18 Preterite Trigger Words in Spanish for Conversations in Past Tense
Let the preterite trigger words become your friends!
Spanish past tenses can be tricky and you might find the possible choices making you feel a bit insecure. The biggest question on a seasoned Spanish learner’s mind is: Which past tense should I use to sound like a native in conversations with my Spanish friends?
The good news is, the preterite tense becomes easier after you master the preterite trigger words.
In this article we’ll refresh your memory about the Spanish preterite tense and explain how to form it. You’ll also get to know the most useful preterite forms of irregular verbs. Finally, I’ll provide you with a list of 18 preterite trigger words to help you master the Spanish past simple tense.
What’s the Preterite Tense?
The preterite tense in Spanish is not complicated at all. It will probably take you more time to memorize all the conjugation forms of the irregular verbs than to understand when you should use them. To make it really simple, just think of the past simple tense in English, and in most situations, you can translate it directly to the preterite tense in Spanish.
You’ll use the Spanish preterite tense while talking about actions that happened in the past. They started, ended, and are now considered completed.
Ayer, tomé una siesta de dos horas.
Yesterday, I had a two-hour nap.
You see, it’s a completed action. Not only is the time reference specific, it reveals how long it lasted and that it happened yesterday. Yesterday is over by now, just as the siesta is. Apart from that, the word ayer is one of the preterite trigger words that we’ll explore further along in this post that point you in the direction of using the preterite Spanish tense.
How to Form the Preterite Tense
Because you’re looking for preterite trigger words, I know that you’re not a complete beginner by now. You’re likely to remember that there are three types of conjugation in Spanish depending on the ending (-ar, -er, and -ir)—while this is true for present tense conjugations, it’s not the case for preterite tense conjugations for which there are only 2 types. This is because the endings for -er and -ir verbs are the same. Splendid, isn’t it?
1. Verbs ending in -ar.
amar – to love
Mi madre amó el regalo de Navidad.
My mother loved the Christmas present.
2. Verbs ending in -er, -ir.
The words comer (to eat) and vivir (to live) have the same endings in the preterite tense.
Ayer comí dos postres.
Yesterday, I ate two desserts.
Viví en Honduras durante tres años.
I lived in Honduras for three years.
The Most Common Irregular Preterite Verbs
Not many learners are big fans of the irregular verbs in Spanish because they fail to follow common rules and require extra memorization. While the preterite tense contributes its own set of irregularities, it’s not entirely unruly. Before you learn the most common irregular verbs, let’s have a look at the irregular preterite tense endings for most verbs. No matter what changes occur to the stem of an irregular verb, the endings will be the following ones for most of them.
|Preterite Tense Irregular Endings
The following table is a list of the most common irregular verbs that follow this conjugation pattern. Simply add the correct ending to the preterite stem.
An important exception among these verbs is for verbs ending in -cir such as decir (to say), or producir (to produce, make). Here, instead of the -ieron ending for ustedes, ellos, ellas, you add -eron.
|decir (to say)
|Estar (to be)
|Hacer (to do)
|hic- (exception: él, ella hizo)
|Poder (to be able to, can)
|Poner (to put)
|Producir (to produce, make)
|Querer (to want)
|Saber (to know)
|Tener (to have)
|Venir (to come)
Let’s see some examples:
Pude vencer mi miedo.
I could overcome my fear.
Mis padres supieron a dónde ir.
My parents knew where to go.
¿Viniste a ayudarme?
Did you come to help me?
Ustedes no me dijeron la verdad.
You didn’t tell me the truth.
There are three other very common irregular verbs that follow a different pattern: ser (to be), ir (to go) and dar (to give).
Good news is, ser and ir conjugate in the same way.
Ser and Ir Preterite Conjugation
Mi abuelo fue al supermercado.
My grandfather went to the supermarket.
Mi abuelo fue bombero.
My grandfather was a fireman.
Dar Preterite Conjugation
¡Qué espectáculo dimos!
What a show we gave!
If you want to learn more irregular preterite Spanish words you can have a look at this longer list of 50 irregular Spanish preterite verbs.
Preterite Trigger Words
Now you’ve reviewed how to form the preterite tense and you won’t be surprised by any irregular verbs, so let’s get to the main point! Let’s cover 18 preterite trigger words that provoke the use of the preterite tense. Essentially, these trigger words are the words and phrases that will help you to know when to use the Spanish past tense in preterite form.
Preterite trigger words are extremely helpful for beginners who may doubt which past tense to use in a particular sentence. If you’re still unsure of the major differences between the preterite vs imperative tenses, you can read Preterite vs Imperfect: A Beginner’s Guide to the Past Tense in Spanish. The preterite trigger words establish a completed past time frame and therefore automatically require you to use the preterite tense.
1. Ayer (yesterday)
Remember when John Lennon sang that “yesterday” all his troubles seemed so far away? Unfortunately for him, yesterday is done and gone at the time of speaking—it’s over and it’ll never come back. This makes ayer one of the most recognizable preterite trigger words.
Ayer me levanté de malas.
Yesterday I woke up in a bad mood.
