Lesson 12 - The Perfect Tenses
For English speakers, the perfect
tenses in Spanish are easy. They are formed and function identically with
their English parallels. In contrast with many features of Spanish, they
can be translated correctly into English by going "word by word."
here for a short comment on the use of the word "perfect"
in these tense names.
Formation of the Perfect Tenses.
The perfect tenses are formed using the auxiliary verb haber and a
- The auxiliary verb haber. Haber is the only auxiliary verb in
Spanish. It means to have, but is only used 1) to mean "there is"
or "there are," or the equivalent in the past or future, 2) in
certain idioms, 3) and in forming compound tenses. ("To have"
in the sense of possess is tener.)
- Present: he, has, ha, hemos, habéis, han (hay
is a special form of the 3rd person present of haber).
- Imperfect (regular): había, habías, había,
habíamos, habíais, habían.
- Preterite (seldom used): hube, hubiste, hubo, hubimos,
- There is also a future perfect, which will be briefly discussed
when we deal with the future tense.
- The Past Participle
- Forms. Regular past participles end in -ado
(-ar verbs) or -ido (-er/-ir verbs): hablado,
- Forms. Irregular past participates are not
- abierto (abrir, to open)
- frito (freír, to fry)
- visto (ver, to see)
- Many of them are a syllable shorter than they would be if
- dicho (decir, to say)
- escrito (escribir, to write)
- hecho (hacer, to do or make)
- muerto (morir, to die)
- preso (prender, to seize or arrest)
- puesto (poner, to put)
- roto (romper, to break)
- vuelto (volver, to return)
- There is a full list of these in the
of Irregular Verb Stems.
- Verbal Use of Past Participles. Past participles used in
perfect tenses are invariable. They do not have gender or number.
- El muchacho ha venido. (The boy has come.)
- La muchacha ha venido. (The girl has come.)
- Los muchachos han venido. (The boys have come.)
- Las muchachas han venido. (The girls have come.)
- Adjectival Use of Past Participles. Just as in
English, past participles are also used as adjectives.
When so used, they do change their ending to agree with the noun
modified in gender and number. Past participles are adjectives unless
they are immediately preceded by a form of haber.
- La puerta está abierta. (The door is open.)
- Los empleados fueron despedidos. (The employees were
Meaning of the perfect tenses.
- The translation of the perfect tenses is identical with English.
That is, one uses the appropriate tense of the English verb have,
plus the English past participle.
- He tomado --> I have taken.
- Habíamos vivido --> We had lived.
- He dicho --> I have spoken (a way to conclude a formal
Exercise on perfect tenses and past participles.
Translate each of the following into English. One sentence has two
- Cuando llegamos, ya habían comido.
- En Francia comen patatas fritas.
- Mis amigos y yo vivimos rodeados de mujeres bonitas.
- Esta noche el Primer Ministro ha hablado.
- Estas novedades han interesado a los militares.
- Hemos vivido en Francia.
- Vivimos en Francia.
- Habíamos vivido en Francia.
- Pedro salió porque había estado demasiado tiempo en
- Los niños cansados han podido dormir.
Go to the Spanish newspaper El País
or the Mexican newspaper El
Universal, or choose one from the
Middlebury College. If possible, pick a story on a topic you are
familiar with (international news is best). Look for and report on
examples of 1) past participles used with a form of haber (a
perfect tense), or a past participle used as an adjective. Translate up to
five examples. Don't try to translate the entire sentences in which these
This is the first time you are exposed to real, live Spanish materials,
so don't be discouraged if it seems chaotic. You should be able to pick up
parts of sentences more than at the beginning of the course!
Click here to go to the translations of the
"Perfect" tenses. Students
sometimes wonder in what sense these tenses are "perfect." The
term is a misleading literal translation from Latin. They describe a "perfect"
action, meaning only a completed one. An uncompleted action is therefore "imperfect."
Do not try to derive guidelines for the use of tenses from these confusing
Examples of English use of past participle as an
adjective: "The work is finished," "the car was
stolen," "a lost child," "a heated argument."
Translations of sentences on past
- When we arrived, they had already eaten. ("Llegamos,"
although it could be a present tense form, must be a preterite because
of the context stated by "habían comido.")
- In France they eat fried potatos.
- My friends and I live surrounded by pretty women.
- Tonight the Prime Minister has talked.
- These new developments (literally, "novelties") have
interested the soldiers.
- We have lived in France.
- We are living (present) OR we lived (preterite) in France.
- We had lived in France.
- Pedro went out because he had been too long in the house.
- The tired children have been able to sleep.
Go back to questions.
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