The Guide to the Spanish Pluperfect Tense You Had Been Wishing For
Did you know that there are over 50 thousand kanji in the Chinese language?
Or that the chance of winning the National Lottery jackpot is one in over 50 million?
Have you heard that there are 22.4 trillion digits of pi and we add more every year? There are even people who have memorized and recited thousands of digits of pi, the world record being at the moment at 70,000!
We can all agree that learning all the existing Chinese kanji, winning the lottery or memorizing 70k digits of pi are, to say the least, very difficult tasks.
Yet there are still learners who claim the most impossible thing to do is learn the Spanish pluperfect.
The Spanish pluperfect is also known as the pluscuamperfecto, and I can assure you the tense’s biggest difficulty is pronouncing its name in Spanish.
Other than that, this tense is as harmless as a teddy bear!
Read on to find definitive proof that the Spanish pluperfect is as easy as pie.
Achieve Perfection with the Spanish Pluperfect
What Is the Spanish Pluperfect?
The Spanish pluperfect is the equivalent of the English past perfect. Although you will see it has four uses, its main one is to indicate that a past action took place before another past action.
If, for example, you arrive home and dinner is already served, the following day you could say:
Mi marido había servido el almuerzo antes de que yo llegara. (My husband had served dinner before I arrived.)
Similarly, if you bought a car in March and a motorbike in June, you could tell your friends:
Cuando compré la moto, ya había comprado el coche. (When I bought the motorbike, I had already bought the car.)
Do you see any pattern in the Spanish sentences?
The first one uses había servido and llegara. The second one has compré and había comprado.
Hmm… Había… It seems familiar, doesn’t it?
Write down what you think you know about it and then keep on reading!
How Is the Pluperfect Formed?
Did you remember where you know había from?
It is the third person of the imperfect tense of haber (to be, to have).
Yes! The first member of the pluperfect binomial tense is the imperfect tense of one of our favorite verbs:
él/ella /usted había
The second member of this tense is a verb form we know very well from the present perfect tense: the past participle.
Remember that the Spanish past participle ends in -ado in verbs from the first conjugation and in -ido in verbs from the second and third conjugations:
cantar (to sing) → cantado (sung)
bailar (to dance) → bailado (danced)
beber (to drink) → bebido (drunk)
comer (to eat) → comido (eaten)
mentir (to lie) → mentido (lied)
vivir (to live) → vivido (lived)
And also remember that there are verbs which have an irregular past participle:
abrir (to open) → abierto (opened)
decir (to say, to tell) → dicho (said, told)
escribir (to write) → escrito (written)
hacer (to do, to make) → hecho (done)
poner (to put) → puesto (put)
volver (to return, to come back) → vuelto (returned, come back)
Taking this into account, the Spanish pluperfect is a combination of the two forms:
imperfect tense of haber + past participle
It looks like this:
yo había cantado (I had sung)
tú habías comido (you had eaten)
ella había bailado (she had danced)
nosotros habíamos dicho (we had said)
vosotros habíais escrito (you had written)
ellos habían vuelto (they had come back)
Differences Between the English Past Perfect and Spanish Pluperfect
There are two main differences between the English past perfect and the Spanish pluscuamperfecto:
1. Spanish does not allow you to separate había from the past participle.
While English allows adverbs to appear between “had” and the past participle, Spanish will never let you separate había from the past participle. If you want or need to add an adverb, add it at the beginning or the end of the sentence or before/after the verb but never between both verb forms:
Ya había comido cuando llegaste. (I had already eaten when you arrived.)
Ella nunca había visto a un chico tan guapo. (She had never seen such a handsome guy.)
Habíamos acabado ya cuando el teléfono sonó. (We had already finished when the telephone rang.)
2. If there are pronouns in the sentence, they will always go before the pluperfect.
English adds its pronouns after the verb. Spanish, however, likes them before the verb:
No los había visto todavía. (I had not seen them yet.)
Le había dicho la verdad un año antes. (He had told her the truth one year before.)
La habían cerrado a las 7 de la tarde. (They had closed it at 7 p.m.)
Always follow these two rules and your Spanish pluperfect sentences will be perfect.
Now that we know what the pluscuamperfecto is and how to form it, we still need to learn how to use it.
Ready? Let’s go!
Uses of the Spanish Pluperfect
The Spanish pluperfect is less intimidating than it looks. Its name in Spanish (pluscuamperfecto) can be a nightmare for Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobics, but the rest is pan comido (a piece of cake, lit. “eaten bread”).
The pluperfect is used in four very specific situations. Nothing else. No buts. No small print. No surprises whatsoever (although the fourth use may surprise you if you have not noticed it in English… No spoilers! Just keep on reading!).
