Spanish tenses explained:

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Using different tenses is a normal part of language for Spanish speakers, just as it is in many other languages. When talking in different situations, we use varying verb tenses to refer to what we did the day before, what we’re doing or what we plan to do.

The next time you want to practice your Spanish by making plans and sharing them with friends, don’t be held back by fear that you will use incorrect tenses. Here we’ll take you through each of the different tenses in the Spanish language, with tips on when and how to use them.

What are tenses in Spanish?

Just like in English, Spanish tenses refer to the time when the performance of an action happens, and they´re an integral part of speaking Spanish.

When we talk about verb tenses, it’s important to consider the following:

  • Time: Situates the facts in relation to the moment in which it’s spoken (now)
  • Mode: Indicates the attitude of the speaker (indicative, subjunctive and imperative)
  • Number: Refers to the special forms that the verb has (changes in the ending of the verb) for the third person singular and third person plural
  • Person: Indicates the connection between the individuals that make up the speech act
  • Aspect: Describes the scope of progress or completion of the action (indefinite, progressive, and perfect)

Verb tenses can be simple or compound.

Simple verb tenses are when the action is expressed with a single word. They’re compound when the action is expressed with more than one word such as an auxiliary verb [ser and haber (to be and to have)], and a participle non-personal form of the verb that has the ending -do in the regular form of Spanish and can form compound tenses.

For instance: ser amado- to be loved

The Spanish language has many Spanish tenses, but the three main tenses are the past, the present and the future.

Present tense

The present tense is used to show what a subject usually does or is doing.

Siempre me levanto temprano. (I always get up early).

Past tense

The past tense or preterit is used to express actions or events that happened at a certain time in the past. So, it's common to use it with expressions that state a certain time period such as ayer (yesterday), la semana pasada (last week) and el año pasado (last year) among others.

Fui al cine la semana pasada. (I went to the movies last week).

Future tense

The future is used to express actions that have not been performed yet. These actions are independent of any other action. It's common to use future tense with expressions like mañana (tomorrow), la próxima semana (next week), en dos días (in a couple of days) and others.

Compraré una nueva computadora el próximo fin de semana. (I will buy a new computer next weekend).

Top Tip: As a general rule in Spanish, the subject pronouns are omitted since the conjugated form of the verb is sufficient to indicate which person it is.

In English, the ending -s/-es is used in the present and -ed in the past. It does not have any type of future marking or conjugation, so it makes use of the auxiliary verbs will and shall. In Spanish, there is a different conjugation for each of the tenses.

When learning Spanish, the present tense is the first tense you’ll learn, followed by the past tense and then the future tense.

It can be daunting at first, but as you begin to understand the conjugations, they become easier, and you’ll start to do them without much thought.

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How many tenses are there in Spanish?

There are 16 tenses in Spanish, but some Spanish experts consider "conditional" to be a tense, which can also be considered a "mood."

It’s important to understand the basics of how verbs are conjugated before we talk about all of them. There are three types of regular verbs in Spanish. In their base form (the infinitive) they end in -ar, -er, or -ir verbs.

Hablar (to talk) ends in -ar

Once you remove the ending -ar, you´re left with the stem “habl,” which contains the meaning of the word.

To conjugate a verb, you simply keep the verb's stem form and add the ending from the designated tense you would like to use. The ending you use is based on the subject of the verb.

Feeling overwhelmed? You don't have to tackle them all at once. Start with one at a time.

Indicative mood (el indicativo)

The indicative mood indicates concrete actions or facts, including apparent qualities and characteristics of people, things and situations. It has simple tenses and compound tenses.

Let's take a look at the simple tenses.

1. Present tense- Presente

The present tense in Spanish is the most used of all, so it’s necessary that you learn it before the other tenses.

The present tense is used to talk about actions that are happening at the moment, actions that are frequently performed (routines and habits), as well as things that are constant, such as characteristics. Sometimes, it’s used to talk about the near future.

Maria desayuna con su hermana todos los fines de semana. (Maria has breakfast with her sister every weekend).

2. Imperfect tense- Copretérito / pretérito imperfecto

In Spanish, the imperfect tense is used to talk about habits and routines in the past. It also describes actions, places, and people that existed or took place in the past.

Carlos hablaba con su amigo Pedro cada mañana. (Carlos talked to his friend Pedro every morning).

3. Preterite tense- Pretérito / pretérito perfecto simple

The preterit tense in Spanish is used to express an event or action that happened and was completed at a specific time in the past.

Cambié el aceite de la camioneta la semana pasada. (I changed the oil in the truck last week).

4. Future tense- Futuro / Futuro simple

The future simple tense is used to express a future action, an intention or a probability.

Comeré bistec esta noche. (I'll eat steak tonight).

5. Conditional tense- Pospretérito / condicional simple

The conditional simple tense is used to express wishes and to ask for things politely.

Si yo fuera tú, no iría. (If I were you, I wouldn't go).

Now, let's look at compound tenses.

6. Present perfect- Pretérito perfecto compuesto o antepresente

The present perfect tense in Spanish is used to talk about past events with which the speaker still keeps a close relationship. It's formed with the auxiliary verb haber (has/have) and the participle form of the verb (the verb ending is -ado or -ido).

Hemos hablado sobre el horario de natación. (We have talked about the swimming schedule).

7. Past perfect- Pretérito pluscuamperfecto / antecopretérito

The past perfect tense is used to express an action that occurred before another action in the past and live experiences for the first time.

El paciente ya había hablado cuando el médico llegó. (The patient had already spoken when the doctor arrived). Nunca había visto a una jirafa. (I had never seen a giraffe).

