‘Haber’ As an Auxiliary Verb in Spanish

Perfect tenses used for completed actions

Mountain scene from Colombia.
Hemos viajado a Colombia. (We have traveled to Colombia.).

 

Thierry Monasse / Getty Images

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.

Perfect Tenses Used for Completed Actions

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. Numerous irregular forms, such as "seen" and visto, exist in both languages.

Types of Perfect Tenses

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 and unconjugated forms.

  • 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.
  • Perfect infinitive: haber salido (to have left)
  • Perfect gerund: habiendo salido (having 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.

Sample Sentences Using the Perfect Tenses

Here are some more involved sample sentences that you can examine to see how the perfect tenses are used. You will notice that they generally are used like the same tenses in English.

  • He comprado un coche nuevo pero no puedo manejarlo. (I have bought a new car but I can't drive it. Present perfect indicative.)
  • El traficante de armas no había leído a Shakespeare. (The arms trafficker had not read Shakespeare. Past perfect indicative)
  • 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! Past perfect subjunctive.)
  • Hoy estoy aquí; mañana me habré ido. (I am here today; tomorrow I will have gone. Future perfect.)
  • No creo que hayan ganado los Rams. (I don't believe the Rams have won. Present perfect subjunctive.)
  • Queríamos que hubieran comido. We wanted them to have eaten. Past perfect subjunctive.)
  • Para morirse bien es importante haber vivido bien. (In order die well it is important to have lived well. Perfect infinitive.)
  • Habiendo visto Bogotá en pantalla cientos de veces, creo que nada va a sorprenderme. (Having seen Bogota on a screen hundreds of times, I think nothing is going to surprise me. Perfect gerund.)

    Key Takeaways

    • Haber is an common auxiliary verb in Spanish that functions as the equivalent of the English "have" as an auxiliary verb.
    • Haber forms the perfect tenses, which are used similar to the perfect tenses of English and indicate that an action has or will be completed.
    • Perfect tenses can be used in Spanish for the past, present, and future in both the indicative and subjunctive moods.