DON’T Learn the Spanish Past Tense Conjugation Table! (Do THIS instead for fluent Spanish)
Hello, my dear students! I’m Mariana, head of grammar at Spring Spanish, and today I’m going to show you how you can always use the past tense correctly while speaking Spanish in conversations… without having to think about conjugation tables!
We’re going to use our very own Conversation Based Chunking method to help you with that. And to prove to yourself that it works, you’ll already be using the past tense in sentences in a quiz at the end of this article!
What did YOU (and I) do yesterday?
We’re going to focus on the pretérito simple in this video because this is the tense we use in Latin America, in 99% of the cases.
Let’s start by taking a look at this conversation:
¿Qué onda? Entonces, ¿qué hiciste ayer?
(What’s up? So, what did you do yesterday?)
Nada. Me quedé en mi casa.
(Nothing. I stayed at home.)
Pensé que ibas a salir.
(I thought you were going out.)
Sí, ese era el plan, pero, al final, me dio flojera.
(Yeah, that was the plan, but I was lazy in the end.)
Oye, ¿te enteraste del chisme del momento?
(Hey, did you hear the latest gossip?)
(No! Tell me!)
So, did you notice any pattern?
- To talk about things I did myself in the past, I added an -é at the end of the verb:
- Yo pensé (I thought)
- Me quedé (I stayed)
- Yo terminé (I finished)
- For second-person singular (so, things YOU did), you add -iste and -aste:
- ¿Qué hiciste? (What did you do?)
- ¿Te enteraste del chisme? (Did you hear the latest news?)
Now, here’s our advice: learn the examples from this dialogue by heart, as a chunk, as shown here:
- FRONT: ¿___________ ayer? (What did you do yesterday?)
- BACK: ¿Qué hiciste ayer? (What did you do yesterday?)
You won’t know ALL the conjugations just by memorizing chunks with flashcards like this, but it’ll help you a lot to imprint the general pattern on your brain, so they start rolling off the tongue in conversations!
What did S/HE do last week?
Now let’s take a look at using the pretérito simple when talking about the third person singular (he/she):
Oye, ¿y sabes si Camila fue a la fiesta la semana pasada?
(Hey, and do you know if Camila went to that party last week?)
La neta no tengo idea. ¿Por?
(I honestly have no idea. Why?)
Es que escuché que se peleó con su novio, pero ya no supe si antes, después o en la fiesta.
(The thing is I heard she had a fight with her boyfriend, but I’m not sure about whether it was before, after, or during the party.)
¡¿Se pelearon?! Qué mala onda.
(They had a fight?! That sucks!)
Sí, creo que sí se puso super triste.
(Yeah, I think she was very sad.)
So, how do you form the third-person singular (he or she) in the pretérito simple? Let’s take a look!
If it’s a regular verb, you add an -ó (with an accent mark), as in se peleó (she had a fight), but in the case of irregular verbs, like ir (to go) and poner (to put or to become), you essentially have to learn the conjugation by heart:
- fue (he/she went)
- puso (he/she put/became)
The reason is that if you add an ó (with an accent mark) like you do for regular verbs, you’d be making up a word… and you don’t want that!
By the way, if you’d like some help in memorizing the verb conjugations in chunks, you might want to become a member of the Spring Spanish Inner Circle! Our members get a flashcard deck containing all the chunks from this lesson and all our other lessons… and we organize speaking rooms as well, so you can practice your Spanish-speaking skills!
What did WE do last year?
How about saying WE did something in the past? Let’s take a look:
Oye, ¿te acuerdas cuando nos peleamos tú y yo?
(Hey, do you remember when you and I had a fight?)
¡Ay, no manches! ¡Eso fue hace siglos!
(Oh, come on! That was ages ago!)
Sí, ya sé, y ¡fue por una tontería!
(Yeah, I know, and it was because of a stupid thing!)
Pero ese año fuimos a Xel-Ha.
