Conjugating Verbs in Spanish

       

What is a Verb?

Generally speaking a verb is the word in a sentence that conveys an action. The verbs in the following sentences have been underlined:

Lionel Messi plays soccer.
Taylor Swift sings "You Belong With Me."
Marta, Yolanda, and I have chemistry class together.
George Clooney and Brad Pitt star in "Ocean's 11."

Verbs can also express a state of being:

They are very happy.

What is Conjugating?

Conjugating is the act of taking a verb and changing it so that it “agrees” with its subject. For example let's change the subject of this sentence, "We have a ladder," from "we" to "Manuel":

We have a ladder. → Manuel has a ladder.

In order for the subject and verb to agree, we needed to change the verb "have" into "has." This is conjugation.

It sounds funny when a verb is conjugated incorrectly:

I has a ladder.

If you've grown up speaking English you can conjugate verbs without even thinking about it; it just comes naturally. Conjugating verbs in Spanish, however, will not come easily. You’ll need to stop and think every time, and practice, practice, practice until it becomes second nature.

Infinitives

A non-conjugated verb is known as an “infinitive.” Since there is no subject specified, an infinitive has “infinite” conjugation possibilities. English infinitives include the word “to.” Check out the chart below and compare the infinitives to some conjugated counterparts. Notice how there is no indication as to what the subject of an infinitive is:

infinitive:

 

conjugated:

to play

to sing

to have

to be

he plays

she sings

we have

they are

Unlike English infinitives, Spanish infinitives are only one word, but they’re still pretty easy to spot.

Three Types of Spanish Infinitives

Note: Not all words ending in “-ar,” “-er,” or “-ir” are verbs. E.g. lugar is a noun which means “place.”


Note: "-ar" verbs are the most common, followed by "-er" and "-ir" verbs.

All Spanish infinitives have one of three endings: “-ar,” “-er,” or “-ir.” For example:

hablar
to speak

comer
to eat

vivir
to live

Spanish verbs are categorized, appropriately enough, as “-ar” verbs, “-er” verbs, or “-ir” verbs. Some more examples:

-AR verbs:

-ER verbs:

-IR verbs:

cantar
to sing

estudiar
to study

tocar
to play

beber
to drink

correr
to run

leer
to read

abrir
to open

escribir
to write

recibir
to receive

Conjugating Spanish Verbs

Verb Tenses

Before we get into conjugating verbs, we need to briefly talk about “tenses.” A tense is a form of a verb that indicates what timeframe you’re referring to. There are three basic tenses: past, present, and future:

I ran.
I run.
I will run.

But there also are more tenses (in both English and Spanish). For example:

I had run.
I have run.
I will have run.

There are specific lessons for each and every tense on this website, but for the time being we’ll work with the present tense.

Imagine that we wanted to say "I speak" in Spanish. The first step is identifying the subject. Here’s a quick reminder of possible subject pronouns from the previous lesson:

 

singular:

plural:

first person:

yo

nosotros, nosotras

second person, informal:

vosotros, vosotras

second person, formal:

usted

ustedes

third person:

él, ella

ellos, ellas

So we'll need to use yo (I) as our subject.

The next step is finding the infinitive we need and breaking it into two parts: the stem and the ending. A good dictionary will tell us that "to speak" is hablar in Spanish. The stem of hablar is "habl" and the ending is "-ar":

infinitive:

stem:

ending:

hablar

habl

-ar

Verb Ending Charts

Now we need to look up (or better yet, memorize) the appropriate chart of verb endings. The present tense "-ar" verb endings are listed in a chart below, to the right. (Remember we're using "-ar" verb charts because hablar is an "-ar" verb.) To the left are subject pronouns once again. Notice how each box on the subject pronouns chart corresponds to a box on the verb endings chart. This is not a coincidence:

subject pronouns:

yo

nosotros,-as

vosotros,-as

usted

ustedes

él, ella

ellos, ellas

"-ar" endings:

-o

-amos

-as

-áis

-a

-an

-a

-an

We need to find the ending that corresponds with our subject. Since our subject is yo, we'll add the verb ending "-o" to our stem ("habl"):

subject pronouns:

yo

nosotros,-as

vosotros,-as

usted

ustedes

él, ella

ellos, ellas

"-ar" endings:

-o

-amos

-as

-áis

-a

-an

-a

-an

Put it all together and we get:

Yo hablo.
I speak.

Let’s try another. The infinitive dibujar means “to draw.” How do we conjugate it to mean “we draw”? Strip off the ending, identify the subject pronoun (nosostros), and add the appropriate ending ("-amos") to the stem ("dibuj"):

subject pronouns:

yo

nosotros,-as

vosotros,-as

usted

ustedes

él, ella

ellos, ellas

"-ar" endings:

-o

-amos

-as

-áis

-a

-an

-a

-an

Add the subject pronoun and we get:

Nosotros dibujamos.
We draw.

