunch with Lucas.
- Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto / Preterite Perfect – equivalent to the English Present Perfect. It doesn’t require you to specify when a given action / event took place. The described actions normally have a connection to the present.
🇪🇸 He comprado un auto nuevo.
🇬🇧 I’ve bought a new car.
- Pretérito Imperfecto / Preterite Imperfect– equivalent to the English “used to”. It describes past habits and actions / events that took place on a regular basis.
🇪🇸 Cuando era joven, hacía ejercicio todos los días.
🇬🇧 When I was young, I used to exercise every day.
- Pretérito pluscuamperfecto / Preterite Pluperfect – equivalent to the English Past Perfect. It is used to describe an action / event that took place before another one.
🇪🇸 Ya habíamos terminado antes de que llegaste.
🇬🇧 We had already finished before you arrived.
Spanish Preterite Indefinite – The “Simple” Past Tense
Let’s start with a few examples to make sure we know what we are talking about:
🇪🇸 Ayer me quedé en la oficina hasta tarde.
🇬🇧 Yesterday I stayed at the office until late.
🇪🇸 Estuve en la casa de mi mamá todo el fin de semana.
🇬🇧 I was at my mom’s all weekend.
🇪🇸 El lunes pedimos una pizza grande y nos trajeron una mediana.
🇬🇧 We ordered a large pizza on Monday and they brought us a medium one.
🇪🇸 Llovió toda la noche y el río se desbordó.
🇬🇧 It rained all night and the river overflowed.
🇪🇸 ¿En qué año se casaron (ustedes)?
🇬🇧 What year did you get married?
🇪🇸 Vimos esta película hace un par de meses.
🇬🇧 We saw this movie a couple of months ago.
As you can see, all the Spanish verbs used in those sentences are conjugated according to the rules of Pretério Indefinido.
Rules, you say?
That’s right. For those of you who are just embarking on the journey into the Spanish Past Tenses, let’s review what these rules are:
How to Conjugate Verbs in Spanish Past Simple (Preterite Indefinite) Tense
As it turns out, regular verbs have clear conjugation rules in Preterito Indefinido. Let’s group them by categories, see a few examples and a sample conjugation:
|The -AR ending|
terminar – to eat
bailar – to dance
comprar – to buy
|The -ER ending|
responder – to answer
entender – to understand
comer – to eat
|The -IR ending|
escribir – to write
sentir – to feel
resistir – to resist
As you can see, the Spanish Simple Past has exactly the same conjugation for the -ER and the -IR verbs, leaving you with just two patterns to memorize.
Let’s see how the rules above apply to other regular Spanish verbs:
SALIR– to leave
🇪🇸 El vuelo a Buenos Aires salió con treinta minutos de atraso.
🇬🇧 The flight to Buenos Aires left with a thirty-minute delay.
🇪🇸 Test Your Spanish Knowledge 🇪🇸
LLEGAR – to arrive
🇪🇸 Anoche llegaste a casa muy cansado.
🇬🇧 You came home very tired last night.
RESPONDER – to answer
🇪🇸 ¿Por qué no respondiste cuando te llamé?
🇬🇧 Why didn’t you answer when I called?
ESCRIBIR – to write
🇪🇸 Mis clientes de Asia me escribieron 10 correos electrónicos ayer.
🇬🇧 You came home very tired last night.
TERMINAR – to finish
🇪🇸 Hoy por fin terminamos de pintar la casa.
🇬🇧 Today we finally finished painting the house.
See how smooth it goes? Good job!
If we lived in a perfect world, there would be no exceptions to the rules. Unfortunately, the Spanish language looooves exceptions, and Preterito Indefinido is packed with them.
If you want to get a real grasp of this structure, better learn the typical irregular verbs and their past forms!
