When to use the Spanish Preterite Tense (el pretérito indefinido)

When to use the Spanish preterite tense is a dilemma for many Spanish students, since Spanish has several past tenses.  Overall, we use the preterite tense (PRETÉRITO INDEFINIDO)  when in English you say “did something” to describe a completed action in the past. Look at the examples:

When to use the Spanish preterite tense.

The preterite tense examples

Compré una casa el año pasado. (I bought a house last night).

Nadaste en la piscina ayer. (You swam in the swimming pool yesterday).

Vivimos en Perú el año pasado. (We lived in Perú Last year).

Bebieron un poco anoche. (They drank a little last night).

When to use the Spanish preterite tense

1. It’s used to describe completed actions or events which occurred once or several times in the past. While if they happened regularly the imperfect tense is used  . Compare:

Visité a mi madre dos veces el año pasado. (I visited my mother two times last year).

Visitaba a mi madre todas las semanas cuando vivía en Madrid. (I visited my mother every week when I was living in Madrid.)

2. The action may continue for a while, although the length of time is defined:

Pasé tres meses en Madrid. (I spent three months in Madrid).

 La película duró dos horas. (The film lasted two hours). 

3. For questions and negatives, you don’t need “did” and “didn’t”:

¿Bailaste con Carla? (Did you dance with Carla?).

 No bailé con Carla. (I didn’t dance with Carla).

4. It is normally used with temporal expressions, such as:

Ayer (yesterday)Anoche (last night)El lunes (on Monday)
Hace dos años (two years ago)El mes pasado  (last month)En 1969 (in 1969)

How to form the preterite tense

Click on the link if you want to learn more about when to use the preterite tense in Spanish .

Now that you know how and when to use the Spanish pretérito indefinido, it would be good to review how to form it, since there are some irregulars widely used in the preterite.

Remember you can contact your tutor with any question you have about this topic or to ask for activities to practice.  Don’t you have a Spanish personal tutor yet?

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