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Spanish past tense made easy

Updated on March 23, 2012

Use the concept of 'tagging' to simplify the preterite tense

There are many irregular verbs in Spanish, especially in the preterite (past) tense. These can cause a student lots of headaches but there is an easier way! It's all about how you mentally map or 'tag' each verb as you learn it. This means that when you learn a new verb you do not just learn its meaning but also a set of tags to identify in which of its forms there will be irregularities. Most of the times the irregularities follow patterns, which means they are not really irregular. They just do not follow the pattern of the most standard ar, er, and ir verbs, such as hablar, comer, and vivir.

The preterite tense

There are several past tenses in Spanish, but the most difficult to form is the preterite because there are many changes that occur in the verbs and this is where tagging comes to the rescue. All verbs in the Spanish language can be placed into six groups when it comes to the preterite. The endings are the same for all but two of them. The groups are:

1. Regular verbs

2. Totally irregular

3. Semi-irregular

4. Double vowel (a type of semi-irregular)

5. Car/gar/zar

6. Full stem change

Basic endings

The basic rule for all groups except for 2 and 6 (totally irregular and stem changing) is use the following endings:

For -ar verbs--> é, aste, ó, amos, asteis, aron

For -er and -ir verbs --> í, iste ió, imos, isteis, ieron

Note: The written accent marks are extremely important as they can change a verb from present to past tense. For example, hablo (1st person present) to habló (3rd person preterite).

The rules of each group

1. Regular verbs

These are the most basic and require only taking the ar/er/ir off of the end and replacing it with the basic endings above. Verbs that have stem changes in the present do not also have them here. This is why it is important to tag the verb with the necessary information. For example, acostar is a 'zapato' in present (See article "Learning Spanish verbs the easy way") but has no other tags designating irregularities in the preterite or other forms.

2. Totally irregular

There are a small number of these, and three of them are the same totally irregular verbs already encountered in the present tense. They are ir, ser, and dar.

Ir and ser share a single form and must be differentiated only though context. The form is:

Fui, fuiste, fue, fuimos, fuisteis, fueron

If we examine just the endings to compare them to the basic endings they are:

i, iste, e, imos, isteis, eron

The only differences are the lack of written accent on the yo form, the e for 3rd person singular and the missing i in eron.

The verb dar (and sometimes ver) is considered irregular but its endings are not really irregular except that they lack written accents. The problem with dar is that is should be an -ar verb but it uses the -er endings. It has an identity issue or sorts. Dar should be tagged "yo-oy in present" and "er in preterite" (and another for subjunctive--coming soon!). Dar in the preterite is:

Di, diste, dio, dimos, disteis, dieron

The endings are i, iste, io, imos, isteis, ieron, which are the basic endings for er/ir verbs, minus the written accent on the 1st and 3rd person singular.

3. Semi-irregular

These verbs use the basic endings are are only irregular in the 3rd person forms (singular and plural). These are always verbs that are "zapatos" in the present, and while normally the "zapato" rule only applies to present tense, verbs in this group take part of that change. Verbs that are o-->ue in present become o-->u in the preterite. Likewise those that are e-->ie become e-->i and those that are e--->i stay that way. Not all stem changing (zapatos) verbs are effected in the preterite. These are the exception to the rule and it is a finite list. Some include:

Dormir, morir, pedir, competir, conseguir, divertirse, despedir, mentir, preferir, seguir, servir, sentir, repetir, vestir

It is very useful to learn which verbs are semi-irregular because they carry the same change in the gerund (also called present participle) and the 1st person plural of the present subjunctive.

Examples of tags: Dormir (o-->ue in present, o--> in 3rd person of preterite, gerund, and 1st and second person plural of present subjunctive). The affected forms are:

present: duermo, duermes, duerme, duermen (dormimos and dormís are not affected)

preterit: durmió, durmieron

gerund: durmiendo

present subjunctive: durmamos, durmáis

4. Double vowel (semi-irregular)

This group is like the previous in that it has changes in the 3rd person singular and plural and also these changes occur in the gerund (present participle), but not the subjunctive. The other change from the basic regular verbs is that all forms except the 3rd person plural require written accents in order to break the diphthong (thus forcing you to pronounce each vowel as a separate syllable).

For verbs whose infinitive forms ending in the vowel combinations oi, ae, ui, and ee, the i changes to a y to avoid three vowels in a row. Note: ar verbs are never affected even if there is a double vowel such as ea (as in broncear, crear, criar).

Example, leer ("double vowel") leí, leíste, leyó, leímos, leísteis, leyeron

Other verbs like this are:

destruir, construir, influir, destruir, huir, oír, caer, creer

5. Car/gar/zar

The verbs in this group all end in the combinations car, gar, or zar (sacar, jugar, alzar). The change only occurs in the person singular of the preterite but will show up again in the present subjunctive.

The basic endings are used and the changes are in spelling only. They are c-->qu, g-->gu, z-->c (in the yo form only)

sacar ("car/gar/zar" in present and present subjunctive): saqué, sacaste, sacó, etc.

jugar ("car/gar/zar" in present and present subjunctive): jugué, jugaste, jugó, etc.

alzar ("car/gar/zar" in present and present subjunctive): alcé, alzaste, alzó, etc.

6. Full stem change

The verbs in this group have major changes to the stem (or root) that go beyond changing a vowel in one or two forms. These affect all persons and mostly have consonant changes also. They also do not use the basic endings. They have their own, slightly different endings and never use written accent marks. The special endings apply to all the verbs in this group whether they are ar, er, or ir. These endings are:

e, iste, o, imos, isteis, *ieron (becomes eron in verbs ending in a j)

Example: tener ("stem change in preterite and imperfect subjunctive"--> tuv

To make the preterite forms use 'tuv' and put the special endings on, thus:

tuve, tuviste, tuvo, tuvimos, tuvisteis, tuvieron

The stem changes:


estar --> estuv

andar--> anduv

poner --> pus

poder--> pud

haber--> hub

saber --> sup

caber--> cup

venir--> vin

hacer-->hic *hiz in 3rd person singular

querer--> quis

decir--> dij

traducir--> traduj

traer--> traj


Learn the groups!

By learning the groupings and some common rules you will learn Spanish more easily. Each time you learn a new verb make sure you know what to tag it and learn it just as you would its meaning. Then don't look back!


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    • donmanual profile image

      donmanual 5 years ago from Playa del Carmen, Mexico

      Fascinating photo!!!