Ways in Which Spanish and English Verb Tenses Differ

Corresponding tenses don't always refer to the same time periods

Guatemala bus
El bus llega a las dos. (The bus arrives at 2.). John Barrie/Creative Commons

Spanish speakers and English speakers think of their verb tenses in much the same way: The present tense of English functions much like the present tense of Spanish, and the same can be said of other tenses.

But there are some differences you'll come across as you get past the beginner's level of Spanish. Here are some of the most significant ones:

Using the Present Tense To Discuss the Future

It is possible in both languages to discuss the future while using a present tense, but you can do so more flexibly in English.

In English, you can use either the simple present or the present progressive to refer to the future. For example, you could say either "The bus arrives at 2" or "The bus is arriving at 2." In Spanish, however, you must use the simple present:

  • El bus llega a las dos. (The bus arrives at 2)
  • La pelí comienza a las 8:45. (The film begins at 8:45.)

The present progressive in Spanish suggests that something is happening now. "El bus está llegando" means something like "The bus is in the process of arriving," so it doesn't make sense to add a future time element.

You could also use the future tense in either language for these situations.

Using the Present Tense for What Is Happening Now

In both languages, the simple present is used to refer to something that happens continuously, regularly, or repeatedly. Thus "Los elefantes comen raíces" can mean "Elephants eat roots," and "Hago muchos errores" can mean "I make many mistakes."

In Spanish but not English, however, the simple present can also be used to refer to something that is happening now, a concept that in English is expressed using the present progressive. Thus "Los elefantes comen raíces" can also mean "The elephants are eating roots," and "Hago muchos errores" can also mean "I am making many mistakes." To determine what the Spanish means, you need to look at the context.

You could also use the present progressive in Spanish to indicate that something is happening now (such as "Los elefantes están comiendo raíces"), but that verb form isn't used nearly as much in Spanish as in English.

Tense for Activities That Continue

The idiom in Spanish for indicating when an activity began is "hace + time period," the equivalent of "ago" in English. If the event is completed, both languages use the preterite:

  • Comimos hace dos horas. (We ate two hours ago.)
  • Viajaron a Madrid. (They traveled to Madrid.)

If the action is still continuing, however, Spanish typically uses the phrase "hace + time period + que" followed by a simple present-tense verb, while English usually uses a "have" or "has" verb form followed by "for" and the time period:

  • Hace dos años que vivo con él. (I have been living with him for two years.)
  • Hace 36 horas que Roberta está aquí. (Roberta has been here for 36 hours.)

Using the Future Tense for Likelihood

Although the future tense in both languages usually is used to indicate what will happen, in Spanish it can also be used to indicate that something seems probable. There is no English equivalent to this "suppositional future" based on verb tense:

  • Guillermo estará en casa. (Guillermo is probably at home.)
  • ¡Será la verdad! (It must be true!)

In a question, the suppositional future is often used to express lack of knowledge or wondering:

  • ¿Dónde estará Catalina? (Where could Catalina be?)
  • ¿Qué será eso? (What could that be?)

Tense and the Beginning of Actions

In Spanish, use of the preterite tense rather than the imperfect tense can indicate when the verb's action began. English may use a different word or sentence structure rather than tense to convey the same thing. For example, conocer often refers to knowing someone. To say you knew someone, you'd use the imperfect in Spanish but the preterite in English: Yo conocía a Gabriela. (I knew Gabriela). Using the preterite in Spanish would usually be understood as referring to when the knowing began: Conocí a Gabriela. I met Gabriela.)

In this way, the choice of verb tense can affect how a Spanish verb is translated to English:

  • Sabía nadar. (I knew how to swim.)
  • Supe nadar. (I learned how to swim.)

Regional Differences for the Present Perfect

In both languages, the present perfect can refer to events that happened at some unspecified time in the past:

  • Hemos cado los problemas. (We have identified the problems.)
  • Ha estudiado para ser actriz. (She has studied to be an actress.)

But in some areas, especially Spain, the Spanish present perfect is used primarily to refer to events that occurred in the very recent past.

  • Hace un minuto he llamado a mi madre. (A minute ago I called my mother.)
  • ¡Mi perro se ha comido el collar antiparasitario! (My dog just hate his antiparasite collar!)

But in other areas, the preterite or some construction other than the present perfect would be preferred:

  • Hace un minuto llamá a mi madre. (A minute ago I called my mother.)
  • ¡Mi perro acaba de comer el collar antiparasitario! (My dog just hate his antiparasite collar!)