spanish past tense

Spanish verb tenses seem to be a real labyrinth but when you look close you may see that these are not that difficult to navigate.

In this article, you will learn the different names (both Spanish and English) for the past tenses of the Spanish Indicative Mood, how to conjugate them respectively, and when to best use every single one.

Spanish Verb Moods

Let´s start by reviewing the three moods that inform the Spanish verb tenses. Think of them as the speaker´s point of view used commonly to express:

  1. Indicative (Indicativo): statements of facts.
  2. Subjunctive (Subjuntivo): subjective information such as hypothesis, wishes, suggestions or assumptions.
  3. Imperative (Imperativo): commands, suggestions or prohibitions.

Spanish Past Tenses Formal Names

spanish past tense preterite

Preterite or ‘Pretérito’ is the Spanish tense that places the action expressed by the verb before the moment of speech, aka the past.

You will find that there are diverse approaches for Spanish past verb tenses, depending on the territory, the source, and the translator.

To avoid any confusions we will be using the Spanish designations of the verbal conjugation model provided by the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (Real Academia de la Lengua Española, abbreviated RAE), which stands as a formal institute for Castilian’s studies.

These are the simple and compound Spanish names for the Indicative Mood verb tenses according to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language:

Modo Indicativo (Indicative Mood):

  1. Simple (simple):
  2. Presente
  3. Pretérito Imperfecto/Copretérito
  4. Pretérito Perfecto Simple/Pretérito Indefinido
  5. Futuro Simple/Futuro
  6. Condicional Simple/Pospretérito
  7. Compuesto (compound):
  8. Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto/Antepresente
  9. Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto/Antecopretérito
  10. Pretérito Anterior/Antepretérito
  11. Futuro compuesto/Antefuturo
  12. Condicional compuesto/Antepospretérito

As you can see, some tenses have more than one name and those highlighted in red are the ones used to talk about something in the past.

Look at the table below, it shows the conjugation with the verb ‘comer’ (to eat) using the first person singular pronoun ‘yo’ (I).

INDICATIVO SIMPLE
Presente Pretérito Imperfecto/ Copretérito Pretérito Perfecto Simple/Pretérito Futuro Simple/Futuro Condicional Simple/Pospretérito
Como Comía Comí Comeré Comería
     
INDICATIVO COMPUESTO
Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto/Antepresente Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto/Antecopretérito Pretérito Anterior/Antepretérito Futuro Compuesto/Antefuturo Condicional Compuesto/Antepospretérito
He comido Había comido Hube comido Habré comido Habría comido

What can you perceive? There are two important things that we can point out:

This is because this category is similar to the Perfect tenses in English. ‘Compuesto’ means ‘combined’ or composed of two verbs!

Spot that in all cases the second verb (the participle) remains the same; it is the verb ‘haber’ which changes.

In short, the Preterite is the Spanish past form and it has five possible verb tenses:

  1. Pretérito Imperfecto/Copretérito
  2. Pretérito Perfecto Simple/Pretérito Indefinido
  3. Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto/Antepresente
  4. Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto/Antecopretérito
  5. Pretérito Anterior/Antepretérito

Practice using Spanish Preterite with these flashcards.

Spanish Past Tenses English Names

spanish past tense moods

In keeping with the above nomenclature, we will be referring to the tenses in English and Spanish throughout this article, using the first name from the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language as a tag.

But, before we move on, let’s identify the English names for the Spanish past tenses from the Indicative Mood.

SPANISH ENGLISH
Pretérito Imperfecto Spanish Imperfect Preterite or Spanish Imperfect Past
Pretérito Perfecto Simple Spanish Preterite or Spanish Simple Past
Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto Spanish Preterite Perfect or Spanish Past Perfect
Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto Spanish Pluperfect
Pretérito Anterior Spanish Past Anterior

Now that we have the clear basis on the naming business let’s move on to the juicy bits!

