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Finally master the preterite in Spanish

Finally Master the Spanish PRETERITO (Past Tense) by Learning CHUNKS

Mis queridos alumnos (My dear students), today you’re going to learn the Spanish preterite, or pretérito, the most used past tense in Mexico and most other Latin-American countries. 

It is also known as pretérito indefinido and pretérito perfecto simple, but this is jargon. Let’s stick to pretérito alone, since that’s how most people call it anyway. Now, it looks like this: 

  • comí (I ate)
  • amaste (you loved)
  • fuimos (we went)
  • cantó (s/he sang)
  • llegaron (plural you/they arrived)

Aunque puede parecer abrumador (While that might look overwhelming), I’ll give you a super simple way to start using el pretérito in conversations… without ever having to think about conjugation tables

Let’s start with a little story…

First and second-person singular: yo &

PERSON 1
Oye, ¿te conté que me encontré a mi exjefe el otro día?
(Hey, did I tell you I ran into my former boss the other day?)

PERSON 2
No, no me contaste. ¿Cómo estuvo o qué?
(No, you didn’t tell me. What happened or what?)

PERSON 1
Te juro que quería que me tragara la tierra.
Lo vi de lejos y traté de esconderme, pero no lo logré.

(I swear I wanted the Earth to swallow me.
I saw him from afar and I tried to hide, but I didn’t manage to.)

PERSON 2
Pero, a ver, no entendí. Cuéntame qué pasó desde el principio.
(But let’s see, I didn’t understand. Tell me what happened from the beginning.)

Before moving on, I’d like to explain the conjugation in the first-person singular, that is, yo.

Basically, when a regular verb ends in -AR, the conjugation for the first person singular (yo) will always be -É, with an accent mark.

For example: 

  • ¿Te conté que me encontré a mi exjefe el otro día? (Did I tell you I ran into my former boss the other day?)
    • contar (to tell) >> conté (I told)
    • encontrar (to find, to run into) >> encontré (I found, I ran into)
  • Traté de esconderme, pero no lo logré. (I tried to hide, but I didn’t manage to.)
    • lograr (to achieve, to manage) >> logré (I achieved, I managed to)
    • tratar (to try) >> traté (I tried)

Now, what happens when a verb ends in -ER or -IR? The conjugation is also a vowel with an accent mark, but instead of an E, it’s an I —with an accent mark most of the time.

  • Pero, a ver, no entendí. (But let’s see, I didn’t understand.)
    • entender (to understand) >> entendí (I understood)
  • Lo vi de lejos (I saw him from afar.)
    • ver (to see) >> vi (I saw)

Here are 3 more examples:

  • correr (to run) >> corrí (I ran)
  • dormir (to sleep) >> dormí (I slept)
  • fingir (to pretend) >> fingí (I pretended)

Easy, right?

Your best bet to use these correctly yourself in conversations is memorizing them in the context of a sentence, as chunks, not a conjugation table. If you’d like some help with that, we’ve created flashcards for this lesson (and all our other lessons) with conjugations and chunks in context! 

Veamos qué pasó después en nuestra historia (Let’s see what happened next in our story): 

PERSON 1
Pues, mira, entré a Best Buy a ver computadoras y, cuando salí, vi que él y su esposa venían hacia donde yo estaba. Según yo, sí te conté. 
(Well, listen, I was at the mall. I went inside Best Buy to have a look at computers and when I went out, I saw him and his wife coming towards where I was. I though I had told you.)

PERSON 2
No, no me contaste. Pero ¿qué hiciste? ¿Te vieron? ¿Los saludaste?
(No, you didn’t tell me. But what did you do? Did they see you? Did you greet them?)

PERSON 1
Creo que no me vieron luego, luego, así que empecé a buscar dónde esconderme.
(I think they didn’t see me right away, so I started looking for a place to hide.)

PERSON 2
¿Por qué no te metiste a Best Buy otra vez? ¿O fingiste demencia? 
(Why didn’t you go inside Best Buy again? Or did you pretend you didn’t see them?)

So, how does the conjugation for work? Let’s rewind…

  • No, no me contaste. (No, you didn’t tell me.) 
    • Contar (to tell) >> contaste (you told)
  • ¿Los saludaste? (Did you greet them?)
    • Saludar (to greet) >> saludaste (you greeted)
  • Pero ¿qué hiciste? (But what did you do?)
    • hacer (to do) >> hiciste (you did)
  • ¿Por qué no te metiste a Best Buy otra vez? (Why didn’t you go inside Best Buy again?)
    • meter (to introduce, to go inside) >> metiste (you went inside, you introduced)
  • ¿O fingiste demencia? (Or did you pretend you didn’t see them?)
    • Fingir (to pretend) >> fingiste (you pretended)

CHUNK ALERT!!!

Fingir demencia is an expression we use to say that you pretend not to have seen or not to know something or someone. If translated literally, it would be something like “to fake dementia”. Another expression we use for the same purpose is hacer que la Virgen te habla, which loosely translates as “to pretend being spoken to by the Virgin”. 

Now, back to el pretérito. So, if a verb ends in -AR, the conjugation for will be -ASTE. Similarly, when a verb ends in -ER or -IR, the conjugation will be -ISTE

Awesome! Let’s listen to the rest of the story. Just a reminder that, like we’ve done in other videos, we have highlighted what’s relevant in yellow. 

Third-person singular and plural: ella & él / ellas & ellos 

PERSON 1
Me regresé a Best Buy. Me puse a ver tablets
y, entonces, escuché: “Mariana, ¿cómo estás?”

(I went back to Best Buy. I had a look at the tablets
and then I heard, “Mariana, how are you?”)

