How to Tame Spanish's Compound Tenses - Translation Skills Training

How to Tame Spanish’s Compound Tenses

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The compound tenses, as they are often called because they are two-word tenses as opposed to the one-word conjugated verbs, which are called simple tenses.  The compound tenses are formed by using the conjugations of the seven simple tenses of haber plus the past participle of another verb – even of haber, as we’ll see in a moment, but first, let’s get some terminology out of the way.

Often, the compound tenses are referred to by a more formal name: the perfect tenses.  In this context, the word perfect, which is composed by combining the Latin prefix per, meaning completely or thoroughly with the past (or passive) participle fectum, derived from Latin’s participle of the verb facere, or to do: factum. The Spanish verb hacer is directly derived from this verb, hence the Spanish past participle hecho, which in English, means done or made.  So it is convenient to think of the perfect tenses as those that show an action as being, from some temporal vantage point as completely done.

The two parts of any compound tense consist of some form of haber, conjugated in any one of the seven simple (meaning one-word) forms, plus the past participle of another verb. The past participle of a verb used with the tenses of the auxiliary verb haber, is invariable. This is good news for learners and teachers of Spanish and there is more good news.  The past participle is invariable when used with haber, and it is used with all the persons and numbers of all the seven forms of the perfect tenses, seven in all (two of which are subjunctives), in addition, most past participles are formed regularly: Verbs with infinitive endings in -ar change that infinitive ending to -ado, while verbs whose infinitive ends with -er or -ir change that infinitive to -ido.  That means that the only portion of a compound (or perfect) tense that changes is the first verb: haber.

In order to illustrate how the simple tenses of a given verb relate to its compound tenses, let’s use hablar in the form, starting with the simple tense of the present indicative:

As you know, hablas means you speak. As you can see, the simple verb has been conjugated to agree with the subject — . If you want to form the past participle of the verb hablar, you change the -ar to -ado: hablado, which means spoken.  In English and Spanish, the past participle cannot stand alone; it must be introduced by a helping verb which, in the case of the compound tenses, is some form of haber.  Since we are forming the compound tense that corresponds with the simple present indicative in the form, we need to use the conjugation of haber in its form in its present indicative tense in order to say you have spoken in Spanish. The form of haber in the simple, present indicative tense is has, so we combine has + hablado and that’s it!  What this reveals is that the present perfect of any verb is based on the simple present of haber, conjugated to agree with the desired grammatical subject, followed by the past participle of that verb.

The six other compound tenses maintain this correspondence with their simple tenses. For instance, the simple conditional you would eat, and its corresponding conditional perfect of you would have eaten, in Spanish become comerías and habrías comido, respectively.

We promised to show how haber can form its own compound tense. This is quite common when haber is used impersonally:

Ha habido mucha pobreza en este país.

There has been a lot of poverty in this country.

As for the two perfect tenses of the subjunctive mood: the present perfect subjunctive and the pluperfect subjunctive, when translated into English, they come out the same:

Ellas han llegado. / No creo que ellas hayan llegado.

They have arrived. / I don’t believe they have arrived.

What this tells us is that all forms of the present of haber, indicative and subjunctive, will translate into English as either has or have.

Likewise, all forms of the pluperfect indicative and the pluperfect subjunctive of haber will be translated as had, as these two examples demonstrate:

Creía que ellas habían llegado. / No creía que ellas hubieran llegado.

I knew John had eaten. / I doubted that John had eaten.

Finally, as often is the case, many high-frequency verbs have irregular forms. The following Spanish verbs have irregular past participles:

abrir > abierto
cubrir > cubierto
decir > dicho
escribir > escrito
hacer > hecho
imprimir > impreso
morir > muerto
poner > puesto
resolver > resuelto
romper > roto
ver > visto
volver > vuelto

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Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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