Spanish Simple PastPretérito Perfecto Simple

spanish past tense preterite

This tense expresses actions that took place in the past and they have already finished and/or are not necessarily related to the present.

Example:

  1. Ayer cené con mi novio. –> Yesterday I dined with my boyfriend.
  2. Viví en Barcelona el verano pasado. -> I lived in Barcelona last Summer.

How to conjugate verbs in the Spanish Simple Past? In the table below, you can appreciate the Spanish simple preterite endings for regular verbs.

    REGULAR VERBS IRREGULAR VERBS
    -AR -ER -IR -ER -IR
PERSON CANTAR (sing) BEBER (drink) ABRIR (open) TENER (have) DECIR (say)
Singular Yo cant-é beb-í abr-í tuv-e dij-e
cant-aste beb-iste abr-iste tuv-iste dij-iste
Él/Ella Usted cant-ó beb-ió abr-ió tuv-o dij-o
Plural Nosotros cant-amos beb-imos abr-imos tuv-imos dij-imos
Vosotros cant-asteis beb-isteis abr-isteis tuv-isteis dij-eis
Ustedes cant-aron beb-ieron abr-ieron tuv-ieron dij-eron

The groups of verbs that end in –er and –ir are conjugated in exactly the same, but the ones in –ar are very similar too.

Even when you look at the irregular verbs you will spot some kind of a pattern, but it may be best to take the time to memorize each irregular verb with time. 

Uses of the Spanish Simple Past tense

spanish past tense simple

It is used to describe situations in the past which are seen as completed.

This means that the action expressed by the verb had a definite beginning and ending and has been left behind, although this fact is not always openly stated.

Example:

Carlos habló con su hermano por teléfono. -> Carlos spoke with his brother on the phone.

Now, on the next example, you can see that the action (speaking to his brother) took place during a specific period of time and it was part of a chain of events but is not taking place anymore.

Example:

Carlos salió temprano, acudió a la cita y habló con su hermano durante dos horas ayer por la noche, pero no logró resolver el problema. -> Carlos left early, arrived to the appointment, and spoke with his brother for two hours yesterday night, but he didn’t manage to solve the problem.

This tense is used in phrases that denote a period of time such as:

Simple! Right?

Spanish Imperfect Past – Pretérito Imperfecto

spanish past tense imperfect

Perfecto’ means that the act already finished or perfected. On the contrary, ‘Imperfecto’ means that the end is not explicit; it may be that it still continues — or maybe not!

Uses of the Spanish Imperfect Past:

This tense describes:

In some instances, it may be used to talk about planned events that were supposed to happen in the future but haven´t passed yet.

Example:

¿A qué hora sale el avión? – At what time does the plane leave?

Salía a las 6:00 am pero lo cancelaron. – It was leaving at 6:00 am but it was cancelled.

To find out more about this particularity check the Nueva Gramática de la Lengua Española from the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language.

Anyhow, the Spanish Imperfect Past tense serves best to highlight the frequency of a past action. In which case, this tense is usually translated in English as ‘used to’.

Look at how the second option of the example below denotes a deed that was often done in the past.

Example:

Manuel vendía sus pinturas para costearse la Universidad.

The intention of the speaker is to emphasize the fact that the man sold his paintings many times in order to pay for his university’s fees, not only once in his lifetime, and that maybe he still does.

Look at the following example that talks about past habits:

Cuando era pequeño, comía caramelos.

Which option is correct?

The correct answer is option 2!

The Spanish Imperfect Past can also be used to talk about events that happened in the past but still relate to the present in a positive or negative manner:

Example:

Practice Spanish Imperfect with these flashcards.


How to conjugate the Spanish Imperfect Past tense

spanish past tense

The regular verbs ending in –ar, –er, and –ir change as follows. The endings of the Spanish Simple Past tense are included in the first table so you can compare them.

