8.1 Irregular Verbs in the Preterite Tense: Part 1

Spanish has many irregular verb forms in the preterite. Memorizing these so that you can quickly recognize them will speed up the translation process.

Two verbs have identical irregular preterite forms.

Ir Ser
yo fui fui
fuiste fuiste
él, Ella, Ud. fue fue
Nosotros fuimos fuimos
Vosotros fuisteis fuisteis
ellos, ellas, Uds. fueron fueron 

Context always clarifies the meaning. Fui con Uds. must mean “I went with you,” and not “I was with you,” because estar would be used in the latter case to express location. Los niños fueron buenos necessarily means “The children were good,” because the meaning with the verb ir does not make sense.

Some common irregular preterites may be grouped together by the similarities in their stem. Note that the endings (-e, -iste, -o, -imos,- isteis, -ieron) of all irregular preterites below and in following sections are identical to each other. They do not have accent marks.

Estar tener andar (To walk)
yo estuve tuve  anduve
estuviste tuviste anduviste
él, Ella, Ud. estuvo tuvo    anduvo
Nosotros estuvimos tuvimos  anduvimos
Vosotros estuvisteis  tuvisteis  anduvisteis
ellos, ellas, Uds. estuvieron tuvieron  anduvieron

Three irregular verbs that switch the vowel of their root to -i follow:

venir hacer querer
yo vine hice quise
viniste hiciste  quisiste
él, Ella, Ud. vino hizo* quiso
Nosotros vinimos hicimos quisimos
Vosotros vinisteis hicisteis quisisteis
ellos, ellas, Uds. vinieron hicieron quisieron

*The third person singular of hacer must change the c to z to preserve the “soft” sound of the s.

Besides its meaning referring to worth of value (Vale mucho. [It’s worth a lot.]), valer is also used in the third person singular in various expressions, especially in Spain:

¿Vale? Is that all right? Okay?
Eso no vale. That’s no good.
Más vale así. It’s better that (this) way.
Más vale tarde que nunca. Better late than never.

Valer la pena is the most commonly used expression with the verb valer.

Esta película vale la pena. This film is worthwhile.
Valió la pena asistir. It was worthwhile to attend.

Vocabulario básico 

Verbos:

andar- to walk, to go
aplazar- to postpone
aterrizar- to land
guardar- to save (seat), to guard, to keep
parar- to stop
prestar- to lend, to loan
prometer- to promise
regalar- to give as a gift (cognate: to regale)

Sustantivos:

el asiento- seat
el balneario- beach resort
el bosque- woods, forest
el camión- truck
la cárcel- jail (cognate: incarcerate)
la cirugía- surgery
la flor- flower
el/la ladrón/-ona- thief
la ley- law
el paisaje- countryside, landscape
la parada- stop
el pasaje- ticket, passage
el puesto- place (in line), position (job), stand (where something is sold)
la sala de espera- waiting room

Adjetivo:

suscitado- ensuing, raised

Expresiones:

con anticipación- ahead of time
estar de vacaciones- to be on vacation
guardar cama- to stay in bed
hacer un viaje- to take a trip
valer la pena (valgo)- to be worthwhile

Last revised on June 25, 2021.

8.2 Irregular Verbs in the Preterite Tense: Part 2

More irregular verbs in Spanish include those that take a j in the stem. It is a regular feature of Spanish that the combination jie never occurs. Therefore only –eron, not ieron follows for the third-person plural forms:

decir traer Traducir*
yo dije traje  traduje
dijiste trajiste tradujiste
él, Ella, Ud. dijo trajo tradujo
Nosotros dijimos trajimos  tradujimos
Vosotros dijisteis  trajisteis  tradujisteis
ellos, ellas, Uds. dijeron trajeron  tradujeron

*All verbs ending in –ucir have the same preterite ending. These include such common verbs as producir (“to produce”), conducir (“to drive), reducir (“to reduce”) and almost all other verbs ending in “-duce” in English.

