‘Haber’ and ‘Estar’ Used in Forming Compound Past Tenses

Construction and usage similar to corresponding tenses in English

bridge in Madrid, Spain
Habíamos estado buscando una casa en Madrid. (We had been looking for a house in Madrid.).

Rick Ligthelm / Creative Commons.

The two simple past tenses of Spanish, the preterite and the imperfect, aren't the only wants of referring to the past. Auxiliary verbs can also be used to form perfect and progressive, also known as continuous, tenses, some of which refer to the past.

Present Perfect

Despite its name, the present perfect tense refers to past actions. It is formed by using the present tense of haber followed by the past participle and is the rough equivalent of the same tense in English. Thus "He estudiado"—he is the first-person indicative singular form of haber, and estudiado is the past participle of estudiar—would usually be translated as "I have studied."

In general, the present perfect tense is used to discuss actions that took place in the past but still have relevance to the present or are continuing up to the present. Note, however, that the present perfect tense of Spanish doesn't always coincide exactly with that of English; in some cases, the tense in Spanish may be translated to the English using the simple past. And in Spain it is common to use the present perfect for very recent events.

  • Nunca he conocido a nadie como tú. (I have never met someone like you.)
  • ¿Cuál es el mejor CD que has comprado? (What is the best CD you have purchased?)
  • Hemos sufrido una pérdida irreparable. (We have suffered an irreparable loss.)
  • Hace una hora ha nacido mi sobrina. (An hour ago, my niece was born. In some regions, the preterite would be preferred: Hace una hora nació mi sobrina.)

Past Perfect

Also known as the pluperfect, the past perfect tense is formed by using the imperfect form of haber followed by the past participle. Its uses generally coincide with the past perfect of English, formed by using "had" and the past participle. The distinction in meaning with the present perfect is that in the pluperfect the verb's action is completed and clearly distinct from the present.

  • Yo había entendido los conceptos del curso, pero no los había aplicado. (I had understood the concepts of the course, but I had not applied them.)
  • A medio kilómetro de distancia se encontraron otros cuatro cuerpos masculinos, que hasta el momento no habían sido identificados. (A half kilometer away four other male bodies were found, which until that moment had not been identified.)
  • Mi padre había tenido una vida dura, pero llena de triunfos. (My father had had a hard life, but one full of triumphs.)

Preterite Perfect

The preterite perfect, sometimes known as the pretérito anterior, is rarely used today except for literary effect; you are unlikely to hear it in everyday speech. It most often follows a time expression (such as cuando or después que) and is formed by using the preterite of haber followed by past participle. It is usually translated to English the same way as the past perfect.

  • Cuando el niño se hubo dormido, el cura me pidió permiso para dejarme. (When the boy had fallen asleep, the priest asked me for permission to leave me.)
  • Tan pronto hubo escuchado aquellas palabras, salió corriendo hacia la plaza. (As soon as he had heard those words, he left running toward the plaza.)

Preterite Progressive

The preterite progressive or preterite continuous is formed by using the preterite form of estar before the gerund. It is the equivalent of the "was/were + verb + -ing" construction in English but is used much less frequently. The Spanish preterite progressive often suggests that an action takes place or is repeated over an extended period of time.

  • Este fin de semana pasado estuve andando por las calles de Oslo. (This past weekend I was walking through the streets of Oslo.)
  • Estuve leyendo todos sus mensajes. (I was reading all your messages.)
  • Estuvimos muriendo de frío. (We were dying of cold.)

Imperfect Progressive

The imperfect progressive (or imperfect continuous) is similar in meaning to the preterite progressive and is somewhat more common. The imperfect progressive often suggests the ongoing nature of an action, while the preterite subjunctive suggests that it had an end.

  • Un día antes del examen estuve estudiando con mi amigo. (One day before the test I was studying with my friend.)
  • El actor estaba comiendo saludable como siempre. (The actor was eating healthfully as always.)

Past Perfect Progressive Tenses

Combine the gerund with the present perfect or pluperfect tense of estar (or of "to be" in English), and you end up with the past perfect progressive tenses. Their usage in the two languages is similar. "Present indicative of haber + estado + gerund" is the equivalent of "have/has + been + gerund," and "imperfect of haber + estado + gerund" is the equivalent of "had + been + gerund."

The present perfect progressive can refer to continuing actions that may be taking place up to the present:

  • ¿Cómo se sabe si alguien ha estado usando marihuana? (How do you know if someone has been using marijuana?)
  • He estado pensando en ti. (I have been thinking about you.)
  • Mamá y yo hemos estado hablando del futuro. (Mom and I have been talking about the future.)

The pluperfect progressive tense, in contrast, generally refers to continuing actions that are completed (or, if still occurring, are no longer relevant):

  • Andrea había estado hablando con Pablo todo el día. (Andrea had been talking with Pablo all day.)
  • Habíamos estado buscando una casa en Madrid. (We had been looking for a house in Madrid.)
  • Habían estado viviendo allí mucho antes de que los españoles llegaran. (They had been living there long before the Spaniards arrived.)

Key Takeaways

  • The compound past tenses of Spanish provide nuances of meaning that aren't available using the two simple past tenses.
  • Present, past, and preterite perfect tenses are formed by using a conjugated form of haber with the past participle.
  • Past progressive tenses are formed using a past form of estar with the present participle.