Conquer the Present Perfect and Past Perfect Tenses in Spanish

If you have reached the present perfect and past perfect tense, you are a good way into your Spanish studies and it’s time for a serious talk about grammar.

I don’t know of any shortcut around regular practice. However, you can do yourself an enormous favor by taking the time to discover what you mean to say in English before you attempt to construct the grammar in Spanish.

It is possible to learn how to conjugate verbs in the present and past perfect tenses without truly understanding their meaning or where and when to use them in writing or conversation. If you are reading this, you’ve likely set higher goals for yourself.

Let me begin by introducing the present and past perfect tenses in English. After we’ve grasped the purpose of these verb forms, we can move quickly and easily through the “rules.”

Recall that in the simple present or simple past tense we say “I live” or “I lived.” “I love” or “I loved.” Fairly straightforward. In the perfect tenses of the present and past, however, we express “I have lived” or “I had lived.” “I have loved” or “I had loved.”

If you imagine yourself narrating the story of your life, you can probably see why certain recollections require “I have loved” or “I had loved.” Because we “love” people and things for durations of time in the past that begin and end and sometimes overlap or change, it is not so simple as just “I love him” (now) or I “loved her” (then). There are moments in your story that need a more nuanced timeline–additional context that anchor a feeling in the past or draw it, alternately, all the way up and into the current moment.

“I have lived” (present perfect) and “I had lived” (past perfect) is a tricky distinction for students to make. Hopefully the examples below will clarify the difference between these seemingly interchangeable statements.

“I have lived” refers to the immediate past or to an action or state of being that occurred in the past, but continues into the present time. “I have lived without chocolate for a week” or “I have lived in California all my life.” Do you see how the present perfect suggests both the past and the present? The speaker is very well (though not necessarily) still longing for chocolate and continues to live in California. The past perfect, on the other hand, expresses a past action that has come to a definite end.

It is useful to look at the past perfect like a two-part story. Often the past action we are referring to occurred before yet another past action, for example, “I HAD lived in California for three years BEFORE my family moved to Pennsylvania.” An extra bit of context establishes that the action came to a definite conclusion in the past, as in “I had lived in California as a child.”

Now we move from the abstract to the concrete. How do we build the present and past perfect tenses?

In both languages the perfect tenses are “compound tenses,” meaning that they require 1. an auxiliary verb (have) and 2. the past participle (lived) of the main verb (live). “I have lived.”

1. “Haber” is the translation of “to have” in English. The conjugated form of “haber” will precede the past participle and must reflect the subject of the verb (I, you, he/she, etc.) in addition to the tense.

2. In English, we typically create a past participle by adding “-ed” to the main verb: “lived.” To create the past participle of a verb in Spanish, we drop the “ar” from AR verbs and replace it with “ado.” We drop the “er” or “ir” from ER and IR verbs and replace them with “ido.” So, if the main verb is “live” or “vivir,” the past participle becomes “vivido.”

At last, here is the construction in Spanish:

Present Perfect: (“Haber” conjugated in the present tense) + (past-participle of the main verb);

“He vivido” / I have lived.

“Hemos vivido” / We have lived.

Past Perfect: (“Haber” conjugated in the imperfect) + (past participle of the main verb);

“Había vivido.”/ I had lived.

“Habíamos vivido” / We had lived.