When talking about past events in Spanish, you have an important choice to make—which Spanish past tense should you use?
Fortunately, this choice becomes much simpler when you consider a few key Spanish phrases for talking about the past.
In Spanish, there are, what I will call, ‘phrase triggers’ that enforce the use of a certain tense.
Often when discussing past events, you may find yourself trying to decide between the past imperfect (pretérito imperfecto), the past simple (pretérito indefinido) or even other past Spanish tenses. While in the moment of decision, consider if any of the Spanish phrases below fit into your sentence. If so, you’ll probably need to use the Spanish past simple tense.
In this post, you’ll learn 15 Spanish phrases that nearly guarantee the use of the Spanish past simple tense.
I say ‘nearly’ because there are always exceptions. For the phrases in this post, the exceptions are only likely to occur when you are talking about a sequence of events in the past (I’ll do a post on this soon) or for making a guess about what might have happened in the past.
An overview of the Spanish past simple tense
Firstly, I’ll quickly go over the past simple tense also known as the Spanish preterite or pretérito indefinido. For an audio explanation of the past simple tense check out this podcast episode.
I recently put together a post on the pretérito imperfecto which included the following graph to demonstrate the difference between the two main Spanish past tenses:
The graph is demonstrating that whenever a past event has a clearly defined start and end time—where the end is not the present moment—you should use the past simple tense.
As you’ll see shortly, the ‘phrase triggers’ below establish a defined start and end for an event, thus naturally triggering the use of the Spanish past simple.
Spanish phrases that trigger the past simple tense
Now, I did say that the examples below are Spanish phrases but some of the options are just single words.
That said, you can combine the single word examples with more specific information to make them a phrase.
For example, the first option is ayer (yesterday), you can make this a phrase by describing a more specific part of yesterday such as ayer por la mañana (yesterday during the morning).
To reiterate from earlier, the key point here is that a phrase like this signals that an event has started and stopped. Once yesterday’s morning is over, it’s over.
One more thing before I get into the examples. The first 11 Spanish phrases typically go at the start of a sentence, the last 4 typically go in the middle or end of a sentence.
1. Yesterday – Ayer
The phrases that you can typically combine with ayer would be ayer por la mañana (yesterday during the morning), ayer al mediodía (yesterday at noon), ayer por la tarde (yesterday during the afternoon) and ayer por la noche (yesterday during the evening). You can also use de la mañana when talking about a specific time.
English: Yesterday I got up at ten in the morning.
Español: Ayer me levanté a las diez de la mañana.
English: Yesterday morning we went to a really good coffee shop.
Español: Ayer por la mañana fuimos a una cafetería muy buena.
2. Last night – Anoche
You can also simplify one of the options for yesterday. Instead of ‘yesterday during the evening’, you can just say anoche (last night).
English: Last night I went out and I had a few glasses of wine.
Español: Anoche salí y tomé unas copas de vino.
English: Last night I couldn’t sleep.
Español: Anoche no pude dormir.
3. The day before yesterday – Anteayer o antes de ayer
Similar to the trigger for ‘yesterday’, you can refer to ‘the day before yesterday’.
English: The day before yesterday there was a big storm.
Español: Anteayer hubo una gran tormenta.
English: The day before yesterday they arrived in Madrid.
Español: Antes de ayer llegaron a Madrid.
4. Last Monday, Tuesday,.. – El lunes pasado, el martes pasado,…
You could also discuss a specific day recently.
English: Last Wednesday we saw a movie.
Español: El miércoles pasado vimos una película.
English: On Thursday I felt the weekend was never going to arrive.
Español: El jueves pasado sentí que el fin de semana nunca iba a llegar.
In this last example, I had to combine the simple past (me sentí) due to el jueves pasado and the past imperfect (iba) from my thought that the weekend ‘was’ going to arrive.
5. The other day – El otro día
If you can’t remember the day that something happened you can use el otro día (a phrase I love to use in English all the time). Fantastically, ‘the other day’ translates perfectly to Spanish. Use this phrase if you want to talk about a day recently that could have occurred anytime this year (depending on how far you want to push it!).
