The preterite (in US English also preterit) is a grammatical tense or verb form serving to denote events that took place or were completed in the past. In general, it combines the perfective aspect (event viewed as a single whole; it is not to be confused with the similarly named perfect) with the past tense, and may thus also be termed the perfective past. In grammars of particular languages the preterite is sometimes called the past historic, or (particularly in the Greek grammatical tradition) the aorist. When the term "preterite" is used in relation to specific languages it may not correspond precisely to this definition. In English it can be used to refer to the simple past verb form, which sometimes (but not always) expresses perfective aspect. The case of German is similar: the Präteritum is the simple (non-compound) past tense, which does not always imply perfective aspect, and is anyway often replaced by the Perfekt (compound past) even in perfective past meanings.
Preterites in Romance languages
In Latin, the perfect tense most commonly functions as the preterite, and refers to an action completed in the past. If the past action was not completed, one would use the imperfect. The perfect in Latin also functions in other circumstances as a present perfect.
|dūcō, dūcere, dūxī, ductus|
|is, ea, id||-it (dūxit)|
Dūxī can be translated as (preterite) "I led", "I did lead" or (present perfect) "I have led".
A pronoun subject is often omitted, and usually used for emphasis.
In French, the preterite is known as le passé simple (the simple past). It is a past tense that indicates an action taken once in the past that was completed at some point in the past (translated: "<verb>ed"). This is as opposed to the imperfect (l'imparfait), used in expressing repeated, continual, or habitual past actions (often corresponding to English's past continuous was/were <verb>ing or habitual used to <verb>). In the oral language, the compound tense known as le passé composé ("the compound past") began to compete with it from the 12th century onwards, and has since replaced it almost entirely. French simple past is mostly used in a narrative way to tell stories and describe successive actions. Novelists use it very commonly; it brings more suspense, as the sentence can be short without any time reference needed. In the oral language, the simple past is rarely used except with story telling. Therefore, it would be atypical to hear it in a standard discussion.
|-er verbs (aimer)||-ir verbs (finir)||-re verbs (rendre)||-oire verbs* (croire)|
|je||-ai (aimai)||-is (finis)||-is (rendis)||-us (crus)|
|tu||-as (aimas)||-is (finis)||-is (rendis)||-us (crus)|
|il/elle/on||-a (aima)||-it (finit)||-it (rendit)||-ut (crut)|
|nous||-âmes (aimâmes)||-îmes (finîmes)||-îmes (rendîmes)||-ûmes (crûmes)|
|vous||-âtes (aimâtes)||-îtes (finîtes)||-îtes (rendîtes)||-ûtes (crûtes)|
|ils/elles||-èrent (aimèrent)||-irent (finirent)||-irent (rendirent)||-urent (crurent)|
* also être (je fus…) and avoir (j'eus)
In Romanian, the preterite is known as perfectul simplu (literally, the simple past or simple perfect). The preterite indicates a past accomplished action (translated: "verbed"), however this tense is not frequent in the official language and not frequent in the standard speech (not used in Republic of Moldova and not used in the Romanian regions of Transylvania, Muntenia and Moldova). The general tendency is to use the compound past (perfectul compus) to express a past action that is perceived as completed at the moment of speaking. Simple past is still actively used in current speech in the southwestern part of Romania, especially in Oltenia, but also in Banat mostly in rural areas. Usage of the preterite is very frequent in written narrative discourse, the simple past of the speech verbs being generally after a dialogue line in narration:
- Aici avem o crimă!, zise polițistul. This is murder! said the policeman.
When used in everyday speech in standard Romanian, the preterite indicates an action completed recently:
- Tocmai îl auzii pe George la radio. I have just heard George on the radio.
The second person is often used in questions about finishing an action in progress that is supposed to be over, giving the question a more informal tone:
- Gata, citirăți? Are you done, have you read [the texts]?
The forms of the simple perfect are made of an unstressed stem of the infinitive, a stressed suffix that is different in each group of verbs, and the endings -i, -și, -Ø, -răm, -răți, -ră, which are the same for all the verbs:
|-a verbs (a intra)||-ea verbs (a tăcea)||-e verbs (a cere)||-e verbs (a merge)||-i verbs (a dormi)||-î verbs (a coborî)|
|suffix a||suffix u||suffix u||suffix se||suffix i||suffix â/î|
|eu||-ai (intrai)||-ui (tăcui)||-ui (cerui)||-sei (mersei)||-ii (dormii)||-âi (coborâi)|
|tu||-ași (intrași)||-uși (tăcuși)||-uși (ceruși)||-seși (merseși)||-iși (dormiși)||-âși (coborâși)|
|el/ea||-ă (intră)||-u (tăcu)||-u (ceru)||-se (merse)||-i (dormi)||-î coborî|
|noi||-arăm (intrarăm)||-urăm (tăcurăm)||-urăm (cerurăm)||-serăm (merserăm)||-irăm (dormirăm)||-ârăm (coborârăm)|
|voi||-arăți (intrarăți)||-urăți (tăcurăți)||-urăți (cerurăți)||-serăți (merserăți)||-irăți (dormirăți)||-ârăți (coborârăți)|
|ei/ele||-ară (intrară)||-ură (tăcură)||-ură (cerură)||-seră (merseră)||-iră (dormiră)||-âră (coborâră)|
In Italian, the preterite is called passato remoto (literally "remote past"). It is a past tense that indicates an action taken once and completed far in the past (mangiai, "I ate"). This is opposed to the imperfetto tense, which refers to a repeated, continuous, or habitual past action (mangiavo, "I was eating" or "I used to eat") and to the passato prossimo (literally "close past"), which refers to an action completed recently (ho mangiato, "I have eaten").
In colloquial usage, the use of the passato remoto becomes more prevalent going from North to South of Italy. While Northern speakers tend to use passato prossimo in any perfective situation, Southern ones tend to use passato remoto even for recent events.
|-are verbs (parlare)||[Regular] -ere verbs (credere)*||[Irregular] -ere verbs (prendere)*||-ire verbs (finire)|
|io||-ai (parlai)||-ei (credei) / -etti (credetti)||-i (presi)||-ii (finii)|
|tu||-asti (parlasti)||-esti (credesti)||-esti (prendesti)||-isti (finisti)|
|lui||-ò (parlò)||-é (credé) / -ette (credette)||-e (prese)||-ì (finì)|
|noi||-ammo (parlammo)||-emmo (credemmo)||-emmo (prendemmo)||-immo (finimmo)|
|voi||-aste (parlaste)||-este (credeste)||-este (prendeste)||-iste (finiste)|
|loro||-arono (parlarono)||-erono (crederono) / -ettero (credettero)||-ero (presero)||-irono (finirono)|
*Many -ere verbs in Italian have stem alternations in the 1st person singular, 3rd person singular and 3rd person plural. Some verbs (with d/t in their stem, including credere) also have endings -etti (1st person singular), -ette (3rd person singular), and -ettero (3rd person plural).
In a few remarkable cases, all three options exist for a single verb, although usage of each of these forms may vary. For perdere for example, the first person singular can occur as persi (irregular and most correct form), perdei or perdetti (compare to the past participle which can be perso (irregular, most correct) or perduto (regular)).
In Portuguese, the preterite is the pretérito perfeito. The Portuguese preterite has the same form as the Spanish preterite, but the meaning is like the "composed past" of French and Italian in that, for example, corri means both "I ran" and "I have run". As in other Romance Languages, it is opposed to the pretérito imperfeito (imperfect). Note that there does exist a pretérito perfeito composto (present perfect) but its meaning is not that of a perfect; instead it shows an iterative aspect. For example, tenho corrido does not mean "I have run" but rather "I've been running".
|-ar verbs (amar)||-er verbs (correr)||-ir verbs (partir)|
|eu||-ei (amei)||-i (corri)||-i (parti)|
|tu||-aste (amaste)||-este (correste)||-iste (partiste)|
|ele||-ou (amou)||-eu (correu)||-iu (partiu)|
|nós||-ámos (amámos)1||-emos (corremos)||-imos (partimos)|
|vós||-astes (amastes)||-estes (correstes)||-istes (partistes)|
|eles||-aram (amaram)||-eram (correram)||-iram (partiram)|
In Spanish, the preterite (pretérito) is a verb tense that indicates that an action taken once in the past was completed at a specific point in time in the past. Usually, a definite start time or end time for the action is stated. This is opposed to the imperfect, which refers to any repeated, continuous, or habitual past action. Thus, "I ran five miles yesterday" would use the first-person preterite form of ran, corrí, whereas "I ran five miles every morning" would use the first-person imperfect form, corría. This distinction is actually one of perfective vs. imperfective aspect.
The special conjugations for the "yo" form of the preterite are (the accent mark goes over the 'e'):
- -gar verbs: -gué (jugar>jugué)
- -car verbs: -qué (buscar>busqué)
- -zar verbs: -cé (almorzar>almorcé)
- -guar verbs: -güé (aguar>agüé)
These are needed to keep their respective sounds.
When conjugating -er and -ir verbs, their endings are the same.
In most Iberian Mainland Spanish and, to a lesser extent, Mexican Spanish, there is still a strong distinction between the preterite and the present perfect. As the preterite denotes an action that began and ended in the past, while the present perfect denotes an action that began in the past and is over, thus:
- Comí todo el día. (I ate all day long.)
- He comido todo el día (I have eaten all day.)
