Master the Past Perfect Spanish Tense (El Pluscuamperfecto)
So, you’ve mastered the present simple, past simple, and imperfect tenses in Spanish. However, you still feel like you can’t quite express yourself completely when talking about past events. How do you talk about things you had done before? This is called the past perfect tense, or the pluscuamperfecto in Spanish.
In this blog post, we’ll go over everything you need to know to master the past perfect Spanish tense. ¿Listo para empezar?
What Is the Past Perfect Spanish Tense?
The past perfect Spanish tense explains what had happened before something else happened. Before we jump into the finer details of the past perfect Spanish tense, it will help us to understand how it works in English because they are quite similar.
An English Review
The past perfect is a compound tense, made up of a helping verb and a main verb.
(Don’t need an English review? Jump to the Spanish lesson.)
For example, in the sentence “I had eaten,” “had” is the helping verb and “eaten” is the main verb.
The helping verb is conjugated according to the subject, while the main verb remains in its past participle form.
What is the past participle form, you ask? It is a conjugated verb used in compound verbs (as in our example above, “had eaten”) or as an adjective (“half-eaten bread”). In English, you form the past participles by adding -ed, -d, -t, or -en to most verbs (such as “tried,” “bought,” and “broken”), which are preceded by a helping verb. Some more examples of past participles (bolded in the following phrases) are:
- I have studied.
- We had traveled.
- I have already caught it.
- The phone was stolen.
- The stolen phone.
Memorizing Spanish past participles might be the hardest part of any perfect tense. However, if you are already familiar with the present perfect tense, then the past perfect tense should be pretty simple. To review the present perfect tense in detail, check out Part 3 of our blog series on Present Tense Verbs in Spanish! Present Perfect Tense vs. Past Perfect Tense
As a brief reminder, the present perfect tense combines the present tense verb “to have” and the main verb in its past participle form.
Present Perfect: present conjugation of “have” + past participle
- have danced
- has decided
- have seen
The past perfect takes the same format, but instead uses the past tense form of “have” (instead of the present).
Past Perfect: past conjugation of “have” + past participle
- had danced
- had decided
- had seen
A Spanish Review
Now, we’re ready to look at the past perfect Spanish tense. Just like its English counterpart, it comprises two verbs: one helping and one main. While both haber and tener mean “to have,” in Spanish, the helping verb always translates to haber and never tener. To clarify, tener always refers to having physical or abstract things, while haber most often takes the role of a helping verb.
The past participles in Spanish are slightly more complicated than in English, but they aren’t too hard to master. The rules for forming the participio pasado are as follows:
For -AR verbs, add -ado. (hablado, jugado, enviado)
For -ER and -IR verbs, add -ido. (comido, ido, vivido)
That’s all there is to it! Of course, there are several irregular forms of Spanish past participles, but we’ll look at those later.
Now that we know how to form past participles in Spanish, let’s look at the formula for the past participle Spanish tenses.
Past Perfect: past conjugation of haber + participio pasado
- había bailado (have danced)
- habíamos decidido (has decided)
- habías visto (had seen)
As you can see from the examples, there are various conjugations of the verb haber in the past (imperfect) tense. Remember that in the past perfect tense haber must always agree with the subject of the sentence. Let’s learn more about the conjugations!
Ways to Conjugate Haber
If you remember from your lessons about the past tense in Spanish, there are two past tenses that can be translated exactly the same in English: the preterite and the imperfect. However, in Spanish, they are very unique tenses.
Since the preterite and the imperfect can be both translated to the simple past tense in English, which one do you use for the past perfect Spanish tense? Technically, both can be used in the past perfect tense, but the preterite past perfect Spanish tense is usually used in books and more formal settings. In conversational settings, using only the imperfect form of haber is completely normal and acceptable. Since the imperfect tense is more common in everyday speech, we will focus on that tense and how it is used in the past perfect.
Let’s look at how to conjugate haber in the imperfect past tense and combine it with a past participle to form the past perfect tense.
In this chart, we used the past participle of estudiar, so here are some examples with other verbs.
Yo había decidido.
I had decided.
Nosotros habíamos llamado.
We had called.
Tú habías llegado.
You had arrived.
Ellos habían comido.
They had eaten.
Now that we’ve got the form mastered, it’s time to talk about when to use the past perfect Spanish tense.
When Do You Use the Past Perfect Spanish Tense?
Let’s imagine a timeline. In the middle of the timeline, put a dot for what is happening at this moment. Now, imagine an event in the past and put a dot to the left of “now.” We want to use a dot because the event, expressed with the past simple tense, was a one-time thing that is over.
Now the past perfect Spanish tense comes into play. We use this tense (in English and Spanish) to talk about events that happened before that past event. You don’t need to know exactly when the event happened, just as long as it was before the past simple event. On your timeline, you can represent the past perfect tense with a line extending from the past simple event to the far left side of the line.
Remember that the past perfect Spanish tense is often accompanied by the word “when” (cuando) and a past simple tense to give an idea of the order of past events. Let’s look at some practical examples (the past perfect tense bolded).
