AskDefine | Define preterite

Dictionary Definition

preterite n : a term formerly used to refer to the simple past tense [syn: preterit]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings


Borrowed from prétérit < (tempus) preteritum.


  1. In the context of "grammar|of a tense": Showing an action at a determined moment in the past. (Also known as the preterite tense)


showing an action at a determined moment in the past


  1. Preterite tense, simple past tense: A tense that determines the specific initiation or termination of an action in the past.


preterite tense; simple past
Translations to be checked
Translations to be checked

Extensive Definition

This article is about the grammatical term. To see the article relating to eschatology and the Book of Revelation, see Preterism.
The preterite (also praeterite, in American English also preterit, simple past, or past historic) is the grammatical tense expressing actions that took place in the past. It is similar to the aorist in languages such as Greek.

Preterites in Germanic languages


English's preterite — usually called its simple past or, somewhat loosely, its past-tense form — is generally formed by adding -ed or -d to the verb's plain form (bare infinitive), sometimes with some spelling modifications:
  • He planted corn and oats.
  • They studied grammar.
A number of verbs form their preterites irregularly, often by changing an interior vowel:
  • She went to the cinema. (Uses a completely different verb - the Anglo-Saxon 'wendan) from where we get 'to wend'
  • I ate breakfast late this morning.
  • He ran to the store.
Interrogative and negative clauses do not use their main verb's preterites; rather, 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:
  • Did he plant corn and oats?
  • She did not go to the cinema.


In German, the Präteritum is used for past actions. (Older grammar books sometimes call it the "imperfect", an unsuitable borrowing from Latin terminology.) In South Germany, Austria and Switzerland, it is mostly used solely in writing, for example in stories. Use in speech is regarded as snobbish and thus very uncommon. South German dialects, such as the Bavarian dialect, as well as Yiddish, and Swiss German have no preterite, but only perfect constructs.
In certain regions, a few specific verbs are used in the preterite, for instance the modal verbs and the verbs haben (have) and sein (be).
  • Es gab einmal ein kleines Mädchen, das Rotkäppchen hieß. (There was once a small girl who was called Little Red Riding Hood.)
In speech and informal writing, the Perfekt is used (e.g., Ich habe dies und das gesagt. (I said this and that)).
However, in the colloquial language of North Germany, there is still a very important difference between the preterite and the perfect, and both tenses are consequently very common. The preterite is used for past actions when the focus is on the action, whilst the present perfect is used for past actions when the focus is on the present state of the subject because of a previous action. This corresponds to the English usage of the preterite and the present perfect.
  • Preterite: "Heute früh kam mein Freund." (My friend came early in the morning, and he is being talked about strictly in the past)
  • Perfect: "Heute früh ist mein Freund gekommen." (My friend came early in the morning, but he is being talked about in the present)

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 were not completed, one would use the imperfect tense. The perfect tense in Latin also functions in other circumstances as a present perfect tense.
Typical conjugation: Dūxī can be translated as (preterite) "I led," "I did lead" or (present perfect) "I have led."


In French, the preterite is known as le passé simple ("the simple past"). As in Spanish, it is a past tense that indicates an action taken once in the past that was completed at some point in the past (translated: "verbed"). This is as opposed to the imperfect tense (l'imparfait), used in expressing repeated, continuous, or habitual past actions (often corresponding to English's past continuous was/were <verb>ing). In the oral language, the preterite is no longer used, and is replaced with a compound tense known as le passé composé ("the compound past"). 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, past simple is rarely used except with story telling. Therefore, it is quite uncommon to meet past simple in a standard discussion.
Typical conjugations:


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 standard speech. 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 and in western Muntenia, 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 poliţistul. This is murder! said the policeman.
When used in everyday speech in standard Romanian, the preterite indicates an action completed recently:
  • Tocmai îl auzisei 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 which is supposed to be over, giving the question a more informal tone:
  • Gata, citirăţi? 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, -şi, -Ø, -răm, -răţi, -ră, which are the same for all the verbs:


In Italian, the preterite is usually called Passato Remoto (simple past or past absolute, literally "remote past"). Like in Spanish and French, it is a past tense that indicates an action taken once in the past that was completed at some point in the past (mangiai, "I ate"). This is as opposed to the imperfetto tense, which refers to any repeated, continuous, or habitual past action (mangiavo, "I ate" or "I was eating" or "I used to eat"). In the spoken language of most of Italy (a notable exception is in Sicily), the passato remoto is not normally used, the compound passato prossimo tense taking its place (ho mangiato, "I have eaten" but also "I ate"). An exception to this is when there is emphasis on the remoteness of an action (i.e. Marco Polo andò in Cina nel 1264 (Marco Polo went to China in 1264) would be more proper than Marco Polo è andato in Cina nel 1264).
Typical conjugations:
  • some verbs, including credere, also have endings -etti (1st person singular), -ette (3rd person singular), and -ettero (3rd person plural)


In Portuguese, the preterite is the pretérito perfeito. As in other Romance Languages, it denotes an isolated event initiated in the past, and completed before the present. It contrasts with the pretérito imperfeito (imperfect) and with the pretérito perfeito composto (present perfect).
Typical conjugations: 1 Without the acute accent in Brazilian Portuguese.


In Spanish, the preterite (pretérito) is a verb tense that indicates that an action taken once in the past was completed at some point in the past. This is opposed to the imperfect tense, 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 tense form, corría. This distinction is actually one of perfective vs. imperfective aspect.
In some variants of Spanish, such as 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 still going on, thus:
  • Comí todo el día. (I ate all day long, but it is over now)
  • He comido todo el día (I have been eating all day and I plan to keep doing so)
In European Spanish and some other variants of Spanish, this distinction is quickly fading. For some Spaniards the preterite expresses an action that happened in the remote past and the present perfect stands for an action in the near past. In some parts of Spain, even this distinction has disappeared.
Typical conjugations:


See also

preterite in Tosk Albanian: Präteritum
preterite in Czech: Préteritum
preterite in Danish: Datid
preterite in German: Präteritum
preterite in Spanish: Pretérito perfecto simple
preterite in Latin: Praeteritum
preterite in Norwegian: Preteritum
preterite in Finnish: Preteriti
preterite in Romanian: Preterit
preterite in Swedish: Preteritum
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