Spanish Verb Tenses

Usage More Complex Than Past, Present and Future

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Reloj de San Sebastián, Espaaña. (Clock in San Sesbastian, Spain.). David Crespo/Getty Images

It almost goes without saying that the tense of a verb has something to do with what time the verb's action takes place. So it shouldn't be surprising that the Spanish word for "tense" in the grammatical sense is tiempo — the same as the word for "time."

In the simplest sense, we can think of there being three varieties of tenses: the past, present, and future. Unfortunately for anyone learning most languages, including English and Spanish, it is seldom that simple. Spanish also has a tense not connected to time as well as two types of simple past tenses.

The Basic Verb Tenses

Although both Spanish and English have complex tenses that use auxiliary verbs, students often begin by learning four types of simple tenses:

  1. The present tense is the most common tense and the one invariably learned first in Spanish classes.
  2. The future tense is most often used to refer to events that haven't happened yet, but it can also be used for emphatic commands and, in Spanish, to indicate uncertainty about current happenings.
  3. The past tenses of Spanish are known as the preterite and the imperfect. To simplify, the first is usually used to refer to something that happened at a specific point in time, while the later is used to describe events where the time period isn't specific.
  4. The conditional tense, also known in Spanish as el futuro hipotético, the future hypothetical, is different than the others in that it isn't clearly connected with a particular time period. As its names imply, this tense is used to refer to events that are conditional or hypothetical in nature. This tense should not be confused with the subjunctive mood, a verb form that also can refer to actions that aren't necessarily "real."

Conjugation of the Verb Tenses

In Spanish, verb tenses are formed by changing the endings of verbs, a process known as conjugation. We sometimes conjugate verbs in English, such as by added "-ed" to indicate the past tense, but the process in Spanish is much more extensive. In Spanish, for example, the future tense is expressed using conjugation rather by using an additional word such as "will" or "shall" in English. These are the five types of conjugation for simple tenses:

In addition to the simple tenses already listed, it is possible in both Spanish and English to form what are known as the perfect tenses by using a form of the verb haber in Spanish, "to have" in English, with the past participle. These compound tenses are known as present perfect, the pluperfect or past perfect, the preterite perfect (limited mostly to literary use), the future perfect and the conditional perfect.

A Closer Look at Spanish Tenses

Although the tenses of Spanish and English are very much alike — after all, the two languages share a common ancestor, Indo-European, a with origins dating to prehistoric times — Spanish has some peculiarities in its tense usage: