Irregular Preterite Verbs

Many students struggle to master the preterite tense because there are so many irregular verb forms that must be memorized. Also, since these irregularities affect verbs that are commonly used, there is no way to avoid them. It would be well beyond the scope of this module to include all of the irregular preterite verbs in Spanish. Instead, I have focused on those irregular verbs that are most essential to conversation and appear most frequently in early Spanish courses. There are several types of irregularities that one finds in the preterite. Let’s take these one at a time.

Preterite Verbs With a Spelling Change in the Yo Form

Verbs that end in –car, –gar or –zar will undergo a spelling change in the yo form of the preterite. All other forms of these verbs will be conjugated just like any other AR verb. Let’s take a look at some examples.

BUSCAR (to look for), LLEGAR (to arrive) and EMPEZAR (to begin)

Pronoun Verb Conjugation Verb Conjugation Verb Conjugation
yo busqué llegué empe
buscaste llegaste empezaste
usted buscó llegó empezó
él (ella) buscó llegó empezó
nosotros(as) buscamos llegamos empezamos
vosotros(as) buscasteis llegasteis empezasteis
ustedes buscaron llegaron empezaron
ellos(as) buscaron llegaron empezaron

Notice that the spelling change occurs only in the yo form. No other forms are affected by this spelling change.

Other Spelling Changes in the Preterite

ER and IR verbs whose stem ends in a vowel will undergo an i to y spelling change in the third person forms of the preterite. A few examples are creer (to believe), leer (to read), construir (to construct) and destruir (to destroy).

CREER (to believe)

Subject Pronoun Verb Conjugation English
yo creí I believed
creíste you believed
usted creyó you believed
él/ella creyó (s)he believed
nosotros(as) creímos we believed
vosotros(as) creísteis you all believed
ustedes creyeron you all believed
ellos(as) creyeron they believed

As you can see, only the third person forms (él/ella/usted/ellos/ustedes) are affected by the i to y spelling change. Here are a few sentences containing verbs that undergo this spelling change in the preterite.

Mi padre leyó el cuento. My father read the story.
Ella no me creyó. She didn’t believe me.
Los trabajadores construyeron la casa. The workers constructed the house.
¿Por qué destruyeron los libros? Why did they destroy the books?

Stem-changing Preterite Verbs

Here, the news is mostly good. For AR and ER verbs there are no stem changes in the preterite. For IR verbs, however, there is a stem change that occurs but only in the third person singular and plural. Let’s take a look at this.

E → I Stem-changing IR Verbs

IR verbs that have an e → ie stem change in the present tense will undergo an e → i stem change in the third person forms (usted/él/ella/ustedes/ellos) of the preterite. No other forms undergo a stem change.

PREFERIR (to prefer)

Subject Pronoun Verb Conjugation English
yo preferí I preferred
preferiste you preferred
usted prefirió you preferred
él (ella) prefirió (s)he preferred
nosotros(as) preferimos we preferred
vosotros(as) preferisteis you all preferred
ustedes prefirieron you all preferred
ellos(as) prefirieron they preferred

As you can see, only the third person forms are affected by the e → i stem change. All other forms are conjugated like any other IR verb.

O → U Stem-changing IR Verbs

IR verbs that have an o → ue stem change in the present tense will undergo an o → u stem change in the preterite (again, only in the third person forms) Let’s look at dormir (to sleep):

DORMIR (to sleep)

Subject Pronoun Verb Conjugation English
yo dormí I slept
dormiste you slept
usted durmió you slept
él (ella) durmió (s)he slept
nosotros(as) dormimos we slept
vosotros(as) dormisteis you all slept
ustedes durmieron you all slept
ellos(as) durmieron they slept

E → I Stem-changing IR Verbs

As in the present tense, these verbs will still undergo the e → i stem change in the preterite but only in the third person forms. Let’s look at the example of pedir (to ask for):

PEDIR (to ask for; to request; to order)

Subject Pronoun Verb Conjugation English
yo pedí I requested
pediste you requested
usted pidió you requested
él (ella) pidió (s)he requested
nosotros(as) pedimos we requested
vosotros(as) pedisteis you all requested
ustedes pidieron you all requested
ellos(as) pidieron they requested

Here are some complete sentences containing stem-changing IR verbs in the preterite. Notice how there is no stem change in the yo form of the verbs in the examples below. Again, the stem change occurs only in the third person forms of the preterite.

Yo pedí enchiladas pero mi novia pidió fajitas. I ordered enchiladas but my girlfriend ordered fajitas.
Yo preferí ir al concierto pero mis amigos prefirieron ir al partido de fútbol. I preferred to go to the concert but my friends preferred to go to the soccer game.
Yo repetí la respuesta correcta tres veces. I repeated the correct answer three times.
El profesor repitió las instrucciones. The teacher repeated the instructions.








