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Simple Past and Present Perfect in Spanish Language

Learn Spanish Spain Pretérito Perfecto Simple y Compuesto

In the Manuel Seco´s Spanish dictionary “Diccionario de dudas y dificultades de la lengua española” we can find the following descriptions of these two verbal tenses.

Simple Past (canté /I sang): We use this tense to express a past action that has ended at a specific time in the past.

Present Perfect (he cantado /I have sung): We use this tense to express an action happened at an unspecified time before now or an action that is related in some way to the present.

1. Difference between the Simple Past or the Present Perfect

After Wikipedia the Simple Past refers to an action considered ended. It is applied to actions tha have been completed in the past that do not have to be necessarily related to the present. These are some examples:

  • Ayer comí manzanas. (Yesterday I ate apples).
  • La guerra terminó hace tres meses. (The war ended three months ago).
  • Los ladrones entraron en casa. (The thieves entered at home).
  • Tú estuviste en el cine. (You went to the cinema).

On the other hand the Present Perfect expresses that there is a relation or conection between the action and the present situation, beeing this relation temporal or subjective. This tense is frequently used when speaking in the Spanish Peninsula excepting the following Spanish regions: Asturias, León and Galicia. In these regions and in the Canary Islands the use of this tense is uncommon, less used, only as a supercorrect form of the Simple Past, the preferred form. Some examples:

  • He comido manzanas. (I have eaten apples).
  • La guerra ha terminado. (The war has ended).
  • Los ladrones han entrado en casa. (The thieves have entered at home).
  • Tú has estado en el cine. (You have been to the cinema).

2. How to conjugate the Present Perfect

This tense is conjugated with the present form of the auxilliary verb “haber” and the participle of the verb that is going to be used, for example:

  • Yo he comido.
  • Tú has venido.
  • Él/Ella ha estado aquí.
  • Nosotros hemos ido al cine.
  • Vosotros habéis visto la película.
  • Ellos/Ellas han escrito un cuento.

3. When to use the Simple Past and the Present Perfect

For using the correct tense you have to consider the speaker´s point of view, in other words, the temporal distance between the actions that it is being talked about and the importance given to the action by the person who is talking.

On the other hand, it is a rule to use perfect forms and no simple ones when talking about an action that has happened immediately before now (“He comprado patatas” and not “compré patatas”). We have already said that in some regions it is preferred to use the simple form.

No obstante, es norma general que para acciones inmediatamente anteriores al momento en el que se está hablando se usen las formas compuestas y no las simples. (“He comprado patatas” y no “compré patatas”). Aunque ya hemos comentado anteriormente que en algunas regiones de la Península Ibérica prefieren el uso de la forma simple, en vez de la compuesta.

4. Adverbs and time complements used which each tense

Normally as rule when some time complements are used like “hoy” (today), “esta mañana” (this morning), “esta tarde” (this afternoon), etc., the Present Perfect has to be used, for example:

  • Hoy he ido al supermercado.
  • Esta tarde he visto a mi hermana.
  • A la tarde has estado en el bar.

With the Simple Past time complements like “ayer” (yesterday), “antes de ayer” (the day before yesterday), “el otro día” (the other day), “el año pasado” (last year), etc. are used. For example:

  • Ayer fui al supermercado.
  • Antes de ayer vi a mi hermana.
  • El otro día estuviste en el bar.

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