In this post, we’re going to look at the similarities and differences between the present perfect tenses in English and Spanish (pretérito perfecto compuesto). I hope that after reading this article you will have a better understanding of how and when to use the present perfect and, just as importantly, when not to.
A lot of learners seem to have some kind of irrational fear of this harmless little verbal tense and their doubts lead them to avoid using it. Often, the phrase they substitute for it sounds unnatural and impedes clear communication. I even felt it necessary to include this misuse in my Top 10 Mistakes Spanish Speakers Make in English.
So although we’re barely two paragraphs in, I feel it’s already time to give you guys some great news. I don’t suppose you expected that at the start of an article on the present perfect, did you? Are you ready? Here it is:
There really aren’t too many differences between the English and Spanish present perfects.
Let’s start by explaining how the present perfect (pretérito perfecto compuesto) is formed. Both languages employ an auxiliary verb (to have / haber) followed by a past participle (e.g. spoken / hablado).
For the sake of clarity, let’s break down the English present perfect tense into three distinct uses. After that, we’ll analyse the problems native Spanish speakers are likely to encounter with each one.
USE I – When we don’t say when the action took place
We can consider a phrase ‘Use I’ when we don’t add a temporal marker. Temporal markers tell us when an action happened. Such phrases include ‘today’, ‘this morning’, and ‘while on holiday’.
E.g. I still haven’t sent that email. (notice that I don’t say ‘when‘)
USE II – With a temporal marker
E.g. What have you done today? (this time, ‘when’ is included)
USE III – The present perfect with ‘for’ and ‘since’
We use this form for actions that began in the past and continue until (or almost until) the moment of speaking.
E.g. I have lived here for years.
Use I – When We Don’t Say When the Action Took Place
Wouldn’t the world be a more beautiful place if we all focused on what unites instead of divides us? Peace, love, understanding and…… the present perfect tense.
Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to do with our first use of this verbal tense. With ‘Use I’ phrases, we can directly translate between Spanish and English and be totally correct. That’s right; there really aren’t any tricks here, it just works!
Perhaps this isn’t going to be as tricky as you thought!
As native speakers, we very rarely think about the grammar we use in our mother tongues. The insights we can gain by doing so, however, can be extremely useful in so far as they help us to understand, and in turn explain, differences between our mother tongues and the language we are trying to learn. With this in mind, we’re going to use the power of your native speaker brain to conduct a little thought experiment.
Let’s imagine you work in a large office and you’re looking for a particular colleague called Diana. You really need to speak to her so you start moving from desk to desk and asking people.
For the sake of argument, we will assume that you want to ask the question with the verb ‘to see‘ or ‘ver‘ in Spanish.
Remember the context and think about what you would naturally say:
You chose the second one, didn’t you? “¿Has visto a Diana?”
You’ve probably never thought about it, but there’s a reason why, when you’re looking for someone you really need to speak to, you start using the present perfect. It’s a really key concept in understanding this verbal tense and it’s true both in English and Spanish.
That’s right! Whether or not your colleague has seen Diana is a past action (or absence thereof) which is relevant to the present moment. It’s important now. You need to speak to her now. Sure, the action of seeing her (or not) is finished, but it has present relevance; it matters in the here and now.
That’s why your marvelous native speaker brain automatically put it into the present perfect for you. It saw the link between the action in the past and what’s happening now.
Let’s look at a few more examples of ‘present relevance‘ and behold the miracle that is your native speaker’s brain.
Imagine; you lose your life savings on a game of poker. You raise your hands to the sky and exclaim which of the following?
The first one? Please tell me it’s the first one! But why?
How are you going to explain it all to your devoted wife when you creep home €50,000 lighter?
How’s little Jonny going to react when he finds out he won’t be getting that shiny new bicycle you promised him?
Can you live with the guilt of knowing you and your wife worked all those years for nothing?
A past action (placing the bet) with consequences in the present: your family hates you and your life sucks now.
Okay, another thought experiment. This time you’re just arriving home. You’re in a hurry because the football is on TV and you can’t wait to open a bag of peanuts, drink a nice cold beer and blissfully waste 90 minutes of your life. On arriving, however, and much to your horror, you notice that the lock on your front door is broken. You walk into the living room and notice a big empty space where your HD flat-screen TV used to be. Again, you raise your hands to the sky (it hasn’t been a good day, has it?) and exclaim which of the following?
And why did you choose the first one? If you don’t know by now there’s really no point in telling you again. But I will because I’m a very patient man;
You can’t watch the football now!
The game has already started and you’re missing it!
Now you’ll have to spend hours on the phone to the police and your insurance company.
Not even a beer and few dry roasted peanuts (which the thieves mercifully decided not to steal) can help to relieve the pain of……..
Before we move on to ‘Use II’, let’s take a moment to enjoy the fact that all this is exactly the same in both English and Spanish! Are you doing it? Are you enjoying the moment? We’re not allowed to move on until I see some enjoyment.
