The Spanish language has 9 different ways to express the past, and the preterite tense is one of the most important to learn. In many ways, the Spanish preterite tense is the most direct translation of the English simple past tense.
However – this isn’t a rule at all, rather more like a general guideline to follow if you don’t have any better guesses.
So today, we’ll be going over how to conjugate -ir verbs in the Spanish preterite tense. It’s one of the trickier Spanish verb forms to work with, so that’s why you have an entire article dedicated to it. Let’s get started:
How To Conjugate
The first step to learning how to use this -ir conjugation is practicing how to actually form the verbs. Just like in other tenses, to form the Spanish preterite tense, you start by removing the -ir ending, and then by substituting a new ending based on the subject.
Here’s a helpful chart of the IR preterite tense conjugations:
|Subject||Verb Partir (To split)|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Partió|
|Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes||Partieron|
For Spanish verbs in the preterite tense, make sure you pay close attention to the accent mark! The first person, the third person singular, and the second person formal singular all use accent marks in the Spanish preterite tense.
This pattern is the same for all regular verbs in the preterite tense. Here are some examples to see the -ir conjugation in context.
- ¿Quién escribió esto el la pizarra? – Who wrote this on the board?
- Yo viví en Japón por tres años. – I lived in Japan for three years.
- Ellos compartieron el postre. – They shared the dessert.
As you can see here, the Spanish preterite tense for regular verbs isn’t very difficult. The problem comes in the fact that there are many irregular verbs for the -ir conjugation. Let’s look at those categories now:
In general, most irregular verbs can be divided into different categories. This means that there are irregular verbs for the -ir conjugation, but many of them (but not all) follow a similar pattern.
So while you might need to memorize a couple of extra irregular verbs, for the most part, you just need to remember irregular verb categories. Here are a few:
If a Spanish verb ends in -cir, it’s most likely going to be irregular in almost every verb tense. This is also true for the Spanish preterite tense.
Verbs like conducir will follow this pattern:
|Subject||Verb Conducir (To drive)|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Condujo|
|Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes||Condujeron|
Here, instead of using a C at the end, you’ll use the letter J for this IR conjugation. Though you should note that the yo form, the él / ella / usted form, and the ellos / ellas / ustedes form are extra irregular.
In these forms, they don’t have an accent mark and the ending is different. Instead of condují, it should be conduje.
Here is a short list of Spanish verbs that also follow this pattern:
Ir and Ser
While Ser isn’t an -IR verb, it does have the same conjugation in the Spanish Preterite tense as Ir. This may seem a bit strange at first, but you’ll get used to it! Here are the conjugations for these two verbs in the preterite:
|Subject||Verbs Ir (To drive) & Ser (To Be)|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Fue|
|Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes||Fueron|
These are completely irregular in every verb form, so you’ll just have to memorize them. Luckily, since they are such common words, you’ll get a lot of practice! To get a headstart, check out the following examples:
- Yo fui a tu casa esta tarde. – I went to your house this afternoon.
- ¿Fueron ustedes al baile? – Did you all go to the dance?
- La primera vez fue en 2011. – The first time was in 2011.
- Ayer fue el primer día de agosto. – Yesterday was the first day of August.
Morir and Dormir
Morir and Dormir follow a similar pattern of irregularity in the preterite tense because they both have a form change in the él / ella / usted form and the ellos / ellas / ustedes form.
|Subject||Verb Morir (To die)|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Murió|
|Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes||Murieron|
As you can see, in the third person for both singular and plural, the O changes to a U. Luckily, there aren’t many verbs that follow this pattern, but some of the ones that do are very common, so it’s important to keep an eye out on this -ir conjugation.
e – i
The last pattern for IR conjugation irregular verbs are ones that also change when conjugated in the third person. As you can see, there are a lot of form changes for the third person in the preterite tense.
|Subject||Verb Pedir (To ask / request)|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Pidió|
|Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes||Pidieron|
Just like the verbs that change from O to U, this type of irregular verb changes from E to I. Many different verbs follow this pattern, so you’ll have to be careful. Here are some examples:
When To Use the Preterite Tense
Now that you’ve mastered how to form all of these IR verbs in the preterite tense, it’s time to look at how to use them. There are a lot of differences between the preterite tense and the imperfect tense (the other most common tense for the past).
The best thing to do is to go over individual contexts. This way, when you don’t know which form to use, you can match the context you want to one of these rules.
If an action was completed, then you use the preterite tense. This is the most basic usage. This means that if you have started an action and completed it, then you would use the preterite. Here are some examples:
- Fui al supermercado a comprar tomates. – I went to the supermarket to buy tomatoes.
- José decidió estudiar medicina. – Jose decided to study Medicine.
- Ellas compitieron en un torneo. – They competed in a tournament.
In each of these examples, the main action has a clear ending point. In the first one, the person left to go to the store, and that leaving is a completed action.
You’ll see this happen all the time, so it’s one of the more important ones to keep in mind.
Specific Dates and Times
If you ever want to say specifically when something happened in the past, you’ll almost always use the preterite tense. This also applies to specifying durations of time. Here are some clear examples:
- Las elecciones fueron en 2020. – The elections were in 2020.
- Él condujo 5 horas sin parar. – He drove for hours without stopping.
- Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz escribió sus obras en el siglo XVII. – Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz wrote her works in 17th century.
So if you need to mention a specific time or time frame, then you can conjugate IR verbs in the preterite tense
This is where the imperfect tense and the preterite tense often are seen together in Spanish grammar. If you have an ongoing action that is interrupted, then the interruption is in the preterite tense. This is one of the best contexts to start understanding the preterite tense conceptually.
Here are some examples:
- Ella estaba estudiando cuando se durmió. – She was studying when she fell asleep.
- Nosotros estábamos discutiendo cuando se fue. – We were arguing when he left.
- Llovía y decidió hacerse un té. – It was raining and he decided to make tea.
In each of these examples, something was happening that was interrupted by an action in the preterite tense. You can also think of the imperfect tense as giving background information and the preterite tense is the most important action of the sentence.
Finally, this is connected to the idea of using the preterite tense when using specific times. If you use an adverb that mentions a timeframe, then it should trigger the use of the preterite tense.
Here is a list of adverbs that should signal to you that you’ll most likely need to use the preterite:
- Ayer (Yesterday)
- Entonces (Then)
- En aquel momento (At that moment)
- La semana pasada (last week)
- Anoche (last night)
- El otro día (the other day)
So if you see any of these phrases in a sentence, this should be a red flag that you’re probably going to need to conjugate those IR verbs in the preterite tense.
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