Verb tenses

Verb Tenses

Just as in English, verb tenses in Spanish indicate the time an action, process, or state of being occurs. Usually, verb tenses refer to the moment something is written or said as their reference point; these verbs are called absolute.

[Juana] [corrió rapidísimo].

In this sentence, Juana ran before this sentence was written. The moment it was written is its reference point.

But some verbs can also refer to other temporal reference points (moments in the past or future) that have been established in the same sentence by other words or phrases; these verbs are called relative.

[El entrenador] [le advirtió que su rival había corrido más rápido que ella].

In this sentence, her rival’s running happens before the trainer’s warning (reference point), which happens before the sentence was written.

Although verb tenses in Spanish refer to moments in the past, present, or future like they do in English, their categorization is not based on temporal categories. Verb tenses of the indicative and subjunctive moods are usually classified by their morphological structure, i.e., whether they are simple or compound. The only difference between these two classes is that simple verbs comprise a verb in its conjugated form, while compound verbs comprise two words, which are the conjugated form of the auxiliary verb haber and the past participle of the main verb.

In the following table, the conjugations of the verb cantar, which exemplify verb tenses of the indicative mood, are classified as simple or compound.

Indicative mood

SIMPLECOMPOUND
Present
Presente
(CANTO)
Compound present perfect
Pretérito perfecto compuesto
(HE CANTADO)
Preterit
Pretérito perfecto simple
(CANTÉ)
Pluperfect
Pretérito pluscuamperfecto
(HABÍA CANTADO)
Imperfect
Pretérito imperfecto
(CANTABA)
Past anterior
Pretérito anterior
(HUBE CANTADO)
Future
Futuro simple
(CANTARÉ)
Compound future
Futuro compuesto
(HABRÉ CANTADO)
Conditional simple
Condicional simple
(CANTARÍA)
Compound conditional
Condicional compuesto
(HABRÍA CANTADO)

Although the subjunctive mood in English has only one present tense and two past tenses, there are six verb tenses of the subjunctive mood in Spanish.

Subjunctive mood

SIMPLECOMPOUND
Present
Presente
(CANTE)
Compound present perfect
Pretérito perfecto compuesto
(HAYA CANTADO)
Imperfect
Pretérito imperfect
(CANTARA O CANTASE)
Pluperfect
Pretérito pluscuamperfecto
(HUBIERA O HUBIESE CANTADO)
Future
Futuro simple
(CANTARE)
Compound future
Futuro compuesto
(HUBIERE CANTADO)

Not all Spanish verb tenses—either of the indicative and subjunctive moods—have a direct counterpart in English, but some of them do.