Master the Past Perfect Subjunctive
The past perfect subjunctive is the peak of the subjunctive knowledge. The good news is that it’s no more complicated than other conjugations of the subjunctive mood.
Read this article to learn how to form the past perfect subjunctive. In this lesson, I clarify the specifics of this tense and show it in relation to other tenses that are sometimes confused with the past perfect subjunctive. At the end, check how much you’ve learned with a quick multiple-choice quiz.
Are you ready? Let’s get started!
What is it?
In short, we use the past perfect subjunctive to talk about hypothetical situations in the past hypothetical situations, in the past si clauses, and to refer to past actions that happened before other past actions.
Have you read our previous articles about the subjunctive tenses? Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts if you want to master the topic. To understand it you need to build upon previous knowledge:
- Master the Subjunctive in Spanish
- Master the Imperfect Subjunctive
- Master the Present Perfect Subjunctive
I guarantee that if you know the previous lessons, you’ll master the past perfect subjunctive in the blink of an eye.
It has another even more mysterious sounding name: the pluperfect subjunctive (el pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo). A complicated name for a not-so-complicated idea.
How to Form the Past Perfect Subjunctive
You’ll be glad to hear that it’s easier to form the past perfect subjunctive than it was to form the imperfect subjunctive. The formula is straightforward:
Imperfect subjunctive of haber + past participle
You already know that there are two types of endings for the imperfect subjunctive (-ra and -se), and therefore, there are two possible imperfect subjunctive forms of haber: hubiera and hubiese. The hubiera form is more common, but you can use whichever you want.
Let’s see an example conjugation for the verb comer:
|Subject||Past Perfect Subjunctive|
|Yo (I)||hubiera / hubiese comido|
|Tú (you)||hubieras / hubieses comido|
|Él, ella, usted (he, she, fml. you)||hubiera / hubiese comido|
|Nosotros (we)||hubiéramos / hubiésemos comido|
|Ustedes (you)||hubieran / hubiesen comido|
|Ellos, ellas (they)||hubieran / hubiesen comido|
Ojalá hubiera comido este último aguacate cuando todavía estaba bueno.
Ojalá hubiese comido este último aguacate cuando todavía estaba bueno.
Both sentences translate to:
I wish I had eaten the last avocado when it was still good.
Let’s see more examples with common verbs: poder, ser, ir, ver, and decir.
Si hubiera podido pagar el crédito no estaría en bancarrota.
If I had been able to pay the loan, I would not be in bankruptcy.
Ojalá hubiera ido a la playa ayer; hoy ya está lloviendo de nuevo.
I wish I had gone to the beach yesterday; today it is already raining again.
Mi mamá dudó que él hubiese venido ahí antes.
My mom doubted that he had come there before.
Mi hermana no creyó que su hija hubiese dicho cosas así.
My sister didn’t believe that her daughter had said things like that.
Have you noticed with the example above that the past perfect subjunctive in Spanish translates to past perfect in English? It almost always does, so translating directly from English won’t help you. You need to understand what situations require the past perfect subjunctive mood versus the past perfect indicative.
When to Use It
In this section, I explain specific situations when you have to use the past perfect subjunctive in Spanish and you’ll see it in relation to four other tenses:
- Present perfect subjunctive vs past perfect subjunctive
- Past perfect indicative vs past perfect subjunctive
- Conditional perfect vs past perfect subjunctive
- Imperfect subjunctive vs past perfect subjunctive
If you remember how to use the imperfect subjunctive, you’ll see almost the same cases here, but moved one step back in time.
1. For Hypothetical Past Situations
Have you ever regretted something you’d done in the past? Or wished that you hadn’t done something? To say “I wish I had” or “I wish I hadn’t,” you’ll use the past perfect subjunctive in Spanish.
Ojalá hubiera sabido que me iba a caer bien esta comida.
I wish I had known I was going to like this food.
Ojalá hubiese empezado a estudiar Español de niño.
I wish I had started studying Spanish as a child.
2. Si Clauses For Past Situations
The past perfect subjunctive appears next to conditional perfect in past-tense si clauses.
Si hubiera hecho lo contrario, mi novio no se habría enojado.
If I had done the opposite, my boyfriend would not have been angry at me.
Si hubiese tenido más dinero, habría comprado aquella casa de ensueño.
If I had more money, I would have bought that dream house.
