Past tenses, present perfect or preterite

Past tenses, present perfect or preterite


I am not sure when to use the present perfect tense using the auxiliary verb "haber" and the past participle as opposed to using the preterite tense. My grammer book says you should use the present perfect tense when referring to an action in the past which is still connected to the future in some way, ie because it occurred a very short time ago.

It says you should use the preterite when it's a completed action in the past, or an action in the past which happened on one occassion only.

These definitions confuse me a little as in the example:

Ella subió al tercer piso. She went up to the third floor. They have used the preterite but wouldn't the present perfect be more correct? Maybe I'm confusing myself as we don't know when she did this action!

I realise there are other past tense forms but I haven't studied these yet.

Any thoughts on this?

updated ABR 14, 2016
posted by casarosa

3 Answers


It's hard to tell with just a single sentence. There is a nuance of difference, but without hearing the conversation leading up to this sentence it hard to know if you wish to say it happened in the distant past or it just happened in the recent past. It's similar to English.

She went up the stairs. When did she go up the stairs? With the simple past it might have been 5 years ago.

She has gone up the stairs. Now we're trying to say that she just went up the stairs or sometime recently and we're going to connect it to something going on presently. She has gone up the stairs. Now what is she going to do next?

The English names add to the confusion.

In Spanish the preterite is the pretérito perfecto simple.

The present perfect is the petérito perfecto compuesto.

As you can see from the names they are very similar to each other differing only in that one has no helper verb and one does)

From the pretérito we see they are both past tenses.

From the perfecto you see that they are both completed. (you'll understand that better when you study the préterito imperfecto for past actions that aren't completed).

The subtleties mirror English usage. I did something.

I have done something. Not a lot of difference without further context.

I did something yesterday at two o'clock.

I have done it before, but not since I was a child. (We're discussing something that just happened in the recent past and relating it to the distant past)

With context we now have a better concept of the time difference between the two tenses.

So long story short you need to provide more that a single sentence to contrast the simple past to the present perfect. We need context to decide which to use.

If your telling a story that took place 3 years ago and you don't relate it to the recent past then the she went up the stairs is preterite.

If she has gone up the stairs we're discussing something in the near past or something from the distant past and relating it to the recent past then we're talking present perfect..

updated ABR 14, 2016
edited by 0074b507
posted by 0074b507
Thank you for the excellent explanation. It's much clearer now. - casarosa, SEP 1, 2009
This is a great explanation. I joined just to add this comment. I don't have enough reputation to vote or I would have voted it up. - jafloresster, ABR 14, 2016

HI neil, have you checked in our reference section?


updated AGO 31, 2009
posted by 00494d19
Sigh. I go through all of that explanation and you just send him somewhere else. :-) - 0074b507, AGO 31, 2009
I just love this comment. - Eddy, AGO 31, 2009

yessssssssss, quen, life is hard, I know.... wink

I am not commenting as for some reason the post does not get boosted up for comments any more... confused

updated AGO 31, 2009
posted by 00494d19
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