Use of the Spanish Perfect Tenses
The perfect tenses [tiempos perfectos] are compound tenses [tiempos compuestos]; that is, they are made up of two parts, a helping verb [verbo auxiliar] and a past participle [participio pasado], for example:
- he hablado (I have spoken)
- habías hablado (you had spoken)
- habremos hablado (we will have spoken)
There are three main perfect tenses in the indicative: present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect. They are “perfect” or “pefective”, as opposed to “imperfect” or “imperfective”, in the sense that they portray an action or state as completed and not in progress, from the point of view of present, past, or future time, respectively.
The perfect tenses in Spanish are formed with:
- The helping verb haber, in the appropriate tense and mood, plus:
- The masculine singular form of the past participle.
Past participles are normally formed by taking the infinitive, dropping off the last two letters, and adding:
-ado for -ar verbs
-ido for -er and -ir verbs
- hablar > hablado (spoken)
- comer > comido (eaten)
- vivir > vivido (lived)
Second- and third-conjugation verbs whose stems end in a vowel need a written accent mark:
- leer > leído
- oír > oído
Some verbs with irregular past participles include:
abrir abierto opened cubrir cubierto closed, shut decir dicho said, told describir descrito described descubrir descubierto discovered devolver devuelto returned, given back escribir escrito written hacer hecho done, made morir muerto died, dead poner puesto put, placed, set romper roto broken, torn ver visto seen volver vuelto returned
Note: Compound words based on these roots typically show these same irregularities:
- componer > compuesto
- deshacer > deshecho
- oponer > opuesto
- suponer > supuesto
- prever > previsto
The present perfect tense [el perfecto or el presente perfecto]:
To form the present perfect, use the present tense of haber plus the masculine singular form of the past participle:
he hablado I have spoken has hablado you have spoken ha hablado he/she has spoken
hemos hablado we have spoken habéis hablado you have spoken han hablado they have spoken
Yo digo que ella lo ha hecho.
I say that she has done it.
Ya hemos visto la película.
We've already seen the film.
The present perfect may be used to indicate an action or state as having occurred —and having been completed— prior to the present time. It is used in almost exactly the same way as we use it in English, with two exceptions:
The present perfect is NOT used to indicate an action still in progress. To express an ongoing action which began in the past, the present tense is used:
Hace cuatro años que vivo aquí.
I have lived (have been living) here for four years.
To express the idea “to have just (done something)”, Spanish typically employs the present of acabar de plus the infinitive, for example:
Acabo de oír la noticia.
I just heard the news [item].
Acabamos de poner el televisor.
We have just turned on the TV.
Note: acabar literally means to finish or to end.
The past perfect tense [el pluscuamperfecto]:
To form the past perfect, use the imperfect of haber plus the masculine singular form of the past participle:
había hablado I had spoken habías hablado you had spoken había hablado he/she had spoken
habíamos hablado we had spoken habíais hablado you had spoken habían hablado they had spoken
Juan dijo que había viajado a México.
John said that he had traveled to Mexico.
A past-time situation is normally indicated by the preterit and imperfect, for example by dijo in the above example. The past perfect tense (e.g., había viajado) views an action or state as having occurred —and been completed— at a time prior to another past action, state or time (e.g., dijo). It is used in almost exactly the same way as we use it in English, with the following exceptions:
The past perfect is NOT used to indicate an action which began in previous past time and is still in progress in (simple) past time; the imperfect tense is used for this purpose:
Hacía cuatro años que vivíamos aquí.
We had lived (had been living) here for four years.
Trabajaban en el proyecto desde hacía seis horas.
They had been working on the project for six hours.
¿Cuánto tiempo llevabas mirando la tele?
How long had you been watching TV?
To express the idea “to had just (done something)”, Spanish usually employs the imperfect of acabar de plus the infinitive, for example:
Acababa de oír la noticia.
I had just heard the news [item].
Acabábamos de poner el televisor.
We had just turned on the TV.
The future perfect tense [el futuro perfecto]:
To form the future perfect, use the future of haber plus the masculine singular form of the past participle:
habré hablado I will have spoken habrás hablado you will have spoken habrá hablado he/she will have spoken
habremos hablado we will have spoken habréis hablado you will have spoken habrán hablado they will have spoken
This tense views an action or state as having occurred —and been completed— at some time in the future. It is used in almost exactly the same way as we use it in English, for example:
Juan habrá salido para las ocho.
Juan will have left by eight o'clock.
Todos habrán terminado la composición para mañana.
Everyone will have finished their compositions by tomorrow.
As you already know, the future tense can be used to indicate conjecture in present time (that is, to replace the present tense and an equivalent of “probably”):
Ahora serán las tres.
Right now it is probably 3:00.
Similarly, the future perfect tense can be used to indicate conjecture or probability in past time; specifically, it may be used to replace the preterit or present perfect tense and an equivalent of “probably”:
¿Ese ruido? Habrá sido el gato.
That noise? It must have been the cat.
Marta ya habrá salido.
Martha (has) probably already left.