Have you ever heard of dihydrogen monoxide?
Sounds like something you’d only encounter in a serious science class, right?
Well, 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.
Despite its difficult-to-spell name, the Spanish past perfect is not actually hard to learn. It can even let you time travel back to the carefree days of your youth. And besides, it’s a highly useful tense.
Don’t believe me? Listen to these two English phrases:
“We have been to Italy before.”
“We had been to Italy before.”
The sentences are almost identical, but the verb change from “have” to “had” completely changes the meaning of the sentence. The first is making a simple statement that at some point in the past, the speaker has been to Italy. The second sentence implies a second event—perhaps a second trip to Italy? Or maybe it’s the beginning of an interesting story that the speaker’s starting to share.
That second sentence—the one using the verb “had”—is the English equivalent of 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.
Everything You Need to Know About the Spanish Pluscuamperfecto
Before we get our hands dirty, let me tell you about a place where you’ll be able to see the pluscuamperfecto being used by native speakers: FluentU.
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:
- 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.)
- With the phrase ojalá to express a desire that something would have happened in the past.
Ojalá hubiéramos ido.
(I wish we had gone.)
- 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.
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:
For –ar verbs: –ado
For –er verbs: –ido
For –ir verbs: –ido
Thus, from hablar we get the past participle hablado, from comer we get comido, and from dormir we get 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
- roto (broken)
- muerto (dead)
- escrito (written)
- abierto (opened)
- vuelto (returned)
-cho past participles
- dicho (said)
- hecho (did/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.
In the indicative pluscuamperfecto, we conjugate haber in the imperfect tense, like this:
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 cancelled.)
Yo había querido pollo, pero me gustó la ternera.
(I had wanted chicken, but I liked the steak.)
In the subjunctive pluscuamperfecto, conjugate the auxiliary verb haber in the imperfect of the subjunctive.
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.)
To ask questions in the pluscuamperfecto, remember to place the subject of the sentence after the verb.
¿Habían estudiado los estudiantes antes del examen?
(Had the students studied before the exam?)
¿Había dicho tu madre a que 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:
- Ya — already
Ya lo había dicho dos veces.
(I had already said it twice.)
- Antes/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!
- Franco de Vita, “Ya lo había vivido” — This song contains a number of instances of the pluscuamperfecto, including a variety of irregular and regular verbs.
- Jorge Rosas, “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.
- 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.”
- Christina Aguilera featuring Luis Fonsi, “Si no te hubiera conocido” — This lovely duet, whose title translates to “If I had never met you,” showcases a variety of situations in which to use the subjunctive pluscuamperfecto. Particularly, it showcases “if clauses” in which the subjunctive pluscuamperfecto is paired with a conditional verb.
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.
And One More Thing…
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Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
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