The verb dar is irregular only because it is an –ar verb that takes the endings for a regular –er or –ir verb.

Dar
YO di
diste
ÉL, ELLA, UD. dio
NOSOTROS dimos
VOSOTROS disteis 
ELLOS, ELLAS, UDS. dieron

Pay special attention so as not to confuse the preterite tense forms of poner and poder.
These forms should be distinguishable, as poder retains the d of the infinitive. In the preterite of poner, e.g, puse, one can see that the cognate “to position” or “to posit” becomes more evident.

poner poder
yo puse pude 
pusiste pudiste
él, Ella, Ud. puso pudo   
Nosotros pusimos pudimos 
Vosotros pusisteis  pudisteis 
ellos, ellas, Uds. pusieron pudieron 

Additional verbs that change the stem to a u are:

saber haber
yo supe
supiste
él, Ella, Ud. supo hubo   
Nosotros supimos
Vosotros supisteis   
ellos, ellas, Uds. supieron

Hubo is the preterite tense of the impersonal hay (“there is/there are”), but often denotes an action or event and may have a different translation:

Hubo un golpe de estado en Chile en 1973.

There was a coup d’état in Chile in 1973.
A coup d’état occurred (happened) in Chile in 1973.

 

Last revised on June 16, 2021.

8.3 Other Verbs Used to Express “To Be”

Besides ser and estar (as well as certain idioms with tener and weather expressions with hacer), several other common verbs at times may translate as “to be.” Three of these, already seen with other meanings, are quedar(se), seguir and encontrarse. (A fourth, llevar, will be studied in section 10.2).

Like estar, quedar(se) is used to express a “resultant state” (state or condition resulting from an action), but is stronger than estar:

Mi papá estuvo furioso al saber las noticias.

Mi papá (se) quedó furioso al saber las noticias.

 

 

My dad was furious upon hearing the news.

When the subject is human, quedar may also mean “to be”:

Tomás se quedó satisfecho con los resultados. Tomás was satisfied with the results.

When a form of “to stay” or “to remain” does not sound like the best translation or does not make sense in context, chances are that a form of “to be” is the best way to render the Spanish. In the above case, the only way to differentiate between estuvo and (se) quedó if you are translating to English is to underline se quedó to show that it is the more emphatic of the two.

Quedar may also express location when the subject is not human:

Quetzaltenango, la segunda ciudad de Guatemala, queda en el oeste del país. Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala, is in the west of the country.

The use of quedar versus quedarse is subject to many subtleties and regional variations that rarely if ever affect its translation for “to be.”

Encontrarse may also express location, regardless of whether the subject is human or not.

-¿Dónde te encuentras ahora mismo? “Where are you right now?”
Varios glaciares se encuentran en el sur de Chile. Several glaciers are in the south of Chile.

Several glaciers are found in the south of Chile.

Several glaciers are located (situated) in the south of Chile.

Encontrarse may also express a state of health:

-¿Cómo te encuentras hoy? “How are you today?”
-Me encuentro muy bien. ¿Y tú? “I’m very well. And you?”

Seguir, especially when followed by an adjective or a location, often has the meaning of “to be” + “still”:

-¿Elsa sigue enferma? “Is Elsa still sick?”
-Sí, sigue en el hospital. “Yes, she’s still in the hospital.”

“Yes, she remains in the hospital.”

Although there are cases when these verbs may be translated both by their original or literal meaning as well as “to be” (see last example), other times, when the translations “to remain,” “to stay,” and “to find (oneself)” do not sound correct or fail to make sense, you may find that their meaning is often best rendered with the verb “to be.”

Vocabulario básico

Sustantivo:

el oeste- west

Adjetivo:

picaresco- picaresque (lit.)

Adverbio:

atrás- behind, back

Expresión:

encontrarse con- to run into, to meet (accidentally or by plan)

Last revised on June 16, 2021.

