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Haber Conjugation: Past Imperfect & Preterite Tenses

Instructor: Lindie Alvey Kusky

Lindie is an educator and translator who speaks five languages. She has a Master's in Spanish Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition and a CELTA Cambridge credential.

In this lesson, you will learn how to use the verb ''haber'' in the preterite and imperfect past tenses. ''Haber'' is usually translated into English as 'to have' or 'to be.'

What in the World?

Look around right now. What things surround you? Now close your eyes and imagine a fantasy world with unicorns and narwhals. Whether you're describing something real or imaginary, you need the ability to say what there is and what there isn't. Enter the Spanish verb haber (ah-BAYR).

Haber as a Simple Verb

Haber is what's called an existential verb. 'Existential' is not just a gloomy philosophy term linked with Camus and Sartre. In grammar, an existential verb simply expresses the existence or nonexistence of something. In English, we convey this by saying 'there is/there are' in the present tense, and 'there was/there were' in the past tense.

No matter what simple tense we use for it, you and haber are going to be besties. Why? Because not only is it an extremely common verb in Spanish, but it is also the easiest verb to conjugate. Believe it or not, it's even easier than its English counterpart! Impossible, you say? Read on!

Hubo

When we want to mention what existed in the past, and we are discussing something that is over and done, with a definite beginning and ending, we use hubo (OO-bo). It has no plural tense. Hubo is the only possible preterite conjugation. Easy, right?

  • Hubo una tormenta fuerte anoche (There was a strong storm last night).
  • Hubo unas tormentas fuertes anoche (There were some strong storms last night).

Another notable use of hubo is in the expression ¿Qué hubo?, which means 'what's up.' In Colombia, the most widely read newspaper in the country is a tabloid named 'Q'Hubo.'

QHubo

Había

When we want to express something in the past that doesn't have a definite beginning or end, we use the imperfect tense. We also use imperfect to set the scene. Since the verb haber connotes a state of existence and is commonly used to set the scene of a past event, the imperfect form is frequently used. This form is había (ah-BEE-yah), and it has no plural tense.

  • Había un payaso en el coche (There was one clown in the car).
  • Había diecisiete payasos en el coche (There were seventeen clowns in the car).

Notably, había is frequently used to begin fairy tales:

  • Había una vez… (Once upon a time...)

Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time

You may occasionally hear native speakers use the form habían. If and when you do, just smile and think to yourself, 'that's not proper Spanish.' This concludes our discussion of haber in the preterite and imperfect. However, we are not done. Haber is also used to form compound tenses.

Haber as a Compound Verb

In compound tenses haber functions not as an existential verb but as an auxiliary verb. The imperfect form of haber plus a past participle (pp) is used to make the past perfect. The past perfect describes an action that was completed before another event in the past.

  • Cuando llegué a la fiesta, ya te habías ido (When I arrived at the party, you'd already left).
  • Sólo habíamos estado allí diez minutos cuando llegó la policía (We'd only been there 10 minutes when the police arrived).

Haber is a regular verb in the imperfect:

VERB: haber (ah-BAYR) + past participle - to have + past participle

Pronoun Conjugation Pronunciation Translation
Yo había + pp ah-BEE-ah I had + pp
Tu habías + pp ah-BEE-ahs You had + pp
Él, ella, Usted había + pp ah-BEE-ah He, she, you had + pp
Nosotros habíamos + pp ah-BEE-ah-mohs We had + pp
Vosotros habíais + pp ah-BEE-iys You (plural) had + pp
Ellos, ellas, Ustedes habían + pp ah-BEE-ahn They had + pp

Dialogue

To better understand these verb forms, let's listen in to Liliana and Andrés having their first argument as a married couple:

Andrés: ¿ Qué hubo? (What's up?)

Liliana: Pues nada. (Nothing.)

Andrés: ¿Por qué te ves enojada? (Why do you look angry?)

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