Spanish past tenses.
Does just reading those three words have you in a state of near-panic?
Maybe you’ve heard that using the past tense in Spanish is one of the toughest grammar lessons to learn.
Well, it’s time to put away your fear because while the handful of past tenses in Spanish may not be the easiest to learn, you can still master them with the proper guidance.
An article by the BBC points out that language learning doesn’t need to be a grind! You just need to set aside a little time to practice.
In fact, studies have shown that dedicated practice time maximizes language retention. An article in Psychological Science even claims there’s a correlation between practice time and sleep for language learning. So, spacing your practice sessions out with plenty of sleep breaks in between might make them even more effective!
Additionally, scientists at MIT have proven that adults learn languages nearly as well as children do, so there’s no reason to put off learning those Spanish past tenses any longer.
As with any grammatical topic, knowing the rules can be the difference between rapid, successful learning and a potential struggle.
So, let’s check out the rules and put your trepidation about Spanish past tenses in the past!
It’s High Time You Mastered the Past Tense in Spanish with This Comprehensive Guide
Past tenses discuss how and when things happened. They’re able to convey all of this in just one word—a conjugated verb.
As you can imagine, they’re extremely useful when discussing historical events or telling a story.
Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?
There are five main past tenses that Spanish learners need to become familiar with.
Beyond studying the basic rules, one of the best ways to learn the different past tenses is to see them used in authentic contexts. You can do this by using a program like FluentU.
Each video is accompanied by interactive subtitles that allow you to click on words or phrases (including past tense constructions) to learn more about them and see them used in additional videos.
You can even create customized vocabulary lists and flashcard sets and test your knowledge with fun quizzes. Sign up for a free trial to see the Spanish past tenses and more in action.
Now, let’s go through each tense and learn its rules. In other words, it’s time to make friends with the Spanish past tenses!
The Preterite Past Tense
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.
To form the preterite past tense, simply drop the verb’s existing ending and add the correct corresponding ending below. Presto—a preterite past tense is born!
Spanish verbs have three possible endings: -ar, -er and -ir.
Conjugating -ar Verbs in the Preterite Past Tense
Note: The examples in this post will assume that you’re changing a verb from the present tense to the past tense. However, it doesn’t matter what tense the verb is in when you change it to the past, as the new endings will always be the same.
To form the preterite past tense for -ar verbs, the endings change as follows:
-o → -é
-as → -aste
-a → -ó
-amos → -amos
-áis → -asteis
-an → -aron
Let’s see an example of how this looks using the verb comprar (to buy).
compro (I buy) → compré (I bought)
compras (you buy) → compraste (you bought)
compra (he/she buys) → compró (he/she bought)
compramos (we buy) → compramos (we bought)
compráis (you buy) → comprasteis (you bought)
compran (they buy) → compraron (they bought)
Now, let’s take a look at exactly what this looks like in some example sentences.
Yo compro zapatos rojos. (I buy red shoes.) → Compré zapatos rojos. (I bought red shoes.)
Tú compras canela. (You buy cinnamon.) → Compraste canela. (You bought cinnamon.)
Compra arroz. (He/she buys rice.) → Compró arroz. (He/she bought rice.)
Compramos dulces. (We buy candy.) → Compramos dulces. (We bought candy.)
Compráis bebidas. (You buy drinks.) → Comprasteis bebidas. (You bought drinks.)
Compran plátanos. (They buy plantains.) → Compraron plátanos. (They bought plantains.)
Conjugating -er and -ir Verbs in the Preterite Past Tense
Verbs with both -er and -ir endings are conjugated to form the preterite past tense in the same way. The correct endings are as follows:
-o → -í
-es → -iste
-e → -ió
-emos → -imos
-éis → -isteis
-en → -ieron
Here’s an example of this change using the verb comer (to eat):
como (I eat) → comí (I ate)
comes (you eat) → comiste (you ate)
come (he/she eats) → comió (he/she ate)
comemos (we eat) → comimos (we ate)
coméis (you eat) → comisteis (you ate)
comen (they eat) → comieron (they ate)
Let’s apply the rule to some complete sentences:
Como frijoles rojos y arroz. (I eat red beans and rice.) → Comí frijoles rojos y arroz. (I ate red beans and rice.)
Comes frijoles rojos y arroz. (You eat red beans and rice.) → Comiste frijoles rojos y arroz. (You ate red beans and rice.)
Come frijoles rojos y arroz. (He/she eats red beans and rice.) → Comió frijoles rojos y arroz. (He/she ate red beans and rice.)
Comemos frijoles rojos y arroz. (We eat red beans and rice.) → Comimos frijoles rojos y arroz. (We ate red beans and rice.)
Coméis frijoles rojos y arroz. (You eat red beans and rice.) → Comisteis frijoles rojos y arroz. (You ate red beans and rice.