In most other variants of Spanish, such as in the Americas and in the Canary Islands, this distinction has tended to fade, with the preterite being used even for actions in the immediate pre-present with continuing relevance. Coincidentally, British Mainland English present perfect forms are occasionally replaced with simple pasts by Irish and North American English speakers where an adverb makes it redundant (such as in "I didn't eat yet"), a similar but not exactly parallel development[dubious ].
|-ar verbs (hablar)||-er verbs (comer)||-ir verbs (vivir)|
|yo||-é (hablé)||-í (comí)||-í (viví)|
|tú||-aste (hablaste)||-iste (comiste)||-iste (viviste)|
|él||-ó (habló)||-ió (comió)||-ió (vivió)|
|nosotros||-amos (hablamos)||-imos (comimos)||-imos (vivimos)|
|vosotros||-asteis (hablasteis)||-isteis (comisteis)||-isteis (vivisteis)|
|ellos||-aron (hablaron)||-ieron (comieron)||-ieron (vivieron)|
Preterite in Germanic languages
The majority of English's preterites (often called simple past or just past tense) are formed by adding -ed or -d to the verb's plain form (bare infinitive), sometimes with spelling modifications. This is the result of the conjugation system of weak verbs, already in the majority in Old English, being raised to paradigmatic status and even taking over earlier conjugations of some old strong verbs. As a result, all newly introduced verbs have the weak conjugation. Examples:
- He planted corn and oats.
- They studied grammar.
- She shoved the Viking aside. (Original preterite scēaf, from an Old English strong verb.)
- I friended him on Facebook. (A new verb with a weak preterite.)
A number of English verbs form their preterites irregularly, a result of either Ablaut, a regular set of sound changes (to an interior vowel) in the conjugation of a strong verb, or because the verb conjugations are the remains of a more complex system of tenses in irregular verbs:
- She went to the cinema. (Preterite of "go"; uses a completely different verb - the Anglo-Saxon 'wendan' from which comes 'to wend'.)
- I ate breakfast late this morning. (Preterite of "eat".)
- He ran to the store. (Preterite of "run".)
With the exception of "to be" and auxiliary and modal verbs, interrogative and negative clauses do not use their main verbs' preterites; if their declarative or positive counterpart does not use any auxiliary or modal verb, then the auxiliary verb did (the preterite of do) is inserted and the main verb appears in its plain form, as an infinitive:
- Was she busy today?
- He was not there.
- Could she play the piano when she was ten?
- The editor had not read the book yet.
- Did he plant corn and oats?
- She did not go to the cinema.
German has a grammatical distinction between preterite (Präteritum) and perfect (Perfekt). (Older grammar books sometimes use Imperfekt instead of Präteritum, an unsuitable borrowing from Latin terminology.) Originally the distinction was as in English: The Präteritum was the standard, most neutral form for past actions, and could also express an event in the remote past, contrasting with the Perfekt, which expressed an event that has consequences reaching into the present.
- Präteritum: Es regnete. "It rained. / It was raining." (I am talking about a past event.)
- Perfekt: Es hat geregnet. "It has rained." (The street is still wet.)
In modern German, however, these tenses no longer reflect any distinction in aspect ("Es hat geregnet" means both rained/was raining), which parallels this lack of distinction in the present, which has no separate verb form for the present progressive ("Es regnet": It rains, it is raining). The Präteritum now has the meaning of a narrative tense, i.e. a tense used primarily for describing connected past actions (e.g. as part of a story), and is used most often in formal writing and in literature. For example, in spoken Upper German (in South Germany, Austria and Switzerland), beyond the auxiliary verbs sein (to be), werden (to become), können (to be able), wollen (to want), haben (to have), the Präteritum is rarely used in the spoken language and informal writing, though the grammatical form is fundamental to producing the subjunctive and conditional forms, while compound verb conjugations are used instead. Yiddish has gone even farther and has no preterite at all. Rather, there is only one past tense, which is formed using what was originally the perfect. The dialect of German spoken in North America known as Pennsylvania German has also undergone this change with the exception of the verb to be, which still retains a simple past.
Preterites in Semitic languages
- Emmanuelle Labeau, Carl Vetters, Patrick Caudal, Sémantique et Diachronie du Système Verbal Français, Éd. Rodopi B.V. 10 janvier 2007, Coll. Cahiers Chronos, p.125.
- Romanian Grammar detailed guide of Romanian grammar and usage.
- Die Grammatik [Grammar]. Mannheim: Duden Verlag. 1973. pp. 84–86. ISBN 3-411-00914-4.
- Die Grammatik [Grammar]. Mannheim: Duden Verlag. 1973. pp. 90–91. ISBN 3-411-00914-4.
- Bavarian i machad, I'd do, comes from archaic ich machete, which used to be both indicative of the preterite (today: ich machte) and subjunctive of the (in this respect rightly so-called) imperfect (today: ich machte in subclauses, ich würde machen in main clauses and colloquially).