PERSON 2
¡Ah! O sea, él te saludó.
(Oh, So, he greeted you.)

PERSON 1
¡No! ¡Fue su esposa! Él andaba por su lado, pero ella me sacó plática
y le habló por teléfono para decirle que yo andaba ahí.

(No! It was his wife! He was doing his own thing, but she started chatting with me
and she called him to tell him that I was there.)

PERSON 2
¡Ay, no, no! ¡Qué horror! ¡Pobre de ti!
(Oh, no, no! That’s terrible! Poor you!)

PERSON 1
Ya sé. Fingí que me dio gusto verlos, platicamos un rato y por fin se fueron.
(I know. I pretended I was happy to see them, we chatted for a while, and they finally left.)

So, what’s the pattern here?

When it’s he or she, regardless of whether the verb itself ends in -AR, -ER, or -IR, the conjugation will always be Ó, with an accent mark.

  • O sea, él te saludó. (So, he greeted you.)
    • saludar (to greet) >> saludó (s/he greeted)
  • Ella me sacó plática y le habló por teléfono. (She started chatting with me and she called him.) 
    • sacar plática (to start chatting) >> sacó plática (s/he started chatting) —This is a Mexican expression that translates literally into “to take a chat out”.
    • hablar (to talk, to call) >> habló (s/he talked, s/he called)

Now, what happens when it’s, for example, both a he and a she (in other words, they)? Es muy sencillo (It’s pretty simple): 

  • If the verb ends in -AR, the conjugation will be -ARON
    • Mi exjefe y su esposa me saludaron. (My former boss and his wife greeted me.)
      • saludar (to greet) >> saludaron (they greeted)
    • Other examples:
      • hablar (to talk, to call) >> hablaron (they talked, they called)
      • sacar plática (to start chatting) >> sacaron plática (they started chatting)
  • If the verb ends in -ER or -IR, the conjugation will be -IERON
    • ¿Te vieron? (Did they see you?)
      • ver (to see) >> vieron (they saw)
    • Other examples:
      • entender (to understand) >> entendieron (they understood)
      • correr (to run) >> corrieron (they ran)
      • fingir (to pretend) >> fingieron (they pretended)

First & second-person plural: nosotras / nosotros, ustedes

PERSON 2
¡Híjole! ¡Qué incómodo!
(Jesus! How awkward!)

PERSON 1
Sí, la verdad que sí. Me hubiera gustado ir acompañada,
como aquella vez que nos encontramos a tu ex.

(Yes, it truly was. I would’ve loved to have been with someone else,
like that time we ran into your ex.)

PERSON 2
Ay, ni me lo recuerdes.
(Oh, don’t remind me of that.)

PERSON 1
No estuvo tan mal. Se portó decente.
(It wasn’t that bad. He behaved decently.)

PERSON 2
O sea, sí, pero ya sabes que no puedo verlo ni en pintura.
Sí fue incómodo; más porque él y tú se pusieron a platicar.

(Well, yes, but you know I can’t stand him.
It was really uncomfortable, even more so because you guys started chatting.)

PERSON 1
¡Ay, no exageres! Solo quise ser cordial. No es como que hablamos mucho.
(Oh, don’t exaggerate! I just wanted to be friendly. It’s not like we talked a lot.) 

PERSON 2
¡¿Cómo no?! Sí hablaron un buen rato, y yo nomás te hacía señas para irnos.
(What are you saying?! You guys chatted for a while, and I was just making gestures for us to leave.)

PERSON 1
Bueno, me hubiera gustado que alguien me hiciera señas
cuando me encontré a mi exjefe.

(Well, I would’ve loved it if someone made gestures
when I ran into my former boss.)

PERSON 2
A todo esto, ¿por qué trataste de esconderte?
(By the way, why did you try to hide?)

PERSON 1
¡Ay! ¿A poco ya se te olvidó que no terminé muy bien con mi exjefe?
(Oh! Did you really forget I didn’t end in the nicest of terms with my former boss?)

PERSON 2
Sí, se me olvidó. Fue hace mucho. ¿Por qué fue?
(Yes, I did forget. It was so long ago. Why was it?)

PERSON 1
Nunca nos entendimos.
(We never understood one another.)

So, what’s the pattern when it comes to nosotras / nosotros? It’s also very straightforward:

  • If it’s a verb ending in -AR, the conjugation is -AMOS
    • Como aquella vez que nos encontramos a tu ex. (Like that time we ran into your ex.)
    • No es como que hablamos mucho. (We didn’t speak that much.)
  • If the verb ends in -ER or -IR, the conjugation is -IMOS
    • Nunca nos entendimos. (We never understood one another.)
      • entender (to understand) >> entendimos (we understood)
    • Other examples:
      • correr (to run) >> corrimos (we ran)
      • dormir (to sleep) >> dormimos (we slept)
      • fingir (to pretend) >> fingimos (we pretended)

Now, when we’re talking about the plural version of you (ustedes), the conjugation is exactly the same as it is for ellas / ellos.

Recap

So, as a quick recap, here’s a conjugation table for you:

Pronoun-AR-ER-IR
Yoencontréentendífingí
encontrasteentendistefingiste
Ella & Élencontróentendiófingió
Nosotras / Nosotrosencontramosentendimosfingimos
Ustedesencontraronentendieronfingieron
Ellas / Ellosencontraronentendieronfingieron

En una conversación (In a conversation), you will hardly remember this table fast enough. Therefore, learning it by heart might be a bit futile. It’s best if you learn chunks in context, like the sort of story you listened to in this video or any conversation you listen to in Spanish in real life, in the other videos on our channel, or podcasts and more.

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