'Haber' As an Auxiliary Verb

Perfect Tenses Indicate Completed Actions

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He comprado un coche. (I have bought a car.). Photo by John Lloyd; licensed via Creative Commons.

Just by learning the conjugation of one verb, you can vastly increase the verb tenses and forms you have available in Spanish.

It may come as no surprise that the verb is haber, which is translated as the auxiliary verb "to have." As an auxiliary verb, haber in Spanish and "to have" in English are used to form the perfect tenses.

No, they aren't called the perfect tenses because they're better than the others. But one meaning of "perfect," one we don't see very often today outside of literature, is "complete." The perfect verb tenses, then, refer to completed actions (although they aren't the only way of referring to completed actions).

Contrast two ways of referring to something that happened in the past: He salido ("I have left") and estaba saliendo ("I was leaving"). In the first instance, it is clear that the act described by the verb is completed; it's something that was over at a specific time. But in the second case, there is no indication when the departure was completed; in fact, the act of leaving still could be occurring.

In both English and Spanish, the perfect tenses are formed by using a form of the verb haber or "to have" followed by the past participle (el participio in Spanish). In English, the participle typically is formed by adding "-ed" to verbs; the Spanish participle, which has origins related to the English participle, typically is formed by using the ending of -ado for -ar verbs and -ido for -er and -ir verbs.

The tense of the resulting verb depends on which tense of haber is used. Use the present tense of haber to create the present perfect tense, the future tense to create the future perfect tense, and so on.

Here are examples of the various tenses using haber salido ("to have left") in the first-person singular.

  • Present perfect indicative: He salido. I have left.
  • Past perfect indicative (pluperfect): Había salido. I had left.
  • Preterite perfect indicative: Hube salido. I had left.
  • Future perfect indicative: Habré salido. I will have left.
  • Conditional perfect indicative: Habría salido. I would have left.
  • Present perfect subjunctive: (que) haya salido. (that) I have left.
  • Past perfect subjunctive: (que) hubiera salido. (that) I had left.

Note that the preterite perfect indicative tense isn't used much in speech or modern writing. You're most likely to find it in literature.

Note also that when standing alone, the subjunctive forms are indistinguishable in English from the indicative forms. In Spanish, the structure of the sentence, not how the verb is translated into English, will determine when the subjunctive is used. See the lessons on the subjunctive mood for more information on this verb mood. Here are some more involved sample sentences that you can examine to see how the perfect tenses are used:

  • He comprado un coche nuevo pero no puedo manejarlo. I have bought a new car but I can't drive it.
  • El traficante de armas no había leído a Shakespeare. The arms trafficker had not read Shakespeare.
  • Si yo hubiera hecho esa película ¡los críticos me habrían comido vivo! If I had made that film, the critics would have eaten me alive!
  • Hoy estoy aquí, mañana me habré ido. I am here today, tomorrow I will have gone.
  • No creo que hayan ganado los Rams. I don't believe the Rams have won.
  • Queríamos que hubieran comido. We wanted them to have eaten.