English: The other day I forgot my girlfriend’s birthday.
Español: El otro día se me olvidó el cumpleaños de mi novia.
English: The other day I found fifty euros on the street.
Español: El otro día encontré cincuenta euros en la calle.
6. Last week – La semana pasada
Here you are talking about an event that started and stopped at some time during the last week or occurred throughout the whole week.
English: Last week my husband was in Barcelona for a conference.
Español: La semana pasada mi esposo estuvo en Barcelona para una conferencia.
English: Last week I met the president.
Español: La semana pasada conocí al presidente.
7. Last month – El mes pasado
You could also talk about something that happened last month.
English: Last month we were in Bali.
Español: El mes pasado estuvimos en Bali.
English: Last month it was very cold.
Español: El mes pasado hizo mucho frío.
8. (Time) ago – Hace (tiempo)
If you want to say three days ago, two months ago or even five years ago you can use the verb hacer in combination with a time period.
English: Six months ago I started a new job.
Español: Hace seis meses que comencé un nuevo trabajo
English: Five years ago I met my wife.
Español: Hace cinco años que conocí a mi esposa.
9. In March – En marzo
You can also single out whole months this year, last year (del año pasado) or even two years ago (de hace dos años). Again unless you are talking about the month you are currently in, you’ll need to use the simple past.
English: In July last year Atlético Madrid won the Super Cup.
Español: En julio del año pasado el Atlético Madrid ganó la Supercopa.
English: In October five years ago I discovered my favourite band.
Español: En octubre de hace cinco años descubrí mi banda favorita.
10. In 2005 – En 2005
You can also call out an entire year or a month in a specific year.
English: In 2005 we moved to Buenos Aires.
Español: En 2005 nos mudamos a Buenos Aires.
English: In January 2009 I started learning Spanish.
Español: En enero de 2009 empecé a aprender español.
11. On 16th of April 2011 – El 16 de april de 2011
You can even single out specific days. Maybe you are talking about a birthday or a wedding.
English: On 28th of May 2003 my son was born.
Español: El 28 de mayo de 2003 nació mi hijo.
English: On the 15th of February 1997 they got married.
Español: El 15 de febrero de 1997 se casaron.
12. Seven days / weeks / months / years – Siete días / semanas / meses / años
As I mentioned earlier, these last four examples go later in the sentence.
Here are you are talking about a block of time that you did something for.
English: I worked for four years in Spain.
Español: Trabajé cuatro años en España.
English: I spent seven days in jail.
Español: Pasé siete días en la cárcel.
13. Durante nueve días/semanas/meses/años
There is a subtle difference between this use and the last use. Here you are adding the Spanish word durante as the best translation of ‘for’ when talking about a time period.
English: He didn’t speak for two days.
Español: No habló durante dos días.
English: You worked without pay for six months?
Español: ¿Trabajaste sin sueldo durante seis meses?
14. From Sunday to Tuesday – Desde el domingo hasta el martes
You can also be more specific than the last example by singling out a specific start and stop day.
English: They celebrated The Falles of Valencia from Sunday to Friday last month.
Español: Celebraron las Fallas de Valencia desde el domingo hasta el viernes el mes pasado.
English: She trained from Tuesday to Friday each week for eleven months before the race.
Español: Ella entrenó desde el martes hasta el viernes cada semana durante once meses antes de la carrera.
15. De 1999 a 2003
For the last example, you can talk about something that happened from a specific year to another year. Maybe a good way to talk about an important period of your life such as school or university.
English: I went to college in Salamanca from 2003 to 2006.
Español: Fui a la universidad en Salamanca de 2003 a 2006.
English: They lived in Bogota from 1992 to 1997.
Español: Ellos vivieron en Bogota de 1992 a 1997.
You’ve now learnt that the key time period for Spanish past simple tense is for events with specific well-defined start and end moments.
In addition, you now have a set of phrases that almost guarantee the use of the past simple tense.
So, the challenge this week is to find a Spanish native and tell them about something that happened to you recently. You get extra points for starting the story with one of the Spanish phrases from the post.
How else can you use these Spanish phrases to talk about the past?