This is part 2 of a 3-part series about telling better stories in Spanish:
Although technically part of the past, the recent feels philosophically different. Consider the question we’re most likely to get asked on a Monday morning in any of the Spanish-speaking regions of the planet: ¿Qué tal el finde? (How was the weekend?)
We have two options:
- Using the preterite. This is a way of talking about our weekend with a sense of finality: the weekend is over, it’s part of the past, this is what happened.
- Using the present perfect. This lets our conversation partner know that we still consider the weekend a recent event: it may be over, but in our mind it still feels relevant and current, it’s like we’re still living there.
Let’s explore a realistic example ( ):
Ha sido un fin de semana increíble. No hemos parado de ver sitios, hacer cosas y conocer gente. El viernes fuimos a Granada, visitamos la Alhambra y salimos de fiesta hasta las mil. Al día siguiente pasamos por un montón de pueblitos alrededor de Sierra Nevada y acampamos cerca de un embalse. El domingo nos hicimos amigos de un grupo de catalanes y nos fuimos con ellos a explorar la zona. La vuelta en tren ha sido dura porque no hemos dormido casi nada, pero el viaje ha merecido la pena.
It was an amazing weekend. We didn’t stop checking out places, doing things, and meeting people. On Friday we went to Granada, we visited the Alhambra, and we partied until dawn. The next day we passed by a bunch of small villages around Sierra Nevada and we set up camp next to a dam. On Sunday we befriended a group of Catalonians who were also camped there and we went with them to explore the area. The trip back home was challenging because we barely slept, but the trip was worth it.
Is the trip over? In a way, yes. But it’s not over as in game over; we got off the train, we’re back home, but the trip still feels more like a recent experience than a distant memory.
The present perfect is an optional tense. Many Spanish speakers never use it—they simply replace it with the preterite. This means that you absolutely have to master the preterite, and that the present perfect is extra credit (Don’t you wish it was the other way around?). Even if you master the present perfect, it’s a law of Spanish nature that all present perfect experiences will eventually become preterite experiences. For example, here is the same story, a year later:
La vuelta en tren fue dura porque no dormimos casi nada, pero el viaje mereció la pena.
If you think about it, it’s quite charming: we’re making past experiences seem current, simply by changing the verb tense. To wield this power successfully, you must remember one thing: never use the present perfect with a past time reference. If you do, you’ll be tearing at the fabric of Spanish Spacetime and risk being swallowed up by a black hole:
—¿Qué tal el finde?
“How was the weekend?”
—¡Genial! El sábado me he comprado un acelerador de partículas nuevecito.💥💥
“It was awesome! On Saturday I have bought a brand new particle accelerator.”
We could have avoided this catastrophe:
- By sticking to the preterite (¡Genial! El sábado me compré…. As we did in and ), or by
- Or, by omitting the explicit reference to the past (¡Genial! Me he comprado….).
By explicit reference to the past I mean things like ayer, la semana pasada, el domingo, hace dos días, etc. Although, there are a few important exceptions:
Esta mañana me he ido a cortar el pelo.
This morning I went to get a haircut.
He ido a casa de mis padres hace una hora.
I went to my parent’s house an hour ago.
When we use time markers like esta mañana, esta tarde, esta noche or hace un minuto, hace dos horas, hace un rato, we’re technically talking about parts of the current day, so instead of considering them as references to the past, we can think of them as part the present. Sneaky, I know. A Spanish lawyer was probably involved in that one.
What to watch out for: Literal Translation Syndrome
Shouldn’t the translation for Ha sido un fin de semana increíble be It has been an incredible weekend?
Technically, yes. But as we saw before, the Spanish present perfect conveys shades of meaning that the English present perfect doesn’t bother with. Instead of translating word for word, you should always try to find a way to translate native-sounding Spanish with native-sounding English, and vice versa.
So, here are two simple rules to know when we can use the present perfect in Spanish:
- 1) When we would also use it in English:
Have you seen The Empire Strikes Back?”
¿Has visto «El Imperio Contraataca»?
- 2) When we wouldn’t use it in English, but the past event still feels relevant or recent in your mind and we’re not making an explicit reference to the past:
Ayer vi a tu madre y hoy he visto a tu padre.
Yesterday I saw your mom and today I saw your dad.
Until you develop your Spanish spider-sense, and become comfortable thinking only in Spanish, these can be useful training wheels to make the intermediate stage less awkward.
Okay, enough theory. Time for some hard-core finger-on-keyboard Spanish action:
Spanish Workout: Write your own hundred-word dialogue about something that happened today and that still feels relevant (that is, most verbs should be in the present perfect)
If you can’t think of anything, feel free to translate this one (You should end up with a total of 11 present perfects. Also, I’ve added a couple of [literal expressions] to make it a bit easier to translate into native-sounding Spanish):
Emma: “What’s up, Lucas? How was your day?”
Lucas: “[The truth is that I haven’t stopped]. This morning there was an accident in the subway and I’ve had to run to get to work on time. [Then I’ve spent the day busy], from meeting to meeting, and I wasn’t able to eat anything until 4pm. How about you?”
Emma: “[Me, very well]. I did a bit of cleaning, I took the dog out for a walk and I’ve decided that starting tomorrow, I’m going to go running every day.”
Lucas: ¿And why didn’t you go running today?
Emma: Today [the thing is that] I was super busy, but tomorrow I’m running for sure.
As always, you can email me your attempt, or post it in the comments below, and I’ll send you the corrected version.