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The Past Tense in Spanish Posted by on Jun 19, 2013 in Spanish Grammar

Choosing between using the Pretérito Perfecto or Indefinido in Spanish may cause a little trouble for learners, so let me share some tips to help you use these tenses correctly:

Sentences with Time Expressions

We use the Indefinido with obvious time expressions like ayer (yesterday), anteayer (the day before yesterday), anoche (last night), la semana pasada (last week), el año pasado (last year), etc. Some examples:

Ayer leí el periódico. = I read the newspaper yesterday.
Vi a tu hermano anteayer. = I saw your brother the day before yesterday.
¿Dónde trabajaste el año pasado? = Where did you work last year?

As we know, the Pretérito Perfecto is also used with the following expressions: hoy (today), esta mañana (this morning), esta tarde (this afternoon), aún / todavía (still, et), among others. It shows that the time the action (has) happened is not over yet or we have a time expression related to the present (even though it’s a past tense). Some examples:

Hoy he leído el periódico. = I have read the newspaper today. (Today’s not over and I haven’t said when I read the newspaper. Maybe I will read it again later on.)

Todavía no he hecho mis debers. = I still haven’t done my homework. (I may actually do it, or not.)

Siempre y nunca

With siempre and nunca we can use both tenses, with a difference in meaning:

Ella nunca estudió español. = She never studied Spanish. [and she never will]
Ella nunca ha estudiado español. = She has never studied Spanish. [but she can if she wants to – it’s still possible]

Ella siempre tuvo suerte. = She always had luck. [a constant action in the past]
Ella siempre ha tenido suerte. = She’s always had luck. [this aciton is still true in the present]

No time expression

It is correct to use both tenses when we don’t have a time expression in the sentence with a little difference in meaning. Some examples:

Él llegó a España. = He arrived in Spain. [a definite action in the past – we don’t know when exactly]
Él ha llegado a España. = He has arrived in Spain. [maybe I’m telling this to someone because it’s news!]

Roughly, the Indefinido is used mostly in Latin America in situations grammatically appropriate for the Pretérito Perfecto.

Tip Plus!

Pay close attention to how the past tenses are used in Spanish when you read a text, listen to a dialogue or even talk with native speakers!

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About the Author: Adir

English / Spanish teacher and translator for over 20 years. I have been blogging since 2007 and I am also a professional singer in my spare time.