Pluscuamperfecto: The Spanish Tense That’s Way Easier Than It Sounds

Have you ever heard of dihydrogen monoxide?

Sounds like something that could kill you, right? Wrong. It’s just water.

Often we see scary-sounding things and think they must be difficult. But don’t make that assumption when you get to the Spanish pluscuamperfecto .

This article will give you a full crash-course on how, when and why to use the Spanish pluscuamperfecto—plus cool songs in which this tense is used.


What Is the Pluscuamperfecto?

The pluscuamperfecto—or the “past perfect” or “pluperfect” in English—is one of Spanish’s many tenses used to talk about actions that happened in the past.

The pluscuamperfecto is a compound tense, meaning it uses two verbs conjugated differently. In this case, we use a conjugation of the auxiliary verb haber , plus a past participle. The conjugation of haber depends both on the subject of the sentence and on whether the sentence requires an indicative or a subjunctive verb.

Confused yet? Don’t worry—conjugating the pluscuamperfecto is much easier than it sounds. First, though, we will need to learn when to use the pluscuamperfecto.

When Do We Use the Pluscuamperfecto?

Just like the English past perfect, we use the pluscuamperfecto when talking about two actions that happened in the past. To refer to the action that happened further in the past, use the pluscuamperfecto.

For example, take a look at this English sentence, paying particular attention to the verb conjugated in the past perfect.

John had already left when Sarah arrived.

This sentence deals with two actions, both of them in the past: John leaving, and Sarah arriving. Since John left before Sarah arrived, we must use the past perfect to talk about John leaving.

The Spanish indicative pluscuamperfecto works the same way. For example, the previous sentence translated into Spanish would read:

John ya había salido cuando llegó Sarah.
(John had already left when Sarah arrived.)

In this sentence, the verb había salido  (had left) is an example of an indicative pluscuamperfecto verb.

The subjuntivo del pluscuamperfecto  (past perfect subjunctive) is a little more complicated for English speakers. (Here’s a quick run-down on when and how to use subjunctive verbs in case you need it.)

Here are the specific times when you’ll need to use the subjunctive form of the pluscuamperfecto:

Use the subjunctive form of the pluscuamperfecto...Example sentences
1. When talking about emotions, desires or other subjective feelings in the past. Quería que lo hubieras hecho ya.
(I wanted you to have already done it.)

Estaba triste de que ella se hubiera ido sin despedirse.
(I was sad that she had gone without saying goodbye.)
2. With the phrase ojalá  to express a desire that something would have happened in the past. Ojalá hubiéramos ido.
(I wish we had gone.)
3. In “if clauses” used to describe impossible situations, paired with either the past conditional or present conditional. * Si hubiera sabido, no habría dicho nada.
(If I had known, I wouldn’t have said anything.)

Si no hubiera comido tanto, iría contigo al restaurante.
(If I hadn’t eaten so much, I would go with you to the restaurant.)

*Note: In colloquial Spanish, you can frequently hear the conditional verb replaced with a second verb conjugated in the pluscuamperfecto. For example:

Si hubieras dormido más, no hubieras tenido tanto sueño.
(If you had slept more, you wouldn’t have been so tired.)

How to Conjugate the Spanish Pluscuamperfecto

To review, the pluscuamperfecto is a compound tense that requires two verbs: haber and a past participle. Before we start putting the two together, let’s review past participles.

Past Participles

In English, we use past participles in the present perfect, past perfect and passive tenses. For example, in the phrase “Andy had seen,” the past participle is “seen.” In the phrase “It was eaten,” the past participle is “eaten.”

In Spanish, we use past participles in the present perfect and past perfect tenses. Forming regular past participles is simple: Take the infinitive, chop off the ar, er or ir ending, and add one of the following endings:

Type of verbEndingExample
-ar-ado hablar hablado
-er-ido comer comido
-ir-ido dormir dormido

Simple! Right? Well, kind of. Conjugating regular past participles is easy, but there are many irregular past participles to look out for. Unfortunately, you have no choice but to memorize these irregulars.

Many irregular past participles take on the endings –to and –cho. Here are some of the most common ones.

-to past participles

-to Spanish Past ParticiplesEnglish Translation
roto broken
muerto died
escrito written
abierto opened
vuelto returned

-cho past participles

-cho Spanish Past ParticiplesEnglish Translation
dicho said
hecho done/made
predicho predicted
deshecho undone
satisfecho satisfied

Some important irregular past participles end in sto, such as visto (seen) and puesto  (put).

Now that we have sorted out past participles, learning to conjugate the pluscuamperfecto in the indicative and subjunctive moods will be a breeze.

Indicative Pluscuamperfecto

In the indicative pluscuamperfecto, we conjugate haber in the imperfect tense, like this:

Haber (Imperfect Tense)
Yo había
Él/Ella/Usted había
Nosotros habíamos
Vosotros habíais
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes habían

To form the indicative pluscuamperfecto, merely use one of these conjugations of haber plus the desired past participle.

