As in English, the Spanish tenses tell us when a particular action or event took place. There are three main types of tenses: past, present and future. The tense of an action determines the way that a verb is conjugated in Spanish.
Characteristics of Tenses
The main difference between tenses in English and Spanish relates to the use of the past tense. In English, there is only one past tense and in Spanish there are two past tenses. These are known as the “preterite” and the “imperfect” tenses.
Using Spanish Tenses
1) Present Tense
The first tense that you will learn in Spanish is the present tense. This is used to describe actions or states of being that are occurring right now. For more information about conjugating the present tense, see Spanish Conjugation.
2) Past Tense
As mentioned above, Spanish has both the “preterite” and the “imperfect” past tenses. The basic difference between these two tenses is that the preterite refers to actions that began and ended at a specific time in the past. The imperfect, on the other hand, is used for actions that were taking place at a general time and were ongoing. It is also used to express general scenarios that occurred in the past.
The conjugation rules for the preterite and the imperfect Spanish tenses are as follows:
AR verbs (for example, HABLAR):
Preterite – hablé, hablaste, habló, hablamos, hablaron
Imperfect – hablaba, hablabas, hablaba, hablábamos, hablaban
Yo hablé con la mujer ayer – I spoke with the woman yesterday
Yo hablaba en español – I was speaking in Spanish
ER/IR verbs (Note: The conjugations for ER and IR verb endings are the same in both of the past tenses)
Preterite – comí, comiste, comió, comimos, comieron
Imperfect – comía, comías, comía, comíamos, comían
Yo comí fruta esta manana – I ate fruit this morning
Yo comía fruta cada dia – I used to eat fruit every day.
3) Future Tense
In many ways, the future is the easiest of all the tenses to learn. There are two different ways of expressing the future tense. The simplest option (and therefore the one highly recommended for Spanish learners!) is to simply use the present conjugation of “IR” (to go) plus “A” plus the infinitive of the planned action verb. This is similar to saying someone is “going to” do something in English.
The formula to remember for doing this:
IR (conjugated) + A + VERB (infinitive) = someone is going to do something
For example, if you plan on studying tonight you can say:
Voy a estudiar esta noche – I’m going to study tonight.
In this sentence, “VOY” is the present tense conjugation of “IR” for I/Yo.
Using this formula simplifies the future section of Spanish tenses for many students.
For a reminder of how to conjugate IR (to go) in the present tense, see Spanish conjugation.
Differences between European Spanish and Latin American tenses
There are no differences between the way that the tenses are used in Spain and Latin America.
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