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We want to offer you a useful overview of how to master the Spanish past tense. Sometimes it’s a bit confusing, especially as a beginner or even an intermediate Spanish learner because there are three essential Spanish past tenses that you need to study.
And for the more advanced speakers among the readers: Yes, there are more than 3 Spanish past tenses! But we prefer to take it “step by step.”
You won’t speak the Spanish past tense fluently after finishing this article, but you will be much more conscious about what you need to study and where to focus. We want to provide you a better structure for your learning process.
Don’t get frustrated while learning Spanish! It’s a beautiful language and worth studying.
Don’t get frustrated about the Spanish past tense conjugation!
The Spanish past tense conjugation – no matter which one you are studying – can be a bit complicated. Especially if you try to learn all the past tense verb conjugations simultaneously, you can quickly get frustrated.
So this is our tip for you: Start with the most comfortable and most frequently used Spanish present perfect (pretérito perfecto). It is the most commonly used Spanish past tense – at least in Spain. We recommend you our video if you wan to to learn more about it:
When you’re studying Spanish present perfect verb conjugation, focus on the most frequently used verbs and some irregular ones – but don’t get obsessive. You could make a start here.
It would help if you also studied the following Spanish verbs later for the other past tenses. Study them well, but don’t forget that Spanish grammar is not the only thing that makes Spanish beautiful:
The 10 most common regular verbs for Spanish past tense:
hablar (to talk)
trabajar (to work)
necesitar (to need/require)
preguntar (to ask)
ayudar (to help)
gustar (to please / be pleasing)
escuchar (to listen)
deber (to owe, must, should, ought to)
vivir (to live)
esperar (to wait/hope)
The 10 most common irregular verbs for Spanish past tense:
ser (to be)
estar (to be)
tener (to have)
hacer (to make)
ir (to go)
poder (to be able to/ can)
decir ( to say)
dar (to give)
ver (to see)
saber (to know)
In Latin America, you will hear more often the “pretéterito indefinido” (the Spanish simple past). But no matter if you’re in Spain or Latin America, in 90% of the cases, local people will understand if you use the “pretérito perfecto” instead of the Spanish simple past (“pretéterito indefinido”).
Anyway, there’re some differences between them, and you need to study both if you want to speak Spanish at an intermediate level.
Watch this video to learn more about the “pretéterito indefinido”:
Last but not least: the Spanish past tense “préterito imperfecto.” Usually, you study it after the other two ones.
And here is the good news: The Spanish imperfect past tense only has three irregular verbs to study – woohoo: ver (to see), ir (to go) y ser (to be).
This leads us to the most challenging problem if you want to master the Spanish past tense:
Learn when to use the correct Spanish past tense
As we mentioned before, there’re three Spanish past tenses that you need to know as a beginner or intermediate speaker:
- The Spanish preterite (pretérito perfecto simple, or pretérito indefinido)
- The Spanish present perfect (pretérito perfecto)
- The Spanish imperfect (pretérito imperfecto)
So when do you use them? Have a look at this Spanish past tense chart:
If you can imagine something that happened in the past in a photo, you usually use the Spanish past tense imperfect (pretérito imperfecto).
In English, you would say, “We always used to walk to school when we were young.” Also, you could compare the Spanish preterite to the English “past progressive”: We were always walking to school.”
You use the Spanish past tense “Pretérito Imperfecto” to emphasize the process or the habitual repetition of an action.
The Spanish past tense “pretérito perfecto” is almost the same as the English present perfect (I have surfed.). The Spanish words like hoy (today), nunca (never), últimamente (lately) are signal words for the use of the “pretérito perfecto”.
The Spanish past tense “pretérito perfecto” is very similar to the English simple past. The Spanish words like ayer (yesterday), la semana pasada (last week), últimamente (lately) are signal words for the use of the “pretérito indefinido.”
Learn the Spanish past tense with “chunks”
Chunks are groups of words that can be found together in language. They can be words that always go together, such as fixed collocations, or that commonly do, such as certain grammatical structures that follow rules.
The idea of chunks is not new. But the reason you should strongly consider working with them is simple: Speaking Spanish needs to be intuitive at a certain point! You don’t have the time in a normal conversation to think about the differences between the Spanish past tenses and the Spanish past tense endings.
Our recommendation is to memorize some Spanish past sentences and phrases (“chunks”) that are frequently used. For example:
Chunks for theSpanish past tense preterite (pretérito indefinido):
Ayer fui al gimnasio. ( Yesterday, I went to the gym. /Yesterday, I was at the gym.)
En 2001 viajé a Alemani. (In 2001 I traveld to Germany.)
La semana pasada hice ejercicio dos veces. (Last week I worked out twice.)
Chunks for the Spanish past tense perfect (pretérito perfecto):
Hoy ya he surfeado dos veces. (Today, I have already surfed twice.)
Nunca he estado en El Salvador. (I have never been to El Salvador.)
He estado varias veces en El Salvador. (I have been to El Salvador several times.)
Chunks for the Spanish past tense imperfect (pretérito imperfecto):
Cuando yo era joven, siempre andaba a la escuela a pie. (When I was young, I always walked to school.)
After a while, you will get more and more used to these chunks. Your confidence and your intuitive usage of the Spanish past tense will grow. And after a while, you will get more and more fluent.
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