Definition of preterite in English:


(also preterit)


  • Expressing a past action or state.

    • ‘So now look at this sentence, with the preterite form could.’
    • ‘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.’’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘While listening to her teacher ramble about the preterit tense, Margaret felt a sharp pain at her side.’


  • A simple past tense or form.

    • ‘For example, one gives you a choice between sneaked and snuck as the preterite of sneak.’
    • ‘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 shed and crown could therefore be taken as preterites.’
    • ‘Both of them have a raft of irregular preterites and past participles, suggesting long standing confusion.’
    • ‘That minimum is represented in English by verbs such as must and ought, which are modal verb with no preterite (inflected past tense).’


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