The Past Perfect in Spanish: Rules, Sentences and Practice

¡Hola! Welcome to a new lesson! Today, we will learn about a very interesting structure that is commonly used to talk about past events in Spanish: “el pretérito pluscuamperfecto”. This tense is the equivalent to the “past perfect” from the English language. It will be used to talk about actions that happened before another action in the past, that is, to indicate what someone “had done” before a specific time or event. As usual, we have included simple explanations, besides many examples and exercises that will help you understand this topic easily. Let’s start…

El pretérito pluscuamperfecto – The past perfect in Spanish

The Royal Spanish Academy defines the past perfect in Spanish, called “pretérito pluscuamperfecto”, as follows:

m. Gram A perfect tense that locates the action, the process or the state expressed by the verb in a previous moment to another, yet in the past. The form “había cantado”(had sung) is an example of the past perfect in Spanish.

To put it more simply, the past perfect in Spanish is useful to talk about events that ended before another event in the past. Take a look a these sentences about a kid’s morning routine, all written in the past tense:

Marcos se despertó a las 7:00 esta mañana.
Marcos woke up at 7:00 am this morning.
Marcos desayunó huevos revueltos y tomó café a las 7:30.
Marcos ate scrambled eggs for breakfast and drank coffee at 7:30
Marcos tomó el bus de la escuela a las 7:55
Marcos ate scrambled eggs for breakfast and drank coffee.

From the information in the last three sentences, we know that “Marcos woke up at 7:00 am” (action No. 1). Before waking up, perhaps he had slept for 8 hours and that’s exactly what we want to talk about, something that happened before something else in the past. Let’s assume Marcos did all these things before waking up:

  • Antes de despertarse, él había dormido 8 horas. (Before waking up, he had slept 8 hours)
  • Marcos se había bañado antes de desayunar huevos revueltos y tomar café. (He had taken a shower before having scrambled eggs and coffee for breakfast)
  • A las 7:50, Marcos ya se había alistado para ir a la escuela. (Marcos had already gotten ready for school.)

As you can see, the form “había dormido” and others alike correspond to the “el pretérito pluscuamperfecto“, the way to say things in the past tense in Spanish.

The following image shows a similar timeline and a couple of sentences using the past perfect in Spanish:

The past perfect in Spanish

The structure behind the past perfect in Spanish

First, you should keep in mind that the past perfect in Spanish, often called “pretérito pluscuamperfecto” or “antecopretérito”, will make use of an auxiliary verb and the participle. Just like in English, we will use the irregular verb “to have” (HABER) in its past forms plus the past participle of the main verb in the sentence. Next, we present the basic structure that we follow to make sentences in the past perfect in Spanish. You need to memorize the forms of the verb “HABER” for each pronoun and know how to conjugate verbs in participle too.

SubjectHABERParticipio (Escuchar)

Just like with the present perfect in Spanish, it is possible to use words like “YA” (already), “Todavía” (yet), Desde (since) and Por (for) to complement sentences in the “pluscuamperfecto”. As you can see in the table above, the verb HABER will have a different form for most personal pronouns. In addition, it is very important that you use the correct form of the participle of the verbs in Spanish, so make sure to check our lesson on the rules to form the participle of verbs in Spanish. There are both regular and irregular participles in the language.

The different uses of the past perfect in Spanish

1. Talking about an action before another past action.

The first and most common use for the past perfect in Spanish is to talk about actions that took place before another past action. This is usually accompanied by adverbs such as “antes de” (before) or “cuando” (when) to establish a relationship between both actions, for example, in the sentence “Antes de ver la película, yo había leído el libro“, the clause “antes de ver la película” refers to a past action and the clause “había leído…” is an action that happened even further in the past. Please analyze the following group of examples:

Antes de escribir “Cien años de soledad”, Gabriel había escrito “La hojarasca”.
Before writing “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, Gabriel had written “Leaf Storm”.
Yo todavía no había terminado cuando él me quitó el examen.
I had not finished yet when he took my exam.
El venado había escapado antes que los cazadores llegaran.
The deer had escaped before the hunters arrived.
Vosotros se equivocaron porque habíais entendido mal las instrucciones.
You made a mistake because you had misunderstood the instructions.

2. Talking about things others said

“El pretérito pluscuamperfecto” can also be used to talk about things other people said, gossip or reports, as that also corresponds to an action before another one. Take a look at these examples:

Le mostré el video, pero dijo que ya lo había visto.
I showed him the video but he said he had already seen it.
Mi amigo dijo que ya había comprado el boleto para el concierto.
My friend said that he had already bought the ticket for the concert.
¿Qué dijo el doctor? – Dijo que no había visto nada alarmante.
What did the doctor say? He said he hadn’t seen anything alarming.

3. To react to statements and show uncertainty

“El pluscuamperfecto” is sometimes used to respond to statements people say in the present tense, especially to information you had heard, seen or found before. It is also common to use it to explain that you are not sure where/when you heard or saw something. Pay attention to these examples:

  • A: ¡Es una película muy buena!
  • B: Sí, no la había visto.
  • A: It’s a very good movie!
  • B: Yes, I had not watched it.
  • A: Oye, se te va a caer el télefono.
  • B: Gracias, no me había dado cuenta.
  • A: Hey, you’re going to drop your phone.
  • B: Thanks, I hadn’t noticed.
  • A: ¿Escuchaste que viene una tormenta?
  • B: Me parece que había escuchado algo sobre eso en las noticias.
  • A: Did you see a storm coming?
  • B: I think I had heard something about that on the news.
  • A: ¿Sabes cuando debemos entregar el reporte?
  • B: Creo que el maestro había dicho que teníamos dos semanas más.
  • A: Do you know when we should deliver the report?
  • B: I think the teacher had said we had two more weeks.

Interactive quiz:

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