Preterito Indefinido in Spanish – 15 Most Common Irregular Verbs
Back when I was an A2 student, I made a list of verbs that I needed for my absolute survival. As it turned out, I hardly ever needed any other irregular verbs than these 15:
ser – (yo) fui*
ir – (yo) fui*
poder – (yo) pude
hacer – (yo) hice
poner – (yo) puse
dar – (yo) di
estar -(yo) estuve
venir – (yo) vine
querer – (yo) quise
tener – (yo) tuve
haber – hubo
traer – (yo) traje
saber – (yo) super
decir – (yo) dije
ver – (yo) vi
*Notice how the past form of the verb SER is the same as the past form of the verb IR.
Of course, when you change the subject, you modify the ending of the past form accordingly.
🇪🇸 Hubo mucha gente en la reunión.
🇬🇧 There were many people at the meeting.
🇪🇸 No traje paraguas. ¿Me puedes prestar la tuya?
🇬🇧 I didn’t bring my umbrella. Can you lend me yours?
🇪🇸 Ana y Luis tuvieron problemas con su vuelo.
🇬🇧 Ana and Luis had problems with their flight.
🇪🇸 ¿Por qué viniste tan trade?
🇬🇧 Why did you come so late?
🇪🇸 El niño no hizo nada malo. – by changing C to Z you maintain the -tho / -so sound
🇬🇧 The kid didn’t do anything wrong.
🇪🇸 Nunca supimos la verdad.
🇬🇧 We never learned the truth.
🇪🇸 Estuve enfermo toda la tarde.
🇬🇧 I was sick all afternoon.
🇪🇸 Nuestros ingenieros no pudieron resolver el problema.
🇬🇧 Our engineers couldn’t solve the problem.
🇪🇸 Fui la presidenta del curso durante cuatro años. (“fui” comes from the verb to be)
🇬🇧 I was the class president for four years.
🇪🇸 Anoche fui al cine a ver el último “James Bond”. (“fui” comes from the verb to go)
🇬🇧 Last night I went to the cinema to watch the latest “James Bond”.
The Most Common Time References in Preterito Indefinido
Since the Spanish Preterite Indefinite Tense represents actions that happened at a specific time in the past, you will often find yourself searching for the equivalent of “ago”.
“HACE” – AGO
You know: 2 weeks ago, 3 days ago, a month ago, and so on.
The Spanish word that best grasps the idea of “ago” is “hace”. You can use it either at the beginning or at the end of your sentences:
🇪🇸 Me casé hace cinco años.
🇬🇧 I got married five years ago.
🇪🇸 Mi bebé nació hace 2 días.
🇬🇧 My baby was born two days ago.
🇪🇸 Te llamé hace media hora.
🇬🇧 I called you half an hour ago.
🇪🇸 El señor Gonzalez salió hace 5 minutos.
🇬🇧 Mr. Gonzalez left 5 minutes ago.
🇪🇸 Vendí este cuadro hace mucho tiempo.
🇬🇧 I sold this painting a long time ago.
“PASADO” – LAST
This is another popular time word that often accompanies the Preterite Indefinite. Mind you, this Spanish adjective can also have a feminine form: “pasada”. For instance:
🇪🇸 La semana pasada estuve en Berlín.
🇬🇧 I was in Berlin last week.
🇪🇸 El año pasado me cambié de casa.
🇬🇧 I moved to a new house last year.
🇪🇸 El miércoles pasado me junté con unas amigas.
🇬🇧 Last Wednesday I got together with some friends.
🇪🇸 La navidad pasada te dí mi corazón.
🇬🇧 Last Christmas I gave you my heart.
You know the song by Wham!, right?
The Use of Preterite Indefinite Tense in Spain and South America
Having spent over 20 years in Chile and traveling across the continent, I can say with conviction that Pretérito Indefinido is the past tense of choice here. People use it all the time, both with and without a clear time reference.
In Spain, on the other hand, Pretérito Perfecto is way more popular. In case you’ve learned your Spanish in that country, you may be surprised to hear Latinos saying:
🇪🇸 Fui al trabajo hoy.
🇬🇧 I went to work today.
🇪🇸 He ido al trabajo hoy.
🇬🇧 I’ve gone to work today.
Of course, this is not the only difference between Latin Spanish and Spanish from Spain, but it is definitely worth keeping in mind.