Guide to Spanish tenses
Do you want to understand better what each verbal tense is for in Spanish? Do you want the big picture?
Also, in all cases there is a link to another post/video where you can learn how to form it, see irregular verbs, etc.
I'm talking about indicative tenses, so if you want to learn more about subjunctive have a look at these two posts:
Also, for imperative:
Translation: I do
- Habits (things that you usually/always/never... do)
- Describing the way things are, your current life.
- Your current opinions
- The most common tense to talk about trivial stuff like work, meals, chores or daily routine.
- Time phrases that usually are included in present tense are those expressing "frequency" words: always, sometimes, often, from time to time, never, usually, rarely...
Normalmente me levanto a las ocho y media - I normally get up at 8:30.
Nunca aspiro el interior del coche - I never hoover/vacuum the inside of the car.
Me gustan las películas de acción pero prefiero las comedias - I like action movies but I prefer comedies.
Mi casa es bastante pequeña - My house is pretty small.
Mi familia vive en una ciudad y yo vivo en un pueblo con mi marido - My family lives in a city and I live in a town with my husband.
NOTE: In some cases it can be translated as "someone is doing", if you think the translation is better in that context. For example:
Lleva una chaqueta - he/she wears or is wearing a jacket.
(Present, past...) continuous
Translation: I am doing
- Right now/ right then/ ... in a specific moment
When a tense is "continuous" we use a gerund "-ing word", so we get more specific with the action.
In present tense that means "I am doing" (right now, in this moment), but I could also do a past continuous "I was doing" (in that moment, right then), or future "I will be doing" or conditional "I would be doing".
We use estar (to be) in whichever tense we're using (present, in this case) and then a gerund.
Estoy cocinando, no puedo hablar ahora - I'm cooking, I can't talk now.
In the past I'd usually use estar in imperfect:
Estaba trabajando a las 5 - I was working at 5.
You use that same patter for other tenses ( estar in future, in conditional, subjunctive...)
Find out how to form gerund, including the irregular ones to make a tense "continuous".
Translation: I'm going to do
- Things that are going to happen /someone is going to do
- Soon, short term future, immediate future.
- Tomorrow, today, this week, this evening, next week, next month, ..
Of course the line between what's soon and what's not is thin, so we're a bit flexible but think of the period of a few months into the future maximum.
Vamos a ir de vacaciones en mayo - We're going to go on holidays in May.
Va a llover - it's going to rain.
Translation: I will do...
- What will happen/someone will do
- Far away future, not so close or certain
Después de cuatro años, acabaré la universidad - After 4 years, I will finish university.
Algún día, iremos a Japón - Some day we'll go to Japan.
Crecerás pronto - You'll grow soon.
Translation: I would...
- What would happen/people would do in a hypothetical situation. That hypothetical situation is usually in imperfect subjunctive.
If + something happened (imperfect subj) + I would (conditional)...
Ex: Si tuviera más espacio tendría un gimnasio en casa - If I had more space I would have a gym at home.
- What someone would do but won't
Ex: Te ayudaría a pintar pero no tengo tiempo - I would help you paint but I don't have time.
- Could (would be able to do, it'd be possible to)
Ex: Podría ir a correr hoy pero no me apetece ir - I could go running today but I don't feel like going
- Sometimes asking something politely, creating some distance
Ex: Querría una cocacola, por favor - I would want a coke, please.
- Expressing a wish with "Me gustaría" (I'd like)
Me gustaría tener un perro algún día - I'd like to have a dog one day.
Translation: I have done
- Quite recent past (today, this week, these last days or weeks...)
- Not specifying too much in times before "today" ( so NOT "yesterday", "last week" or "two days ago").
- Things that have happened / things someone have done in general in their life. That includes the question "Have you ever...?"
Esta mañana me he duchado con agua fría - This morning I have showered with cold water.
Estas últimas semanas no he dormido bien - These last weeks I haven't slept well.
Nunca has estado en Nueva York - You've never been in NY.
¿Alguna vez has ganado un premio? - Have you ever won a prize/award?
Translation: I used to... (generally, but not always)
- The way things used to be
- Describing things in the past
- Ongoing qualities, that tend to last (personality, physical description, names...)
- Past opinions - what you used to think/believe
- What someone used to do (habits in the past, repeated actions)
- The way people was feeling, where things and people were..
- What people was doing or what was happening (with gerund)
- "When I was younger", "when I was a kid", "When I was in school", "when I lived in that country"...
- Talking about another phase in one's life
Cuando iba a la universidad, iba en autobús - When I went to uni, I went/used to go by bus*
El hotel era muy bonito y tenía una piscina - The hotel was very beautiful, and it had a swimming pool.
Mi madre estaba enfadada y estaba cocinando - My mom was angry and was cooking.
Translation: I did ...
- What someone did or what happened
- Usually it's quite specific when it happened or for how long.
- Punctual events that, even if happened a few times, didn't happen enough to be considered habits.
- Certain actions that are very short by nature (I noticed, I started to, I arrived, to die...)
- An opinion verb, what someone thought of something specific or in a specific moment and situation (Ex: "pensé que" - I thought that) usually followed by the description in imperfect or by itself ("me gustó" -I liked, "lo pasé bien" - I had a good time).
Pensé que era demasiado ruidoso - I thought that it was too noisy (second bit in imperfect, describing in the past).
Cogí mis libros y empecé a estudiar - I took my books and I started to study.
Me di cuenta de que mentiste- I realized that you lied.
Fui a ver "la llegada" y me encantó - I went to see "arrival" and I loved it.
Hace dos años mi perro murió - Two years ago my dog died.
Finally, a post on when to use preterite and when to use imperfect and also another one on the difference between the three different past tenses.
That's a lot of information! Hopefully all of that can help you with your tenses,
now I can only say ¡buena suerte! / Good luck!