Use II – With a Temporal Marker
Let’s start this section off by translating a couple of questions from a chat taking place now. For the sake of these examples, it is now 3pm. Please remember that; it’s important.
Okay, so let’s see what your marvelous native speaker brain thinks of the following questions:
Both of them sound fine, right? You could ask those questions at 3pm or, in fact, at any time during that same day.
Well, this is where the English and Spanish present perfects start to diverge a little. In English, the first one works and the second doesn’t.
You see, ‘hoy’ and ‘esta mañana’ are temporal markers and, in the English present perfect, we have a really strict rule about temporal markers that you guys don’t have in Spanish:
So let’s have a deeper look at the first of our two example questions:
No problem! Today is unfinished; it’s only 3pm so we haven’t broken our rule. This means we can simply translate this one straight into English as:
Easy! It’s just like Spanish!
Now for the second example, but first, just a quick question: what time is it? Yep, unless we have any particularly slow readers in the group, it should be about 3.02pm by now.
No! this one doesn’t work at all. How many times must I tell you? It’s already 3pm; the morning is over. Finished. Done. Dead.
We cannot use the English present perfect here. No chance. We have to use a past tense.
Time for another example: Imagine that your friend went on holiday for a few weeks and arrived home yesterday. You’re seeing her now for the first time since she got back.
In Spanish, you could say either, couldn’t you? What about in English? Read the context again and decide if ‘las vacaciones’ is a finished or unfinished temporal marker.
It is, of course, finished. So can we use the present perfect?
No! Of course we bloody can’t.
If you want to argue about it, I refer you back to our rule:
I think it’s time for some more good news, don’t you!? I love giving good news: See if you can guess what it is by studying the following sentences:
Did you get it? Can you see what we can learn from these identical mistakes? That’s right:
The rule usually works is Spanish too.
So it turns out that our good news is actually extremely good news. We can now say that the majority of ‘Use II’ sentences can again simply be translated straight from Spanish into English. The same rule that exists in English exists in Spanish. It just isn’t enforced very strictly. And you thought the present perfect was tough. Pah!
“But what about the times when I can’t translate directly? How do I know when I can and when I can’t?” I hear you shout.
It all depends on the temporal marker. ‘Yesterday’ is finished by definition. ‘Last week’ is finished by definition. Neither of these temporal markers can ever refer to an unfinished time period. It’s just not possible.
The English and Spanish languages agree in these cases; we can’t use the present perfect in either language.
If we think about our previous examples, ‘las vacaciones’ and ‘esta mañana’ are not finished by definition. Of course, they are finished in the examples given above but in another context, they could be unfinished. It isn’t implicit in the meaning of these phrases that this period of time must be over.
The English and Spanish languages can disagree in these cases. In Spanish, if the time period has ended recently and isn’t finished by definition, we can use the present perfect. In English, we can’t.
That’s the end of ‘Use II‘. At this point, we’ve already covered 2/3 of the present perfect tense and only found pretty minor differences between English and Spanish.
The end is coming. I can almost taste it……..
Use III – The Present Perfect with ‘For’ and ‘Since’
Now, I know what you’re thinking; it goes something like this:
‘But that’s not even the present perfect! I thought that was the whole point of this article.’
Well, it will most certainly be in a present perfect tense after you’ve translated it into English.
When an action began in the past (you started to live here) and continues to the present (you still live here) you must use a present perfect tense in English. In fact, you have two options: you can use the present perfect simple or the present perfect continuous.
We use ‘for’ when we want to say the period of time: for three years, for twenty minutes, for ages, for months’.
We use ‘since’ when we want to say the moment in time when the action began: since last Thursday, since 2007, since August, since 4am.
Sometimes, when we use ‘since’, we create this ‘moment in time’ by using a phrase in the past simple tense: since I was born, since I started university, since I met my partner.
When choosing the title for ‘Use III‘, I decided on ‘The Present Perfect with ‘For’ and ‘Since’’. This is, however, an oversimplification. Although they are certainly the most common prepositions to use in this type of phrase, we do have other options. The good news, however, is that the phrases we can use instead always create the same idea as ‘for’ or ‘since’.
So remember; if an action begins in the past and continues up to (or almost up to) the moment of speaking, we must use the present perfect or present perfect continuous tense. They are the only options we have in English.
You may now breathe a huge sigh of relief because….
That just about brings us to the end of our journey through the present perfect. Keeping in mind these simple rules, you shouldn’t have too much trouble navigating it in the future.
You can now embrace the present perfect. It’s your friend. It loves you and you love it. No more excuses. No more ‘saying it in the past simple tense because it’s easier’. Most of it is the same in Spanish and the parts that aren’t….. well, it would have been a very short article if there weren’t any differences, wouldn’t it?
Now, just a quick note before you go. I produce all these posts for free and in my own time. It’s a lot of work. All I ask of you in return is this:
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