Lesson 9 - The Past Tenses
A key difference between Spanish and English is that Spanish has two
past tenses. They have somewhat different meanings and functions.
In general, the imperfect tense is used to describe situations or
ongoing or repeated actions in the past. The other past tense, called the
preterite, is used for brief actions, for events rather than
situations. Link to more information on their uses.
First we will present the endings used to form the tenses, then
discuss in more depth the uses.
The imperfect and preterit endings, like those in the present tense, are
applied to the stem that remains after the infinitive ending is
removed. To find the infinitive, then, one removes the ending, and applies
-ar, -er, or -ir. The imperfect tense has very few
irregular verbs, the preterite many. Don't think that later tenses have
this many new endings to learn; they don't.
Index overbendings1.htmf Verb
Endings. Since the number of endings is starting to multiply, with
this lesson I'm providing an alphabetical index to verb endings. This is a
tool I've created, since I've found it nowhere else. (All other verb tools
go from the infinitive to the endings, rather than endings to the
Endings of the Imperfect Tense (used for
description or repeated action):
- Regular Verbs
- Endings for -ar verbs: -aba, -abas, -aba, -ábamos,
Example: hablaba, hablabas, hablaba,hablábamos,hablábais,
- Endings for -er/-ir verbs: -ía, -ías, -ía,
-íamos, -íais, -ían.
Example: vivia, vivías, vivía,
vivíamos, vivíais, vivían.
- Can you form the imperfect tense of rezar (to pray)?
Click here for the answer. The imperfect of
sentir (to feel, to be sorry)? Click here
for the answer.
- Irregular verbs. There are only
three irregular verbs in the imperfect:
- Ser (to be): era, eras, era, éramos, erais, eran.
- Ir (to go): iba, ibas, iba, íbamos, ibais, iban.
- Ver (to see): veía, veías, veía, veíamos,
veíais, veían. Ver is irregular only in that the
stem contains an additional e. The endings themselves are
- Comments on the first and third
person endings. Note that the first and third persons share
the same ending. While the verb subject is typically omitted in Spanish,
it will not be omitted if ambiguity would result. The writer will see
that only one meaning is possible.
- Vivía en el campo. (The subject could be first or
third person. In isolation, one cannot determine the subject of this
- Pedro era mi amigo. Vivía en el campo. (Pedro was
my friend. He lived in the country.) Spanish convention says that
the subject continues the same from one sentence to the next, unless
a change is marked. Since Pedro is the subject of the first
sentence, he continues as subject of the second, and thus the
meaning of vivía is clear.
- Link to interesting, but unessential,
information on imperfect endings.
Endings of the PreteriteTense (used for
- Regular verbs.
- -ar verbs: -é,
-aste, -ó, -amos, -asteis, -aron. Example: hablé,
hablaste, habló, hablamos, habláis,
- Spelling changes.
previously discussed, certain vowels have an effect on the
pronunciation of a preceding c or g. These are
not considered irregular, because they are predictable.
All the preterite endings of -ar verbs, except the
first person singular, begin in a or o. Both
a and o are from the same category of vowels (-a,
-o, -u; -e, -i) as the a of the infinitive ending
ar. But the vowel of the first person singular ending,
e, is from the other category, and causes spelling
- alcancé > alcanzar
- busqué > buscar
- gocé > gozar
- llegué > llegar
- Remember, the sound of the consonant in question does
not change. What changes is the way in which that consonant is
written. The sounds are written differently depending on the
vowel which follows.
- -er/-ir verbs: -í,
-iste, -ió, -imos, -isteis, ieron. Example: viví,
viviste, vivió, vivimos, vivimos,
- If the stem ends in a vowel,
- In the first and second persons, the initial -i
of the ending always takes an accent, not just in the first
person singular. This prevents its combination with the stem
vowel to form a diphthong: caíste, caímos.
- In the third person, the initial weak iof the ending
converts to y. For example, cayó >
caer to fall), huyó > huir (to
flee), contribuyeron > contribuir (to
- Can you form the preterite tense of cazar (to hunt)?