2. Anteayer (the day before yesterday)
If “yesterday” is over at the time of speaking, then “anteayer” is even more over.
Anteayer hicimos un pastel de chocolate.
The day before yesterday we made a chocolate cake.
3. Anoche (last night)
If you don’t want to refer to the whole previous day and you just want to say what happened yesterday night, you say anoche.,
Anoche cené cereales.
Last night I had cereal for dinner.
4. El otro día (the other day)
We’re all subject to memory issues from time to time, and remembering the exact day when something happened can be difficult or simply not important. In English, we may say “the other day” and in Spanish another preterite trigger word comes to save us: el otro día.
El otro día hubo una tormenta muy fuerte.
The other day there was a very strong storm.
5. El lunes pasado (last Monday)
In reference to a specific day of the past week and while talking about actions that happened last Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, you’ll use the preterite tense.
El lunes pasado mis hijos rompieron mi taza favorita.
Last Monday, my kids broke my favorite cup.
6. La semana pasada (last week)
You’ll use la semana pasada and the Spanish past simple to talk about actions and events that started and stopped during the whole last week.
La semana pasada aprendimos a cocinar.
Last week, we learned how to cook.
7. El mes pasado / el año pasado (last month / last year)
Similar to number 6, you can talk about things that occurred during the last month and year.
El año pasado fue el mejor.
Last year was the best.
8. Hace (tiempo) – (time) ago
If you want to talk about something that happened 5 days ago or even 10 years ago, you can combine the verb hacer and a time period to construct another one of the preterite trigger words.
Hace cinco días me enfermé.
I got sick five days ago.
Hace 5 años me mudé a Guatemala.
I moved to Guatemala 5 years ago.
9. En enero / en 2019 (in January / in 2019)
You can also talk about what happened in a specific past month or year to talk about past actions
En enero empezó la pandemia.
The pandemic started in January.
En 2019 mi madre bajó 10 kilos.
In 2019, my mother lost 10 kilograms.
10. Entonces (then)
Let’s look at this sentence:
Iba caminando y entonces empezó a llover.
I was walking and then the rain started.
The word entonces can be added in the middle of the sentence to switch from the imperfect to the preterite tense.
11. Una vez (one time, once)
I’m sure that while talking in Spanish you’d like to be able to brag about those special events that happened once in your life. The Spanish expression una vez will help you and it automatically triggers the Spanish preterite tense.
Una vez, conocí a Diego Maradona.
One time, I met Diego Maradona.
12. En aquel momento (at that moment)
If you want to describe a very specific past moment, say en aquel momento and use the Spanish past tense afterwards.
Y en aquel momento volteé y la vi.
And at that moment I turned around and I saw her.
13. Desde el primer momento (from the first moment)
Let’s say you want to exaggerate a bit the starting point of something that happened in the past. Try using desde el primer momento.
Desde el primer momento supe que tenía razón.
From the first moment, I knew I was right.
14. El 1 de septiembre de 1939 (September 1st, 1939)
Dates can also be preterite trigger words to describe that something started and/or ended at a specific moment of time. This works great for special events in history and your life.
El 1 de septiembre de 1939 empezó la Segunda Guerra Mundial.
On September 1st of 1939 the Second World War started.
El 10 de septiembre de 1996 nació mi hija.
On September 10th of 1996 my daughter was born.
15. [Número] días/semanas/meses/años/décadas, etc. / ([Number] days/weeks/months/years/decades)
You’ll use these while talking about a period of time while you were doing something or something happened.
Pasé 5 años aprendiendo español.
I spent 5 years learning Spanish.
El hambre duró dos décadas.
The famine lasted two decades.
16. Durante [número] días/semanas /meses /años /décadas/etc. / (For [number] days/weeks/months/years/decades/etc.)
You can modify the previous expression by adding the preposition durante which translates as “for” when you’re talking about a block of time.
Trabajé en esta empresa durante 20 años.
I worked in this company for 20 years.
17. Desde el lunes hasta el domingo (From Monday to Sunday)
You can specify a starting and ending day of an event in the past and use the Spanish preterite tense afterwards.
Mi enfermedad duró desde el lunes hasta el domingo.
My illness lasted from Monday to Sunday.
18. De lunes a miércoles (From Monday to Wednesday)
A shorter version of the previous expression will also trigger the Spanish past tense.
De lunes a miércoles trabajé con ella y el resto de la semana no hice nada.
I worked with her from Monday to Wednesday and I did nothing the rest of the week.
The above are the most common preterite trigger words that will help you to use the Spanish past tense. Study them and use them often so that eventually they immediately activate the preterite tense in your mind!
Practice Your Preterite Trigger Words!
It’s no secret that the more you practice, the more automatic your habits and skills become. Now that you know all the theory and practical usage of the Spanish preterite verbs and their trigger words, it’s time to take your skills to the next level. By encouraging yourself to have 1-on-1, real-time conversations in Spanish with native speakers, you are guaranteed to build your fluency faster and more effectively. Are you ready to give it a try today? Sign up for a free class to practice Spanish trigger words with our helpful and friendly professional Spanish teachers from Guatemala.
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