It’s easy in English – or at least it seems to be to us English speakers. We just don’t have so many past tenses! To be fair, Spanish does have a couple more past tenses than English, but it isn’t as complicated as it seems. You won’t need the 5th one on this list until you have been studying for a long time! The first three are those that you’ll use the most.
Some have some weird & wonderful names, too – & what’s more, different books use different names. Truthfully, we don’t need to know what they are called to be able to use them, but when learning, it helps to be able to call them something.
The first one usually taught is the present perfect. It’s very easy to form, & incredibly useful. I call it the ‘have done something’ tense. It uses the present tense of ‘haber’ with the participle. Although this feels like a past tense, it is in fact a PRESENT tense.
We use it to say what we have done this morning, this afternoon, today, this week, this year, even within this lifetime. The important thing to remember when using it, is that when we use it, we are still within the same timeframe. We can say ‘This morning I have….’ but only if it’s still this morning. If it’s the afternoon when you want to say what happened this morning, you need the simple past…or say ‘today’ & use the present perfect.
Hoy, he hablado con mi hija. Today I have spoken to my daughter.
No hemos ido a Valencia este año. We haven’t been to Valencia this year.
Nunca han comido caracoles en la vida. They have never eaten snails in their life.
The present perfect cannot be used to say what happened yesterday, last week, last month or last year.
You will usually learn the simple past & the imperfect next.
These can be confusing for English speakers simply because they translate the same. We say ‘’I walked to the market this morning’’. In Spanish that’s the simple past ‘’Caminé al mercado esta mañana’’.
We also say ‘’ I walked to school every day’’. In Spanish that’s the imperfect. ‘’Yo caminaba a colegio cada día’’.
The simple past is used for a past action which happened at a clear point in time, or for something which happened for a clear period of time. When we know clearly when the action started &/or finished. Also, for something repeated when we know & state how many times it happened. For something which can only happen once, such as doing something for the first time – or being born, for instance!
It might have happened a couple of minutes ago, or a couple of centuries ago.
We can say Esta mañana tomamos un café juntos. This morning we had a coffee together.
El viernes pasado tomamos un café juntos. Last Friday we had a coffee together.
En el año 1976 viví en Francia de marzo a junio. In 1976 I lived in France from March to June.
La Batalla de Hastings fue en 1066. The Battle of Hastings was in 1066.
I affectionately call the imperfect ’The wishy washy past’. We use it for past actions when we don’t know when they happened, nor how often, nor how long they lasted. They are repeated, ongoing or incomplete past actions. It’s also used for background & interrupted actions.
Cuando yo era joven me gustaba ir al colegio. When I was young I liked going to school. Being young isn’t a fixed period – we don’t know when it started or finished.
Visitaban a sus abuelos cada domingo. They visited their grandparents every Sunday. We don’t when, how many times, nor for how long.
Now for the past perfect. This is the ‘had done something’ tense. We mostly use it for talking about something which had happened when something else did. It uses the imperfect of haber with the participle.
Habíamos empezado a comer cuando él llegó. We had started eating when he arrived.
Habían estudiado bien, conque pasaron los exámenes. They had studied well so they passed the exams.
Lastly, the past anterior. This is very rarely used in spoken Spanish, but you might come across it in the written form. Many teachers don’t teach it at all. It translates into English the same as the past perfect, but uses the simple past of ‘haber’ with the past participle.
Most often, you’ll find it following ‘cuando’ or ‘apenas’, although very often the simple past or past perfect can also be used to mean the same.
Cuando todo el mundo se hubo sentado, empezó la película. When everyone had sat down, the film started.
Apenas todo el mundo se hubo sentado y empezó la película. Everyone had hardly sat down & the film started.