8.4 Changes in Meaning in the Preterite versus the Imperfect Tenses

Some verbs that express mental abilities or emotional states or others that simply describe undergo a shift in meaning, at times subtle and at time not, between the preterite and imperfect tenses. The imperfect tense maintains the basic meaning of the verb, while the preterite tends to connote an action. This takes place in a limited number of verbs (largely, those that follow). Read the following pairs closely:

¿Podías abrirlo? Could you open it? (Were you capable of opening it?)
¿Pudiste abrirlo? Could you and did you open it? Did you manage to open it?
Los carros no podían pasar. The cars were unable to get through.
Los carros no pudieron pasar. The cars were unable and did not get through. (The cars failed to get through.)
Queríamos asistir. We wanted to attend.
Quisimos asistir. We tried to attend.
Vicente no quería bailar. Vicente didn’t want to dance.
Vicente no quiso bailar. Vicente refused to dance.
Tenía que barrer el piso. I had to sweep the floor.
Tuve que barrer el piso. I had to and did sweep the floor.

The first sentences of the first two pairs present nothing new. The subtlety comes in the preterite, where the meaning is not only “was/were (un)able,” but also the implication that an action took place, whether or not it met with success.

The analogy can be continued in the third through fifth pairs. The imperfect merely describes a mental state, while the preterite communicates that the subjects put their will into effect by “trying to” in the third pair, “refusing to” in the fourth (Spanish also has other verbs meaning “to refuse” [negarse a] and “to try” [tratar de]), and doing the action deemed necessary in the fifth.

If you remember that the preterite tense is used to describe the beginning and final aspects of completed actions, the concept becomes useful in understanding the changes in meaning of the following verbs in the preterite versus the imperfect:

Sabía la dirección. I knew the address.
Supe la dirección. I found out the address.
Ella me conocía. She knew me.
Ella me conoció. She met me.
Los niños tenían miedo. The children were afraid.
Los niños tuvieron miedo. The children became afraid.

In the above cases, the initial aspect of the event is “finding out,” “meeting” and “becoming,” respectively. Logically, one must find out a piece of information before knowing it; one has to meet another person before knowing him or her; one becomes frightened (afraid, scared, etc.) before the state of fear continues in the past. (Spanish also has other verbs that mean “to find out”: averiguar, descubrir [literally, “to discover”]).

When the verb haber is used impersonally in a past tense, its tendency is to describe in the imperfect tense, while it tends to denote an action in the preterite. In the latter case, it has various accurate translations (see section 8.2.):

Había mucha comida en la fiesta. There was a lot of food at the party.
Hubo un terremoto. There was an earthquake.

An earthquake occurred/happened/took place.

You may see many exceptions to the above generalization, as hubo could also occur in the first sentence. The inverse (había to describe an action or event) is possible, but somewhat rare.

Vocabulario básico

Verbos:

averiguar- to find out
bailar- to dance (cognate: ballet)
cantar- to sing (cognates: chant, incantation)
desarrollar- to develop
evitar- to avoid
gobernar (ie)- to govern
intentar- to attempt (false friend)
salvar- to save
trepar- to climb

Sustantivos:

el ambiente- atmosphere
la colina- hill
la escasez- scarcity
las Islas Malvinas- the Falkland Islands
el medio ambiente- environment
el recurso- resource

Adjetivos:

cercano- near
escarpado- rugged
lejano- far, distant
silvestre- wild

Expresiones:

de hecho- in fact
de repente- suddenly
de súbito- suddenly

Last revised on June 28, 2021.

8.5 The Present Participle and Progressive Forms

The Spanish present participle, the forms of which correspond to the verb + “-ing,” is as follows:

caminar caminando
ver viendo
discutir discutiendo

As seen in preterite forms such as cayeron and construyeron, in -er and -ir verbs whose stems end in a vowel, the i of the present participle becomes a y:

traer trayendo
leer leyendo
oír oyendo
huir huyendo

Stem-changing verbs ending in –ir show e to i and o to u shifts (pedir becomes pidiendo and dormir, durmiendo), but these should not cause comprehension difficulties.

