Using the Preterite Perfect Tense of Spanish

Also Known as the Anterior Perfect

Chile sunset
Cuando los otros dioses hubieron muerto, el dios solar comenzó su interminable camino. (As soon as the other gods died, the sun god began his endless journey.) Photo taken at Pichilemu, Chile. McKay Savage/Creative Commons.

The preterite perfect tense is unusual in Spanish, and you almost certainly will not hear it in everyday speech nor have a need to use it. But you should be aware of how it is used in case you come across it in literature or historical accounts. Except when a writer is seeking a literary effect or providing a bad translation from English, the preterite perfect is seldom used in modern writing.

The preterite perfect, also known as the anterior perfect or the pretérito anterior in Spanish, is formed by using the preterite of haber followed by the past participle.

It is used to refer to an event that was completed immediately prior to another event in the past, and thus it is usually used in sentences that also include use of another verb past tense. In other words, a verb in the preterite perfect is almost never the only verb in a sentence.

Here is an excerpt from Cervantes' "Don Quijote" to illustrate: Apenas hubo dicho esto el cristiano cautivo, cuando el jinete se arrojó del caballo y vino a abrazar al mozo. (The Christian captive had barely said this when the horseman leaped off his horse and came to hug the lad.) Note that the act of saying something (hubo dicho) immediately preceded a past action of hugging the lad.

Other examples:

  • Y luego que yo la hube visto, caí sobre mi rostro. (And as soon as I saw it, I fell upon my face.)
  • Cuando hubo comprendido esto no pudo evitar echar un vistazo al chico. (Once he understood this he could not avoid glancing at the boy.)
  • Una vez que hubimos encontrado un árbol que daba sombra, me ayudó a sentarme en el pasto. (Once we found a tree that provided shade, he helped me get seated in the grass.)
  • Una vez hube conocido varios pueblos de la provincia, decidí escaparme al Sur. Once I had met some peoples from the province, I decided to flee to the South.
  • Cuando todos los dioses hubieron muerto, Tonatiuh, el sol, comenzó su interminable camino por el firmamento. When all the gods died, Tonatiuh, the sun, began his eternal journey through the firmament.
  • Cuando hube sabido del budismo sabía bien lo que era el dharma. As soon as I knew about Buddhism, I knew what the dharma was.

As in the examples, use of the preterite perfect follows a phrase or word with a time element. Regardless of the specific words used, the word or phrase can be translated as something that means "as soon as" or "immediately after," as that sense of immediacy is conveyed by the verb tense. And while the preterite perfect frequently is translated using an English perfect tense (one using "had" and the participle), it is often fine to translate using the simple preterite. There seems to be little difference, for example, in meaning between "as soon as I saw it" and "as soon as I had seen it," so feel free to use whichever sounds better.

Sources: Sample sentences have been derived from sources that include Historias de Nuestro Planeta, FanFiction.net, the 1909 Reina-Valera translation of the Bible, DelPanicoalaAlegria.com and "El mito de los cinco soles."