The Present Perfect Tense in Spanish – Explained

Preterite, present subjunctive, pluperfect, present perfect, conditional perfect, pluperfect subjunctive… Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

Spanish verb tenses are enough to make anybody tense, especially if you are a beginner. The tenses listed above are only a handful of the 14 most commonSpanish verb tenses.

But, as we say in Spanish, no te preocupes (don’t worry). In this post, we’re going to pull back the curtain on the present perfect in Spanish, so you know exactly when to use it, how to use it, and when you should use the preterite instead.

Ahora, ¡vámonos! – Now, let’s go!

Hypertension About Tenses

When you look at a list of the different Spanish tenses, it’s easy to see how it could feel overwhelming to a new learner. To avoid information overload, the very first thing you should do is to put it all into perspective.

We all know the answer to the question “What’s the best way to eat an elephant?” – One bite at a time. It’s the same with learning something new – like another language. You simply learn one tense at a time.

For most tenses, you’ll find that there is an equivalent in English that you’ll be able to relate to. In fact, studying a foreign language can drastically improve your native language, among other benefits. Who wouldn’t want that?

The Present Perfect in Spanish

Fortunately for us, there is a direct equivalent in English to the Spanish present perfect. To help us get a better grip, let’s look at the two words. You already know ‘present,’ meaning ‘now,’ or ‘in the current time.’

If you think of ‘perfect’ as ‘perfected,’ then you understand that it means something that has been done. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate:

  • I have finally perfected my sculpture.
  • The gymnast has perfected his routine.
  • After days of trials, she finally has perfected the cake recipe.

In each example, the word perfected relates to something that has been completed or perfected.

Now, when you combine that with the present, you get a loose definition that goes something like this:

The present perfect verb tense describes an action that someone has done in the present, or current time. In English, it will always be preceded by some form of the verb ‘to have.’ Some examples:

  • I have seen that movie.
  • I have eaten all my vegetables.
  • I have said all I need to say.

In Spanish, that verb is haber, meaning, “to have.” But it’s not “to have” as in “to possess.” It’s to have seen, to have eaten, to have said, etc.

A Tense in Two Parts – Part I

Just like in English, there are two parts of the present perfect tense in Spanish: the present tense part, and the ‘perfected’ part. And just like in English, each part is a verb. Haber is the first verb.

Remember – haber is an irregular verb. But don’t panic. Here’s the breakdown on the present tense of haber:

Yo: he
Tu: has
Usted, Ella, Él: ha
Nosotros: hemos
Vosotros: habéis
Ellos/Ellas: han

Haber is always followed by a second verb, as in the examples above.

Part II

The second part is the ‘perfected’ part. That’s the verb that was completed. Now, all we have to do is to add the past participle of that verb. That simply means the form of the verb that was done, or completed.

From the examples above, the past participles of the three example verbs are:

see – seen
eat – eaten
say – said

Excluding irregular verbs, forming the past participle is easy. For verbs ending in ar, drop the “ar” and add “ado.”

hablar (to speak) – hablado
contestar (to answer) – contestado
lavar (to wash) – lavado

For verbs ending in er or ir, drop the “er” or “ir” and add “ido.”

leer (to read) – leído
beber (to drink) – bebido
vivir (to live) – vivido
oír (to hear) – oído

The Rule-Breakers

As you know, there are plenty of irregular verbs in Spanish. It’s no different when it comes to the past participle. Here are a few to keep an eye on, and their irregular past participles:

  • abrir – to open: abierto
  • cubrir – to cover: cubierto
  • decir – to say, tell: dicho
  • describir – to describe: descrito
  • descubrir – to discover: descubierto
  • escribir – to write: escrito
  • hacer – to do, to make: hecho
  • ver – to see: visto
  • poner – to put, to place: puesto
  • morir – to die: muerto

Perfect, Imperfect, and Progressive – It’s All About Time

To help get a full appreciation of the present perfect in Spanish, it’s helpful to understand its close cousins, listed above. In a nutshell, they are as follows:

The Perfect tense is an action that has been completed. It can be past, present or future: I had eaten, she has eaten, they will have eaten.

The Imperfect tense is an action that has not been completed and refers to the past. It indicates something that was normal, customary or an action that was happening WHEN something else happened.

The following are all Imperfect: He always ate pork on Fridays; He was eating when his friends arrived; The ancient Israelites did not eat pork. Don’t get too hung up on this one – it’s often the same thing as the past progressive, it just goes by a different name.

The Progressive tense is an action that was/is/will be ongoing in the past, present or future. It’s usually preceded by was, is, am, are, or will be, followed by a verb with “ing” in English: I was eating, she is eating, they will be eating.

The Preterite tense is an action that is done, and it’s in the past. It’s over.

So how do you know when to use the Spanish present perfect, and when to use the preterite (simple past tense)? Here are the rules of thumb:

  • Use the preterite when something only happened once, or even multiple times, but had a definite conclusion: He ran to the door.
  • Use the preterite if it happened at a specific time: I wrecked my car last week.
  • Use the present perfect the same way you would use it in English: with the word have or has, followed by a past participle. She has already paid the fare.

You Don’t Have to be Perfect

Even if you accidentally use the preterite where you should have used the present perfect, chances are you’ll still be understood anyway. Hopefully, this article has helped (present perfect).

Some final points to remember about the perfect tense: It comes in three basic flavors – Past, Present, and Future, as follows:

I had eaten (past)
I have eaten (present)
I will have eaten (future)

The present perfect usually refers to the very recent past.

So think about how you might say it in English. If it’s something that has been completed recently and in English you would say, “I have, you have, he/she has, they have, etc.,” then use the present perfect in Spanish.

Of course, if you want to get the full flavor of different tenses, there’s no substitute for hearing it in real, street-level conversation by native speakers.

Combine that with having an exact transcript of what’s being said in both languages, and you’ll be speaking like a native in no time.

Want to see what that looks like? Be sure and check out the audio samples and transcripts of our courses.

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