Compare these two sentences:
Si fuera menos impaciente, sería mejor profesor.
If I were less impatient, I would be a better teacher.
Si hubiera sido menos impaciente, me habría salido mejor el pastel.
If I had been less impatient, the cake would have turned out better.
The first sentence uses the imperfect subjunctive with the conditional to talk about hypothetical present situations. In the second one, the past perfect subjunctive with the perfect conditional also refers to hypothetical situations but in the past.
3. Actions That Happened Before Other Past Actions
The past perfect subjunctive occurs in the same time frame as the past perfect indicative, meaning it expresses an action that happened before another past action. Both are triggered by a preterite or the imperfect.
However, you decide which one to use depending on the verb in the main clause that must be one of the WEIRDO verbs. (If you need a quick refresher on this topic, check out “An Easy Guide to the WEIRDO Subjunctive”.)
Mi maestra dudó que ellos hubiesen estudiado en casa.
My teacher doubted that they had studied at home.
Mi amigo no me creyó que hubiera estado fuera del país.
My friend did not believe that I had been out of the country.
Los policías buscaban a alguien que hubiera visto el accidente.
The cops were looking for someone who had seen the accident.
In Relation to Other Tenses
You have seen the relation of the past perfect subjunctive with the perfect conditional but let’s have a look at the past perfect conditional in relation to the other tenses I mentioned before.
Past Perfect Indicative versus Past Perfect Subjunctive
When do you use the past perfect indicative as opposed to the subjunctive? Again, the WEIRDO verbs are the key. Compare these two sentences:
Yo creía que ellos habían dicho la verdad.
I believed that they had told the truth.
Yo dudé que ellos hubieran dicho la verdad.
I doubted that they had told the truth.
The first sentence is a statement of a fact and that’s why the indicative mood is used. The second one expresses a doubt hence the subjunctive mood.
Imperfect Subjunctive versus Past Perfect Subjunctive
To see the difference between the imperfect subjunctive and the past perfect subjunctive, compare these two sentences:
Tenía miedo que viniera y yo no estuviera lista.
I was afraid he would come and I would not be ready.
Tenía miedo de que hubiera venido antes que yo.
I was afraid that he had come before me.
The first sentence, with the imperfect subjunctive, expresses a past fear about something that could happen next. The second one, with the past perfect subjunctive, expresses a past fear about something that might have happened earlier.
Present Perfect Subjunctive versus Past Perfect Subjunctive
Now, have a look at these last two sentences:
Es importante que hayas estudiado el presente de subjuntivo antes de la clase de hoy.
It is important that you have studied the present subjunctive before today’s class.
Era importante que los estudiantes hubieran estudiado la lección antes de aquella clase.
It was important that the students had studied the topic before that lesson.
Both sentences refer to past situations and both use an impersonal expression that triggers the subjunctive mood. The key is in the correct sequence of tenses in Spanish.
The present tense can be followed by the present perfect tense, but the past tense can’t. It requires the past perfect tense. Therefore you have the present perfect subjunctive in the first situation and the past perfect subjunctive in the second.
Check to see how much you’ve learned! There’s only one correct answer to each question.
1. El esperaba que nosotros ___________ (He hoped we had eaten everything).
2. Tenía miedo de que le ___________ algo. (I was afraid that something had happened to him).
3. Mi madre no me creyó que ___________ la verdad. (My mother did not believe that I had told the truth.)
4. Si ___________verdad, no se ___________ tan rápido. (If it had been true, they wouldn’t have gone so fast.)
5. Ojalá ___________ irme con ella. (I wish I could have gone with her.)
6. Dudó que lo ___________ ellos solos.(He doubted that they had done.)
7. Era importante que ___________. (It was important that they had come.)
8. No le ___________ aquello. (I wouldn’t have told him that.)
9. ¿Y si ___________ antes del examen? (What if you had studied before the exam?)
10. Ojalá ___________ verlo. (If only I could have seen it.)
Time to Practice!
Congratulations! You’re not only a master of the past perfect subjunctive but a master of subjunctive! You’re getting closer to fluency and all the possibilities that knowing a second language provides you. Did you know that improving your linguistic skills also enhances your cognition and decision-making abilities? To practice subjunctive in real-life conversations and boost your Spanish-speaking skills, sign up for a free trial class with one of our certified, native-speaking Spanish teachers at Homeschool Spanish Academy.
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