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The "Big Four" Spanish tenses

Berges Institute • Mar 28, 2023 • 3 minutes
Updated Sep 25, 2023
The "Big Four" Spanish tenses
The Graf Method for Spanish Language

Download a PDF version of The Graf Method for Spanish Language, Vol.1 for free!

In this volume, we discuss the alphabet, definite and indefinite articles, and verbs ser and estar, among other topics.

These are the four tenses you need to master if you want to speak Spanish fluently:

1. Presente

Like in English, we use it for habits or facts. It’s usually accompanied by time expressions that imply habits and routines: On Mondays (los lunes), every day (cada día), usually (normalmente), always (siempre), etc.

I work every day. Yo trabajo cada día.
On Mondays, I usually go to the gym. Los lunes, normalmente voy al gimnasio.
I cook a lot. Cocino mucho.
She always studies at night. Ella siempre estudia por la noche.
What do you usually do on Saturdays? ¿Qué haces normalmente los sábados?

2. Pretérito Perfecto

This is our main past tense. We use it to express specific, definite actions in the past. We often use it with definite time expressions that refer to the past: last Monday (el lunes pasado), yesterday (ayer), on April 22nd (el 22 de abril), etc.

Yesterday, I ate chicken. Ayer comí pollo.
Last Friday I went to Maine. El viernes pasado fui a Maine.
I ate breakfast at 7 last Saturday. Desayuné a las 7 el sábado pasado.
On June 10th, I bought a lottery ticket. El 10 de junio compré un boleto de lotería.
What did you do last night? ¿Qué hiciste ayer por la noche?

3. Pretérito Imperfecto

It has two main uses:

When we are talking about past habits, we always use Pretérito Imperfecto.

When I was living in Spain, I used to work at a restaurant. Cuando vivía en España, trabajaba en un restaurante.
When I was in high school, I used to play electric bass in a rock band. Cuando estaba en la escuela secundaria, tocaba bajo eléctrico en una banda de rock.
When I lived in Perú, I would always take the train to work every morning. Cuando vivía en Perú, siempre tomaba el tren al trabajo cada mañana.

Also, when we are describing a scene in the past (instead of narrating actions), we tend to use this tense, as there is no definite time.

At the party, people were dancing. En la fiesta, la gente bailaba.
The door was open. La puerta estaba abierta.

4. Futuro, con el verbo ir

It’s very easy to build, and we can use it for any kind of future (near future, far future, certain, uncertain…):

I’ll be there tomorrow. Voy a estar allá mañana.
I’m going to a restaurant on Friday. Voy a ir a un restaurante el viernes.
Where are you going to do that? ¿Dónde vas a hacer eso?
Sarah will call you tonight. Sarah te va a llamar esta noche.
Are you going to buy that car? ¿Vas a comprar ese carro?

So how do I learn the different conjugations?

Here is an idea: find a conjugation tool (here's Berges Institute's verb conjugation tool, you can also find other tools online easily). Copy, by hand, all the conjugations for all the verbs you feel are important, in any format you like. Carry that notebook with you and try to test yourself every day by reciting different conjugations from memory.

Don’t you have any other tenses?

We sure do. Once you are good with these four tenses, you can start learning more advanced ones; the tiempos compuestos (for things you have or had done) and the conditional (for things you would do) would be some examples.

Using these 4 tenses in informal conversation

Would you be able to tell a friend the following things in Spanish?

1. Who you are, what do you do, where do you live, what do you like, and what do you dislike

2. Everything you did last week

3. Everything you used to do when you were little

4. Everything you plan on doing next week

If you can’t do this, that means you should study these tenses a little harder!

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