I arrived late to a friend’s party over the weekend.
He asked me what had happened, and I spurted out a hasty “Había un problema” (“There was a problem”). He looked at me, expecting me to tell him more. I shrugged my shoulders sheepishly and walked away.
Curious, I locked myself in the (only!) bathroom, whipped out my phone, and started to investigate, ignoring all the angry knocking. Ten minutes later I went back out, found my friend, and tapped him on the shoulder. He spun around and looked at me.
“Huuuubo un problema!”, I told him.
He gazed at me piercingly and nodded as a master does to an apprentice, satisfied with my answer.
But why? You might ask. Stick around, Padawan learner, and I’ll show you the way of the fuerza.
First things first: pronunciation.
The ‘h’ is always silent in Spanish, so the pronunciation of these words is as follows –
‘había‘ – ah-bee-ah
‘hubo‘ – oo-boh
And now, the meaning.
‘Había‘ and ‘hubo‘ are past conjugations of the verb ‘haber’ and both can mean ‘there was’ OR ‘there were’ to describe what existed, often in a place, in the PAST TENSE.
‘Había‘ is an imperfect past conjugation (what I like to call the “long past”) and it’s used to DESCRIBE things that existed in the past over a LONGER PERIOD OF TIME. As such, it’s often used to add context to a story in order to explain what happened next.
You’ll also come across the structure había + past participle’ in past perfect sentences, to say things like –
Nunca había comido tacos antes de venir a México.
I had never eaten tacos before I came to Mexico.
‘Hubo’, on the other hand, is the simple past or PRETERITE of ‘haber’ and it’s used to talk about what things ‘there were’ at a specific time in the past that’s clearly over, done and dusted, no more, etc.
In short – ‘hubo’ is used to talk about SPECIFIC PAST EVENTS (i.e., the meat of a story) and ‘había’ DESCRIBES people, things, places, etc.
That’s it in a nutshell, but let’s dive into a bit more detail and check out some examples!
When to use ‘hubo‘
‘Hubo‘ means ‘there was’ OR ‘there were’.
Not having to differentiate between singular and plural takes some getting used to, but if you think about it, it makes the whole thing easier. Spanish speakers are the ones who have a tougher time dealing with ‘there was’ / ‘there were’. Believe me!
‘Hubo‘ is a past simple (or “preterite”) conjugation, meaning it deals with the past on a there was or were but there ain’t no more sort of level.
Sometimes the period of time is explicit, or at least implicit via the context.
Let’s take a look at some ejemplos –
Hubo unas cuantas broncas entre nosotros el año pasado, pero ahora estamos bien.
There were more than a few problems between us last year, but now we’re all right.
Hubo un complot contra el presidente en el año 1913.
There was a conspiracy against the president in 1913.
See how in both examples the period of time was explicit? And that it’s clear that the thing described is totally finished?
Problems in a relationship? Not anymore.
A conspiracy against the president? Nope – happened a long, long time ago.
Erika’s top tip – both the “problems” and the “conspiracy” were ACTIONS (or “significant events”) in the past that are well and truly over!
So, if YOU ever need to talk about a “significant event” in the past, you’re gonna use ‘hubo’ instead of‘había’ because we always use the preterite (i.e., ‘hubo’) when talking about the main events in a story!
Hubo que + infinitive
‘Hubo que + infinitive’ means that something ‘needed doing’.
Hubo que irnos.
We had to leave.
Hubo que vaciar el garaje. Se cansaron bastante al hacerlo.
They had to clear out the garage. They got pretty darn tired doing it.
So that’s ‘hubo‘.
Remember: it’s for the simple past, the short past, to describe what things there were or what needed doing at a specific point in the past (normally the MAIN EVENTS in a story).
When to use ‘había‘
‘Había’ also means ‘there was’ OR ‘there were’, BUT (and it’s a big but!) ‘había‘ is an IMPERFECT PAST (i.e., the long past) conjugation of ‘haber‘, and so we use it to talk about a thing / or many things that was / were over a longer period of time.
We also use it to provide context to a past story.
As such, it’s best to think of it as being DESCRIPTIVE!
You’ll commonly use ‘había‘ to DESCRIBE a place from long ago, for example –
Cerca de donde crecí, había un parque. Había muchos árboles y había un parque infantil. Me divertía mucho allí*.
