I know it’s hard. I know that you think the Spanish past tense makes no sense at all. But maybe it’s just that you are looking at it the wrong way.
Past tense in Spanish is, undoubtedly, a hard grammar topic to master. We have four different ones. They don’t correlate to other languages like English, for example, but are not even close to languages such as Italian or French.
In addition, in Spanish itself there is a mix of labels for these names, different for each school of grammar, and different in various Spanish speaking countries. As you can see, past tenses are a challenging topic for native speakers as well.
We are going to speak here about four different past tenses. You can see their names, but for the sake of understanding, I will label them with a letter, so you know which one of them I am speaking about.
- Pretérito Indefinido / Pretérito Perfecto Simple / Pretérito: Yo canté, tú cantaste… Letra A
- Pretérito Imperfecto / Copretérito: Yo cantaba, tú cantabas… Letra B
- Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto / Presente Perfecto: Yo he cantado, tú has cantado… Letra C
- Pretérito Pluscuamperfecto: Yo había cantado, tú habías cantado… Letra D
Before continuing this review, I want to say this: everything will be way easier to understand if you know the forms already. What I am going to speak about is the use and context for each tense, but it’s going to be kind of confusing and vague if you cannot quickly relate the grammar tense with its forms.
But don’t worry. That is the easy part! Just a bit of memorizing and you are done. Of course, you can continue reading this article anyway, and use its information for future reference.
If you ask what is the most important message from this post, I would answer this: that the difference in the usage of these verbs falls neither in the moment of the past you are speaking about (i.e. before, after...), nor in the length of the action, not even in whether now it is a finished action or it is not.
It falls on the aspect, a grammatical category that refers to whether we see the action in the moment we are speaking from as a finished action, or we don’t see any end (it may have it later or not). This may sound obscure and not useful for you… Sorry! I had to say it, because it’s true. Anyway, you will see it more clearly in the examples.
In the following paragraphs, I will provide you with the main problematic contexts, and some examples on them.
Contexts and Examples
After many lessons explaining this topic, and also from all research I have read, I have come to the conclusion that is much more useful to learn some “usage context” wherein you can choose one tense or another. Usually there are two options in each context, so it’s not that hard! I will proceed by listing the contrasting tenses and the situations in which to use them.
Tenses A (Indefinido) and B (Imperfecto)
The difference between these two is probably your main struggle when using the past tense. Below are some examples of contrast situations:
Finished & Concrete Action vs. Durative Action
This is the most “grammatical” case.
- Mi amigo vivía en Panamá vs. Mi amigo vivió en Panamá.
Actually, both cases provide the same information: I have a friend, this friend lived in Panama. The difference, as I told you before, is in how I perceive the action in the moment I imagine it.
A person who utters the first sentence (Tense B/Imperfecto) is telling you some information that he or she has, but only about this moment as it occurred in the past. He/She doesn’t know or doesn’t want to say if this friend is still living in Panamá, is not still living in Panama, or what happened after that past moment.
On the other hand, the person who utters the second sentence (Tense A/Indefinido) is providing a new information: that the friend is not living in Panamá anymore (vivió), and he/she knows that for sure.
Because of this, a speaker won’t be understood if he says Visitaba España el mes pasado, because he/she knows for sure that the action is finished. Instead, this person must say Visité España el mes pasado.
Description vs. Narration
If you are going to tell a story, remember this:
We use (Tense B/Imperfecto) for descriptions, and (Tense A/Indefinido) for discussing events. This is an easy one. If you want to describe how things were, how things used to be, in the moment you are speaking about, then you should use (Tense B/Imperfecto).
- La casa era grande, tenía ventanas rojas, y delante de ella había un precioso parque. Las paredes estaban pintadas de blanco, y el tejado se podía ver una veleta con forma de gallo.
You are now very much involved in the situation. You can see the picture as if you were there. That’s the power of the (Tense B/Imperfecto). It’s just like a photograph of how the past was in that moment.
However, you want your story to have some action as well. Here (Tense A/Indefinido) comes to your assistance. Anecdotes are mainly made using this form; fast and critical moments are constructed with it. It is with it that you really tell what happened. (Tense A/Indefinido) refers to actions seen as concluded, unitary, one-hit events.
- El niño golpeó la pelota, que cayó en el tejado del vecino. El vecino salió muy enfadado de su casa, y cerró la puerta tras él. Amenazó al niño con llamar a sus padres, pero el muchacho, muy valiente, le contestó que sólo era un niño. El vecino se tranquilizó, y, sonriendo, le devolvió la pelota al simpático joven.
This is storytelling. You can see the action going on, as if you were watching the movie of the past.
Repeated, Habitual Actions vs. Sequentially Successive Actions.
We use (Tense B/Imperfecto) for the habitual actions, i.e. actions that were repetitive in the past. They can describe your daily routine, as in the following examples:
- Cuando era pequeño, me levantaba todos los días a las siete, desayunaba cereales e iba al colegio.