  CANTAR (SING) –AR    
PERSON IMPERFECT PAST SIMPLE PAST
Yo Cantaba Aba Canté É
Cantabas Abas Cantaste Aste
Él/Ella/Usted Cantaba Aba Cantó Ó
Nosotros Cantábamos Ábamos Cantamos Amos
Vosotros Cantabais Abais Cantasteis Asteis
Ustedes Cantaban Aban Cantaron Aron
         
  VOLVER (RETURN) –ER    
PERSON IMPERFECT PAST    
Yo Volvía Ía    
Volvías Ías    
Él/Ella/Usted Volvía Ía    
Nosotros Volvíamos íamos    
Vosotros Volvíais Íais    
Ustedes Volvían Ían    
         
  COMPARTIR (SHARE) –IR    
PERSON IMPERFECT PAST    
Yo Compartía Ía    
Compartías Ías    
Él/Ella/Usted Compartía Ía    
Nosotros Compartíamos íamos    
Vosotros Compartíais Íais    
Ustedes Compartían Ían    

Note that the first person singular (yo) and third-person singular (él/ ella/usted) forms are the same for all regular verbs, thus in some instances, you may want to use the pronoun to avoid ambiguity.

There are only three irregular verbs in this tense, ‘ver’, ‘ir’, and ‘ser’, and you can look for the full conjugation here.

Spanish Imperfect Progressive – Imperfecto Progresivo

spanish past tense imperfect progressive

The Past Progressive or Past Continuous of the English language has no real equivalent in Spanish but it is known as ‘Imperfecto Progresivo’ or ‘Imperfecto Continuo’.

It is a type of verbal periphrasis, a compound expression that consists of one verb followed by another in its gerund form, which has a progressive aspect.

Here you can see the conjugation of the verb ‘comer’ (to eat) in all the Spanish past tenses, including the past continuous form.

SPANISH ENGLISH COMER TO EAT
Pretérito Perfecto Simple Spanish Simple Past Comí I ate
Pretérito Imperfecto Spanish Imperfect Past Comía I used to eat
Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto Spanish Past Perfect He comido I have eaten
Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto Spanish Pluperfect Había comido I had eaten
Pretérito Anterior Spanish Past Anterior Hube comido I had eaten (or having eaten)
Imperfecto Progresivo Spanish Imperfect Progressive Estaba comiendo I was eating

The Spanish Imperfect Progressive is formed by the combination of the imperfect tense of the auxiliary verb ‘estar’ (one of the Spanish verbs that mean ‘to be’) plus another verb in its gerund form.

IMPERFECT PROGRESSIVE = PRONOUN + IMPERFECT OF ESTAR + GERUND

Example with pronouns:

In Spanish the verb conjugation of the auxiliary verb ‘estar’ describes the subject who is actually performing the verb, so it is quite common to drop the pronoun.

Example:

  1. I was reading -> Yo estaba leyendo -> Estaba leyendo.
  2. We were talking -> Nosotros estábamos hablando -> Estábamos hablando.
  3. She was dancing -> Ella estaba bailando -> Estaba bailando.

Revise the conjugation for the irregular verb ‘estar’ with the table below:

SIMPLE INDICATIVE ‘ESTAR’ (TO BE)
PRONOUN PRESENT IMPERFECT SIMPLE PAST FUTURE CONDITIONAL
Yo Estoy Estaba Estuve Estaré Estaría
Estás Estabas Estuviste Estarás Estarías
Usted Está Estaba Estuvo Estará Estaría
Él Está Estaba Estuvo Estará Estaría
Ella Está Estaba Estuvo Estará Estaría
Nosotros Estamos Estábamos Estuvimos Estaremos Estaríamos
Ustedes Están Estaban Estuvieron Estarán Estarían
Vosotros Estáis Estabais Estuvisteis Estaréis Estaríais

To learn more about the differences between ‘estar’ and ‘ser’ see this article.

Let’s recap on the gerund (gerundio), which is an impersonal verb form and expresses a previous, immediate or simultaneous action.

