Spanish Past Participles: The Lazy Learner’s Favorite Grammar Trick
You’re about to discover one of the most efficient ways of learning Spanish past participles. This is great for lazy learners (hey I’m lazy too!).
After spending a minimal amount of time on this, you can get back to lounging around, browsing the internet or whatever it is you like to do in your ample spare time.
So, without further ado, I present to you Spanish past participles and their many, many uses!
- What’s a Past Participle?
- The Many Uses of the Spanish Past Participle
- Resources for Extra Spanish Past Participle Practice
What’s a Past Participle?
Glad you asked.
The past participle is a verb form that’s typically used with perfect tenses.
Think “I have forgotten,” in English. In this sentence, “have” is the auxiliary verb, or helping verb, and “forgotten” is the past participle of “to forget.”
Spanish past participles work almost the same way. In this case our example translates to “He olvidado,” where “he” (from haber) is the auxiliary verb and “olvidado” (from olvidar) is the past participle.
It’s easy to form the past participle in Spanish. All you have to do is drop the ending (-ar, -er or -ir) from the infinitive verb and add –ado or –ido, depending on the verb. –Ar verbs take –ado. –Ir and –er verbs take –ido. Check out the examples below.
Of course there are a few irregulars, but learning irregulars is a cinch for a Spanish whiz like you. Here are a few of the most common.
Sorry, but the only way to learn these irregulars is to memorize them!
The Many Uses of the Spanish Past Participle
The Past Participle in Perfect Tenses
You’ll most commonly see the past participle used in perfect constructions (in fact, you probably already know how to do this!).
Perfect constructions are used to express that an action began in the past and has continued happening up until the present (or the moment indicated if you’re speaking in the past or the future). In English, the present perfect would be, “Erin has swum every day this summer.” In Spanish, “Erin ha nadado todos los días este verano.”
Forming the perfect is straightforward; you only have to ever really worry about conjugating one verb: haber. Now here’s what’s really cool. All you have to do is tack on the past participle to your conjugated haber and you’ve got yourself a perfect tense! Watch.
- Erin ha nadado. (Erin has swum.)
- Erin había nadado. (Erin had swum.)
- Erin hubiera nadado… (Erin would have swum…)
- Erin habrá nadado. (Erin will have swum.)
Notice a pattern? The past participle never changes. So, yeah, you pretty much already know how to do this. Just use what you know about the verb tenses to conjugate haber and add the past participle. Check out this article (where people get murdered!) if you need to brush up on your past tenses.
But now that you know how to form past participles and how to use them with perfect tenses, things are about to get real. Real cool, that is.
Using the Participle as an Adjective
The past participle is often used as an adjective. How about that? By learning one word, you’ve really learned two now! As an adjective, the participle indicates the result of an action or a state of being, much the same as in English. Use the participle as you would any other adjective. Remember, adjectives must agree with number and gender in Spanish.
- Rosalba está enfadada. (Rosabla is upset.)
- ¡Abre las ventanas! No me gustan las ventanas cerradas. (Open the windows! I don’t like closed windows.)
And of course you can use the participle as an adjective independently. (Because really, who wants to conjugate more verbs?) In these examples, the participle is used to make an exclamation, interject or refer to a state of being or situation.
- ¿Sorprendido, Ernesto? ¡Soy yo, tu amor perdido! (Surprised, Ernesto? It is I, your lost love!)
- El rey, ¿muerto? ¡Dime que no es verdad! (The king, dead? Tell me it’s not true!)
- ¿Enfadada yo? Eres tú quien está enfadado, Pablo. (Me, mad? You’re the one who’s mad, Pablo.)
You can also use the participle as an adjective to refer to a situation that happens frequently or repeatedly. Use adverbs such as siempre, otra vez or de nuevo.
- ¡Siempre cubierto de mugre! ¿Es que vives en un granero? (Always covered with filth. What, do you live in a barn?) *note that cubrir has an irregular past participle.
- ¡Dios! ¿Cuántas chicas tiene Luis? Siempre rodeado de ellas. (Geez, how many girls does Luis have? Always surrounded by them.)
And here’s a cool usage. You can use the participle as an adjective to indicate a temporary relationship between two things. It’s kind of like cheating. Instead of forming an entire phrase, you can just replace it with the appropriate participle. Sometimes an adverb is necessary to indicate the exact timeline.
- Cuando acabó la cena con su marido, María fue a la casa de su amante. = Acabada la cena con su marido, María fue a la casa de su amante. (Dinner with her husband over, Maria went to her lover’s house.)
- Cuando lo despidieron del trabajo, Fran escribió un libro. = Despedido del trabajo, Fran escribió un libro. (Fired from work, Fran wrote a book.)
- No puedo ir hasta después de las ocho. = No puedo ir hasta pasadas las ocho. (I can’t go until after eight o’clock.)
- Después de que el vuelo empiece, no se puede salir del avión. = Después de empezado el vuelo, no se puede salir del avión. (After the flight has begun, you cannot exit the plane.)
The Participle as a Noun
So now you’ve learned two different words after having learned just the participle. I promised you three though, didn’t I? Well, here’s the third.
