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Overview of Past Tenses in Spanish and The Past Participle

In this lesson, we will make an overview of the past tenses in Spanish, learn how past participles are formed and see the formation of present perfect tense and its application.

Overview of past tenses

In this lesson and the following five lessons, we will be talking about how to express activities occured in the past in Spanish. Only the indicative mood will be covered in the lessons mentioned. For the discussion on subjunctive mood, see lesson on introduction to subjunctive in the advanced section.

As far as the past tenses are concerned, we can make two distinct divisions. First group contains the tenses which are called compound tenses and the second group contains the simple past tenses.

Compound tenses

They are formed by the appropriate form of the auxiliary verb “haber” and the past participle of the verb. Because the “haber” is used together with the conjugated verb, they are called compound tenses. In that sense, they are very similar to English compound tenses. For example, present tense is formed by using the appropriate form of the auxiliary verb “have” and the past participle, for example I have done. To form the compound tenses in Spanish, you will follow the same pattern. For this, you will need to know how to form the past participle in Spanish, a topic which we handle further below.

In Spanish there are two compound tenses:

  • present perfect
  • past perfect tense (pluperfect)

Simple past tenses

In English there is only one simple past tense. For example; I was a student.

There are two simple past tenses in Spanish:

  • imperfect
  • preterite

As in English, simple past tenses are formed by just using the conjugated verb without any auxiliary verb. That’s the reason why they are called “simple”.

All the four tenses are covered in the upcoming lessons.

As stated when explaining compound tenses above, in order to form present perfect and past perfect in Spanish, one needs to know how to form the past participle. By using the past participle of a verb together with the corresponding forms of the verb “haber”, we can form these tenses with no difficulty. That’s why; we will start with our discussion on the past tenses by learning the past participles in Spanish as first.  

Past participles are not only used to form past tenses in Spanish but they are also used as adjectives and in passive voice. They exist in English as well; therefore, it is easy for an English speaker to understand what a past participle is.

How to form a past participle?

If a verb has a regular past participle, the following rule applies:

Drop the infinitive ending of the verb (-ar, -er, -ir) and add the endings –ado for “–ar” verbs and “–ido” for “-er” and “–ir” verbs respectively.

For example, let us take the verb “hablar” which means to speak. Since “hablar” ends in “–ar”, we need to add –ado, after dropping the “–ar”, so that the past participle of hablar is “hablado”. Another verb which has regular past participle is vivir (to live). It ends in “–ir”, so drop the –“ir” and add the “–ido” to form the past participle as “vivido”. An example for an “-er” verb which has regular past participle is comer (to eat). Drop the “-er” and add the “-ido”, the past participle is comido.

There are two points worth to mention.

First, if the stem (what you get after dropping the infinitive ending) of an “–er” or “-ir” verb ends in a vowel, we need to add accent to that vowel in the participle. For example,

  • creer (to think): drop the infinitive ending to have the stem as “cre-“. Since the stem ends in “e”, i.e. a vowel, we need to form the past participle as creído.

Second, if an “-ir” verb ends in –uir, the above rule does not hold, even if the stem ends in a vowel. For example, the past participle of seguir (to follow) is  seguido, although its stem ends in a vowel.

Unfortunately, as we have in English, there are those verbs which have irregular past participles. In the case of irregular past participles, we need to memorize them, there are no practical rules.

On the other hand, there is one thing which is very practical. There are no irregular past participles for “–ar” verbs. In the vocabulary section below, some of the frequently used Spanish verbs which have irregular past participles are given. 

When to use past participles

To understand what a past participle can mean, think about how you could express those of the verbs introduced as examples above:

  • hablado means spoken, vivido means lived, and comido means eaten.

The uses of past participles are very similar to their English counterparts:

  • They can be used as adjectives.

For example; 

La puerta está abierta (the door is open)

Las puertas estan abiertas (the doors are open)

Note that as other adjectives in Spanish, past particles used as adjectives need to agree with the gender and the number. Compare the two sentences above. In the first one “la puerta” is singular therefore the feminine singular version (abierta) is used. In the second sentence, “las puertas" is plural; therefore the feminine and plural version is used (abiertas).

  • Past participles are used to form passive voice. In that case, they are used together with the verb “ser” to indicate passive actions.

In this case, the person who realizes the action is described by the preposition “por”.

La casa fue construida por Carlos. The house was built by Carlos.

We will come back to this topic in lesson passive voice.

  • To form the compound tenses

The use of past participles to form compound tenses in Spanish will be covered in the corresponding lessons in detail. Let’s make a brief introduction here.

Broadly speaking, the present perfect tense in Spanish corresponds to the present perfect tense in English. At least their constructions are very similar. To form the present perfect in English, you take the verb have and conjugate it accordingly and use the past participle. For instance;

  • I have studied

This sentence can be constructed in Spanish in a similar way. You need to take the appropriate form of the verb “haber” and use the past participle:

  • (Yo) he estudiado

Obviously, “he” is the version of the haber for the subject pronoun “yo” and estudiado is the past participle of the verb “estudiar”.

The conjugation of haber for the compound tenses will be explained in the coming lessons.

Note that when a past participle is used as adjective you need to modify it according to the gender and the noun. But, if it is used as auxiliary verb, it’s used always as singular and masculine. Or instance;

  • has estudiado (you studied)

again, “estudiado” is used although the subject of the sentence has changed.


Learn essential Spanish verbs which have irregular past participles

“-er” verbs

hacer (to do) - hecho (done)

describir (describe)  – descrito (described)

poner (to put) - puesto (put)

resolver (to resolve) - resuelto (resolved)

romper (to break) - roto (broken)

ver (to see) - visto (seen)

volver (to return) - vuelto (returned)

 “-ir” verbs

abrir (to open) - abierto (open)

cubrir (to cover) - cubierto (covered)

decir (to say) - dicho (said)

descubrir (to discover) - descubierto (discovered)

escribir (to write) - escrito (written)

freír (to fry) - frito (fried)

morir (to die) - muerto (dead)

componer (to compose) – compuesto (composed)

Let's Practice

1. Write down the past participles of the following verbs

All Exercises