The gerund also works as an adverb as in the expression ‘salí corriendo’, which means ‘I left in a hurry’ or ‘I rushed to x place’.

It can be shaped by adding the suffixes –ando, –iendo, –yendo, and –endo to the root. Therefore, all gerunds end in –ndo.

GERUND = ROOT + SUFFIX –NDO

Example:

  1. Estudiar (study) -> estudiando (studying)
  2. Vivir (live) -> viviendo (living)
  3. Envejecer (age) -> envejeciendo (aging)

We can discern two groups for regular verbs, one ending in –ar that changes to –ando, and another that ends in –er or –ir and changes to –iendo.

AR -> ANDO

IR -> IENDO

ER -> IENDO


In the following chart you can appreciate various examples of some common verbs. ‘Volver’, ‘ver’ and ‘escribir’ are irregular verbs.

-AR -ANDO -ER -IENDO -IR -IENDO
Amar Amando Correr Corriendo Escribir Escribiendo
Zarpar Zarpando Esclarecer Esclareciendo Lucir Luciendo
Atacar Atacando Volver Volviendo Venir Viniendo
Visitar Visitando Morder Mordiendo Salir Saliendo
Destrozar Destrozando Ver Viendo Sentir Sintiendo

In some cases, when the sound «i» is found between two vowels it changes to «y». Thus, instead of –iendo it is –yendo.

This is a small bunch of verbs where this rule applies:

  1. Leer (to read) -> leyendo (reading)
  2. Oír (to hear) -> oyendo (hearing)
  3. Ir (to go) -> yendo (going)
  4. Traer (to bring) -> trayendo (bringing)

When to use the Spanish Imperfect Progressive

spanish past tense imperfect

This tense is used to describe ongoing actions that were taking place at some point in the past: before something else, at the same time or immediately after that.

Example:

Let´s review the three Spanish Past forms that we have covered so far:

In spoken Spanish, the use of Imperfect Progressive is more common; whereas the Imperfect Past appears more often in written forms and formal Spanish.

In any case, when it comes for you to pick the right tense is more about thinking of providing context for the other person so they can understand what you really mean to say.

Example:

Juan was looking for his umbrella because it was raining cats and dogs.

This simple sentence could be translated to Spanish into four options:

  1. Juan buscaba su paraguas porque llovía a cántaros.
  2. Juan estaba buscando su paraguas porque estaba lloviendo a cántaros.
  3. Juan buscaba su paraguas porque estaba lloviendo a cántaros.
  4. Juan estaba buscando su paraguas porque llovía a cántaros.

With ‘estaba lloviendo’ one could infer that it had been raining but it probably stopped; whereas ‘llovía’ implies more the fact that it was raining and maybe it still does. This takes us to the next past tense: Spanish Past Perfect!

Spanish Past Perfect – Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto

spanish past perfect

Spanish has two past perfect verb tenses (I had): the Spanish Pluperfect and the Spanish Past Anterior.

Spanish Past Perfect is a compound tense that generally translates to English as a Present Perfect Simple (I have) so it may be a bit confusing.

The important thing is to remember that in the Spanish Past Perfect tense there is a connection between the past and the present.

Recollect the example with the verb to eat?

Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto Spanish Past Perfect He comido I have eaten
Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto Spanish Pluperfect Había comido I had eaten
Pretérito Anterior Spanish Past Anterior Hube comido I had eaten/having eaten

The Spanish Past Perfect is formed by the combination of two verbs: the present tense of the auxiliary verb ‘haber’ (to have) followed by the main verb in its past participle form.

SPANISH PAST PERFECT = PRESENT OF ‘HABER’ + PAST PARTICIPLE

 

Example:

Sofía ha llegado a casa. -> Sofía has arrived home.

The auxiliary verb, in this case, is ‘has’ and the main verb is ‘arrive’.