Click here for the answer. What about the
preterite tense of caer? Click here for
- Irregular Verbs. In contrast with
the very regular imperfect tense, the preterite tense has many
irregularities. (The same is true of Latin and the other romance
- Verbs for which one only needs to
learn the first person singular. For most verbs,
only the first person singular need be learned, since from it, one
can derive the remaining forms.
The stems of these verbs typically have both a vowel change in the
stressed syllable, typically to i or u, and a
consonant change. One will never derive the infinitive tener
from the preferite tuve. Fortunately, these verbs are not
Note that these verbs differ from the regular preterites not just
in the stem, but that the first and third person singular forms are
not accented. For example, the ending -e can be
either a third person present tense ending or an irregular preterite
ending. However, ambiguity is not produced. Faced with a form like
dije, if the ending were present tense, the verb would be *dijer
or *dijir. Since the dictionary will reveal that there are
no such verbs, the e can only be an irregular preterite
ending. (The asterisk * is a symbol linguists use to mark
non-existent words, made up for the purposes of discussion.) Link
to interesting, but not essential, information on this topic.
- conduje (conducir, to drive). Full tense: conduje,
condujiste, condujo, condujimos, condujistes, condujeron.
- cupe (caber, to fit into)
- dije (decir, to say)
- hice (hacer, to do or make). The third person
singular is not *hico. Can you guess how it is spelled?
Click here for the answer.
- hube (haber, to have; auxiliary only. Note that hubo,
the third person singular form, is the preterite of the special
form hay. Just as hay means both "there is"
and "there are," hubo means both "there
was" and "there were."
Hubo protestas: there were protests.
- pude (poder, to be able). See note
below on its special meaning in
- puse (poner, to put)
- quise (querer, to want or love). See note
below on its special meaning in
- supe (saber, to know). See note
below on its special meaning in
- traje (traer, to bring)
- tuve (tener, to have)
- vine (venir, to come)
- Compound verbs. Compound
verbs formed with a prefix and one of these irregular verbs, share
the same irregularities in the preterite. Examples:
- maldije (maldecir, to curse)
- retuve (retener, to retain)
- Additional stem vowel
changes. Verbs with a stem vowel change in the preterite
third person. Some -ir verbs have a stem vowel change in the
third person singular and plural of the preterite. For these verbs,
an -e- changes to -i- and an -o- changes to
-u-. Common examples:
- durmió, durmieron > dormir (to
- murió, murieron > morir (to die)
- pidió, pidieron > pedir (to ask
- rio, rieron > reír (to laugh). The
-e- of the stem has changed to an -i-, and it
and the -i- of the ending have collapsed into one. Note
the lack of an accent on rio, because it is
monosyllabic. The stress is on the o, in contrast with
río, the first person singular present tense of
the verb, and also the noun "river." Reír
has an accent to maintain the -ir, with its weak vowel
i, as the stressed final syllable. The same is true of
the verb freír (to fry).
- sintió, sintieron > sentir (to
feel, to be sorry)
- Really Irregular Preterites
(cannot be constructed from the first person singular alone):
- Ser and ir. The verbs ser
and ir have identical preterites: fui, fuiste, fue,
fuimos, fuisteis, fueron. Although this seems destined to cause
confusion, it almost never does so.
- Fuimos a Sevilla must be "We went to Seville."
(Verb is ir.)
- Fue condenado a un año de cárcel must
be "He was sentenced to a year in jail." (Verb is ser.)
- Dar. The verb dar takes
regular -er/-ir endings: di, diste, dio, dimos, disteis,
dieron. There are no accents on di and dio
because they are monosyllabic.
- Andar and estar. These two
are the only ar verbs that are irregular in the preterite.
They take the same endings as the irregular er/ir verbs,
like decir or traer.
- Andar, to walk: anduve, anduviste, anduvo,
anduvimos, anduvisteis, anduvieron.
- Estar, to be: estuve, estuviste, estuvo,
estuvimos, estuvisteis, estuvieron.