Comen frijoles rojos y arroz. (They eat red beans and rice.) → Comieron frijoles rojos y arroz. (They ate red beans and rice.)
Here’s another example, this time using the verb asistir (to attend):
asisto (I attend) → asistí (I attended)
asistes (you attend) → asististe (you attended)
asiste (he/she attends) → asistió (he/she attended)
asistimos (we attend) → asistimos (we attended)
asistís (you attend) → asististeis (you attended)
asisten (they attend) → asistieron (they attended)
Let’s see what this looks like in some sample sentences:
Asisto al juego de pelota. (I attend the ball game.) → Asistí al juego de pelota. (I attended the ball game.)
Asistes al juego de pelota. (You attend the ball game.) → Asististe al juego de pelota. (You attended the ball game.)
Asiste al juego de pelota. (He/she attends the ball game.) → Asistió al juego de pelota. (He/she attended the ball game.)
Asistimos al juego de pelota. (We attend the ball game.) → Asistimos al juego de pelota. (We attended the ball game.)
Asistís al juego de pelota. (You attend the ball game.) → Asististeis al juego de pelota. (You attended the ball game.)
Asisten al juego de pelota. (They attend the ball game.) → Asistieron al juego de pelota. (They attended the ball game.)
The Imperfect Past Tense
The imperfect past tense can refer to a few situations. It can indicate an action that doesn’t have a specified ending. It can refer to something that was true in the past but is no longer applicable. Or, it can reference habits or repeated events.
To conjugate verbs to reflect this tense, simply drop the standard verb endings and substitute the following endings in. As you probably already know, that’s the standard way of conjugating verbs regardless of tense!
Conjugating -ar Verbs in the Imperfect Past Tense
To form the imperfect past tense, the endings change as follows:
-o → -aba
-as → -abas
-a → -aba
-amos → -ábamos
– áis → -abais
-an → -aban
Using the verb amar (to love), we can see these changes when forming the imperfect tense:
amo (I love) → amaba (I loved)
amas (you love) → amabas (you loved)
ama (he/she loves) → amaba (he/she loved)
amamos (we love) → amábamos (we loved)
amáis (you love) → amabais (you loved)
aman (they love) → amaban (they loved)
Let’s check out how this looks in a sentence:
Amo a mi gato. (I love my cat.) → Amaba a mi gato. (I loved my cat.)
Amas a mi gato. (You love my cat.) → Amabas a mi gato. (You loved my cat.)
Ama a mi gato. (He/she loves my cat.) → Amaba a mi gato. (He/she loved my cat.)
Amamos a mi gato. (We love my cat.) → Amábamos a mi gato. (We loved my cat.)
Amáis a mi gato. (You love my cat.) → Amabais a mi gato. (You loved my cat.)
Aman a mi gato. (They love my cat.) → Amaban a mi gato. (They loved my cat.)
Conjugating -er and -ir Verbs in the Imperfect Past Tense
To form the imperfect past tense for -er and -ir verbs, change the endings as follows:
-o → -ía
-es → -ías
-e → -ía
-emos → -íamos
-éis → -íais
-en → -ían
Let’s see how this works with the verb comer (to eat).
como (I eat) → comía (I ate)
comes (you eat) → comías (you ate)
come (he/she eats) → comía (he/she ate)
comemos (we eat) → comíamos (we ate)
coméis (you eat) → comíais (you ate)
comen (they eat) → comían (they ate)
Now let’s see comer (to eat) used in several sentences:
Como plátanos. (I eat plantains.) → Comía plátanos. (I ate plantains.)
Comes plátanos. (You eat plantains.) → Comías plátanos. (You ate plantains.)
Come plátanos. (He/she eats plantains.) → Comía plátanos. (He/she ate plantains.)
Comemos plátanos. (We eat plantains.) → Comíamos plátanos. (We ate plantains.)
Coméis plátanos. (You eat plantains.) → Comíais plátanos. (You ate plantains.)
Comen plátanos. (They eat plantains.) → Comían plátanos. (They ate plantains.)
Let’s see what a properly conjugated -ir verb looks like. We’ll use the verb abrir (to open) for this example.
abro (I open) → abría (I opened)
abres (you open) → abrías (you opened)
abre (he/she opens) → abría (he/she opened)
abrimos (we open) → abríamos (we opened)
abrís (you open) → abríais (you opened)
abren (they open) → abrían (they opened)
Now, let’s see this construction in some sentences:
Abro la puerta. (I open the door.) → Abría la puerta. (I opened the door.)
Abres la puerta. (You open the door.) → Abría la puerta. (You opened the door.)
Abre la puerta. (He/she opens the door.) → Abría la puerta. (He/she opened the door.)