The present participle of ir is yendo, but it is seldom seen in formal writing.

As in English, the present participle may stand alone and has two possibilities of translation:

Viajando, se aprende mucho. (By) Traveling, one learns a lot.
Especializándose en comercio, encontró trabajo fácilmente. (By) Majoring in business, she found work easily.

Other times the present participle is employed when one would not expect it, and it translates as the equivalent of “while” + subject + verb:

Estando yo en el carro, me di cuenta de que no sabía exactamente dónde estaba. While I was in the car, I realized I didn’t know exactly where I was.

Remember that while English generally uses the present participle when a verb is the subject of the sentence, Spanish uses the infinitive (section 5.1):

Leer ciencia ficción le aburre. Reading science fiction bores her.

The present participle combines with the forms of estar to make the progressive forms, used for actions taking place at a specific moment. The translation must be a form of “to be” + the present participle. Estar may combine in any tense with the present participle, though this construction is most frequently seen in the present and imperfect tenses.

Ahora mismo están escribiendo. Right now they’re writing.
Tito estaba leyendo ayer a las dos. Tito was reading yesterday at two o’clock.

Spanish generally uses the progressive forms less than English does. Remember that vengo, for example, may translate as “I come,” “I do come,” “I’ll come,” and “I am coming.” Likewise the imperfect, venía, may translate as “I came,” “I used to come,” or “I was coming.” The multiple possibilities for translations of the simple present tense reduce the need for frequent use of the progressive form (estar + gerund), making their usage less common than in English.

The present participle is also used as an adverb (modifying the verb) and combines with verbs other than estar, especially those of motion.

Anda perdiendo tiempo. He goes around wasting time.
Entró corriendo. She entered running.
Seguíamos trabajando. We continued (kept on) working.

Vocabulario básico

Verbos:

concluir- to conclude
cuidar (de/a)- to care (for), to take care (of)
enfermarse- to get sick
fallecer- to succumb, to die
herir (ie)- to wound, to injure
mejorar(se)- to improve, to get better
oler (ue) (a)- to smell (like, of)
perecer- to perish
quemar- to burn
recetar- to prescribe
respirar- to breathe
soñar (ue) (con)- to dream (of, about) Be careful not to confuse this verb with sonar (“to ring,” “to sound”).

Sustantivos:

la bala- bullet
la carie- cavity (in teeth)
el/la compositor/-a- composer
el cuidado- care
el/la difunto/-a- the deceased
el dolor- pain
el ejercicio- exercise
el/la enfermero/-a- nurse
la fiebre- fever
la garganta- throat
la herida- injury
el hueso- bone
la muerte- death (cognate: mortal)
el/la muerto/-a- dead man/ woman
la resaca- hangover
el resfriado- cold
el sueño- dream

Adjetivos:

cuerdo-sane
difunto- dead, deceased (cognate: defunct)
saludable- healthy
sano- healthy (false friend)

Last revised on June 16, 2021.

8.6 The Preterite Tense: -Ir Stem-Changing Verbs and other Orthographic Changes

Unlike –ar and –er stem-changing verbs, –ir verbs show a one-letter stem change (the first letter if the verb has a two-letter change in the present tense) in the third persons of the preterite, as they do in the present participle.

Pedir (i) Dormir (ue)
yo pedí dormí
pediste dormiste
él, Ella, Ud. pidió durmió
Nosotros pedimos dormimos
Vosotros pedisteis dormisteis
ellos, ellas, Uds. pi>dieron  durmieron

Present participles: pidiendo, durmiendo

Other verbs have orthographic changes that appear in the first-person singular of the present tense. All verbs ending in -car, -gar and –zar undergo this change.

sacar saqué
llegar llegué
comenzar comencé

Once you recognize the infinitive and the tense, none of the above changes should present comprehension difficulties.

Last revised on June 16, 2021.