EXERCISE on past tense endings. Take each of
these forms and identify (a) the infinitive, (b) whether they are in the
present, imperfect, or preterite tense, (c) the meaning (not of the
infinitive, but of this specific verb form). For the purpose of this
exercise you may assume the third person subjects to be "he" and
Click here for the answers to this
Usage of the Imperfect and Preterite Tenses
- More on the Imperfect.
- The imperfect is always used to tell time in the past: Eran
las ocho. (It was eight o'clock.)
- The imperfect indicates that an action was repeated,
habitual, or is viewed as lengthy.
- Íbamos a la playa. (We went to the beach repeatedly.)
- Vivía en Barcelona. (I was living in Barcelona - emphasis
on the duration of the experience.)
- More on the Preterite.
- The preterite is used for a one-time action, a brief action, or
an action which is not on-going. The preterite looks at a change in
state or condition - I played, then I stopped; there was no light,
then there was; I lived in Barcelona but now I don't.
- Fuimos a la playa. (We went to the beach once.)
- Dijo Dios: "Haya (let there be) luz, y hubo luz." (God
said "Let there be light," and there was light.)
- Viví en Barcelona. (I lived - or "used to live"
- in Barcelona. Emphasis on the change from living there.)
- Special meanings in the
preterite.. Four verbs whose meaning always implies
duration have special senses in the preterite. These meanings
correspond to a momentary application of the verb's action.
- Conocer means to be acquainted with. This
implies duration. Therefore the preterite conocí
means I met (an inherently brief action).
- pude I succeeded (not just I was able,
but I took action based on my ability)
- no pudimos We failed (not just we
lacked the capacity, but we took action and our lack
of capacity showed itself)
- quiso He/she/it/Ud. tried (not just he
wanted, but he took action based on his desire)
- no quise I refused (not just I did not
want to, but I took action based on my lack of
- supe I found out (a brief action; I
knew would imply some duration, and therefore the
- Both imperfect and preterite used in the
same sentence. The two tenses are sometimes used for temporal
contrast. The imperfect sets the scene, and the preterite gives the
- Estaba en el baño cuando sonó el teléfono.
(I was in the bathtub when the telephone rang.)
- Íbamos a la playa cuando hubo un accidente. (We were going
to the beach [once] when an accident occured.)
- Reduced importance of the difference
between imperfect and preterite. The difference between the
imperfect and the preterite can be impossible to capture in English. It
may reflect the writer's point of view. In which case, don't worry
about it. More often than not, it is enough to recognize that
something took place in the past.
- Vivimos un año en Nueva York. (We lived a year in New York
- implies distance felt from the time period. It is over and done
- Vivíamos un año en Nueva York. (We lived a year in
New York - implies it is remembered strongly, whether pleasantly or
Los judíos actualmente están divididos en dos grupos:
askenazíes (alemanes) y sefardíes (españoles).
Sefarad fue el nombre hebreo de España.
Los judíos vivieron en España desde tiempos muy antiguos.
Según una tradición, vinieron con los comerciantes fenicios,(1)
en tiempos bíblicos. Consideraron España como un país
Durante el período visigodo,(2)
después de la desaparición del imperio romano, los judíos
sufrieron discriminación y represión. Deseando libertad
religiosa, los judíos invitaron a los árabes a conquistar el
país. Colaboraron con ellos.
Bajo el dominio árabe de España, los judíos
prosperaron. La cultura de los judíos llegó a alturas
desconocidas desde tiempos bíblicos. Los judíos eran médicos,
científicos, abogados, estadistas y filósofos. El médico
y filósofo más famoso(3)
fue Maimónides, pero hubo(4)
Fue en España donde la lengua hebrea fue usada por vez primera
para poesía profana. En España comenzaron los estudios bíblicos.
Sabios judíos(5) prepararon el
primer diccionario de la Biblia. Fueron identificados los dos autores del
Los judíos en otras partes del mundo reconocieron a Sefarad como
el centro del judaísmo. El misterioso y riquísimo(6)
reino de Granada fue al principio un reino judío.
