How to use the past perfect in Spanish?

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The past perfect, also known as the pluperfect, is commonly used to talk about a past event that happened before another event in the past.

Anoche cuando llegué a casa alguien ya había cerrado las ventanas.
Last night when I got home someone had already closed the windows.

Past → I got home
Before the past → had already closed the windows

Although it is mostly used to refer to past actions, did you know it can also be used to talk about actions related to the present moment? Find out more below!

Table of Contents

How is the past perfect formed in Spanish?

The past perfect is formed using haber as an auxiliary in the imperfect tense and the past participle of the main verb. Regular participles end in -ado, -ido, irregular ones end in -to or -cho. Click the link for a list of Spanish past participles.

Let’s go over some examples while reviewing the conjugation of haber in the imperfect tense.

Subjecthaber in the imperfectVerb in past participle + complementTranslation
Yohabíaleído ese libro.
↳leer
I had read that book.
habíasescrito esa historia.
↳escribir
You had written that story.
Él / ella / ustedhabíaviajado a esa ciudad.
↳viajar
He/she/ you (formal) had traveled to this city.
Nosotros / nosotras habíamoscomido temprano.
↳comer
We had eaten early.
Ustedeshabíanhecho un pastel.
↳hacer
You had made a cake.
Vosotros / vosotrashabíaislimpiado antes de la fiesta.
↳limpiar
You had cleaned before the party.
Ellos / ellashabíancaminado a la escuela.
↳caminar
They had walked to school.

How to use the past perfect in Spanish?

The past perfect is mainly used in reference to another event. It can be thought of as the “past of the past” meaning that the past perfect makes reference to an event that happened previous to another event in the past. This other event can be:

Estos aretes eran de mi mamá, pero antes le habían pertenecido a mi abuela.
These earrings were my mother’s, but before they had belonged to my grandmother.

The tense in the main clause can be in the preterite tense, the imperfect tense, or the present perfect tense.

El banco ya había cerrado (cuando llegué).
The bank had already closed (when I arrived).

Ayer, a estas horas, ya me había dormido.
Yesterday, around this time, I had already fallen asleep.

Some of these expressions are ya (already), aún/todavía (still), nunca (never), antes/previamente (before/previously). For more examples, check out this list of common expressions used with past perfect in Spanish!

⤷TIP The past perfect is commonly found preceded by the adverb ya (already) to emphasize the “completeness” of the event.

IMPORTANT

Just like with other compound tenses, pronouns, adverbs, and “no” cannot be placed between haber and the past participle.

Ya había comido.                                 I had already eaten.
No habíamos acabado la tarea.         We had not finished our homework.

IMPORTANT

When the past perfect is used in the negative, it indicates that an event hasn’t happened prior to another event in the past.

Cuando me desperté, todavía no había salido el sol.
When I woke up, the sun had not yet come out.

When to use the past perfect in Spanish?

Now that we know how to use it in terms of time reference, let’s see what you can express using the past perfect tense.

The past perfect in relation to the past

When there is a sequence of two events or actions in the past and one describes something that occurred before another, the one that occurred first is expressed using the past perfect tense. For example,

Action 1                                                     Action 2
⇩                                                                ⇩
Ya habíamos planeado la boda             cuando nos comprometimos.
⤷past perfect                                                           ⤷preterite

We had already planned the wedding    when we got engaged.

In this sequence, we emphasize that the wedding had been planned before we got engaged. There is no time reference to when the actions happened, we only know both happened in the past.

IMPORTANT

The past perfect is not used when listing completed past actions as independent clauses. Instead, use the preterite tense:

 Planeamos la boda en 2019 y nos comprometimos en 2020.
                   ⤷preterite                                            ⤷preterite

   We planned the wedding in 2019 and we got engaged in 2020.

IMPORTANT

It’s common to find the past perfect paired with a clause starting with “antes de (que)…” (before). In such cases, antes de (que) is followed by an infinitive or by the imperfect subjunctive.

Antes de llegar, había pasado a comprar un pastel en el camino.
                    ⤷ yo = yo ⤶
     Before arriving I had stopped to buy a cake on my way.

Antes de que llegaran, (yo) había preparado un pastel.
                        ⤷ ellos ≠ yo ⤶
     Before they arrived, I had baked a cake.

The past perfect is used to explain the reasons for a past action that ended in a certain result or consequence.

¿Por qué no cocinaste el pastel?                           Why didn’t you cook the cake?

Porque no había comprado los ingredientes.       Because I had not bought the ingredients.

To report what someone else has said in the past, you can use the past perfect if the original verb in the direct speech is in the preterite or present perfect.

Direct speechYa salí de casa.
I already left the house.
Ya he comido en este café.
I have already eaten in this cafe.
Indirect speech Dijo que ya había salido de su casa.
He said that he had already left his house.
Dijo que ya había comido en este café.
She said she had already eaten in this cafe.

To learn more about reported speech in Spanish, follow the link!

To express uncertainty in the recent past, you can use the past perfect instead of present perfect.

¿Has visto mis lentes?  Have you seen my glasses?

Los había visto por aquí, pero no estoy seguro.
I had seen them around here, but I’m not sure.

The past perfect in relation to the present

The past perfect is used in association to the present moment to indicate that something happened before now. It’s used in the following cases:

¿Que qué hago aquí? ¡Me habías dicho que viniera!

What am I doing here? You asked me to come!

¿Cómo que la reunión es a las 4? ¡Había anotado que era a las 5!

What do you mean the meeting is at 4? I had written down that it was at 5!

Nunca había experimentado algo así.
I had never experienced anything like this before. 

In the example, it is implicit that I had not had a similar experience “before now.”

¡No había comido ostiones antes!        I hadn’t eaten oysters before!

The past perfect can be used to show courtesy or sound more polite instead of the present perfect.

Disculpe señora, ¿me ha pedido la cuenta? 
                                                   ⇣
Disculpe señora, ¿me había pedido la cuenta?
Excuse me ma’am, did you ask for the bill?

⤷ TIP You can use the past perfect instead of the present perfect or preterite to verify politely if certain information is true; this is especially useful when requests have been made.

¿Has pedido/ pediste servicio al cuarto?

¿Habías pedido servicio al cuarto?                     Did you request room service?

Summary

The past perfect is a compound tense that requires the auxiliary verb haber (have) in the imperfect tense and a past participle. It is used:

Ready to practice? Find an activity for the different uses of the past perfect here.

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.
Meet The Author:
Author-Leticia
Maria Leticia Temoltzin-Espejel
Leticia Temoltzin (Lety) is a linguist and language professor.

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Extra Resources:

Expressions used with the past perfect

Activities:

Past perfect activity

Activities:

Past perfect activity

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