Understanding the Spanish Past Tenses: Pretérito Perfecto and Indefinido

Welcome to the vibrant world of Spanish past tenses! In this article, we’ll dive into the “Pretérito Perfecto” and “Indefinido,” two crucial tenses that can sometimes confuse Spanish learners. Let’s unlock their mysteries together.

Understanding the Spanish Past Tenses: Pretérito Perfecto and Indefinido 1

What is Pretérito Perfecto?

“Pretérito Perfecto” is used for actions or situations that have a connection to the present moment. For example, “He comido paella hoy” (I have eaten paella today). This tense is about recent actions or ongoing situations.

  • Formed using the auxiliary verb ‘haber’ and the past participle.
  • Regular verb example: “hablar” (to speak) – “He hablado” (I have spoken).
  • Irregular past participles often include verbs like “escribir” “He escrito” (I have written).



  • Yo he hablado
  • Tú has hablado
  • Él/Ella ha hablado
  • Nosotros hemos hablado
  • Vosotros habéis hablado
  • Ellos/Ellas han hablado


  • Yo he comido
  • Tú has comido
  • Él/Ella ha comido
  • Nosotros hemos comido
  • Vosotros habéis comido
  • Ellos/Ellas han comido

Escribir (irregular):

  • Yo he escrito
  • Tú has escrito
  • Él/Ella ha escrito
  • Nosotros hemos escrito
  • Vosotros habéis escrito
  • Ellos/Ellas han escrito

What is Pretérito Indefinido?

On the other hand, “Pretérito Indefinido” deals with completed actions in the past with no direct link to the present. For instance, “Comí paella ayer” (I ate paella yesterday). It’s about definite, concluded events.

  • Conjugated as a standalone verb, with different endings for -ar, -er, and -ir verbs.
    • For -ar verbs like “bailar,” the endings are , -aste, , -amos, -asteis, -aron. For example, “Yo bailé” (I danced).
    • For -er and -ir verbs like “vivir,” the endings are , -iste, -ió, -imos, -isteis, -ieron. For example, “Yo viví” (I lived).
  • Regular verb example: “bailar” (to dance) – “Viví” (I lived).
  • Irregular verbs include “ser” (to be) – “Fui” (I was), and “tener” (to have) – “Tuve” (I had).



  • Yo bailé
  • Tú bailaste
  • Él/Ella bailó
  • Nosotros bailamos
  • Vosotros bailasteis
  • Ellos/Ellas bailaron


  • Yo viví
  • Tú viviste
  • Él/Ella vivió
  • Nosotros vivimos
  • Vosotros vivisteis
  • Ellos/Ellas vivieron

Ser (irregular):

  • Yo fui
  • Tú fuiste
  • Él/Ella fue
  • Nosotros fuimos
  • Vosotros fuisteis
  • Ellos/Ellas fueron

Key Differences: the jar analogy

Imagine time as a jar. In the context of the Spanish past tenses, “Pretérito Perfecto” and “Indefinido,” the jar analogy can be quite illustrative.

Pretérito Perfecto: Inside the Jar

When using “Pretérito Perfecto,” think of yourself as being inside the jar. This tense is used for actions or situations that are inside the jar of the present moment. These actions are recent or ongoing, with a connection to the present. For example, “He comido paella hoy” (I have eaten paella today) – the action of eating paella is inside your current time jar, it’s part of your recent experiences.

Pretérito perfecto en español

Pretérito Indefinido: Outside the Jar

“Pretérito Indefinido,” however, places you outside the jar. This tense is used for actions that are clearly outside the jar of the present moment. They are complete, definitive past actions with no ongoing link to the present. For instance, “Comí paella ayer” (I ate paella yesterday) – the action of eating paella is outside your current time jar, it’s a finished event in your past.

Spanish lessons, pretérito indefinido

Common Mistakes and Tips

When learning “Pretérito Perfecto” and “Indefinido,” a typical error is misjudging the temporal context of an action. For “Pretérito Perfecto,” the mistake often lies in using it for actions with no present relevance. Conversely, “Pretérito Indefinido” is mistakenly used for actions that still resonate in the present.


  • Contextual Clues: Pay attention to time expressions. ‘Ayer’ (yesterday) suggests “Indefinido,” while ‘hoy’ (today) often requires “Perfecto.”
  • The common signal words that indicate the “Pretérito Perfecto” are:
    • Hoy.
    • A las 4, a las 6.
    • Esta mañana, Esta tarde, Esta semana.
    • Este mes, Este año.
    • Este invierno, Este otoño.
    • Todavía no, aun no, ya.
    • Hasta ahora.
    • En mi vida.
    • Nunca.
    • Por fin.
    • Siempre.
    • ¿Alguna vez? / ¿Cuántas veces?
  • The common signal words that indicate the “Indefinido” are:
    • Ayer, Anteayer.
    • El otro día.
    • Anoche, Anteanoche.
    • La semana pasada.
    • El mes, el año pasado.
    • En + año/mes.
    • Hace+ cantidad de tiempo + que + indefinido.
  • The sequence of Events: If an action impacts the current situation, consider “Perfecto.”
  • Storytelling: In narratives, use “Indefinido” for completed actions and “Perfecto” for recent or ongoing background information.

Regional Nuances in Spanish Past Tense Usage

The use of “Pretérito Perfecto” and “Indefinido” can indeed vary across different Spanish-speaking regions, adding a delightful layer of complexity to their understanding.

For example, in Spain, “Pretérito Perfecto” is commonly used to talk about recent past events, even if they happened earlier in the same day. In contrast, in many Latin American countries, “Pretérito Indefinido” is more frequently used for such past events, regardless of their proximity to the present.

An illustrative case:

A Spaniard might say, “Hoy he comido paella” (Today, I have eaten paella), using “Pretérito Perfecto,” reflecting that the day is still ongoing. However, a Latin American might say, “Hoy comí paella” (Today, I ate paella), opting for “Pretérito Indefinido” instead.

The usage of “Pretérito Perfecto” and “Indefinido” can vary even within different regions of Spain. In general, northern and central regions of Spain tend to use “Pretérito Perfecto” more frequently for recent past actions. In southern Spain, particularly in Andalusia, there’s a tendency to use “Pretérito Indefinido” in similar contexts where other regions might use “Pretérito Perfecto.”

In this Chayanne song, you can see the two tenses in use.

In this Chayanne song, you can see the two tenses in use. Pay attention and you will be able to hear these verb forms:

He inventado | He fallado | He sido | Has cambiado | Has hecho | Pasó | Unió | Dejaste

Practical exercises

Fill in the gaps with the correct verb forms.

Drag the words to the correct column. Note whether they are markers of the indefinite or the perfect.

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Understanding the Spanish Past Tenses: Pretérito Perfecto and Indefinido 2

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