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What Is the Preterite?

By B. Turner
Updated May 23, 2024
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The preterite is a verb tense used to characterize actions or events that happened in the past. A simple English example would be, "I walked to the store." In this sentence "walked" is the preterite because it defines an actually that is already complete. The use of this grammatical tense typically requires making some spelling change to the verb, which often involves adding "ed" to basic verbs, such as in the example "walked." The preterite verb tense may also be referred to as the preterit, the simple past tense, the past indicative, or the perfect past.

Most Latin-based or Romance languages use the preterite as a common grammatical tool. Typically, these languages use this tense only to describe an action that is complete, not one that is still happening. For ongoing or continuous actions, most Romance languages require the use of a different tense, such as the imperfect verb form.

In English, regular verbs are fairly easy to transform into the preterite tense. This typically involves adding "ed" or "ied" to the verb, so that "jump" becomes "jumped" or "study" becomes "studied." Some verbs, such as sleep, requires adding a "t" rather than an "ed," where "slept" acts as the preterite form of "sleep."

Irregular verbs do not follow any typical rules. The verb "go" transforms to "went" when used in the preterite, just as "eat" becomes "ate." Those looking to learn English or improve their grammar are often forced to study or memorize these irregular verbs and their changing forms rather than try and follow a set rule.

In French, this verb tense is known as the passe simple, while verbs that describe past actions that are still ongoing are referred to as the l'imparfait. Spanish also has a preterite verb tense, which is known as the preterito. This tense only describes completed actions, while repeated actions, or those that started in the past but haven't yet ended, require the use of the imperfect or present perfect.

Native speakers of a language often use the preterite naturally after years of hearing it used in everyday speech. For those learning a new language, it's often very challenging to determine when to use this tense versus another verb form. A past action that occurred just once, such as "I bought a red car," always uses this tense. A past action that occurred a specific number of times or for a specific duration, such as "I lived in New York for six months," also requires the use of this verb form. Ongoing actions that began at a specified time, such as "It started snowing at noon," require the use of the preterite, while continuous ongoing actions do not.

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