How to use and conjugate
the Spanish pretérito indefinido

how to use and conjugate the spanish preterito indefinido

Are you confused about the use and conjugation of Spanish past tenses? Do you want to know how to translate the Spanish pretérito indefinido to English? Are you ready to learn how to use and conjugate the Spanish pretérito indefinido?

If you are looking for a clear explanation of pretérito indefinido and the role it plays in the universe of Spanish past tenses, you have come to the right place.

But first of all, let me tell you something:  don’t worry, you are not alone. I see the panic on my students’ faces every time we introduce past tenses in class for the first time.

The idea of Spanish past tenses being a difficult and confusing matter is widely spread amongst Spanish learners. But I disagree. It is just a topic that needs to be explained in an easy and comprehensible way because unfortunately there is no one-to-one translation between Spanish and English past tenses.

As my students always hear me say, it is all about context.

An overview of Spanish past tenses 

Before studying each Spanish past tense individually and using them in combination, it is important to have a quick overview.

There are 3 + 1 Spanish past tenses. I say +1 because one can be avoided or changed to another past tense in most of the cases. So let’s keep it as a bonus for when we have mastered the 3 main past tenses.

Each past tense has its own name (useful when learning grammar and looking for exercises) but all of them start with the same word: pretérito. Pretérito means ‘past’ in Spanish grammar.

Therefore, the Spanish past tenses are: 

⇒ pretérito perfecto, 

⇒pretérito indefinido and

⇒pretérito imperfecto

I know that at this point the only question you have on your mind is: ‘Ok, but what is that in English?’ Sorry, but I have some bad news for you: as I said before, there is no direct translation to English past tenses. It will depend on the context.

But it’s not all bad news, instead of trying to find translations from one language to another, we can look at the usage of the past tenses and REALLY understand:

To choose the right past tense, you have to consider when the action took place (Was it today or yesterday? Was it this week or last week?) and also if you want to talk about main actions or descriptions.

As a very general rule, we use pretérito perfecto and pretérito indefinido for actions in the past while we use pretérito imperfecto for descriptions of people, places, objects, and situations in the past.

The best advice I can give to you to learn past tenses: do it step by step.

In this article, we will focus on the use and conjugation of the pretérito indefinido. 

Let’s start!

How to conjugate the Spanish pretérito indefinido

The Spanish Pretérito indefinido is one of the 3+1 Spanish past tenses. Its conjugation is one of the most complicated in Spanish, as there are a lot of irregular verbs in the conjugation of this past tense.

It is challenging, but I always encourage my students to think that any conjugation will be easier after this 🙂

Let’s have a closer look at the regular and irregular conjugation of the Spanish pretérito indefinido:

Regular conjugation РSpanish pret̩rito indefinido

The Spanish pretérito indefinido is formed by taking the infinitive, removing the -ar, -er, -ir and adding a specific ending for each person:

how to use and conjugate the spanish preterito indefinido

Spanish pretérito indefinido regular conjugation

For example:

how to use and conjugate the spanish preterito indefinido

Spanish pretérito indefinido example of regular conjugation

Irregular conjugation РSpanish pret̩rito indefinido

As I mentioned before, the Spanish pretérito indefinido has a lot of irregularities in its conjugation. The easiest way to learn them is to divide them into 3 groups:

⇒ Group 1: 100% Irregular verbs – Spanish pretérito indefinido

These verbs are completely irregular, so they don’t follow any pattern. There are only three completely irregular verbs in the pretérito indefinido:

how to use and conjugate the spanish preterito indefinido

Spanish pretérito indefinido irregular verbs

⇒ Group 2: Irregular stem – Spanish pretérito indefinido

There is a group of verbs that are conjugated with an irregular stem in the pretérito indefinido. To conjugate them, we need to change the stem from the infinitive for a different stem (according to each verb). All verbs in this group are conjugated with the same endings, doesn’t matter if their infinitive ends with -ar, -er or -ir.