Apenas había terminado de limpiar cuando llamaste.
I had just finished cleaning when you called.
(“Called” is the past simple action, and “had finished cleaning” is the event that happened beforehand.)
Ella siempre había querido viajar, así que cuando ganó la lotería eso fue la primera cosa que hizo.
She had always wanted to travel, so when she won the lottery that was the first thing she did.
(“Won the lottery” is the past simple action, and “had wanted” happened for a while beforehand.)
Había esperado buenas noticias, así que cuando el doctor me dio los resultados estaba destrozada.
I had hoped for some good news, so when the doctor gave me the results I was crushed.
(“Gave” is the past simple action, and “had hoped” occurred for a long time beforehand.)
Te había enviado un mensaje cuando te vi en la calle.
I had sent you a message when I saw you on the street.
(“Saw” is the past simple action, and “had sent” occurred before the action.)
Después de que habíamos firmado los papeles, salimos de la oficina.
After we had signed the papers, we left the office.
(“Left” is the past simple action, and “had signed” beforehand.)
Tan pronto había terminado de cantar, todos aplaudieron.
As soon as she had finished singing, everyone applauded.
(“Applauded” is the past simple action, and “had finished” occurred right before.)
Getting Ready to Practice the Past Perfect Spanish Tense
To equip you with all the tools you need to practice the past perfect tense, we’ve compiled a list of the most commonly used irregular past participles in Spanish.
|Spanish Infinitive||Spanish Past Participle||English Past Participle|
Note that the verbs that end with two vowels and an “r” are only irregular in that they have an accent mark. However, that is still an irregularity that needs to be memorized.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
You’re ready to put everything you’ve learned into practice with the following exercises! You can check your responses with the answer key below.
Exercise 1: Fill in the blank with the correct form of the verb in the past perfect tense using the imperfect tense of haber.
- Tú ___________ (estudiar)
- Nosotros ___________ (romper)
- Él ___________ (comer)
- Ustedes ___________ (volver)
- Yo ___________ (decir)
- Ella ___________ (ir)
- Nosotras ___________ (mandar)
- Usted ___________ (creer)
- Ellos ___________ (hablar)
- Ellas ___________ (jugar)
Exercise 2: Write the past participle form of the verb.
Exercise 3: Translate the following sentences into English.
- Yo ya había terminado antes de llegaste.
- Ella se lo había enviado varias veces, pero supongo que no lo vio.
- Apenas había contestado el correo cuando me llamó.
- Nosotros habíamos hablado antes del tema.
- Ellos no habían hablado antes de la reunión.
- No me había preocupado mucho antes del accidente.
- ¿Por cuánto tiempo habías estudiado antes de tomar el examen?
- Yo no había dormido ni por una hora cuando me despertaste.
- Ella lo había esperado por horas cuando por fin llegó.
- ¿Cuántos muebles habías hecho antes de que empezaste tu propio negocio?
Exercise 4: Translate the following sentences into Spanish.
- He hadn’t thought about the consequences.
- When you called me, I had just finished showering.
- Had you known about this before?
- We had talked for hours before we made the decision.
- Before I reached your house, I had walked around for hours.
- I had dreamed about that moment for years.
- She had sent dozens of applications when one company finally responded.
- They had just cleaned up everything when we arrived.
- I had already eaten, but they made me dinner anyway.
- As soon as I called her, she knocked on the door.
The practice doesn’t stop with these exercises! Keep reviewing the past perfect Spanish tense on your own. If you would like some outside help, be sure to join our Facebook group for daily grammar posts!
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Exercise 1: 1) tú habías estudiado 2) nosotros habíamos roto 3) él había comido 4) ustedes habían vuelto 5) you había dicho 6) ella había ido 7) nosotras habíamos mandado 8) usted había creído 9) ellos habían hablado 10) ellas habían jugado
Exercise 2: 1) abierto 2) satisfecho 3) vivido 4) oído 5) leído 6) escrito 7) visto 8) cenado 9) muerto 10) pintado
Exercise 3: 1) I had already finished before you got here. 2) She had sent it to him many times, but I supposed he didn’t see it. 3) I had just answered the email when he called me. 4) We had talked before about the subject. 5) They hadn’t talked before the meeting. 6) I hadn’t worried before the accident. 7) How long had you studied before you took the exam? 8) I hadn’t slept for even one hour when you woke me up. 9) She had waited for him for hours when he finally arrived. 10) How many pieces of furniture had you made before you started your own business?
Exercise 4: 1) Él no había pensado en las consecuencias. 2) Cuando me llamaste, yo apenas había terminado de bañarme. 3) ¿Habías sabido de esto antes? 4) Nosotros habíamos hablado por horas antes de que tomáramos la decisión. 5) Antes de que llegué a tu casa, caminé por horas. 6) Yo había soñado con ese momento por años. 7) Ella había enviado docenas de aplicaciones cuando por fin una compañía respondió. 8) Ellos apenas habían limpiado todo cuando llegamos. 9) Ya había comido, pero me hicieron cena de todos modos. 10) Tan pronto que le llamé, ella tocó la puerta.
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