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When to use El Pretérito Perfecto or El Pretérito Indefinido (present perfect or simple past)

In Español peninsular, we use two different tenses to talk about past events that usually translate to the same tense in English: El Pretérito Perfecto and El Pretérito Indefinido. The choice of tense depends on when the action happened.

Fortunately, the rules are simple once you understand how we think about units of time: days, weeks, months and years.

Note: Some dialects of Spanish, like Español latinoamericano, do not follow these rules. See below.

Let's see what the problem is - in English, we would use I went for all of these cases:

I went to the doctor today.
I went to the doctor yesterday.
I went to the doctor this week.
I went to the doctor last week.
I went to the doctor this month.

In Español peninsular, however, we must choose either He ido or Fui according to when the action occurred relative to the "unit of time" referred to or implied (day, week, month, year):

He ido al médico hoy.
Fui al médico ayer.
He ido al médico esta semana.
Fui al médico la semana pasada.
He ido al médico este mes.

Confused? It's easier than it seems. It simply depends on whether the speaker is "still inside" the "unit of time" that's being used or implied:

Use the present perfect ("he ido") form when talking about:
- today, this week, this month, or this year 

Use the indefinido ("fui") form when talking about:
- yesterday, last week, last month, or last year (or further back) 

If we're expressing ourselves in blocks of days then "Yesterday" is in the past relative to today and therefore requires "fui". If we're talking about exactly the same event but using the time block "this week" then that is still current, the event and the speaker are in the same time block, so the speaker uses "He ido". Easy!

time-blocks

Attention: the smallest block of time is one day in this respect. Morning, afternoon, evening and night do not count as 'time blocks' for this purpose. If it's the afternoon, you will still use He ido to say I went somewhere that the morning. 

You might think this concept of time blocks determining choice of tense is strange at first, but in fact, in English we use the present perfect with the very same time blocks (albeit with a different nuance, e.g. to introduce a new fact or express a sense of continued action).

These sentences sound right:

I’ve been to the doctor today… (and she said…)
I’ve been to the doctor this week/month/year… (twice/four times!)

But these sound strange:

I’ve been to the doctor yesterday.
I’ve been to the doctor last week/month/year…

They feel very strange because the time block is over. Spanish is the same: don't use the present perfect to talk about events in previous blocks of time. Use the simple past instead.

In Español peninsular, you should use the present perfect for past events occurring in the current time block. However, Spanish American speakers use the simple past for both cases.

Caution: novices in both languages mistakenly translate El Pretérito Perfecto into/from the English present perfect because they share the same form:
I have [past participle] ” is structurally the same as “(Yo) he + [past participle]

While there are instances where this will work, in general this is a mistake and the English preterite is the appropriate choice.

Grammar Jargon

Interestingly, the name of the Spanish present perfect verb is el preterito (from the Latin for 'past') perfecto (perfect), unlike the English “present perfect”, even though haber is conjugated in the present tense, just like have is in English. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the tense carries a greater nuance of something past, whereas in English, we tend to use it for past events with continuing relevance in the present. (Note: The name of the true Spanish past perfect is el pasado perfecto.)

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

Ellos han elegido el menú de la boda el viernes pasado.
They chose the wedding menu last Friday.


El verano pasado entrené mucho para la maratón.
Last summer I trained a lot for the marathon.


Ellas han dormido mucho esta semana.
They slept a lot this week.


comiste muchos dulces ayer.
You ate a lot of sweets yesterday.


Vosotros habéis viajado mucho este año.
You travelled a lot this year.


Nosotros hemos planificado la estrategia en estos últimos días.
We planned the strategy over the past few days.


Ellas han salido tarde de trabajar hoy.
They left late from work today.


trabajaste en nuestra empresa en 2007.
You worked in our company in 2007.


Micro kwiz: When to use El Pretérito Perfecto or El Pretérito Indefinido (present perfect or simple past)
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Q&A

Sherri

Kwiziq community member

22 February 2018

8 replies

Tense names

Gruff

Kwiziq language super star

23 February 2018

23/02/18

Hi Sherry - do you have a question? 

Sherri

Kwiziq community member

23 February 2018

23/02/18


Not a question, but I  think your program should identify in English, one clear definition of the many Spanish names of verb tenses, i.e., Pertérito Indefinido, etc. = Past Tense.


It is very confusing as it is.  Too many different names.

Gruff

Kwiziq language super star

24 February 2018

24/02/18

Ah, yes. We've been discussing how to handle this for a while actually. There are up to four different Spanish tense names in use in different countries, unfortunately, for every tense which makes things very confusing as there's no global standard. We'll adopt one standard ourselves but also put up a full table so people can look up other names. We're also exploring the idea of letting you choose a preferred name for a given tense which the system will then use everywhere - but this is quite a difficult thing to implement, so we won't be able to do that any time time soon. I'll post a link to the tense names table though when it's up.


Thanks for reminding me about this!

Gruff

Kwiziq language super star

24 February 2018

24/02/18

Hey Sherri - here's the table of Spanish Tense names and English equivalents for you, as promised:

https://spanish.kwiziq.com/spanish-tense-names

Hopefully that will help a little. It's worth writing down some of the variations, especially pretérito/indefinido and putting them on the wall where you can see them. You can print this page too but writing them out will help you remember them.

Sherri

Kwiziq community member

24 February 2018

24/02/18

Yes, this will be helpful.  Thank you, Gruff

Andy

Kwiziq community member

26 February 2018

26/02/18

I'm pleased to see this is on the site. I learnt Spanish using English tense names only and so this caught me out on the placement test. The question said "El Pretérito Perfecto" and all I saw was "Preterite" :-)
Maybe you could add a hypelink at the top of a placement test (or any other test for that matter) that would direct people there for clarification.

Brett

Kwiziq community member

10 April 2018

10/04/18

Thank you for this list. When I took the initial "test your level" quiz I scored quite poorly because of my lack of familiarity with the alternative terms. I gave many acceptable Spanish responses but often not in the forms requested and subsequently got the answers incorrect. I think it would be worth alerting newcommers to this site to this list and recommend familiarising oneself with it before taking the initial quiz.

Gruff

Kwiziq language super star

10 April 2018

10/04/18

Thanks Andy and Brett - nice ideas I'll think about how to do that. It would need to be a popup I think in order to ensure they don't get lost and we could pick the most troublesome tenses to keep the popup small. We're also looking to change the wording in the hints to make this clearer and hopefully eventually even let users choose which tense names they are most familiar with across the site. The latter won't be quick to do though.

Jose

Kwiziq community member

4 November 2017

1 reply

Names for the verb tenses in spanish

When studying Spanish in Kwiziq it is very confusing that you use diferent names for the verb tenses than the online grammar references that I find. For instance: What you call Pretérito perfecto is referenced by most as Pretérito perfecto simple. What you call Pretérito indefinido is referenced as Pretérito perfecto compuesto. Am I using the wrong sources? Is there a "standard/official" name? Please see http://conjugador.reverso.net or http://www.conjugacion.es.

Silvia

Kwiziq language super star

20 November 2017

20/11/17

Dear José, thanks for contacting us and sorry about our delayed answer. Unfortunately, in Spanish we have different "titles" in order to name tenses and all of them are equally accepted, although it can be quite confusing as you said. The best you could do is to be aware of the several namings used in general (quite a few ones I am afraid.) In Kwiziq we aim to be consistent with these namings and for this reason we are currently working towards a kind of "standardisation" in the names we use. You can always refer to the glossary for more information about tenses and their equivalent in English. Thanks for sharing this issue with us. Silvia.
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