Use of the Spanish Perfect Tenses   By Ron Slone

Introduction.

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.
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