Haber’ is conjugated as follows:

VERB ‘HABER’ (TO HAVE)
PERSON PERSONAL PRONOUNS PRESENT SIMPLE PAST PAST IMPERFECT
First Yo He hube Había
Second tú / vos Has hubiste Habías
  Usted ha (impersonal: hay) hubo Había
Third él, ella Ha hubo Había
First nosotros, nosotras Hemos hubimos Habíamos
Second vosotros, vosotras Habéis hubisteis Habíais
  Ustedes Han hubieron Habían
Third ellos, ellas Han hubieron Habían

Then, you may need to memorize the past participle of each verb; the good news is that it doesn’t change from one person to another.

Example:

The participle of ‘amar’ (to love) is ‘amado’.

In the Spanish Past Perfect the verb conjugation of the auxiliary verb ‘haber’ describes the subject who is actually performing the action of the second verb, so it is quite common to eliminate the pronoun. However, include it when you feel providing clarification is necessary.

Example:

  1. (Yo) He comido huevos en el desayuno. -> I have eaten eggs at breakfast.
  2. (Ella)Ha escrito una carta de amor. –> She has written a love letter.
  3. (Juan y María) Han ido juntos al colegio. –> They have gone to school together.


How to form Past Participle in Spanish

As you have seen so far, regular verbs can be grouped in three types of endings (-ar, –er, –ir), which endings change accordingly.

AR -> ADO

IR -> IDO

ER -> IDO

Example:

  1. Asar -> asado (grill)
  2. Caminar -> caminado (walk)
  3. Rezar -> rezado (pray)
  4. Morder -> mordido (bite)
  5. Correr -> corrido (run)
  6. Oler -> olido (smell)
  7. Dormir -> dormido (sleep)
  8. Reír -> reído (laugh)
  9. Zurcir -> zurcido (mend)

Some common irregular verbs:

  1. Estar -> estado (be)
  2. Hacer -> hecho (do)
  3. Ser -> sido (be)
  4. Romper -> roto (break)
  5. Volver -> vuelto (come back)
  6. Ver -> visto (see)
  7. Decir -> dicho (say)
  8. Escribir -> escrito (write)
  9. Morir -> muerto (die)

Spanish Past Perfect tense uses

spanish past progressive

Example:

Toño y Ana han tomado el tren para llegar a tiempo. -> Toño and Ana have taken the train to arrive on time.

This means that Toño and Ana (who have just arrived) got to the place promptly because they caught a train ride.

Example:

  1. Me duele el estómago, he comido demasiado. -> My stomach hurts, I have eaten too much.
  2. Este verano los niños han disfrutado de la playa y el buen tiempo. -> This Summer, the kids have enjoyed the beach and the good weather.

There are other occasions where you may use this tense to refer to abstract or concrete events, even when they seem opposite as in the examples below.

Example:

The speaker uses this expression because he wants to know if the person has ever tried the fish dish prepared by the lady called Maruja, probably because it is really good. It is not referring to a specific time or place.

The phrase conveys a nuance of the Spanish language.

The speaker wants to know whether the other person has recently taken the pills or not. He is not asking if the individual has taken medicines at some point in his life.

In this case, it refers more to a concrete event in a recent period of time rather than something general as the previous example.  

Finally, since Castilian language is rich and dynamic, it is possible to talk about one past event using more than one verb tense in the same sentence.

Example:

Esta mañana fui al supermercado porque estaban las ofertas pero he gastado mucho más dinero de lo que tenía planeado y ahora no podré pagar las vacaciones. -> This morning I went to the supermarket because the sales were on, but I have spent more than I had planned to, and now I won’t be able to pay for the holidays.

Spanish Pluperfect – Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto

spanish past tense pluperfect

The verbs in this tense express precedence of a past action in relation to another that has also happened; like a reiterative past or past of the past.

In the Spanish Pluperfect the auxiliary verb ‘haber’ is used in the past imperfect form followed by a past participle.