- Mis mejores amigos se llamaban Carlos y Juan. Mi padre nos llevaba los domingos a ver los partidos, y cuando ganaba nuestro equipo, lo celebrábamos cenando pizza en mi casa.
Notice they could be finished actions, but it doesn’t matter. What the speaker wants to remark on is the “repeatedness” of the events.
We use (Tense A/Indefinido) for sequential actions. The same example that we use in the last section works here: a group of actions happening one after the other one, as in a movie, but only one time each, for example:
- El niño golpeó la pelota, que cayó en el tejado del vecino. El vecino salió muy enfadado de su casa, y cerró la puerta tras él.
These are clearly one-time events.
Simultaneous Actions vs. Surprising Actions
Two actions that were happening at the same time in the past would be written in (Tense B/Imperfecto), for example:
- Mientras mi madre cosía, la ropa se secaba al viento y los pajarillos cantaban en los árboles.
Just like in a picture, all actions are happening at the same time.
But sometimes, a current action (as in the past perspective we are speaking from) is interrupted by another one. We will use (Tense B/Imperfecto) for the first one, and (Tense A/Indefinido) for the interrupting one, for example:
- Mientras mi madre cosía, el gato saltó sobre las telas, y rompió el bonito jersey en el que trabajaba.
Specific situations: Unaccomplished wishes
When we had a plan that didn’t work, we use (Tense B/Imperfecto) in Spanish, specially with verb ir. For example:
- Ayer iba a estudiar, pero mi perro se comió los deberes.
- El jefe pensaba ascenderme, pero finalmente decidió ascender a su sobrino.
Specific situations: Politeness
This one is easy to remember. If you want to sound more polite, just use the (Tense B/Imperfecto) in your demands. It is much more well-mannered to say “Quería dos tomates y un melón”, for example, than “Quiero dos tomates y un melón”.
As simple as that. It doesn’t depend on the vegetables you want to eat.
Tense C (Pretérito Perfecto)
Now it gets easier. When it comes to (Tense C/Pretérito Perfecto), there are only a couple of contexts.
Current Time Unit
This means that something happened in the past (finished or not) and the person who is speaking is still in the same time unit in which it happened.
It’s very important to remember here that it is not an objective point of view about the time, what happened before and after. Instead, you will use it when you are encompassing the past event in your “current time unit.” Here are some examples:
- Este año he hecho muchos exámenes.
- El mes pasado hice muchos exámenes.
Actually, they can be the same exams at the same time. But in the first example, you are speaking in the current time unit (este año), as opposed to the second (el mes pasado).
- Conocí a una chica preciosa ayer.
- He conocido a una chica preciosa esta semana.
Same thing goes for these two sentences: the moment when you knew the girl could be exactly the same (yesterday, at some point), but in the first one you are speaking from the “next time unit”, and in the last one you speak from the “same time unit”.
Past Events with an Ongoing Aftermath
A nerdy Spaniard could say “He leído El señor de los anillos cinco veces,” and it would be correct. That’s because although the action was finished at some point in the past, it’s something that is, somehow, still current in the present (you haven’t stopped reading those books).
Something like “Leí El señor de los anillos cinco veces en el verano del 99,” but you can see clearly why: you are using a time marker, so you want to focus the attention on the moment when you finished doing it, not just say that is a feat you have performed at some point in the past.
Tense D (Pluscuamperfecto)
You can say this one loud and clear; it’s not likely that you will have problems with it.
The only situation when (Tense D/Pluscuamperfecto) comes handy is when you have to speak about two different events in the past, and you know exactly which one happened before. Here are some examples:
- Cuando Javier llegó al cine, la película ya había comenzado.
- Mi hermano viajó a Estados Unidos cuando Obama ya había sido elegido presidente.
There’s one trick you may want to remember: time markers are a very useful tool for giving you information about what tense you should use. Here you can find a summary for the past:
(Tense C/Pretérito Perfecto)
[Same as in Simple Present]
[Same time unit]
[Same as in Perfecto]
Tense markers in Spanish past tenses
It is not impossible, it is not random. Just try to focus on detecting the context you are speaking in, rather than just trying to learn a set of rules.
Remember that sometimes, two options can be equally correct, and there will be a slight difference in meaning, a subtle connotation (this is the Spanish level of writer Gabriel García Márquez).
If you have been studying with me for a while, you may have noticed I haven’t yet said a word about Subjunctive forms… and yes, there are also Subjunctive past tenses. But they work differently than these ones. Actually, it’s pretty easy to know when to use them, being that there is not a variety of contexts as in the Indicative tenses. It’s pretty straightforward.
Remember, keep an eye on irregular forms, as they are always tricky. You will also need extra attention when using ser or estar in the past - but this is a topic for a whole new article, which is coming soon!
Any further questions you may have, you can post in the comments, and I will be glad to have a look and answer them.