Learn the Correct Sequence of Tenses in Spanish
Do you get lost in complex sentences? You start well and then you doubt the form of the following verb? Don’t worry, with the help of this guide you can easily identify the culprit of your insecurity and fix it.
When you’re in the process of learning and mastering Spanish grammar, it’s important to understand two main elements:
- The pronoun agreement of tenses, and
- The proper sequence of tenses in Spanish
Today I cover both and break down what the rules are.
Let’s get started!
What is a Sequence of Tenses in Spanish?
The sequence of tenses is simply an agreement between the verb in the main sentence and the verb in the subordinate tenses in terms of time and mood. It is called la correlación verbal or concordancia verbal in Spanish.
The sequence of tenses in Spanish mainly affects three cases:
To put it simply: depending on the tense of the verb in the first clause, you need to use a certain tense and mood in the second one.
Direct speech: She is in Guatemala these days!
Indirect speech: He said she was in Guatemala in those days.
In the indirect speech example above, the verb “said” appears in the past simple tense, causing the following verb in the subordinate clause (“was”) to change tense.
Let’s have a look now at a sequence of tenses in Spanish in two situations. First, when the subordinate verb appears in the indicative mood, and second when the subordinate verb must be in the subjunctive mood.
To fully understand the topic, you should already be able to distinguish when to use the indicative mood and when to use the subjunctive. For a quick and effective refresher, check out a simple guide to subjunctive vs indicative in Spanish.
A Sequence of Tenses in Spanish With the Subordinate Verb in the Indicative Mood or Conditional
There are two main situations that apply to a sequence of tenses in Spanish in the indicative mood and conditional:
- The verb in the main clause is in present or future tense
- The verb in the main clause is in past tense
I’ll show you how it looks in each case.
Main Verb in Present or Future Tense
If the verb in the main clause is in present or future tense (present, present perfect, future, or conditional) the verb in the following clause can appear in any tense of the indicative mood depending on the idea the speaker wants to convey.
digo que (I say that)dice que (he/she says that)diga que (say that)he dicho que (I have said that)diré que (I will say that)diría que (I would say that)
tengo (I have)tenía (had)tuve (I had)he tenido (I have had)había tenido (had had)tendré (I will have)habré tenido (I will have had)tendría (would have)habría tenido (would have had)
Let’s see some example sentences:
Ella dice que tiene veinte años.
She says she is twenty years old.
Le diré que tengo dos opciones.
I will say that I have two options.
Ella dice que tenía que hacerlo.
She says she had to do it.
He dicho que tendré tiempo suficiente para hacerlo.
I have said that I will have enough time to do it.
Digo que tendría que verlo primero.
I say I would have to see it first.
Yo diría que no has tenido mucho éxito aquí.
I’d say you haven’t had much success here.
Si lo dices, tendrías que probarlo.
If you say so, you would have to give it a try.
As you can see the combinations are almost infinite and depend on what you want to express.
Main Verb in a Past Tense
If the main verb appears in the past tense (preterite, imperfect, past perfect, or conditional), the verb in the subordinate clause adapts accordingly depending on whether the action is simultaneous, was completed earlier, or will happen afterward.
You have fewer options in the subordinate clause, opting among the imperfect, past perfect, or conditional tenses.
decía que (I/he/she/you was saying that)dije que (I said that)dijo que (he/she/you said that)había dicho que (I had said that)diría que (I would say that)
tenía (had)había tenido (had had)tendría (would have)habría tenido (would have had)
Me dijo que tenía cuatro gatos en su casa.
He told me that he had four cats in his house.
Mi madre decía que antes había tenido más suerte en la vida.
My mother said that she had had more luck in life before.
Yo diría que tuvo que pasar así.
I’d say it had to happen like this.
Me acordé que me había dicho que vendría al día siguiente.
I remembered that he had told me that he would come the next day.
Take note that the conditional verbs can appear both after verbs in present and past tenses.
It’s also possible to use the verb in the subordinate clause in the present tense following the verb in the past tense when we talk about universal truths or to emphasize that something has not happened.
Copernico dijo que la Tierra gira alrededor del Sol.
Copernicus said that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
Dijeron que viene un huracán y nada.
They said a hurricane is coming and then nothing.
A Sequence of Tenses in Spanish With the Subordinate Verb in the Subjunctive Mood
Let’s have a look now at the rules for a sequence of tenses in Spanish when the subjunctive mood is in the subordinate clause. Once again, you need to take into consideration two situations:
- The verb in the main clause is in a present or future tense
- The verb in the main clause is in a past tense
Main Verb in a Present or Future Tense
If the verb in the main clause is one of the ones that trigger the subjunctive tense (WEIRDO) and it’s in present or future tense (present simple, present perfect, future simple), the verb in the subordinate clause is in the present subjunctive form.
dudo que (I doubt that)(tú) duda que (doubt that)(usted) dude que (doubt that)he dudado que (I have doubted that)dudaré que (I will doubt that)
Haga Haya hecho
Quiero que vengas a mi casa.
I want you to come to my house.
Me extraña que lo hayas dicho.
It surprises me that you said it.
Deseo que me hagas caso.
I want you to listen to me.
He dudado que tengas la razón.
I‘ve doubted that you’re right.
Querré que me escribas todos los días.
I will want you to write to me every day.
Main Verb in Past Tense or Conditional
If the verb in the main clause that triggers the subjunctive mood is in the past (preterite, imperfect, or past perfect) or conditional tense, the verb in the subordinate clause will be in the imperfect subjunctive form.
dudé que (I doubted that)dudaba que (doubted that)había dudado que (had doubted that)dudaría que (I would doubt that)habría dudado que (I would have doubted that)
hicieras or hiciese hubiera or hubiese hecho
Le pedía que me enviara la carta al día siguiente.
I asked him to send me the letter the next day.
No creí que lo hicieras.
I didn’t think you did it.
Había pretendido que lo amaba.
She had pretended that she loved him.
Nunca pensé que lo hubieras hecho.
I never thought you would have done it.
Te pediría que no lo hicieras.
I would ask you not to do it.
Exceptions to the Rule
You can also use the present subjunctive after a past verb if the action has not happened or has not finished yet.
Me pidió que lea este libro.
He asked me to read this book. (And I still haven’t.)
Ayer llevé el coche para que me lo arreglen.
Yesterday, I took the car to have it fixed for me. (And they are still working on it.)
A sequence of tenses in Spanish is not something that can be learned in one day. It requires lots of exercises and oral practice to get you accustomed to using it easily and naturally.
If you’re ready to practice speaking Spanish today and significantly boost your skills after one class, sign up for a free class with one of our friendly native Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala! Practice these sequences of tenses in Spanish in your student-tailored, 1-on-1 interactive, online Spanish class!
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