The Perfect Tenses


  1. 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:

    1. The helping verb haber, in the appropriate tense and mood, plus:
    2. 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, or -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.

  2. 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:

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  3. 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:

    1. 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?

    2. 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 [set].

  4. 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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Contact: Fred F. Jehle

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Indiana University - Purdue University Ft. Wayne
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