The past participle in Spanish is also occasionally used as a noun. I bet you’ve already seen this before. Think about una tostada (a toasted sandwich), un muerto (a dead person) or los hechos (the facts or the happenings).
With a little practice recognizing past participles being used as nouns, you’ll begin to pick up a natural rhythm for what can be used as a noun and what cannot. A simple way to think about it is that the past participle as a noun often corresponds to the –ed object nouns in English. For example, the painted one (el pintado), the drowned one (el ahogado) or the affected one (el afectado).
Although not all nouns in Spanish are past participles of verbs, a great number are derived from a common root. So by learning the verb, you’re likely learning a noun (or two) anyway. Here’s an example of two nouns that are derived from one verb: Amar could become amado (the loved one) or amante (the lover). Amado is the participle.
Here are some other participles that are used as nouns.
- Decir—el dicho (the saying)
- Estar—el estado (the state of being)
- Herir—el herido (the injured)
- Poner—el puesto (a post/position)
- Acusar—el acusado (the accused)
- Volver—la vuelta (the turn/a walk)
Using the Participle with Other Verbs
The participle can be paired up with verbs other than haber to achieve a few more useful effects in Spanish. Used with the verb ser, the past participle will help you form the passive voice. In this case, the participle has the same form as the noun that it refers to, as it is in an adjective form.
- La casa fue destruida por un huracán. (The house was destroyed by a hurricane.)
Similarly, verbs that express state of being or a result of an action (parecer, quedar(se), estar, mostrar, resultar…) can be paired with the participle as an adjective. Again, the participle has the same form as the noun to which it refers.
- La mesa está rota. (The table is broken.)
- El dibujo resultó mejorado por la lluvia. (The painting was improved by the rain.)
With action verbs, the participle can be used to indicate how the action is done or the result of an action. In this case, the participle is used like an adverb. Again, the participle must match the gender and quantity of the subject.
- Los perros miran obsesionados a los gatos. (The dogs look obsessed at the cats.)
- Carolina nunca llega relajada. (Carolina never arrives relaxed.)
By using the participle with the verb tener, you can indicate the result of a repeated or extended action. Make sure that it agrees with the object to which it refers.
- Tengo dicho que no salimos los lunes. (I’ve said repeatedly that we shouldn’t go out on Mondays.)
- Mi hermana tiene guardado dinero para mi sobrina. (My sister has money saved for my niece.)
By using the participle with the verb dejar, you can indicate that the action has been completed earlier as a precaution. Make sure that it agrees with the object to which it refers.
- Mi madre nos dejó hecho la cena. (My mother left us dinner already made.)
By using the participle with the verb llevar, you can indicate the accumulation of a continuous action. Make sure that it agrees with the object to which it refers.
- Josh ya lleva gastados 1.000 euros este mes. (Josh has already spent 1,000 euros this month.)
The Past Participle Versus the Gerund
So I know that by now it seems like you can use the past participle for pretty much anything. While it has many uses, there are a few things you cannot use it for.
It’s generally not used as an adverb (except when it is; see above). Instead, use the gerund. Or, if you want to get real fancy, you can use the two together (perfect tense + gerund as an adverb).
- He ido corriendo al mercado. (I’ve gone to the market running.)
Or you could form the perfect participle.
- Habiendo entrado, fui directo al baño. (Having entered, I went straight to the bathroom.)
You can also use the past participle and the gerund together in perfect progressive tenses.
- Sven ha estado bailando toda la noche. (Sven has been dancing all night.)
The Past Participle Versus the Infinitive
Most of the time, the past participle is also not used as a noun (except when it is; see above). Instead, use the infinitive.
- Ganar es mejor que perder. (Winning is better than losing.)
And to get uber fancy, you can make the perfect infinitive by using haber with the participle.
- Haber vivido en los años treinta, hubiera sido muy difícil. (To have lived in the thirties would have been very difficult.)
DON’T SKIP ME! This is a super easy way to express probability in past time instead of messing about with subjunctive and conditionals. Use deber de followed by the perfect infinitive. Watch.
- Deben de haber perdido los juguetes. (They must have lost the toys.)
- Debe de haber tomado el gorro. (He must have taken the hat.)
Resources for Extra Spanish Past Participle Practice
Look at your past participle boss-ness. You can sling a past participle with the best of them now. But just to make sure, here are a couple resources that you can use to practice.
Barbara Kuczun Nelson’s page at Colby University is one of my favorite websites for learning Spanish. Check out her lesson with the song “¿Dónde jugarán los niños?”
The University Autónoma Metropolitana has a pretty good selection of advanced exercises. Check out their many vocabulary-enriching and editing worksheets. Note that the instructions are in Spanish. (Good practice, right?)
Authentic Spanish media made for and by native speakers can also show past participles in real contexts. You can check out Spanish books, TV shows and movies. There are also the bite-sized videos on the language learning program FluentU, which are equipped with interactive subtitles that provide word translations and grammar details.
You can also check out these great blogs.
The important thing is to just keep practicing, and soon you won’t even give participles a second thought.
Edward Mack was a part of the inaugural Master’s class in Creative Writing at the Complutense University of Madrid. His diverse ramblings on topics from perpetual bachelordom to murderous country music stars are often sardonic, sometimes poetic, and always entertaining.