SPANISH PLUPERFECT = PAST IMPERFECT OF ‘HABER’ + PAST PARTICIPLE

Example:

The participle of ‘amar’ (to love) is ‘amado’.

You can double check the conjugation for ‘haber’ in the Spanish Past Imperfect tense in the table previously shown.

Consequently, the main use of the Spanish Pluperfect as a compound tense is to convey past actions that are more past than others, kind of equivalent to the English Past Perfect.

Example:

In this sentence the reader can infer a disappointment of the subject because the bank closed before the person arrived, even though he/she hurried to get there.

In this sentence we can infer that the subject is surprised because he/she realizes that some food is rotten as a consequence of the fridge not working properly because the electricity was cut off before he/she opened the door. 

A few more examples:

Practice Spanish Pluperfect with these flashcards.


Spanish Past Anterior – Pretérito Anterior

spanish past tense pluperfect anterior

As it was mentioned before, the Spanish Past Anterior sometimes translates as the English Past Perfect tense (I had eaten), but it can also be used in situations where you mean to say “once it had been done” (having eaten).

Example:

Una vez que hube llamado a la ambulancia cubrí el cuerpo con una manta. -> Having called the ambulance… OR Once I had called the ambulance… I covered the body with a blanket.

The Spanish Past Anterior is formed by the combination of two verbs: the Simple Past tense of the auxiliary verb ‘haber’ (to have) followed by the main verb in its past participle form.

SPANISH PAST ANTERIOR = SIMPLE PAST OF ‘HABER’ + PAST PARTICIPLE

Example:

The participle of ‘amar’ (to love) is ‘amado’.

This tense is not often used anymore; it generally appears in formal Spanish and old Castilian literature.

For example:

Carmen hubo llegado a casa desde las tres de la tarde pero su madre había muerto desde el mediodía. -> Carmen had arrived home since three o´clock but here mother had died since noon.

In this sentence we know that Carmen arrived at 3:00 p.m. but her mother passed away before that time (beforehand she got home).

Therefore, it could be said “Carmen llegó a su casa…” using the Spanish Simple Past for ‘llegar’ (llegó) instead of the Spanish Past Anterior (hubo llegado).

Practice Spanish Past Anterior with these flashcards.


Spanish Past Tense Summary

Hurray!!! You made it to the end of the article.

In summary, the Preterite is the Spanish past form and it has five verb tense conjugations, in addition to the past progressive, which results from verbal periphrases.

  1. Pretérito Perfecto Simple – Spanish Simple Past
  2. Pretérito Imperfecto – Spanish Imperfect Past
  3. Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto – Spanish Past Perfect
  4. Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto – Spanish Pluperfect
  5. Pretérito Anterior – Spanish Past Anterior

* Plus Spanish Imperfect Progressive

The first two are simple tenses and the remaining three are compound tenses, using ‘haber’ as an auxiliary verb followed by a past participle. The Imperfect Progressive uses the auxiliary verb ‘estar’ followed by a gerund.

Spanish Past tenses are diverse and serve for many purposes. When you use them remember to think about the context of the action you are expressing.

Look at the final example that describes a love story of a couple that breaks their engagement. Check how the use of some tenses may alter the anecdote.

SPANISH SIMPLE PAST

SPANISH IMPERFECT PAST – IMPERFECT PROGRESSIVE

SPANISH PAST PERFECT

SPANISH PLUPERFECT

SPANISH PAST ANTERIOR

  1. Hubimos roto nuestro compromiso. -> Having broken our engagement. OR Once we had broken our engagement. (It sounds like the break up is definite but something else happened after they ended their relationship.)

Either you feel totally overwhelmed by Spanish Past Tense and its forms or actually keen and ready to tackle more about this subject. Get the ball rolling and sign up for our FREE Spanish Survival Crash Course. Every day for six days, we’ll send learning guides and audio courses to your inbox, totally FREE!

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