The word Hay is one of the hardest-working words in the Spanish language.    The use of hay in the present tense is relatively easy. “There is”, “there are”, plain and simple.   However, when we want to say “there were” or “there was” it becomes more difficult.   Please consider this article as a general introduction to the use of hay in the past as it does require further study.  Let’s look at Hay in the simple past tense (the preterit) of Spanish, conjugated as “Hubo”.  Hubo is used to indicate past actions or an event that happened at a fixed point in time, a specific number of times, or began and ended within an enclosed amount of time.   This can either be stated or implied. 

Take a look at these examples:

There was an accident yesterday. – Hubo un accidente ayer. 
There was a conference in Philadelphia. – Hubo un congreso in Philadelphia.
There were two earthquakes in Panamá last July. – Hubo dos terremotos en Panamá el julio pasado.
Were there high tides yesterday? – ¿Hubo marea alta ayer?

Notice that the speaker intends to imply or state that these actions began and ended within a certain time period. 

Hay in the past is also used quite often in another tense called the imperfect.    Conjugated as “Había”, it is used to indicate that something was existing, used to exist, or something was somewhere during an unclear amount of time.  

There was a lot of money in the bank until I withdrew it. -  Había mucho dinero en el banco hasta que lo retiré.  

With this example, we don’t know when the money was initially deposited and it’s unclear when the person withdrew it.  The money in the bank existed in the bank until withdrawn, whenever that was.

There were twenty people at the party. – Había veinte personas en la fiesta. 
Here, there were twenty people at the party.  We don’t know when they arrived, when they left, or when even when the party ended.  The people were there (existed) at an ongoing party. 

There was so much rain that I couldn’t drive to Panama city. – Había tanta lluvia que no podía conducir (manejar) a Panamá. 

Since there was so much rain, it’s very clear it was raining.  Knowing it was raining is the trigger for Había in this example.

The hardest part of using Hay in the past is knowing when to use Hubo or Había.   It can be confusing at times.  Remembering the above examples can give you a good start to fully understanding the use of Hay in the past.

Spanish Tip of the Day:

I once asked my instructor early on what is the best way to learn Spanish. Books? Lessons? CD’s? TV, Radio?  She said:  “All of those methods are good and all should be used.  The bottom line is you must force yourself to engage in conversation.  You must overcome the fear.”

Hope this helps!



Hi, my name is Fred.  My background in Spanish is a year in high school
(long ago) and the last five years taking private lessons almost daily, in
the States and in Panamá'.    I am not yet fluent, but maybe I can pass on
to you some tips to help your Spanish learning experience.