(But that year we went to Xel-Ha.)
¡Ah, sí es cierto! ¡Ese viaje estuvo bien chido!
(Oh, that’s right! That trip was really cool!)
Sí, lo mejor fue que comimos un montón.
(Yeah, the best part was that we ate a lot.)
No, lo mejor fue que bebimos un montón.
(No, the best part was that we drank a lot.)
¡Ay, eres una borracha!
(OMG, you are such a drunkard!)
Lo fui, lo soy y lo seré.
(I was, I am, and I will be a drunkard!)
So, what’s the pattern when it comes to nosotras / nosotros (we)? It’s actually pretty straightforward:
- If the verb ends in -ar, like pelear (to fight), the ending is -amos
- ¿Te acuerdas cuando nos peleamos tú y yo? (Do you remember when you and I had a fight?)
- If the verb ends in -er, like comer (to eat) or beber (to drink), the ending is -imos
- Sí, lo mejor fue que comimos un montón. (Yeah, the best part was that we ate a lot.)
- If the verb ends in -ir, like vivir (to live), the ending is also -imos
- Mis papás, mi hermano y yo vivimos en Durango por tres años. (My parents, my brother, and I lived in Durango for three years.)
What did YOU (plural) + THEY do a decade ago?
Now, if we’re talking about ustedes (plural you) or ellos / ellas (they), the pattern is as follows, let’s see if you are able to figure it out:
Pero ¿te acuerdas de la borrachera que se pusieron los chavos en el viaje de secundaria?
(But do you remember how drunk the guys got on the middle school trip?)
¡Ah, sí! ¡De plano se ahogaron en alcohol!
(Oh, yes! They literally drowned in alcohol!)
Pero ¿Camila y tú se les unieron, no?
(But Camila and you joined them, didn’t you?
¡Nombre! Sí tomamos, pero ellos se pasaron.
(No way! We drank, but they went too far.)
Were you able to figure out the pattern? Basically, if a verb ends in -ar, the conjugation for both ustedes and ellos is -aron, as in, ahogar (to drown), ahogaron (plural you / they drowned). Similarly, if a verb ends in either -er or -ir, such as unir (to join) or poner (to put), the conjugation is -ieron.
Now, poner is an irregular verb, so it’s easier if you learn the conjugation in the context of a sentence or as part of a chunk, like la borrachera que se pusieron (how drunk they got).
It’s hard to translate this chunk word-for-word because there’s actually no equivalent of borrachera in English, but if you learn the chunk, not only will you sound like a native speaker, but you will also use the verb poner in the past tense, in the second or third-person plural (depending on context).
You obviously need to practice and practice to truly learn these chunks! So, why don’t you tell me in the comments what you did yesterday or last week? That way, practicarás cómo usar el pretérito simple (you’ll practice using the preterite).
Before you do, why don’t you practice a bit with the examples you learned today with a quiz? Fill in the blank in the following sentences. Ready?
QUIZ & Homework
- Entonces, ¿__________ ayer? (So, what did you do yesterday?)
- ¡De plano ___________ alcohol! (They literally drowned in alcohol!)
- _________ ibas a salir. (I thought you were going out.)
- Escuché que _________ con su novio. (I heard she had a fight with her boyfriend.) [se peleó]
- ¡¿___________?! (They had a fight?!)
- Oye, ¿te acuerdas cuando __________ tú y yo? (Hey, do you remember when you and I had a fight?)
- Lo mejor fue que _____________. (The best part was that we ate a lot.)
- ¿________ del chisme del momento? (Did you hear the latest gossip?)
- Sí tomamos, pero ellos ________. (We drank, but they went too far.)
I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to speak effortlessly about the past in Spanish… but what if you want to talk about something que harás mañana o la próxima semana (you will do tomorrow or next week)? That’s the future! So, check out the article where I teach you how to speak about the future in Spanish!