Beginner's Guide To The Spanish Past Tenses (With Examples)

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Beginner's Guide To The Spanish Past Tenses (With Examples)

The Spanish past tense is enough to give you a headache if you don’t get the right guidance.

We all wish it was simpler! But it doesn’t have to be so difficult.

This blog post will take you through the four main past tenses that you will encounter in a Spanish course.

I’ve got some examples lined up to help you fully understand exactly when to use each Spanish past tense — because each past tense has a time and a place.

Ready? Let’s go!

What are the four main Spanish past tenses?

The four main Spanish past tenses are:

Here’s an example of them being used in a sentence:

1. Simple past

Ayer caminé en el parque con mis amigos.

Yesterday I walked in the park with my friends.

2. Imperfect past

Cuando era una niña caminaba en el parque con mis amigos.

When I was a young girl, I used to walk in the park with my friends.

3. Present perfect

Esta semana he caminado en el parque con mis amigos.

This week I have walked in the park with my friends.

4. Past perfect

Cené con mi familia, pero había caminado en el parque con mis amigos antes.

I had dinner with my family, but I had walked in the park with my friends before.

We’re going to look at each of these Spanish past tenses in turn. Let’s start with the simple past tense.

Spanish simple past tense

If you want to describe an action that is now finished you will need to use the simple past tense. Using the simple past tense indicates that the action started and ended in the past.

To use our above example, Ayer caminé en el parque con mis amigos, the action began yesterday and ended yesterday. For this reason, the simple present is used.

Here are other instances where the Spanish simple past tense is used:

El mes pasado, perdí mi anillo.

Last month I lost my ring.

El año pasado, planté unas semillas.

Last year, I planted some seeds.

La semana pasada, fui al supermercado.

Last week, I went to the supermarket.

Each of these actions have now finished. They belong to the past, and that is why we use the Spanish simple past tense.

How to conjugate Spanish simple past tense verbs

Now that we know how to use the Spanish simple tense, let’s explore how to conjugate verbs for each subject pronoun.

The first thing to know before we get started is that there are three main types of infinitive verbs — those ending in IR, those ending in AR and those ending in ER. Each are conjugated differently.

Here are our examples for IR, AR and ER verbs:

Subject pronounVivIRCaminARBebER
YoVivíCaminéBebí
VivisteCaminasteBebiste
Él / Ella / UstedVivióCaminóBebió
NosotrosVivimosCaminamosBebimos
VosotrosVivisteisCaminasteisBebisteis
Ellos / UstedesVivieronCaminaronBebieron

What you will notice is that the -ar verbs in their conjugated form are different to the IR and ER terminations as you work your way through the columns.

The IR and ER suffixes are both í, iste, , imos, isteis, ieron, whereas the AR suffixes are é, áste, ó, amos, asteis, aron.

Now it’s a case of practicing these terminations until you know them by heart.

As soon as you understand these suffixes, you will be well on your way to understanding the Spanish simple past tense for most verbs!

Spanish imperfect past tense

There is a big difference between the simple past and the imperfect past tense in Spanish. But it’s one of the hardest things to get right.

Let’s compare two sentences that each use these past tenses to clarify the difference.

Caminé por el bosque el fin de semana pasada.

I walked through the forest last weekend.

Caminaba por el bosque cada fin de semana.

I used to walk through the forest every weekend.

Did you spot the difference?

If not, here’s the main difference between these two past tenses — the simple past focuses on a non-recurring event, whereas the imperfect past tense recurs many times. With the imperfect tense, we are unsure or don’t specify when the event ends.

These events are frequent, and if the speaker is using the imperfect past tense, they are referring to an action that goes on for a certain amount of time in the past.

The imperfect past tense is also used when one action is disrupted by another event.

Here’s an example for you:

Comías cuando, de repente, sono el timbre.

You were eating when, suddenly, the doorbell rang.

In this case, the continuous action was the action of eating. This is a classic example of the Spanish imperfect past tense. Whereas the event that happened suddenly — the ringing of the doorbell — this is another example of the simple past tense.

With us so far?

How to conjugate the Spanish imperfect past tense

Okay, let’s take a look at how the Spanish imperfect past tense is conjugated. Remember the main infinitive verb endings? They are IR, AR and ER.