Close to where I grew up, there was a park. There were many trees and there was a playground. I had a lot of fun there.
*Erika’s note – I might have said ‘allá’ here … check out our article on ‘allí’ vs ‘allá’ if you wanna know the difference between the two!
That’s not to say that you can’t use ‘había‘ when talking about the more recent past!
Al contrario, you can actually use it to describe something that took place half an hour ago. Take my example from the beginning, I could’ve said, “Había un problema, así que tomé el metro.”
When you tell a friend a story in this way, ‘había’ can make your listener ask themself ‘… and then?’
This is because you’re using it to SET THE CONTEXT of a story / tale.
Two more ejemplos –
En Taxco había muchos puestos de plata. ¡Así que compré mucha plata!
In Taxco there were a lot of silversmith stalls. So, I bought a lot of silver!
In this example ‘había’ describes Taxco and makes you think: “Ok, a lot of silver, and then?” … even if only for a split second.
Había muchos problemas en su matrimonio entonces decidieron divorciarse ayer.
There were a lot of marital problems, so they decided to get a divorce yesterday.
Here, ‘había’ describes the problems that still existed as of yesterday AND sets the context for the fact that they decided to get divorced (i.e., the MAIN EVENT).
In both these sentences ‘había’ is used TO SET THE SCENE; it’s used to DESCRIBE what was happening. Also note that the “main verb” (i.e., the verb used to talk about the PRINCIPAL action) in both sentences is in the preterite tense.
And here’s one final example with BOTH ‘había’ and ‘hubo’ to make sure you fully understand –
Había mucho tráfico hoy porque hubo un accidente en la carretera.
There was a lot of traffic today because there was an accident on the highway.
So, as you can see, we use ‘había’ to set the scene and provide BACKGROUND DETAILS and ‘hubo’ to talk about the MAIN EVENT (i.e., the accident).
Había que + infinitive
As with ‘hubo‘, you can use ‘había‘ to talk about what needed doing (but this time in the LONG PAST), to describe our childhoods perhaps.
Cuando éramos unos escuincles, siempre había que lavarnos el cabello en la noche, ya que nos la pasabamos ensuciándonos jugando afuera.
When we were a bunch of young lads, we always needed to wash our hair at night, because we spent all day playing outside and got very dirty.
Había mucho que hacer entonces nos madrugamos y empezamos desde temprano.
There was a lot to do so we got up at the crack of dawn and started early.
‘Había’ in past perfect constructions
It made sense to add a separate section because this use of ‘había‘ is kinda different.
‘Había‘ can also be an auxiliary verb in past perfect sentences. Huh?
All right, back to English for a second.
You’ll surely have said something like, “I had never been there before, so it was pretty interesting, I must say.”
Maybe not exactly that but maybe something similar … anyway, the ‘had’ in that sentence would translate to ‘había’ in Spanish.
Yo nunca había ido allí antes entonces fue* muy interesante, debo decir.
*Erika’s note – if you’re still unsure as to when to use ‘era’ and ‘fue’, I highly recommend you check out our article on the subject!
You can’t really go wrong here because, a) the ‘había‘ is always followed by a past participle verb that ends in -ado or -ido, and b) ‘había‘ is conjugated to a subject, either ‘yo’, ‘él’, ‘ella’ or ‘usted’.
A couple of ejemplos –
Ella había regresado a su casa y luego se dio cuenta que alguien ‘había‘ entrado!
She’d come home and then realized that someone had broken in!
Él había pasado mucho tiempo sin comer.
He’d gone a long time without any food.
Nunca había viajado en tren.
I’d never travelled by train before.
Erika’s note – just bear in mind that the conjugations for ‘tú’, ‘nosotros’, ‘ellos’, ‘ellas’ and ‘ustedes’ are different (‘habías’, ‘habíamos’ and ‘habían’, respectively).
Over and out, amigos. Not so hard, right?
As you can see, it’s mostly a question of time.
Are you DESCRIBING something or somewhere that happened or existed over an EXTENDED PERIOD OF TIME, or giving context to a story? Then use ‘había‘.
Are you talking about what there was / were at a specific point of time in the past (i.e., the MAIN EVENT in a story)? Then use ‘hubo‘.
And don’t forget that extra use of ‘había‘ in those past perfect sentences.
See you next time!