Definition of preterite in English:


(US preterit)


  • Expressing a past action or state.

    • ‘But what we do in English is shift the subordinate clause verb into preterite inflection (had blue eyes instead of has blue eyes) as if to respect the choice of tense in the main clause.’
    • ‘While listening to her teacher ramble about the preterit tense, Margaret felt a sharp pain at her side.’
    • ‘The form knew is the preterite tense form of know.’
    • ‘I'm not asking that you be able to name the preterit, imperfect, and subjunctive forms of the verb ‘to be.’’
    • ‘So now look at this sentence, with the preterite form could.’
    • ‘In Tables 4 and 5, the present and preterite paradigms of the indicative mood of the strong verb bindan (to bind) and of the weak verb heran (to hear) are set out for comparison.’


  • A simple past tense or form.

    • ‘A simple preterite rather than a perfect form is sometimes used for action leading up to the present time, even with adverbs: Did you ever hear that?; I already did it.’
    • ‘Both of them have a raft of irregular preterites and past participles, suggesting long standing confusion.’
    • ‘For example, one gives you a choice between sneaked and snuck as the preterite of sneak.’
    • ‘That minimum is represented in English by verbs such as must and ought, which are modal verb with no preterite (inflected past tense).’
    • ‘Both shed and crown could therefore be taken as preterites.’


Middle English (in the sense ‘bygone, former’): from Latin praeteritus ‘gone by’, past participle of praeterire, from praeter ‘past, beyond’ + ire ‘go’.