Now, for IR and ER verbs, you just have to remember that the conjugations are similar for the imperfect past tense. For the AR verbs, there are some differences. Take a look at the table below:

Subject pronounVivIRCaminARBebER
YoVivíaCamiabaBebía
VivíasCaminabasBebías
Él / Ella / UstedVivíaCaminabaBebía
NosotrosVivíamosCaminabamosBebíamos
VosotrosVivíasCaminabaisBebías
Ellos / UstedesVivíanCaminabanBebían

We’ve simplified the table so you can see the distinct differences between IR/ER verbs (which have the same endings in the Spanish imperfect past tense) and AR verbs (which have a different form).

Take a look to see the differences:

Subject pronounIR / ER suffixAR suffix
Yoíaaba
íasabas
Él / Ella / Ustedíaaba
Nosotrosíamosábamos
Vosotrosíaisabais
Ellos / Ustedesíanaban

Did you notice how the IR/ER suffixes differ from the AR suffixes? Both IR and ER verbs use the ía suffixes, whereas the AR verbs use an aba termination.

Spanish present perfect tense

We know what you’re thinking — isn’t this blog supposed to be for past tense Spanish verbs? Yes, you’re right.

The Spanish present perfect (also known as the preterito perfecto) is a past tense that is used for actions that are relevant in the present but began in the past.

Here are a few examples to help you understand this better:

He hecho la compra y colgado la ropa.

I have done the shopping and hung the clothes.

¡Hemos visto lo que nos habías comprado para Navidad!

We have seen what you've brought us for Christmas!

¿Habías vivido en Andalucía cinco años? ¡Que guay!

Have you lived in Andalucía for five years? How cool!

In each of these actions, the event has not finished. In fact, the event is still continuing in the present moment, but began in the past. This is why the Spanish present perfect tense is used.

But how is the Spanish present perfect tense formed? Keep reading

How to form the Spanish present perfect tense

There’s a simple way to use the Spanish present perfect tense. You’ll need to remember the verb haber, and conjugate it in the present tense. You’ll then combine this with the past participle of the main verb. The formula is:

Haber (auxiliary) + past participle

Here’s how to conjugate the verb haber, which forms the first part of your sentence:

Subject pronounHaber (present)
YoHe
Has
Él / Ella / UstedHa
NosotrosHemos
VosotrosHabéis
Ellos / UstedesHan

Now, about that past participle part. You’re going to need to follow the conjugated verb haber with the past participle of your main verb. The past participle is a verb that ends in -ado, -ido after you remove the infinitive ending to conjugate it.

Cocinado, comprado, vivido… these are all verbs that are in the past participle form.

So, if you wanted to say ‘I’ve bought a house’, in Spanish, you’d need to say:

¡He comprado una casa!

Spanish past perfect tense

That just leaves us with the Spanish past perfect or pluscuamperfecto. So, what is it used for?

The Spanish past perfect is used to describe actions that have occurred before another action in the past. Let’s look at an example to better understand this.

Se habían olvidado de darle propina al camarero antes de irse.

They had forgotten to tip the waiter before they left.

In this example, one action takes place in the past before another action in the past. The action of forgetting took place before the diners had left. This is indicated by the pluscuamperfecto, or the Spanish past perfect tense.

Here are a couple more examples of this for you:

El accidente había ocurrido antes de que el conductor cumpló treinta años.

The accident had occurred before the driver turned thirty.

Se habían cortado el pelo antes de que fueron a la fiesta.

They had their hair cut before they went to the party.

Él había quedado sin gasolina antes de que salió.

He had run out of gas before he left.

How to form the Spanish past perfect tense

To form the Spanish past perfect tense, you’re going to have to conjugate the verb haber in the imperfect past tense and add the main verb to the sentence in its participle form.

Here’s how to conjugate haber in the imperfect past tense:

Subject pronounHaber (imperfect past)
YoHabía
Habías
Él / Ella / UstedHabía
NosotrosHabíamos
VosotrosHabíais
Ellos / UstedesHabían

Don’t forget the participle part, though.

As with the Spanish present perfect, the main or action verb should take the participle form (which is where you’ll need to add -ido or -ado to the end of the main verb).

So, if you wanted to say ‘Before I left, I had left my keys at home, you would say:

Antes de irme, había dejado mis llaves en casa.

Continue practicing to get it right!

It’s over to you! The Spanish past tense is not easy, and you won’t get it without practice.

It’s common if you’re just beginning to mix up fui and fue. It’s easy to confuse the usted and ustedes forms of conjugated verbs in the past tense. But verb drills are important as they’ll help you gain confidence with any conjugation.

Add a few writing exercises to your practice and you’ll get there in no time!

Continue practicing and you’ll get there.


Are there any other tips you want to share for becoming a master of the Spanish past tenses?

Share them with us in the comments!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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