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Basic Spanish Verb Facts
Verbs in Spanish are conjugated differently depending on their use. Looking at how we use the verb phrase "to be" in English will provide understanding as to why the different conjugations are necessary. For instance, each pronoun uses a different form of the verb, as follows:
- I am
- you are
- he is
- we are
- they are
In English, we have three ways to say "to be" in the present form: am, are, and is. In Spanish, there are six different ways:
- (I am) soy
- (you are - singular) eres
- (he/she is and you are - formal) es
- (we are) somos
- (you are - plural) sois
- (they are or you are - plural and formal) son
There are four ways to say you are, which depends on who 'you' is and how many people are being spoken to. 'You' can be singular informal, singular formal, plural informal, or plural formal. Informal would be when speaking to your close friends, whereas formal would be talking to your boss, a sales clerk, a teacher, or anyone else you want to show respect.
The "to be" verb phrase is not the only verb to be conjugated. All verbs in the Spanish language need to be conjugated based on who they are being spoken about and whether they are past, present, future, etc. In most cases, the formula for conjugation is to drop the suffix (-ar, -er, or -ir) and replace it with the new suffix. Below are the charts for the most common conjugations.
Alt Codes for Spanish Letters/Symbols
alt 173 (inverted exclamation)
When to Use the Present Tense
The present tense is the tense that expresses what is happening right now. For instance, in English, the present tense for I speak would be "I read," "I am reading," and "I do read." Using the infinitive root, plus the endings listed above, you are changing the infinitive to the present tense. For instance, 'leer' becomes 'leo' when changing from to read to I read, by dropping the -er ending and adding the yo/-er ending -o. (leer (-) -er(+) -o = leo).
When To Use the Preterite
In Spanish, the preterite form is used when discussing something that occurred in the past, and it is known precisely when it happened or how often it occurred.
- At one o'clock, I ate lunch. (A la una, comí el almuerzo.) (conjugated - comer (-) -er (+) -í)
- The cat lived for five years. (El gato vivió durante cinco años.) (conjugated - vivir (-) -ir (+) -ió)
- I read that book twice. (Leí el libro dos veces.) (conjugated - leer (-) -er (+) -í)
The preterite form is also used when expressing sudden changes in mood (ex: I was afraid to go on stage.) or when giving a chain of events (ex: I started the car, looked in the rearview mirror, and backed out of the driveway.)
When to Use the Imperfect Tense
The imperfect tense is used when speaking in the past about a habitual action or something someone used to do.
- The little boy was three years old. (El niño tenía tres años.) (conjugated - tener (-) -er (+) -ía).
The imperfect form may also be used when telling time and dates or describing emotional or mental states in the past.
- I was happy to help you. (Yo estaba feliz de ayudarle.) (conjugate - estar (-) -ar (+) -aba)
When to Use the Subjunctive Present
The subjunctive tense shows mood, not tense. Tense is when an action takes place in the past, present, or future, whereas the subjunctive tense shows how a person feels. In English, it is not used very often, but a very common way to speak in Spanish; which makes it difficult for native English speakers to know when to use this form. An example of when we might use it in English is if we were to say, "The teacher recommends that he study for the test." "He study" is the subjunctive tense. Note that we usually would say, "he studies." The reason you use that tense is that the term is not certain or factual. Although the teacher does recommend that he does this, it is not guaranteed that he will.
- It is possible that the doctor will arrive on time today. (Es posible que el médico llege a tiempo hoy) (conjugated - llegar (-) -ar (+) -e)
A good indication that you will need to use the subjunctive form is if you see such indicators as:
- In order that... - Para que...
- It is possible that... - Es posible que...
- It's important that... - Es importante que...
- It's necessary that... - Es preciso que...
- To believe that... - Creer que...
- Until... - Hasta que...
This is far from a complete list but gives an idea of what to look for.
When to Use Commands
The command form is very familiar to English speakers. It is when telling someone to do something, such as "sit down," "don't speak," "watch this!" etc. All forms are in the " you" form, although since there are different forms of "you," then one must change the form based on whether it is singular or plural, and whether the singular form is formal or informal.
- (To a single person you respect - formal singular) Eat your food. (Come tu comida.) (conjugate - comer (-) -er (+) -e)
- (To many people - formal plural) Eat your food. (Comen tu comida.) (conjugate - comer (-) -er (+) -en)
- (To a peer - informal singular) Eat your food. (Coma tu comida.) (conjugate - comer (-) -er (+) -a)
When to Use Future Tense
There are two forms of the future tense, the informal form, and the simple form. The informal form uses the verb go (ir) + (the preposition a) + infinitive. In the chart below, the last column shows what form of the verb ir should be used in which tense, which would be equivalent to saying, "I am going to...." in Spanish.
- I am going to eat steak for supper (Voy a comer bistek para la cena.) (Conjugate - yo form of ir + a + infinitive of comer.)
The simple form is like saying, "I will..." or "I may..." Unlike the informal form in Spanish, only one word is used to express the future tense.
- I will eat steak for dinner. (Comeré carne para la cena.) (conjugate - comer (-) -er (+) -eré)
va + infinitive
vas + infinitive
va + infinitive
vamos + infinitive
vais + infinitive
van + infinitive
When to Use the Conditional Tense
The conditional tense is used when referring to the future in the hypothetical. In English, we would use the words would, could, probably and must have. In Spanish, only one word is used and is changed to the form based on its ending and form.
- I would eat ten hamburgers! (Comería diez hamburguesas!) (conjugated - comer (-) -er (+) ería)
When to Use the Perfect Tense
There are three forms of the perfect tense: present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect. In Spanish, two words are used to form the proper tense; an appropriate form of the word have (haber in Spanish) and an auxiliary word. An auxiliary word is not the same as an infinitive but uses the same form as the past participle.
- I have run a marathon. (He corrido una maratón.) (conjugated - present yo form of haber (+) correr (-) -er (+) ido)
- I had run a marathon. (He corrido una maratón.) (conjugated - past yo form of haber (+) correr (-) -er (+) ido)
- I will have run a marathon. (He corrido una maratón.) (conjugated - future yo form of haber (+) correr (-) -er (+) ido)
|present perfect||past perfect||future perfect|
These conjugations are all for regular verbs. Many irregular verbs do not follow these commands. The best way to learn them is by using a Spanish/English verb dictionary. They will have a nearly complete list of irregular verb conjugations.
Spanish Speakers in the US
© 2017 Angela Michelle Schultz
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 30, 2017:
That's really interesting. I'm trying to learn some basic Spanish as I plan a holiday there soon, and this has been most helpful. Thank you.