La reina Isabel la Católica desterró a los judíos
en 1492. Los judíos sufrieron mucho. Fueron a Holanda, a Italia y
especialmente al imperio otomano. Varios emigraron, después, al
Conservan la identidad sefardí hasta hoy. En Israel hay
actualmente periódicos en español, escritos con el alfabeto
Muchos cristianos españoles eran judíos convertidos, o
descendientes de ellos. Américo Castro descubrió el abolengo
judaico de muchos españoles famosos: Cervantes, Loyola, Santa
Teresa y varios otros. La gran cultura católica española
tiene un origen judío. Comparte con el judaísmo, en parte,
una actitud hacia el mundo.
Translation of this reading.
1. One of the near-insoluble problems of Spanish
vocabulary is caused by the fact that Spanish uses capital letters much
less than English does. As a result, nationalities, languages, adjectives
derived from political parties or geographical names, and many other
derivations of proper nouns will have nothing to alert you to what they
are, but will not be found in the dictionary either. If an adjective (like
español, Spanish, or tico, Costa Rican) or a
noun (los conquenses, those from Cuenca,, los ibicencos,
those from Ibiza) is not found in the dictionary, consider whether it
could be proper noun or derivative of one.
In this case, fenicios is a proper noun. Can you guess its
2. Visigodos = Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that
ruled the Iberian peninsula after the fall of the Roman empire.
3. Más (more) or menos (less) plus adjective
forms the comparative (the equivalent of English adjective suffix -er).
The definite article plus this construction forms the superlative
(equivalent of the English adjective suffix -est). "El ____ más
famoso" = "The most famous."
Note that "más famoso" modifies both médico
4. "There were." Hubo is
singular, but just like its present tense form hay, it is used
for both singular and plural. Both are forms of haber.
5. "Sabios" is the noun, "judíos"
an adjective modifying it.
6. "Very rich." The -ísimo ending
is an intensifier. Note the change, from c to qu, in
concluding consonant of the noun stem. This is a regular (predictable)
spelling change, the same change as in the verb. This is the same change
discussed above regarding the preterites of certain -ar verbs, or of
Answers to Exercises:
Conjugation of imperfect tense of rezar (to
Conjugation of imperfect tense of sentir (to
feel, to be sorry):
Conjugation of preterite tense of cazar (to
Conjugation of preterite tense of caer (to
The third person singular preterite of hacer
Answers to exercise on finding infinitives:
||they learned or found out
|ir or ser
||they went or they were
||I reached (a goal)
||I went or he went
||present or preterite
||we seat or we seated
||present or preterite
||we feel or wefelt
||I promised or he promised
More comments on imperfect endings
Note that all imperfect endings have the stress on the first syllable of
Why do all the -er/-ir endings have an accent, but only some of
the -ar endings?
The endings are two or three syllables. There are no
one-syllable endings in the imperfect.
In the case of -er/-ir verbs, all the endings
have an -i- as the first syllable, followed by an -a- for
the second syllable. According to the
of syllable definition, the "weak" i would combine
with the "strong" a to form a single syllable. If so,
there would be monosyllabic endings. To prevent this combination, the
accent is added to the i, making it equally "strong" as
the a and impeding their combination into a single syllable.
This concern does not exist with the -ar verbs,
since the endings all start with -ab- (as in hablaba). But
with them we have a different problem.
In the present tense, four of the fourms the three
singulars and the third person plural
More comments on regular and irregular
A point often confusing students is that some first and third person
singular preterite endings have a written accent on the ending (habló,
viví), while others do not (dije, tuvo). All regular
verbs have the written accents, but the irregular verbs do not.
This reflects the fact that the regular verbs have the stress on the
ending, while the irregular verbs have it on the stem. Thus, hablé
has an accent to show that the -blé is stressed, whereas
dije has no accent because the stressed syllable is di-.
This is true for all irregular verbs in the preterite. The stress is on
the stem, on the syllable with the vowel change: pude, puse,
cupe, anduve, and so on. The linguists' terms for the
verbs with the stress on the ending (the regular verbs) is "weak,"
and those with the stress on the stem (the irregular verbs) are "strong."
While English stress rules are dramatically different from those of
Spanish, we still see that regular past tenses in English add an ending:
walked, studied. Irregular verbs change their stem vowel:
run, ran; swim, swam; dig, dug; sit, sat, and so on.
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