Preterite Verbs with an Irregular Stem

The following verbs all undergo major spelling changes in the preterite forms of their stems. Thankfully, all of these verbs share identical endings. Let’s look at the preterite forms of estar whose stem changes to estuv- in the preterite tense.

ESTAR (to be)

Subject Pronoun Verb Conjugation English
yo estuve I was
estuviste you were
usted estuvo you were
él (ella) estuvo (s)he was
nosotros(as) estuvimos we were
vosotros(as) estuvisteis you all were
ustedes estuvieron you all were
ellos(as) estuvieron they were

Notice that the stem estuv- remains consistent regardless of the ending. The following verbs also have irregular stems in the preterite but have the same preterite endings as estar.

* The third person singular (él/ella/usted) stem of hacer in the preterite is hiz-.
** Hubo is the preterite form of hay and means “there was” or “there were.”
Verb English Meaning Preterite Stem
hacer to do; to make hic-*
haber** to be; to exist hub-
poder to be able pud-
poner to put; to place pus-
querer to want quis-
saber to know sup-
tener to have tuv-
venir to come vin-

Here are some complete sentences containing verbs with irregular preterite forms.

Mi hermano no hizo su tarea anoche. My brother did not do his homework last night.
Mi madre vino a mi fiesta. My mother came to my party.
Nosotros tuvimos que trabajar. We had to work.
Carlos puso su dinero en su mochila. Carlos put his money in his backpack.
Diana pudo conseguir las entradas. Diana was able (managed) to get the tickets.

J-stem Preterite Verbs

J-stem preterite verbs are a group of verbs that all have the letter j in their preterite stems and share identical endings. Let’s take a look at decir (to say; to tell) which is a j-stem verb in the preterite.

DECIR (to say; to tell)

Subj. Pronoun Verb Conjugation English
yo dije I said; I told
dijiste you said; you told
usted dijo you said; you told
él (ella) dijo (s)he said; (s)he told
nosotros(as) dijimos we said; we told
vosotros(as) dijisteis you all said; you all told
ustedes dijeron you all said; you all told
ellos(as) dijeron they said; they told

The following j-stem verbs share the same preterite endings as decir.

Verb English Meaning Preterite Stem
conducir to drive conduj-
producir to produce produj-
traducir to translate traduj-
traer to bring traj-

Below are some complete sentences containing j-stem preterite verbs:

Mi padre condujo a Boston. My father drove to Boston.
Carlos dijo la verdad. Carlos told the truth.
Yo traduje tres libros. I translated three books.
Mis amigos trajeron muchos regalos a mi fiesta. My friends brought a lot of gifts to my party.

Other Irregular Verbs in the Preterite

Finally, there are four more irregular preterite verbs that you should be aware of: dar (to give), ver (to see), ir (to go) and ser (to be). Strangely, ir and ser share the exact same preterite forms. Context clues will help you determine which verb is being used in a particular sentence.

DAR (to give) and VER (to see)

Subj. Pron. Verb Conj. English Verb Conj. English
yo di I gave vi I saw
diste you gave viste you saw
usted dio you gave vio you saw
él (ella) dio (s)he gave vio (s)he saw
nosotros(as) dimos we gave vimos we saw
vosotros(as) disteis you all gave visteis you all saw
ustedes dieron you all gave vieron you all saw
ellos(as) dieron they gave vieron they saw

SER (to be) and IR (to go)

Subj. Pronoun Verb Conj. English
yo fui I was; I went
fuiste you were; you went
usted fue you were; you went
él (ella) fue (s)he was; (s)he went
nosotros(as) fuimos we were; we went
vosotros(as) fuisteis you all were; you all went
ustedes fueron you all were; you all went
ellos(as) fueron they were; they went

Here are a few complete sentences containing several of the irregular preterite verbs you have learned.

Yo dije la verdad. I told the truth.
Mi padre condujo a Nueva York. My father drove to New York.
Juan y yo tradujimos todos los documentos. Juan and I translated all the documents.
Marta fue a Barcelona la semana pasada. Marta went to Barcelona last week.
El examen fue muy fácil. The exam was very easy.
Mis padres me dieron muchos regalos. My parents gave me many gifts.
El profesor trajo su computadora portátil a clase. The teacher brought his laptop computer to class.

Verbs that Change Meaning in the Preterite

Some verbs will change meaning when they are used in the preterite tense. Here are a few of the most common ones.

Verb Present Tense Meaning Preterite Tense Meaning
conocer to know to meet
querer to want to try
no querer to not want to refuse
saber to know to find out
tener to have to get



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