Your Comprehensive Guide to the Spanish Past Tense

With dedicated practice, no grammar element is too difficult for a language learner—not even the past tense in Spanish.

After all, Spanish is widely known as one of the easiest languages to learn for native English speakers, so the Spanish past tense is definitely a grammar lesson you can conquer.

As with any grammatical topic, knowing the rules can be the difference between rapid, successful learning and a potential struggle.

Let’s check out the rules so that your confusion with Spanish past tenses can be a thing of the past!


The 5 Spanish Past Tenses

There are five Spanish past tenses that are used in different situations. These tenses are the preterite, imperfect, past progressive, present perfect and past perfect.

  • The preterite expresses actions that happened at a specific point in the past
  • The past imperfect expresses actions that were ongoing in the past
  • The past progressive expresses a progressive action that ended 
  • The present perfect expresses an action or something that still happens
  • The past perfect expresses an action that took place before another action

You will most often use the preterite and imperfect past tenses while the other three are less common, but still good to know. 

Now, let’s have a look at them in more detail!

1. Preterite

The preterite past tense defines actions that have already been accomplished or tasks that have been completed.

It refers to something that happened one time only—a single experience rather than an ongoing event.

The conjugation for preterite is rather simple as you simply take the stem and add the correct ending.

Compré zapatos rojos. (I bought red shoes.)

Comiste frijoles rojos y arroz. (You ate red beans and rice.)

Asistió al juego de pelota. (He/she attended the ball game.)

Read more on this tense here:

2. Past Imperfect

The imperfect past tense can refer to a few situations including references to an action without a specified ending, something that was true in the past but not anymore or habits and repeated events.

Because it talks about repeated habits or events, it’s often translated as “used to.” 

This conjugation is also pretty simple, just adding the proper endings depending on which kind of verb it is.

Amábamos a mi gato. (We loved my cat.)

Comían plátanos. (They ate plantains.)

Abría a las ocho. (It used to open at eight.)

Read more on this tense here:

3. Past Progressive

The past progressive tense is used to convey information about a progressive action that has already ended.

In other words, this tense talks about someone or something that was doing something but is no longer engaged in the activity.

It’s a compound tense, which means that you need two verbs in order to form it. The main verb is combined with an auxiliary verb, which in this particular case is estar (to be).

The estar will be in its imperfect form, and the main verb will be put into gerund form.

Estabas bailando con mi abuelo. (You were dancing with my grandpa.)

Estaba estudiando en España. (She was studying in Spain.)

Estábamos trabajando en el restaurante. (We were working at the restaurant.)

Read more on this tense here:

4. Present Perfect

The present perfect tense is also referred to as el pretérito perfecto (the perfect preterite).

Like the past progressive tense, the present perfect is also a compound tense.

The present perfect tense is often used for actions that still take place, have happened recently, or an action or activity that has happened a set number of times. 

To form the present perfect tense, you will take the present conjugation of haber and add the past participle of the main verb.

He jugado fútbol. (I have played soccer.)

Ha bebido cerveza. (He has drunk beer.)

Han vivido sin sus padres. (They have lived without their parents.)

Read more on this tense here:

5. Past Perfect

The past perfect tense describes what someone had done prior to another event that happened in the past. 

For example, something happened prior to someone’s arrival at an event or someone had a cup of coffee before going for a walk. 

This conjugation requires haber in its imperfect form and the past participle of the main verb.

Ya había bailado antes de la cena. (I had already danced before dinner.)

Ella había comido antes de subir al tren. (She had eaten before getting on the train.)

Ellos habían dormido antes de la fiesta. (They had slept before the party.)

Read more on this tense here:

Practicing the Spanish Past Tenses

While this guide has covered the different Spanish tenses pretty extensively, it’s important that you spend some time using all of them in your review sessions.

Here are a few activities to help you with the Spanish past tenses:

  • Write a story incorporating each past tense at least once
  • Recount past events in a language journal
  • Identify the different tenses in a Spanish news article
  • Identify the different tenses in Spanish movies, music, etc.

Remember that listening and reading practice, whether you’re reviewing past tenses or another grammar element, is best done with native Spanish content.

There are tons of resources online where you can watch and listen to Spanish-language media. Streaming platforms like Netflix are excellent tools for learners because of the subtitle language options.

For authentic Spanish content beyond movies and TV shows, you can also check out the FluentU video library.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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Before you know it, any fear you had about the Spanish past tenses will be where it belongs—in the past!

Have fun and good luck!

And One More Thing…

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