It almost goes without saying that the tense of a verb has something to do with what time the action described by the verb takes place. So it shouldn't be surprising that the Spanish word for "tense" in the grammatical sense is tiempo — the same as the word for "time." (If you want a more technical and complete definition of "tense," see the entry for tense in our grammar glossary.)
In the simplest sense, we can think of there being three varieties of tenses: past, present and future. Unfortunately for anyone learning most languages, including English and Spanish, it is seldom that simple. What we call the present tense, for example, can be used in some cases in both languages to talk about the past or the future. And in Spanish, there is a clear distinction between the preterite and imperfect tenses, which are both types of past tenses.
Lessons in verb tenses
- The present tense is the most common of tenses and the one invariably learned first in Spanish classes.
- The future tense is most often used to refer to events that haven't happened yet, but it can also be used for emphatic commands and also to indicate uncertainty about current happenings.
- The past tenses of Spanish are known as the preterite and the imperfect. To oversimplify a bit, the first is usually used to refer to something that happened at a specific point in time, while the later is used to describe events where the time period isn't specific.
- The conditional tense, also known in Spanish as el futuro hipotético, the future hypothetical, is different than the others in that it isn't clearly connected with a particular time period. As its names imply, this tense is used to refer to events that are conditional or hypothetical in nature. This tense should not be confused with the subjunctive mood, a verb form that also can refer to actions that aren't necessarily "real."
In Spanish, verb tenses are formed by changing the endings of verbs, a process known as conjugation. Following lessons explain the conjugations used:
- Present tense conjugation
- Imperfect conjugation
- Preterite conjugation
- Future conjugation
- Conditional conjugation
In addition to the simple tenses already listed, it is possible in both Spanish and English to form what are known as the perfect tenses by using a form of the verb haber in Spanish, "to have" in English, with the past participle. These compound tenses are known as present perfect, the pluperfect or past perfect, the preterite perfect (limited mostly to literary use), the future perfect and the conditional perfect. The conjugated forms of these tenses are shown in this verb conjugation chart.
If you understand all the above lessons, you'll have a strong basic understanding of how the tenses are used in Spanish. The following lessons for further study can help you understand the tenses in greater detail:
- It is possible to describe events that will happen in the future without using the future tense.
- The differences in the past tenses of ser and estar can be especially subtle.
- Sometimes, the word used to translate a Spanish verb can vary depending on the tense used.
- While the English auxiliary verb "would" is often an indication that the conditional tense is being used, such isn't always the case.
- Although the conditional tense is a common one, there are also types of conditional sentences that use other forms of verbs.
- By using estar as an auxiliary verb in the various tenses, it is possible to form progressive verbs that can be used in various tenses.