This chapter introduces the principal past and future tenses and the way these are used. The past perfect and imperfect are compared: you will see how they are formed and the contexts in which they can be used. The future tense can be expressed using the equivalents of ‘will’ or ‘am/is going to’, both of which are dealt with in this chapter.
Introducing past tenses
Past events and actions are described differently depending on whether what you are referring to is completed, or is still going on, and whether it was over an extended period of time or a single short event. In general the past perfect tense (‘I have done something’ for example) is used for events linked with or having consequences in the present, continuing into the present, or completed in the very recent past –today, this afternoon, this morning for example. By comparison the imperfect tense refers to an action or condition that was ongoing, with no specific end point (‘I was doing something’); something you ‘used to do’ – a habitual activity for example; or something which happened or was happening when something else occurred (e.g. ‘he was sleeping when the window blew open’). The simple past is known as the preterite, and this is used for actions which happened and have been completed in the less recent past – yesterday and earlier: ‘I did something’.
Examples of the past tense in practice will hopefully help here, because the distinct meaning of each is important:
The past tense in practice – examples
I have worked as a travel agent/ tour operator (perfect): for an unspecified period I worked as a travel agent and this is still relevant to what I do today – He trabajado como agente de viajes. Another example is I have reserved a room – He reservado un habitación which assumes this was a recent action.
I worked as a travel agent/tour operator (simple/preterite): over a specified period I worked as a travel agent – Trabajé como agente de viajes (desde 2000 hasta 2013)
I worked/ used to work/ was working as a travel agent (imperfect): for an unspecified period I worked as a travel agent, or at around the time when something else happened I was working as a travel agent. – Trabajaba como agente de viajes.
The perfect tense (has worked / have done … )
The perfect tense is formed by the appropriate form of
haber + the past participle.
Haber is an auxiliary verb, with different forms for ecah personal pronoun as below:
(yo) he (tú) has (él/ella/usted) ha
(nosotros/as) hemos (vosotros/as) habeis (ellos/ellas/ustedes) han
- regular –ar verbs root +ado
- e.g. trabajado viajado jugado
- regular -er and –ir root + ido
- e.g. (beber) bebido (vivir) vivido
- Estar has the past participle estado
- ir has ido as its past participle
- ser has the past participle sido
However there are numerous examples of irregular past participles such as:
- abrir … abierto
- decir … dicho
- escribir … escrito
- hacer … hecho
- poner … puesto
- ver … visto
- volver … vuelto
The preterite (worked*, did…)
(*on an occasion)
The preterite (simple past) is formed as follows:
–ar verbs root +
- –é (yo)
- –aste (tú)
- –ó (él/ella/usted)
- –amos (nosotros/as)
- –asteis (vosotros/as)
- –aron (ellos/ellas/ustedes)
-er and –ir root +
- –í (yo)
- –iste (tú)
- -ió (él/ella/usted)
- –imos (nosotros/as)
- –isteis (vosotros/as)
- –ieron (ellos/ellas/ustedes)
Ser (to be) and ir (to go) both share the same preterite forms:
- fui fuiste fue
- fuimos fuisteis fueron
Irregular preterite forms include:
- estuve estuviste estuvo
- estuvimos estuvisteis estuvieron
- hice hiciste hizo
- hicimos hicisteis hicieron
- di diste dio
- dimos disteis dieron
The past imperfect (was working, used to work, worked* …)
(*for a time)
The past imperfect tense is formed by:
–ar verbs root +
-er and –ir root +
Introducing future tenses with examples
(*for a time)
The future is largely expressed in two ways in Spanish, in a similar way to English : ‘will’ or ‘is /are going to’. These are respectively the simple and composite future tenses.
Examples of the future tense in practice are perhaps easier to distinguish between and, once again, the context and meaning are important:
I will work as a travel agent (future tense) – Trabajaré como agente de viajes:
This indicates a future state or prediction, as opposed to an intention. It is formed in regular verbs by adding the appropriate ending to the infinitive:
regular –ar, -er and ir verbs
The simple future is formed by infinitive + endings :
– For example trabajaré (I will work) ; vivirás (you will live) ; viajará (s/he will travel)
The verbs tener, dormir and jugar are irregular in this form. For example dormir and jugar follow the above pattern with the exception of the 1st person plural (we / nosotros ) which changes to dormiremos and jugaremos without the accent. Tener follows the above endings, but the root changes entirely to tendr- ; so tendría.
I am going to work as a travel agent (composite future tense) – Voy a trabajar como agente de viajes :
Used in spoken Spanish more often, this composite future is formed with:
‘to go’ ir + the infinitive
The composite future tense signifies an intention to do something. It is used very much as in English, so could indicate that at some point in the future you are ‘going to do something’, or it could be an immediate intention, i.e. the next thing you will do.
There is a fine line to be drawn between intention and prediction in the two future tenses above. Thus ‘We are going to graduate in three years’ time’ or ‘I am going to leave now’ both use the composite form. ‘You will graduate in three years’ time’ could be seen as either a prediction or intention, although it leans more to predicting a future state. ‘You will be three years older when you graduate’ is a predicted future state so more clear-cut, using the first example of the future tense.
Use of the present tense to indicate future action:
I will start / am starting to work as a travel agent tomorrow – Empiezo trabajar como agente de viajes mañana . This is an example of using the present tense to indicate future action, usually on a specified date. It is also common in English.