Grammar Glossary for Spanish Students

aeropuerto sign
Salimos a las ocho para el aeropuerto. (We leave at 8 to go to the airport.). Gisela Giardino/Creative Commons.

Definition of 'Tense' 

A verb form that indicates, or can indicate, a relationship between the time the action in a verb occurs and the time the verb is uttered. A verb tense can also give an indication of the duration of the verb's action and when or if it is completed.

English uses conjugation to indicate simple present and simple past tenses. "I speak" is in the present tense, while "I spoke" is in the past tense.

English uses auxiliary verbs to indicate other tenses. Thus "I will speak" is in the future tense, while "I had spoken" and "I have spoken" are in the past perfect and present perfect tenses, respectively. A progressive tense ("I am speaking") can be used to indicate that the action is continuing.

Spanish also uses conjugation as well as auxiliary verbs to form the tenses. Hablo (I speak) is in the simple present, while estoy hablando (I am speaking) is in the present progressive. Spanish has a type of past tense, the imperfect, that doesn't have an exact equivalent in English. For example, hablaba can mean "I spoke" or "I used to speak."

The grammatical tense of a verb doesn't always coincide with the actual time the verb refers to. For example, the simple present tense in both English and Spanish can refer to events of the future. Thus "we leave at 8" and the Spanish equivalent, "Salimos a las ocho," are both in the present tense but refer to a future event.

Also known as

Tiempo in Spanish


Tenses can be classified in various ways. Common tenses include the simple present (I buy, compro), progressive present (I am buying, estoy comprando), preterite (I bought, compré), past perfect (I had bought, había comprado), present perfect (I have bought, he comprado) and future (I will buy, compraré).

There are also combination tenses such as the future perfect progressive (I will have been buying, habré estado comprando).