All You Ever Needed to Know About Spanish (Simple) Past Tense Verbs
What did you do last weekend? Did you study Spanish with a friend? Talking about past events is crucial to conversations—we use it to tell stories, talk about memories, and share previous events and feelings. Communicating prior events is a huge part of almost every conversation, which is why it is so important to learn this tense in your second language: Spanish. Let’s explore the Spanish past tense!
Spanish Past Tense: How to Use It
First of all, when we say the “past tense,” this phrase encompasses multiple different tenses (past simple, continuous, perfect, etc.). Specifically, in this blog post, we will focus on what we call the simple past in English. However, it’s important to note that there is no pasado simple in Spanish. Instead, two different tenses exist in Spanish that translate to the simple past in English: el pretérito and el imperfecto.
- El pretérito is for actions that took place one time. For example:
- We went to the movie theater last Friday.
- My parents got married in 1987.
- He gave me a new bike for my birthday.
- El imperfecto is for actions that repeatedly took place in the past, or continual states (like time and weather). For example:
- We used to get coffee every Sunday when we were in college.
- She used to play basketball when she was younger.
- We used to have game night every Thursday.
In order to know which to choose, keep the following in mind:
- If you are talking about singular past events, or events that happened several times but NOT habitually, use the pretérito. For example:
- Fuimos al cine el viernes pasado.
- Mis padres se casaron en 1987.
- Él me regaló una nueva bicicleta para mi cumpleaños.
- If you are talking about habitual past events or things you “used to” do, then use the imperfecto. For example:
- Tomabamos café cada domingo cuando estabamos en la universidad.
- Ella jugaba básquetbol cuando era niña.
- Teníamos una noche de juegos cada jueves.
Now that you understand how the two past tenses are used, we will narrow our focus to the pretérito and see how to conjugate it.
Spanish Past Tense Conjugations: Regular Verbs
If you remember from our previous posts, there are both regular and irregular verbs in Spanish. The regular verbs divide into three groups based on their endings: -AR, -ER, or -IR. As we discuss in detail in our simple present tense blog post, the -ER and -IR verb endings are quite similar. Let’s see if that is the same for the pretérito!
|-AR Verbs (hablar)||-ER Verbs (comer)||-IR Verbs (vivir)|
|Yo hablé||Yo comí||Yo viví|
|Tú hablaste||Tú comiste||Tú viviste|
|Usted habló||Usted comió||Usted vivió|
|Él habló||Él comió||Él vivió|
|Nosotros hablamos||Nosotros comimos||Nosotros vivimos|
|Ustedes hablaron||Ustedes comieron||Ustedes vivieron|
|Ellos hablaron||Ellos comieron||Ellos vivieron|
-ER and -IR Verb Endings
As you can see, the endings for the simple past tense for both the -ER and -IR verbs are exactly the same! This makes it easier for you to memorize the Spanish conjugations for the pretérito. Just remember that the past tense endings for both verb times start with i and you’ll be set!
One potentially confusing part of the pretérito is that the nosotros form for -AR and -IR verbs is the same as in the present simple. You can say nosotros hablamos or nosotros vivimos and be talking about either present or past actions. How can you possibly understand which time other people are talking about? How can you make it clear in your own sentences that you are talking about the past instead of the present? Well, there are several context clues that you can listen for that will help you understand better.
- Siempre – this keyword tells you that the activity is habitual. Since the pretérito is never used for habitual past events, the verb would have to be in the present tense.
- Ayer, la semana pasada, el año pasado – these time markers make it clear that the action took place in the past.
- Hace – this means “ago,” which indicates a past event.
If you don’t quite understand the context, don’t be afraid to ask! This can be a confusing thing even for native speakers.
Accents, Pronunciation, and Meaning
Look at the usted form of hablar. It looks just like the yo form in the present simple tense, just with an accent, right?
Simple Present: yo hablo
Simple Past: usted/él/ella habló
These verbs look the same but do not sound the same; the accent, or tilde, makes all the difference. When you say hablo, the emphasis is on the first syllable: HAB-lo. On the other hand, habló has the emphasis on the second syllable where the accent is: hab-LO.
Accents may not seem that important, but they change the pronunciation drastically. Don’t forget to put accents on the yo, usted, él, and ella forms of the Spanish past tense.
Spanish Past Tense: Irregular Verbs
No Spanish tense would be complete without some irregular forms! Many of the verbs have stem changes, while others have slight spelling changes. There are only a handful of completely irregular verbs which we will look at below. Let’s dive in!
When looking at the following stem-changing verbs in the pretérito, note that none of the forms have any accent marks like with the regular forms. Let’s take a look.
Change to -UV-
Change to -S-
Change to -J-
With the verbs that change to include a J, note that in the third person plural form (ustedes, ellos, ellas) there is NOT an i in the ending. It is not dijieron. Instead, it is dijeron.
Change to -I-
One final thing to note about the stem-changing verbs in the past tense is that the verbs tener, venir, and decir are often the bases for other words with prefixes like contener or prevenir. Since these verbs end the same as the simpler verbs, they also undergo stem changes in the same form: yo tuve, yo contuve.
Verbs That Change in the Yo Form
There are three groups of verbs that change ONLY in the yo form in the simple past tense:
- Verbs that end in -CAR
- Verbs that end in -GAR
- Verbs that end in -ZAR
The reason for this is due to pronunciation! A couple of letters in Spanish have different sounds depending on which vowel follows them (learn more about this effect in our pronunciation blog post). These letters are, as seen above, C, G, and Z.
We will explore how the verbs listed below end in “ar” in the infinitive, but in -é for the yo conjugation in the past tense, which requires spelling changes to maintain the correct pronunciation.
Originally, the verb produces a hard sound as it connects “ar” to the preceding consonant. However, since the yo conjugation in the past tense is -é, it causes a soft sound from the preceding letter. The change from a hard to a soft C, for example, would completely change the pronunciation of the verb. To combat this effect, slight spelling changes occur. Let’s look at how these changes help the pronunciation to stay consistent:
- Tocar (toh-kahr)
- No spelling change: yo tocé (toh-say). This pronunciation actually has a completely different meaning, resembling the verb toser (to cough).
- With spelling change: yo toqué (toh-kay). The verb retains the hard “k” sound and is recognizable as a form of tocar.
Check out the three types of spelling changes below!
The C changes to a QU.
|-CAR Verb Conjugation (Tocar)|
The G changes to a GU.
|-GAR Verb Conjugation (Pagar)|
The Z changes to a C.
|-ZAR Verb Conjugation (Organizar)|
While these are only three examples, many more verbs follow these patterns. ANY verb that ends in -CAR, -GAR, or -ZAR changes in the same way as shown above.
Verbs that Change in the Third Person
To avoid confusion with similar sounding verbs, five groups of verbs have spelling changes ONLY in the third person (usted, él, ella, ustedes, ellos, ellas). As you can see below, a Y is added in place of the I usually used in -ER/-IR endings.
|-EER Verbs (Creer)||-UIR Verbs (Huir)||-CAER Verbs (Caer)||-OÍR Verbs(Oír)||-OER Verbs(Corroer)|
*Take note that some of the above verbs (creer, caer, oír, corroer) have additional accents over the I in the tú and nosotros form. This is another slight spelling change, but one that is not noticed in spoken Spanish.
Unique Irregular Verbs
As promised, here is a list of completely irregular verbs! It’s necessary to memorize these Spanish past tense conjugations as they are very common. Something very interesting happens with two of the following verbs. Can you see what it is?
No, we didn’t make a mistake. The conjugations for ir and ser in the Spanish past tense are exactly the same. There is absolutely no difference between the verbs in the pretérito. Doesn’t that cause a lot of confusion, you ask? Just like with the nosotros forms in the simple present and past, you need to listen to context clues to understand when someone is using ir or ser.
Fui or… Fui?
While it may seem completely confusing now, understanding the difference between these two verbs in the past tense is quite simple because of their vastly unique meanings.
For example, the verb ir is usually followed by the word a and a place.
Él fue a la tienda.
The verb ser is often followed by an adjective or a noun referring to the subject.
Fue una fiesta muy divertida.
With practice, you’ll be able to listen for context clues with ease!
¡Ya terminaste la lección!
You are set with a lot of information about the simple past tense in Spanish! ¡Aprendiste mucho! To make sure all these conjugations really stick with you, practice with one of our great Spanish-speaking teachers in a free trial class! They can help you apply this knowledge in real-life conversations and helpful worksheets. See how it works today!
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