If you ask the Spanish students at any Spanish language school what’s the most difficult thing to learn of Spanish, certainly most of them will answer the same: the Spanish verb tenses. But why so? As you probably have guessed, there are simply too many tenses that indicate past, present, and future. In fact, if we compare the sixteen existing verb forms in English with the 23 found in Spanish, then we can explain why learning to differentiate and to use them is such a headache for Spanish learners.
However, as it also happen with the English language, not all Spanish verb tenses are used with the same frequency or in the same circumstances. There are some that are used in almost every conventional conversation, as well as there exist forms reserved for a much higher level of speech or even for literary purposes. Moreover, there are verb tenses that do not correspond to the ones that we usually use in English, and this adds an extra difficulty in a lot of situations where the tense you would use is not the one that is actually correct in Spanish.
Yet in English the verb hardly changes from its infinitive form when forming the indicative (only in some irregular ones), while in Spanish each person variates the ending of every verb, so it is necessary to know the variation rules in order to choose the corresponding form. For this reason, we have prepared the following guide about how to use the main verbs tenses to express yourself in Spanish.
Spanish present tenses
To talk about the actions in the present, the form “presente del indicativo” is most likely to be used in practically every situation. It works in much the same way as the English “present simple” form, and their uses are therefore identical in almost every context, so that’s why it is usually the first to be taught at every Spanish course. This means that, to talk about events or states in the present in Spanish, routinary actions or even actions that are going to happen in a very close future, we will use the presente del indicativo.
- Nosotros vivimos cerca del centro de la ciudad
- Ellos juegan al tenis todos los sábados por la tarde
- En seguida ordeno mi habitación
Spanish past tenses
The past tenses of the verbs are the most tricky feature of all the Spanish language, as some of them do not have exact equivalents in English, and if you happen to be learning Spanish for a short time, it can be especially difficult to know which one to use at any given moment. Without a doubt, the 3 most used verb forms of the past are “pretérito perfecto simple”, “pretérito perfecto compuesto”, and “pretérito imperfecto”, each one of them having their own characteristics and differences.
“Pretérito perfecto simple”, also known as “pretérito indefinido”, is the past tense that speakers must use in Spanish when they want to describe an action in the past that has been already completed or when they want to talk about event or things about people’s life that happened in the past, but when we use this verbs tense it means that it doesn’t have necessarily anything to do with the present situation. Keep that in mind, as it is the main difference with other past tenses in Spanish language.
Hice los deberes el pasado Viernes
Recibí la carta el día de mi cumpleaños
Instead, “pretérito perfecto compuesto” is used when we want to talk about a completed action in the past that does have implications in the present somehow. Besides, this past tense can also be used when we want to talk about something that has already happened without specificizing when exactly it happened, and also to talk about a moment of the very recent past. If you are learning Spanish and you don’t know which one you should use on some occasion, this is usually the most likely to be used in normal conversations.
Él ha hecho los deberes antes de venir
Ha invitado a todos a su fiesta
Finally, “pretérito imperfecto” is the past form used in Spanish to describe an unfinished action in the past. Moreover, it has a second use, as it is the one that serves to talk about rutinary events in the past in narrations.
De pequeño, siempre comía en casa de mis abuelos.
Él paseaba por una calle que parecía desierta.
Spanish future tenses
There are only two future tenses in the Spanish language, and both of them have well-defined uses and contexts where they can be heard. They are very easy to understand, as they are equivalents to the English future verb tenses.
Firstly, the “futuro simple” would be the one that everybody recognises as the “proper future tense of the verbs in Spanish”, as it is used when we want to express actions that will happen in the future. However, it can also be seen in sentences that express suppositions about the future and also about the present. If you are attending a Spanish school, this will be the first future form that you will learn, as it is the most useful.
El mes que viene viajaré a España.
Si la camiseta no está en el cajón, estará en la lavadora.
The other tense, “futuro compuesto” or “futuro perfecto”, would be the Spanish exact equivalent of the future perfect, so naturally it would be used to express actions and predictions that will have happened either at the time of speaking or in the future.
Para cuando vengas, nosotros ya habremos cenado.
Si no te presentas al examen, todo el esfuero habrá sido en vano.
Although it takes a los of practice to master the Spanish verb tenses, we hope that this guide helps you to figure out which verb tense you should resort to in each case to express yourself correctly in Spanish. Once you have learnt and assimilated its use, you will notice that your proficiency and your fluency in Spanish will have increased beyond your expectations.
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Written by Joaquín Puerta