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AlwaysSpanish is Retiring!

After a long awkward silence, here's something to break the ice – all over again. I can totally see why you should be upset to see no action from the Burro for over a month now, but trust me, your wait was all worth it. The news here is that your beloved Burro has just moved into a brand new home – one that's a whole lot richer, swankier, and easier to live in. I'm talking about PeppyBurro. That's the name of the new website! Isn't that cool? At least it tells you all about the Burro's pepped up temperament right off the bat, right? This post is not about Spanish-learning tricks (although I will drop in a couple out of habit, I guess) or grammar lessons. This one's all about our new home!

The Witchcraft Of Spanish Vocabulary

The very first step to conquering a language is to tame its vocabulary. And sadly, that's the part that puts off most novice learners because memorizing strange-sounding words is too darn boring! A never-ending chant of rote rehearsal and a nervous prayer can see you through an upcoming test, but the process just won't cut it if your goal is to actually use the language in the street. It's a mystery how this incredibly inefficient method has survived this long and still continues to be perpetuated by schools and educators around the world. So is there any nirvana around this assault of monotony in our miserable lives? Anything that could make learning foreign words less painful?

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Always Spanish has retired. Please visit the new blog at for all future articles.

The Spanish Preterit: Once And For All

Past actions in the Spanish language can be expressed in two ways depending on whether they were completed once for all or otherwise. Spanish grammar categorizes them as the preterit and the imperfect. While the imperfect handles all habitual, continuous, or repetitive actions and verbs denoting a state of being, preterit covers pretty much whatever is left – actions that were performed and also concluded well within the past. This article delves into the latter and tries to make life easier for those of you who are still struggling to remember and recall the preterit conjugations. Rest assured, they only appear scary.

So what is preterite again?

In simpler terms, preterit is the tense used in Spanish, as well as other Romance tongues, for past actions that are seen as completed. Completion here implies that the event had a definite beginning and an equally definite end. This is in sharp contrast to the imperfect tense where there is no such well-defined completion, hence the name.

Some examples illustrating this tense:

  • I ate a taco last night (preterit because I started and finished eating well within last night)
  • I ate tacos when I was in Mexico (imperfect because I am implying eating as a habitual action in the past; I used to eat tacos when I was in Mexico)
  • She was beautiful (imperfect because being beautiful is a state of being, a characteristic, a trait and the trait hasn’t been implied to have changed in the past; this can also be rendered as “she used to be beautiful,” a tell-tale sign of the imperfect tense)
  • Juan spoke for 5 hours (preterit because the act of speaking did end after 5 hours)
  • It began to rain in the evening (preterite because even though the rain could have lasted indefinitely, the event in question – the beginning of rain – had a specific time of occurrence, evening)
  • Ana ran through the woods (preterit because Ana ran only once and this wasn’t a repetitive or habitual action)

So, we see how preterit is in sharp contrast to the imperfect tense in Spanish when it comes to past actions. And it is important that we recall these differences while communicating in Spanish in order to sound correct and appropriate. Let’s see how the preterit conjugations work in Spanish.

Basically, regular verbs – verbs that follow the standard conjugation pattern, such as hablar, vivir, beber, etc. – follow either of the two conjugation rules depending on whether they end in -ar or otherwise. All regular verbs with the -ar ending conjugate as below (illustrated using hablar as example):

-é (hablé I spoke)

-aste (hablaste you spoke)

-ó (habló he/she/it spoke)

-amos (hablamos we spoke)

-aron (hablaron they spoke)

The regular -ir and -er verbs follow a slightly similar pattern with some minor differences. Here’s the conjugation using beber as example:

-í (bebí I drank)

-iste (bebiste you drank)

-ió (bebió he/she/it drank)

-imos (bebimos we drank)

-ieron (bebieron they drank)

Alright, enough of that dead-beat grammar dope; now where’s the trick? Don’t tell me you got to memorize the whole shebang like the rest of my class does...hell, no! Relax, this article wouldn’t be here if that’s what you were expected to do. So, yes, there is a mnemonic just for you; actually, more than one.

Trick to remember the -ar conjugation

First of all, I’d recommend that you stop giving a dead rat’s ass about what this tense is called. Knowing that definitely completed actions in the past are known in Spanish grammar as preterite is not going to serve you one bit during your conversations with them natives. What you must remember, however, is the conjugated endings and the fact that these endings are to be used when discussing past actions that were completed for sure. Doest’t matter if they call it preterit or whatever.

Yesterday, I ate a tasty donut
I ate tasty donuts...
Photo credit: Bev Sykes licensed CC BY 2.0
So, what’s the trick to remember the endings? Let’s start with singular subjects. We have seen the conjugation pattern for singular subjects has 3 endings for each person, i.e., -é (I), -aste (you), and -ó (he/she/it). Here’s a mnemonic to remember this sequence of three verb endings:

Yesterday, I ate a tasty donut

Isn’t this a delicious sentence to remember? Just the very thought makes me drool! So, what’s the trick here? Well, for starters, did you notice the general tense of this statement? It’s very clear that my action (of eating that donut) was performed once and completed at a specific point in time in the past, i.e., yesterday. What does this tell you about the tense? Yes, the preterit!

My friends drank rum
...while they had bottles of rum!
Photo credit: Simon Law licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
Now imagine the bold portions in their exact sequence. Rings a bell? No? Well, don’t they rhyme with the singular conjugated endings for the -ar verbs we saw above? Look again:

ate – -é

tasty – -aste

donut – -ó

I hope the memory hook has driven home now. As for the plurals, the first person (we) conjugation is a no-brainer as it’s exactly the same as the one in the simple present tense. So, hablamos could mean both “we speak” and “we spoke”. Context is your friend. The third person ending, -aron, rhymes with ron, the Spanish for “rum”. Now, extend the donut visual to include your friends who had rum with their donuts. this should easily fit in with the overall image and help you recall the entire preterit table for -ar verbs comfortably.

Tricks for -ir and -er verbs

The conjugations for these verbs are dominated by the letter, “i” with “a” taking a backseat. For the memory hook this time, try having pistachios instead of donuts. Confused?

Yesterday, I ate pistachios

Notice how the bold portions rhyme with the singular subject -er/-ir endings in the conjugation table:

I – -í

pistachios – -iste

pistachios – -ió

As for the plurals, the trick almost remains the same as that for them -ar verbs. The “we” form remains the same as the “we” form present indicative conjugation for -ir verbs, e.g., vivimos could stand for either “we live” or “we lived”. The “they” form for -ir verbs is also same as that in -ar conjugation with a slight difference in the “a” being replaced by “ie”.

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  1. This article just saved me a ton of frustration thank you ever so much !

  2. Super glad to have been useful. Wish you all the best with your Spanish, Kay!

  3. Thanks for the tip. I must confess, I find it odd that you've ignored an entire set of conjugations with second person plural. I guess that's another good tip tho' - if you can't make it fit your prescribed mnemonic, just ignore it!

  4. Conjugations don't have to fit mnemonics...mnemonics have to fit conjugations. It's unfortunate that you think the way you do but coming up with a mnemonic for anything under the sun is a cinch, really. That being said, this website, despite attempting to be neutral to some extent, focuses primarily on Latin American Spanish where a majority of the population doesn't use the informal second person plural conjugation in either speech or writing. That's why it wasn't covered. As said, you are free to device your own (believe me, it's easy).


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