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preterit(e)

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Definition:

In traditional grammar, the simple past tense of the verb, such as walked or said.

In English, the preterit(e) is typically formed by adding the suffix -ed or -t to the base form of a verb. This form is sometimes referred to as the dental preterit(e).

The term is usually spelled preterit in American English, preterite in British English.

See also:

Etymology:

From the Latin, "to go by"

Examples and Observations:

  • My heart skipped as we walked to the elevator.


  • "The alchemists in their search for gold discovered many other things of greater value."
    (Arthur Schopenhauer)


  • We waited at the inn for dinner, and in about two hours the boy returned.


  • "We climbed the mountain sides, and clambered among sagebrush, rocks and snow."
    (Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872)


  • "During many of the group sessions, the women and I painted, glued, cut, pasted, talked, listened, ate, drank, laughed, cried, and engaged in collaborative processes of reflection and action."
    (Alice McIntyre, Women in Belfast: How Violence Shapes Identity. Praeger Publishers, 2004)


  • Backshifting
    "[Another] use of the preterite shows up in indirect reported speech. Notice the contrast between has and had in this pair.
    [37i] Kim has blue eyes. [original utterance: present tense]
    [37ii] I told Stacy that Kim had blue eyes. [indirect report: preterite]
    If I say [i] to Stacy, I can use [ii] as an indirect report to tell you what I said to Stacy. I'm repeating the content of what I said to Stacy, but not the exact wording. My utterance to Stacy contained the present tense form has, but my report of it contains preterite had. Nonetheless, my report is entirely accurate. This kind of change in tense is referred to as backshift.

    "The most obvious cases of backshift are with verbs of reporting that are in the preterite, like told or said."
    (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2006)


  • The Preterite and the Present-Perfect
    "[W]ith most verbs the difference between the form of the present perfect and the form of the preterite is slight in present-day English, especially in informal speech, which explains why in a long-term perspective the distinction may eventually be lost. . . .

    "Reference to distinct past time without any obvious kind of anchoring has emerged as an area where usage is far from settled in present-day English. The selection of the preterite in such cases appears to be on the increase . . .."
    (Johan Elsness, The Perfect and the Preterite in Contemporary and Earlier English. Mouton de Gruyter, 1997)

    "[T]he systematic marking of perfect aspect in LModE [Late Modern English] has partially relieved the simple Preterite of its burden of indicating past time. Since perfectivity implies the completion of an event prior to the actual time of utterance, a Present Perfect form carries an automatic implication of pastness. The actual point of completion in past time may be very close, as in (18), or vaguely more distant, as in (19).
    (18) I've just eaten my dinner.
    (19) John Keegan has written a history of war.
    . . . [T]he growing acceptability of the vague degree of pastness in sentences such as (19) indicates that LModE may be starting on the road that led the Perfect to replace the Simple Past in a number of Romance languages."
    (Jacek Fisiak, Language History and Linguistic Modelling. Mouton de Gruyter, 1997)
Pronunciation: PRET-er-it
Also Known As: simple-past tense
Alternate Spellings: preterite
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