8. Preterite perfect- Pretérito anterior / antepretérito

The preterite perfect tense is used to express an action that has already happened, before another action in the past, and right after it. It's not used in colloquial Spanish.

It's very similar to the pluperfect tense [which we’ll discuss it the subjunctive mode to follow: Pluperfect subjunctive] but it employs the preterite conjugation of the verb haber plus the participle. It's most commonly used in literature and less in everyday speech.

Cuando hubo terminado, se fue del salón. (When/after he/she had finished, he/she left the room.) No comí nada después de que hube bebido la medicina. (I didn’t eat anything after drinking/having drank/I had drank the medicine.

9. Future perfect- futuro compuesto / antefuturo

The future perfect tense is used to talk about actions that will occur after the moment of speaking and to make conjectures and hypotheses about the past, or express probabilities regarding a state or situation prior to the moment in which it is stated.

Yo ya habré hablado sobre ella antes del evento. (I will have already talked about it before the event.) Pedro se habrá quedado boquiabierto después de la sorpresa. (Pedro might have been speechless after the surprise.)

10. Conditional perfect- condicional compuesto / antepospretérito

The conditional perfect tense is the equivalent of saying "would/could have" in English. It´s used to talk about possibility or impossibility in the past tense. It uses the conditional form of the verb haber (have).

  • Form compound sentences with “If…”

Habríamos ganado si Susan no hubiera desmayado. (We would have won if Susan hadn't passed out).

  • Formulate conjectures or rhetorical questions in the past.

Creí que habrías venido a tiempo. (I thought you would have come on time).

Subjunctive mood (el subjuntivo)

The subjunctive tense indicates a possibility or wish. It has simple tenses and compound tenses.

Me gustaría comprar un libro. (I would like to buy a book.) No creo que pueda comprar un libro. (I don't think I can buy a book.)

Let's learn about the simple tenses.

1. Present subjunctive- Presente

The present subjunctive tense is used to express wishes, doubts, purposes, emotions and hopes that are related to the present or the future.

Quisiera que hables conmigo. (I would like you to talk to me.) ¡Ojalá hablaras! (I wish you would talk!) Imperfect subjunctive- Pretérito / pretérito imperfecto

The imperfect subjunctive tense is used to express wishes and doubts and to make polite requests. It's used to express past events or the present opinion on past events.

No creo que la comida fuera tan deliciosa. (I don't think the food was that delicious. Ojalá no erupcionara. (I wish it hadn't erupted.) Quisiera un trozo de pastel. (I would like a piece of cake.)

2. Future subjunctive- Futuro simple / futuro

The future subjunctive tense is used when the main verb needs the subjunctive and refers to the future. This form is becoming obsolete in Spanish.

El que hablare será recompensado. (Whoever speaks will be rewarded). Adonde fueres, haz lo que vieres. (When in Rome, do as the Romans do).

Here are the compound tenses of the subjunctive.

3. Present perfect subjunctive- Pretérito perfecto compuesto / antepresente

The present perfect subjunctive tense is used to express uncertainty, probability or feelings such as joy, surprise or amazement, and can refer to the present or the future. To conjugate in the present perfect subjunctive, take the present subjunctive form of haber (have), which is haya (had) and add the past participle.

Espero que Marcos haya descansado. (I hope Mark had rested). Llegaré cuando haya terminado. (I'll call you when I finish).

4. Pluperfect subjunctive- Pretérito pluscuamperfecto / antepretérito

The pluperfect subjunctive tense is used to talk about past events we wish had or hadn't happened in the past when something else happened. It´s formed with the imperfect conjugation of the verb haber (have), which corresponds to hubiera or hubiese (had) and the past participle.

Si hubiera llegado temprano no habría perdido el vuelo. (If I had arrived early, I would not have missed the flight).

5. Future perfect subjunctive- Futuro compuesto / antefuturo

The future perfect subjunctive tense is used to refer to an action in the future that would only happen if the condition of a previous event has been completed. It is obsolete in colloquial Spanish. It's only present in literature, poetry and legal texts.

Quien hubiere robado la joya, será encarcelado. (Whoever stole the jewel will be imprisoned).

Imperative mood (el imperativo)

The imperative mood is used to express orders, instructions, requests or advice.

Compra un repelente. (Buy a repellent).

Let's look at the conjugation of the verb to dance- bailar

Imperative mood

Affirmative Negative
(tú) baila No bailes
(usted) baile No baile
(nosotros) bailemos No bailemos
(ustedes) bailen No bailen
(vosotros) bailad No bailéis
(ellos/ellas) bailen No bailen

Time to put your tense knowledge to the test?

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Spanish irregular verbs and tenses

So far, we´ve talked about Spanish tenses, but there's one last thing you need to know: how irregular verbs fit with tenses.

Well, the conjugation of verbs in the present tense, the past, perfect, simple and future of the indicative mood allow us to recognize if a verb is regular or irregular.

The irregular verbs do as their name suggests, and include some stem or ending changes for some verbs in some tenses.

So, if we follow the model of the regular verbs amar, temer and partir (to love, to fear and to leave), and there are changes in the root and/or in the ending, the verb is irregular.

One interesting fact about irregular verbs is that many of them follow the standard pattern endings in the absolute future tense, but they can be irregular in other tenses, such as the verb ir (to go).

Remember that practice is your best ally, and at some point, you’ll have to memorize the irregular verb conjugations.

The more you use the Spanish tenses, the easier they will seem.

If you want to learn about irregular verbs, there’s a whole section on it.

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