Ellos ya habían comprado las entradas cuando se canceló el concierto.
(They had already bought the tickets when the concert was canceled.)

Yo había querido pollo, pero me gustó la ternera.
(I had wanted chicken, but I liked the steak.)

Subjunctive Pluscuamperfecto

In the subjunctive pluscuamperfecto, conjugate the auxiliary verb haber in the imperfect of the subjunctive.

Haber (Imperfect Subjunctive)
Yo hubiera / hubiese
hubieras / hubieses
Él/Ella/Usted hubiera / hubiese
Nosotros hubiéramos / hubiésemos
Vosotros hubierais / hubieseis
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes hubieran / hubiesen

Si hubiéramos llegado tarde, no habríamos podido entrar.
(If we had arrived late, we wouldn’t have been able to enter.)

Ojalá me hubiese hecho caso.
(If only he had listened to me.)

Using the Pluscuamperfecto in Context: Tips and Tricks

Pluscuamperfecto with Pronouns

When conjugating the pluscuamperfecto, remember to place direct, indirect and reflexive pronouns before the conjugated form of haber.

For example, the to use the reflexive verb casarse  (to get married) in the past, you would have to conjugate it like this:

Ella se había casado antes de cumplir 19 años.
(She had gotten married before she turned 19.)

With direct or indirect object pronouns, the conjugations look like this:

Les había dicho la contraseña.
(I had told them the password.)

Alternatively, you could write an even shorter sentence: Se la había dicho.  (I had told it to them.)

Todavía no lo habían terminado cuando me fui.
(They still hadn’t finished it when I left.)

Pluscuamperfecto Questions

To ask questions in the pluscuamperfecto, the subject of the sentence can be placed before or after the verb.

¿Habían estudiado los estudiantes antes del examen?
(Had the students studied before the exam?)

¿La escuela no había cerrado mucho antes del incendio?
(Hadn’t the school closed down long before the fire?)

¿Había dicho tu madre a qué hora tenías que llegar?
(Had your mother said what time you had to arrive?)

Pluscuamperfecto Time Prepositions

When dealing with pluscuamperfecto verbs, and particularly the indicative of the pluscuamperfecto, you’ll often come across certain prepositions of time. Some of them are:

Spanish Time PrepositionEnglish TranslationExample sentences
Ya Already Ya lo había dicho dos veces.
(I had already said it twice.)

Antes que

Antes de

Antes de que
Before Lo habían visto antes.
(They had seen it before.)

Habíamos salido antes que ellos.
(We had left before them.)

Había comido una pizza antes de jugar al fútbol.
(He had eaten a pizza before playing football.)

Él había llegado antes de que lloviera.
(He had arrived before it rained.)
Cuando When Ya habíamos empezado cuando llegaron.
(We had already started when they arrived.)
Nunca Never ¡Nunca lo había visto!
(I had never seen it!)
Todavía Still Todavía no había fregado los platos cuando llegó su madre.
(He still hadn’t washed the dishes when his mom arrived.)

Cool Songs in Spanish to Practice the Pluscuamperfecto

Learning song lyrics can be a great way to hone your knowledge of Spanish grammar. I’ve found that singing and listening to Spanish-language music is especially helpful for nailing down those irregular verbs. Once you hear an irregular conjugation over and over again in a song, it’ll stick in your mind forever. Here are some songs that’ll help you master the pluscuamperfecto!

Indicative Pluscuamperfecto

  • Jorge Rojas, “Me había olvidado”The song title “Me había olvidado” provides an example of correct pronoun placement when using the pluscuamperfecto: always before the conjugation of the verb haber.

Subjunctive Pluscuamperfecto

  • Carlos Rivera, “El hubiera no existe” — This song’s title at first appears to be a grammatical error (where’s the past participle?) but it’s really a play on the grammar. It translates approximately to “‘Would have’ doesn’t exist.” Listen for a number of different examples of when to use the subjunctive pluscuamperfecto to express impossible situtations in “if clauses.”

How to Practice the Pluscuamperfecto Tense

Maybe after reading this article, you’ll think, “¡Vaya! ¡Nunca había aprendido el pluscuamperfecto!” (Wow! I’d never learned the Spanish past perfect!) Perhaps, on the other hand, you’re thinking, “Qué aburrido, ya había aprendido todo eso.”  (How boring, I’d already learned all of that.)

Either way, after reading this post, you now have the tools to construct either of these sentences—and any other sentence in the pluscuamperfecto tense! (See, it wasn’t as hard as the name sounds, was it?)

To keep practicing, you can use a book from the reputable Practice Makes Perfect series. “Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Spanish Grammar” and “Practice Makes Perfect: Spanish Verb Tenses” both include sections about the pluscuamperfecto and plenty of opportunities to practice using them.

For more informal practice, sit down with a big bowl of popcorn and watch a Spanish-language movie, listening for the pluscuamperfecto in speech. You could also use a virtual immersion platform. FluentU, for example, has annotated captions with nuanced definitions and context for all of its videos, which can help understand why a word is being used in a particular way.

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