The most frequent verbs in this group are:

how to use and conjugate the spanish pretérito indefinido

Spanish pretérito indefinido irregular verbs

For example:

Yo estuve
Tú estuviste
Él / Ella estuvo
Nosotros/as estuvimos
Vosotros/as estuvisteis
Ellos / Ellas estuvieron
Yo hice
Tú hiciste
Él / Ella hizo
Nosotros/as hicimos
Vosotros/as hicisteis
Ellos / Ellas hicieron
Yo quise
Tú quisiste
Él / Ella quiso
Nosotros/as quisimos
Vosotros/as quisisteis
Ellos / Ellas quisieron

There is an extra irregularity in this group. When the irregular stem end with J, the ending for «ellos – ellas» is «-eron» instead of «-ieron». For example:

Decir – Dij – Ellos dijeron
Conducir – Conduj – Ellos condujeron
Traer – Traj- Ellos trajeron

⇒ Group 3: Third person irregular verbs – Spanish pretérito indefinido

The third and last group is for those verbs which are irregular only in the third person (̩l, ella Рellos, ellas) This change affects also the second person formal (usted, ustedes). These verbs present a stem vowel change. Check it in the picture:

how to use and conjugate the spanish preterito indefinido

Spanish pretérito indefinido irregular verbs

For example:

Yo me vestí
Tú te vestiste
Él / Ella se vistió
Nosotros/as nos vestimos
Vosotros/as os vestisteis
Ellos / Ellas  se vistieron
Yo dormí
Tú dormiste
Él / Ella durmió
Nosotros dormimos
Vosotros dormisteis
Ellos / Ellas  durmieron
Yo leí
Tú leiste
Él / Ella leyó
Nosotros leimos
Vosotros leísteis
Ellos / Ellas leyeron

How to use the Spanish pretérito indefinido

⇒ The pretérito indefinido is used in Spanish to express actions that people did or happened during a specific and finished period. What is a finished period? Yesterday, last week, last month, in 2010…

We use pretérito indefinido after signal words like:

how to use and conjugate the spanish preterito indefinido

Check these examples:

Ayer trabajé desde las siete de la mañana hasta las seis de la tarde.

La semana pasada mi Familia y yo visitamos muchos monumentos.

En 2011 Juan se mudó a Sevilla.

⇒ We also use pretérito indefinido to talk about the number of times that something happened during a specific and finished period. For example:

El año pasado fui al cine quince veces.

El mes pasado vi dos películas en el cine.

⇒ Finally, in opposition to the pretérito imperfecto, we use the pretérito indefinido to talk about main actions while we use imperfecto to express  the context for those actions.  The pretérito imperfecto gives the details of what was happening when something else happened.  Then, we express the context by using the pretérito imperfecto while the main action is expressed using the pretérito indefinido. For example:

Ayer, cuando volvía a casa me encontré a mi amiga Ana.

El domingo por la tarde, cuando salía de casa sonó el teléfono. 

In this way, we can also say that the action expressed using pretérito indefinido interrupts another action, which is expressed using imperfecto.

If you want to know more about pretérito imperfecto I wrote a post about it 🙂

Download 23 easy sentences to practice Spanish pretérito indefinido

Now you have all the information about how to conjugate and use the Spanish pretérito indefinido. Before reading and learning about other past tenses like the pretérito perfecto and imperfecto I strongly recommend you to practise. It will help you to take in all this new information and really understand.

I have created 23 easy sentences for you to practise the use of the Spanish pretérito indefinido. Download the worksheet below!

Special bonus! The best Spanish song to practice the pretérito indefinido

Who wrote this post? 

Hello! We are CactusBCN Languages, a Spanish language school located in Barcelona.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you’ll love learning Spanish with us.

The school was founded and is run by two enthusiastic teachers: Marta and Verónica. We were teaching Spanish around the world for a few years and when we came back to Spain, we decided to start our own school. It is a small local business and we like it like that 🙂 We work with small groups because we like to get to know all our students and design personalized lessons.

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