Tenses in Spanish

Instructor: Janet Long

Janet has taught college Spanish and English courses and has master's degrees in Spanish literature and TESOL.

When listening to news or telling a story, we can tell when the action happens by listening to the tense of the verb. In this lesson, you'll learn what the verb tenses are in Spanish and when to use each one.

Time and Tenses

When reading your news feed or watching a broadcast, how do you know when the action in the report happened? Are they telling you about something that happened last night? Are you reading about something that will happen later today? Or, maybe it is a live report, telling you about something that is happening right now.

How do we know when the action happened, is happening, or will happen? By looking at the tense of the verb. Verb tenses tell us when an action happens. In Spanish, verb tenses can be organized into four main groups: present tense, past tenses, future tense, and perfect tenses. This lesson will review when you want to use each of these groups.

Verb tenses help us understand the time that an action happened. For example, when we hear a past tense, we know that the action happened before now.

Present Tense

In Spanish, you use the present tense to describe all actions that happen or are happening at this time or in the near future. You use it to describe or ask questions about actions that you do regularly, actions that you are doing right now, or actions that you are going to do in the near future. Here are some examples for each of these uses.

Use Example Meaning
Action you do regularly Hablo con mi madre cada día. I talk with my mom every day.
Action you are doing right now Hablo con mis amigos. I'm talking with my friends.
Action in the near future Esta noche, hablo con mi novio. Tonight, I'm going to talk with my boyfriend.

In each of these examples, we use the same form of the word hablar (to speak), hablo (I speak), but the meaning of hablo is different in each sentence. This is because one tense in Spanish can cover all actions that happen in the present.

Imperfect and Preterit - The Past Tenses

Spanish has two past tenses: the imperfect and preterit. The imperfect tense is used for actions in the past that were a routine, that were in progress when another action happened, or that describe the time in the past. Any action that you did regularly in the past, like going to work or brushing your teeth, would need a verb in the imperfect tense. Also, if you want to describe an ongoing background action, like 'The birds were singing,' or 'It was raining,' you would use the imperfect tense. Finally, if you want to say what time it was in the past, such as days, hours, or months, you'll want an imperfect verb. Here you can see a few examples that would use the imperfect:

Use Example Meaning
Routine past action Hablaba con mi abuelo todos los días. I spoke with my grandfather every day.
Actions in progress Estaba lloviendo. It was raining.
Time in the past Estaba el martes. It was Tuesday.

The other past tense in Spanish is the preterit, which you use for any action finished in the past. You can think of these actions as happening only one time. For example, to say 'I talked with my sister last Tuesday,' you would say Hablé con mi hermana el martes pasado. You use the preterit tense because you only did the action on time, last Tuesday.

Future Tense

You use the future tense for any actions that will happen or to say something that will probably happen. Of course, telling actions that will happen in the future is the main use of the tense. But, you can also say things that will probably happen with the future tense. Often, these sentences showing probability will use phrases like 'probably,' 'I think,' or 'you think.' Here are examples for each of these uses.

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