Present vs. perfect in Spanish grammar

What’s the difference between the presente and the préterito perfecto?

In Spanish, the present (el presente) and the perfect (el pretérito perfecto) connect the past and the present, however each one does so from a different perspective. The present tense is used for repeated and continuing actions that happen at the moment of speaking, while the perfect is used when the action is completed but the time period is ongoing.

Read on to learn the difference between the present and the perfect in Spanish grammar, then put your knowledge to the test in the free online exercises.

Example

Tengo a mi perro Lola desde hace tres años. Esta mañana hemos ido a pasear al parque. Damos tres o cuatro paseos al día. Siempre jugamos con una pelota: yo lanzo y él la trae. ¡Hasta ahora, siempre la ha encontrado!

Presente vs. Pretérito perfecto

To know when to use the present tense and when to use the perfect tense in Spanish grammar, we have to focus on two key things: the status of the action and the time markers in the sentence.

Status of the action

If the action is in progress or is still ongoing, we use the present tense. If the action has been (recently) completed, we use the perfect.

  • the presente expresses actions that started in the past and are still ongoing in the present
Example:
Vivo en Madrid.I live in Madrid.
  • the pretérito perfecto expresses completed past actions that appear with a present time marker
Example:
Hoy he regado las plantas.I’ve watered the plants today.

Time markers

Time markers act as signal words for the Spanish present and present perfect tenses.

  • in presente, the time marker tells us how long the action has been going on, i.e., its duration
Example:
Vivo en Madrid desde 2019.I’ve been living in Madrid since 2020
  • in pretérito perfecto, we use time markers that began in the past but include the present
Example:
Esta mañana he regado las plantas.I’ve watered the plants this morning.

Signal words for presente and pretérito perfecto

Presente Pretérito perfecto

desde + date

desde hace + time period

hace + time period + que

hoy

esta mañana/semana/verano …

todavía

ya

hace + time period

aún no

siempre and nunca

Like in English, the time markers siemprealways and nuncanever can be used with the both the present tense and the perfect tense. The meaning changes depending on the tense.

Examples:
Siempre ayudas a los demás.You always help others.
siempre = all the time
Siempre has vivido en ciudades de costa.You’ve always lived in coastal cities.
siempre = at every time up until now
Nunca hablas de tus sentimientos.You never talk about your feelings.
nunca = not at all
Nunca has probado el picante.You’ve never tried the spicy one.
nunca = not at any time in the past up until now