Have You Met “Haber”? The Many Conjugations and Uses of the Impersonal Verb
How would you shout “Hey, there are whales over there!” in Spanish?
Well, I’ll tell you—this is the total guide to one of the most useful words in the Spanish language: haber.
In English, the most common way to talk about things existing is to say “there is,” “there are” and variants, for example: “There is an octopus on the table.”
In Spanish, the two words are both contained in the verb haber, most commonly seen in the indicative present tense conjugation: hay. So we get: Hay un pulpo en la mesa.
In this post we’ll first look at writing exercises that you can do to practice using this verb. Then we’ll look at how the verb can be used, and then how to conjugate it. Finally, we’ll introduce a few fun folksy expressions to help you remember those conjugations and uses.
Note that this article doesn’t deal with the auxiliary forms of the verb, which are used to make past tenses like he estado (I have been…) and había estado (I had been). These have quite different purposes and conjugations.
How to practice with haber
If you want to do exercises with haber, a great way to practice the uses explained in the next section is to employ any group of nouns that you’ve recently learned to describe what exists, and what does not. For example, have you recently learned household furniture vocabulary? Then you can now write sentences like:
Hay una mesa en el comedor. — There is a table in the dining room.
No hay ninguna cama en la cocina. — There isn’t any bed in the kitchen.
Be sure to indicate where or what situation you are talking about; just writing hay una mesa is a bit odd by itself!
You can also repeat the same exercise to set up a scene in the past, using había (there were).
The uses of haber
Haber‘s most basic use is to indicate what exists. This can be in a very tangible sense, like the furniture in the examples above, or it can be intangible:
Hay tanto dolor en mi vida ahora que Ana no está conmigo. — There is so much pain in my life now that Ana isn’t with me.
Hay química entre nosotros. — There is chemistry between us.
You can also talk about what doesn’t exist:
No habrá posibilidad de amor en mi vida, porque ella no me quiere más. — There will be no chance of love in my life, because she doesn’t love me any more.
One use that you can make of haber from the very beginning is to ask about products in stores when you’re going shopping:
¿Hay velas? — Are there any candles?
A more advanced use is to employ the verb when you’re making vague proclamations:
Hay demasiada tristeza en las noticias. — There is too much sadness on the news.
Siempre hay gente que no cree en lo verdadero. — There are always people who don’t believe in what is true.
When coupled with que, the verb shows what must happen/be done:
Hay que tener cuidado. — We/one/you/I must be careful.
The 8 Handiest Conjugations of Haber You Need to Know
The following are the conjugations for the impersonal meanings of haber as in there is/are, there was/were, etc.
This is the present tense, meaning both “there is” and “there are,” as used as in the examples above.
The preterit (simple past) tense form is used to talk about things that existed/happened at a point in time:
Hubo un incendio en Barcelona. — There was a fire in Barcelona.
The imperfect form is the past tense you want when you’re setting the scene for a story, and explaining what did or didn’t exist:
Había velas en la ventana. — There were candles in the window.
It’s extremely common to hear native speakers say rather habían velas, as if the verb haber had a plural form in this impersonal sense of things existing. Officially, it does not, and había is the only “correct” option.
If you’re taking a Spanish exam, always write había in front of plural nouns. Outside of that, you decide… do you want to sound pedantic and be correct, or do you want to speak like native speakers, with all of their quirks?
The same holds true for the other tenses: han habido, habrán, etc. followed by plural nouns are common, but not considered grammatically correct.
The future form indicates what will exist:
Habrá un pulpo cocido a la perfección en la mesa cuando ella vuelva. — There will be a perfectly cooked octopus on the table when she comes back.
The conditional form shows what would exist, and is great for those “if only” situations that are really out of your control:
Habría patatas tambíen, si ella volviera. — There would be potatoes too, if she came back.
6. haya, hubiera, hubiese
In the subjunctive mood, you can use the present (haya) and past (hubiera, or, less often, hubiese) tenses to explain your feelings about or desires for the existence of things:
Yo quería que hubiera pasión toda la vida. — I wanted there to be passion for a lifetime.
Mi madre odia que haya cortinas de tela barata en mi salón. — My mother hates that there are cheap fabric curtains in my living room.
All of the other standard uses of the subjunctive mood also apply.
7. habido (preceded by ha, había, etc…)
The past participle of haber is regular: habido.
It can be preceded by the auxiliary conjugations of haber, such as ha, había, etc.; the only auxiliary form that is different from what we have seen in this article is ha instead of hay for the present perfect impersonal. So we get ha habido for “there has/have been.”
Here are some examples:
Ha habido un aumento sutil en la temperatura. — There has been a subtle rise in temperature.
Antes del infierno, siempre había habido tiempo para volver juntos. — Before the inferno, there had always been time to get back together.
8. The infinitive haber in sentences
The infinitive haber can also be used in the same ways that you would use other infinitives in Spanish:
Va a haber consecuencias. — There are going to be consequences.
A few expressions with haber
If you thought my use of haber was getting a bit dark, you might enjoy some common ways that others use the verb in sayings:
- hay de todo — there’s a bit of everything
- de lo que no hay — the worst, the pits
- aquí hay tomate — something’s fishy (literally, here there are tomatoes)
- a buen hambre no hay pan duro — beggars can’t be choosers (literally, to good hunger there isn’t hard bread)
- es lo que hay — that’s all there is
- hay de todo como en botica — there’s a wide range/there’s a bit of everything (literally, there’s everything like in the pharmacy)
- hay más tiempo que vida — there’s all the time in the world (literally, there’s more time than life)
What’s there in your dining room? And in your heart? Is Ana there? Ana isn’t here, that’s for sure.
Here, there’s nothing but an inflamed octopus and a scorched heart; so go on, perhaps it’s your turn to practice the conjugations of haber.