Use the pluperfect in these situations:
1. To talk about a past action that happened before another past action.
This sounds like a tongue twister, but it is not.
I mentioned this use at the beginning of the post. If something (let’s call it A) happened before another thing in the past (let’s call it B), then A will take the form of the pluperfect in Spanish (just as you would use the past perfect in English):
La niña se había lavado las manos (A) antes de que su madre se lo pidiera (B). (The girl had washed her hands before her mother asked her to.)
Cuando Pedro se despertó (B), María ya había desayunado (A). (When Pedro woke up, María had already eaten breakfast.)
La policía llegó (B) cuando el ladrón ya se había marchado (A). (The police arrived when the burglar had already left.)
2. To substitute the preterite.
Just as the pluperfect can be substituted by the preterite, the same can happen the other way around.
Although it is true that the substitution “pluperfect → preterite” occurs much more often than the “preterite → pluperfect” one, the latter can still take place, especially if you want to make the sentence slightly more formal:
Preterite: El profesor entró cuando los alumnos se sentaron. (The professor came in when the students sat down.)
→ Pluperfect: El profesor entró cuando los alumnos se habían sentado. (The professor came in when the students had sat down.)
Preterite: Desayuné cuando mi hermano terminó. (I had breakfast when my brother finished.)
→ Pluperfect: Desayuné cuando mi hermano había terminado. (I had breakfast when my brother had finished.)
Be careful when making this substitution, though. Bear in mind which action happened first, so that you do not change the wrong verb:
Bebí el vino de la botella que había abierto un día antes. (I drank the wine from the bottle I had opened one day before.)
First you open the bottle (past perfect), then you drink the wine. This makes sense.
Había bebido el vino de la botella y después la abrí. (I had drunk the wine from the bottle and then I opened it.)
Although there is no grammatical error in the sentence, it is impossible to drink the wine before opening the bottle. This does not make sense.
Lastly, be careful when substituting the preterite for the pluperfect and make sure you do not change the whole meaning of the sentence. If the meaning changes when you change the verb form, this means that the substitution cannot be done:
Cuando llegamos, la película empezó. (When we arrived, the film started.) — First we arrived, then the film started.
Cuando llegamos, la película había empezado. (When we arrived, the film had started.) — First the film started, then we arrived. The meaning has changed!
3. To substitute the present perfect in indirect speech.
Simply put, the difference between direct and indirect speech is that direct speech gives you the literal words someone is uttering/has uttered, while indirect speech consists of someone repeating those same words later in time.
There are many changes in the pronouns, time adverbs and verb tenses (among others) when using the indirect speech, but the one we are interested in for the purpose of this post is the present perfect.
When someone says something in the present perfect, change that tense to the pluperfect when repeating their words:
Direct: He ido al cine tres veces esta semana. (I have gone to the cinema three times this week.)
→ Indirect: Dijo que había ido al cine tres veces esa semana. (He said he had gone to the cinema three times that week.)
Direct: Hemos comprado naranjas y limones. (We have bought oranges and lemons.)
→ Indirect: Dijeron que habían comprado naranjas y limones. (They said they had bought oranges and lemons.)
4. To talk about new experiences in the present.
Yes! The pluscuamperfecto is used to talk about the present and so is the English past perfect!
We know we have to use the present perfect when we talk about our life experiences so far:
Nunca he visto un tiburón. (I have never seen a shark.)
No hemos estado nunca en España. (We have never been to Spain.)
But what happens when that changes? How can you say you have finally seen a shark? Or that this is your first time visiting Barcelona? By substituting the present perfect for the pluperfect!
Have a look:
Nunca había visto un tiburón. (I had never seen a shark. [But I am looking at one at the moment.])
No habíamos estado nunca en España. (We had never been to Spain. [But we are in Barcelona now, and oh boy, is it pretty!])
As you can see, the Spanish pluperfect and the English past perfect are much more similar than you might think.
Both of them are used to talk about past actions that took place before another past action, to repeat someone’s words by means of the indirect speech and to say that something is happening for the first time in our lives, among other things.
The most difficult thing about the pluperfect, apart from the pain it can cause to your tongue when trying to say its Spanish name (pluscuamperfecto) is learning how to conjugate it and how to use it to substitute the preterite, but even these two “issues” are not that complicated!
Learning how to use the pluperfect in Spanish is, paradoxically, one of those light grammar topics that can be done in a second. Do not let the name frighten you. Just give it a go and you will see it is not as bad as it is made out to be!
Stay curious, my friends, and happy learning!