Abrimos la puerta. (We open the door.) → Abría la puerta. (We opened the door.)
Abrís la puerta. (You open the door.) → Abríais la puerta. (You opened the door.)
Abren la puerta. (They open the door.) → Abrían la puerta. (They opened the door.)
Conjugating 3 Common Irregular Verbs in the Imperfect Past Tense
It’s definitely worth noting that there are three irregular verbs that are often used in this tense. They are ir (to go), ver (to see) and ser (to be).
They are conjugated as follows:
Ir (to go)
iba (I was going)
ibas (you were going)
iba (he/she was going)
íbamos (we were going)
ibais (you were going)
iban (they were going)
Ver (to see)
veía (I saw)
veías (you saw)
veía (he/she saw)
veíamos (we saw)
veíais (you saw)
veían (they saw)
Ser (to be)
era (I was)
eras (you were)
era (he/she was)
éramos (we were)
erais (you were)
eran (they were)
The Past Progressive
The past progressive tense is used to convey information about something that happened at an earlier time. The action being discussed has ended.
In other words, this tense addresses the idea that someone or something 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 rule for forming the past progressive is very straightforward: estar (to be) in the imperfect past tense plus the present participle of the main verb.
A present participle, also called a gerund, is the form of a verb that ends in -ndo in Spanish.
To form a present participle, remove the -ar, -er or -ir ending of a verb and insert -ando for -ar verbs or -iendo for -er and -ir verbs.
It may sound complicated but I assure you, it’s very simple once you actually see the rule in action. Let’s take a look at an example.
Estar (to be) in the imperfect past tense is as follows:
estaba (I was)
estabas (you were)
estaba (he/she was)
estábamos (we were)
estabais (you were)
estaban (they were)
Some common -ar verbs with -ando endings include:
bailar (to dance) → bailando (dancing)
estudiar (to study) → estudiando (studying)
trabajar (to work) → trabajando (working)
A few useful -er verbs include:
comer (to eat) → comiendo (eating)
aprender (to learn) → aprendiendo (learning)
hacer (to do) → haciendo (doing)
Some –ir verbs look like this:
abrir (to open) → abriendo (opening)
vivir (to live) → viviendo (living)
escribir (to write) → escribiendo (writing)
Now, let’s put it all together. Remember, the rule is to combine the imperfect past tense of estar (to be) and the present participle of the main verb.
Estaba comiendo. (I was eating.)
Estabas bailando. (You were dancing.)
Estaba estudiando. (He/she was studying.)
Estábamos trabajando. (We were working.)
Estabais comiendo. (You were eating.)
Estaban viviendo. (They were living.)
The 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 used for a few situations. It’s often used for actions that still take place. It can describe actions that have happened recently. And finally, it’s used when discussing an action or activity that has happened a set number of times—something that took place for a predetermined length of time.
To form this tense, use the verb haber (to have) in the present tense plus a main verb in its past participle form.
Let’s see how that works.
First, we conjugate haber (to have) in the present tense:
he (I have)
has (you have)
ha (he/she has)
hemos (we have)
han (you have)
han (they have)
Then, we form the past participle of the main verb by removing its ending (-ar, -er or -ir) and adding either -ado or -ido. -Ar verbs assume -ado as their new ending while both -er and -ir verbs take -ido as their ending.
Some examples include:
jugar (to play) → jugado (played)
beber (to drink) → bebido (drunk)
vivir (to live) → vivido (lived)
Combine the pieces and we have:
He jugado. (I have played.)
Ha bebido. (He/she has drunk.)
Han vivido. (They have lived.)
The Past Perfect
The past perfect tense describes what someone had done prior to another event that happened in the past. It sounds confusing, but it’s not.
In other words, this tense expresses that someone had already done one thing before something else happened.
For example, something happened prior to someone’s arrival at an event. Or, maybe someone had a cup of coffee before going for a walk. Both the event and the walk have taken place in the past.
This tense is sometimes called the pluperfect.
The past perfect tense is formed by using the imperfect conjugation of the verb haber (to have) followed by the past participle of the main verb.
First, we take the imperfect form of haber (to have):
había (I had)
habías (you had)
había (he/she had)
habíamos (we had)
habíais (you had)
habían (they had)
Then, we add the past participle of the main verb. Remember, the past participle is formed by removing a verb’s ending (-ar, -er or -ir) and adding either -ado or -ido. -Ar verbs assume -ado as their new ending, and both -er and -ir verbs take -ido as their ending.
Now, let’s combine the elements to see the whole picture:
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.)
Mastering Spanish past tenses is simple: Learn the terms, memorize the rules and practice.
The best way to choose which past tense you need is to consider when the verb’s action took place and the frequency of that action. Was it a one-time thing or did it happen more than once?
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!
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