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Entries in present tense (1)

Thursday
Nov112010

Why are Spanish Verbs in the Preterit Tense so Hard to Learn?

Learning how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the present tense alone is quite an accomplishment. Just when beginners start gaining confidence, irregular Spanish verbs spoil all the fun. Then, the necessity becomes obvious to break out of the present tense and start talking about the past. It’s understandable that beginners will get discouraged when they study Spanish verbs in the preterit past tense. 

Typically, the preterit past tense is introduced before the imperfect past tense. Learning how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the imperfect is a piece of cake compared to the preterit. There is the issue of choosing between them, though, which isn’t exactly easy. To see the big picture, consider reviewing a previous post, "Dual Past Tenses, How Do I Choose Between Them?" or download: “The Preterit and The Imperfect: A Love Story.”

Not all Spanish verb tenses are created equal

If you can make it through learning how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the preterit tense, you can make it through any other Spanish verb tense. No other Spanish verb tense is as difficult to learn as the preterit, and here are some reasons why:

  • ALL the stem changers you learned in the present tense don’t apply to the preterit tense, BUT don’t forget the group of stem changers that only change in the third person singular and plural forms of the preterit tense, for example: divertirse, dormir, and preferir to name a few.
  • Don't forget the group of spell changers that only change in the first person singular form (yo) in the preterit tense, for example: buscar, jugar, comenzar, etc.
  • There is a multitude of irregular Spanish verb stems that are unique to the preterit tense only, for example: ser, estar, ir, tener, poder, poner, etc.
  • Verb endings remain the same from one tense to another, whether regular or irregular, except for a small group within the unique irregular Spanish verbs (mentioned above) in the first and third person singular forms only of the preterit tense, for example: poder, poner, querer, and saber

To put it into perspective, the imperfect past tense has only 3 irregular Spanish verbs: ser, ir, and ver. To help you learn how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the preterit past tense, check out the strategies some teachers and students from the University of Minnesota utilize (videos included):

Strategies to learn how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the preterit tense
from the
 Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)

Good news: The present and past tenses build a bridge to the advanced tenses

Most of the irregular Spanish verb stems in the present and preterit tenses are found in the subjunctive tenses and the commands, so the groundwork will be assembled should you decide to continue on or dabble in the advanced tenses. Ironically, once you reach the advanced level, conjugating verbs really isn’t an issue anymore, it starts to become second nature. The challenge is applying the subjunctive tenses and using more sophisticated grammatical sentence structures (the perfect tenses).

My platform has been to promote the present and past tenses of Spanish verbs as a bridge to the advanced verb tenses, should you decide to continue on with your studies. But in reality, not all of us will make it to the advanced level. Instead of looking at it in black and white terms, consider using the present and past verb tenses of Spanish verbs as your goal. Significant communication can take place while utilizing the primary verb tenses. The seeds will be planted for future growth.