OK, so what about “-er” and “-ir” verbs? We will follow the same procedure but we need to use different charts. Here all all three (present tense) charts together. Notice the similarities and differences:

"-ar" endings:

"-er" endings:

"-ir" endings:

-o

-amos

-as

-áis

-a

-an

-a

-an

-o

-emos

-es

-éis

-e

-en

-e

-en

-o

-imos

-es

-ís

-e

-en

-e

-en

The infinitive correr means “to run.” Let’s use it to say “You run.” (In this case the “you” will be a singular, informal “you.”)

The stem is “corr.” The ending (from the “-er” chart) is “-es.” Add a subject pronoun and we get:

Tú corres.
You run.

(Remember we're pulling the ending from the “-er” chart because correr is an “-er” verb.)

How about an “-ir” verb? Vivir means “to live.” Let’s use it to say “We live.” The stem is “viv,” the ending is “-imos,” and the subject is “nosotros”:

Nosotros vivimos.
We live.

Failing to conjugate verbs correctly sounds just as bad in Spanish as it does in English. If you say "I has a ladder" in English, people will look at your funny. Same thing if you say "Nosotros viven" in Spanish.

Simplified Verb Ending Charts

You won’t often see verb charts like the ones shown above. Why? Because they’re slightly more complicated than they need to be. Notice how the usted endings are all the same as the él / ella endings? And how the ustedes endings are all the same as the ellos / ellas endings? That’s not only true of present tense verb endings; it’s true of all the other tenses as well. Therefore it’s much easier to compact the endings into six box grids, like this:

"-ar" endings:

"-er" endings:

"-ir" endings:

-o

-amos

-as

-áis

-a

-an

-o

-emos

-es

-éis

-e

-en

-o

-imos

-es

-ís

-e

-en

That means your corresponding subject pronouns chart should actually look like this:

subject pronouns:

yo

nosotros,-as

vosotros,-as

él, ella, Ud.

ellos, ellas, Uds.

But remember that we’re putting the the Ud. in the él / ella box just to simplify things, not because it means “he” or “she.” Likewise, remember that Uds. doesn't mean “they.” It’s just in the ellos / ellas box because the verb endings are the same.

Make sure you understand this grid. It's very important; you'll be seeing a lot of it as you study Spanish.

Subjects Not on the Chart?

What if you want to use a subject that's not on the subject chart? Remember that those are pronouns, or words that take the place of other nouns. You don’t have to use a pronoun, but you still need to pull the ending from the corresponding place on the chart:

Barack Obama ≈ él
Ramón and I ≈ nosotros
Susana and Ramón ≈ ellos

Barack Obama habla.
Ramón y yo corremos.
Susana y Ramón viven.

Irregular Verbs

All this conjugation stuff may already seem overwhelming, but you should know that (almost) every verb tense has certain verbs that do not follow the normal rules for conjugations. Those verbs are know as “irregular” verbs. You’ll have to specifically memorize their conjugations because the normal procedures don’t work. Here’s an example of an infamous irregular verb in the present tense, ser (to be):

soy

somos

eres

sois

es

son

None of the conjugations follow any of the rules. Lovely, isn't it?

But before you start complaining about irregular Spanish verbs, consider how irregular English can be. Imagine if you were a Spanish speaker having to learn this:

to play (regular):

to be (irregular):

I play

You play

He plays

We play

They play

I am

You are

She is

We are

They are

Omitting Subject Pronouns

Due to the fact that many English verb conjugations are the same, subject pronouns are very important. Look what happens if we leave one out:

Plays soccer.

What is the subject? He, she, it? We can't tell. The opposite is true in Spanish. Because there are many different conjugations, the verb often makes it obvious what the subject is, and a pronoun isn't necessary. For example:

Hablamos español.
We speak Spanish.

Corres muy rápidamente.
You run very quickly.

Vivo en Tijuana.
I live in Tijuana.

Conjugating Verbs in Other Tenses

Different tenses have different rules for conjugating. Some tenses only have one or two sets of verb endings. Other tenses require you to add endings to the infinitive, not the stem. Still others require you to create an entirely different stem, but the same basic principal of subject verb agreement holds true. You will always find the subject you need from the subject pronouns chart, then find the ending you need in the corresponding box on the verb endings chart.

For Further Study

For more information on conjugating in the present tense, read The Present Tense (Part 1).

To see samples of verb conjugations in every tense, check out the Spanish Verb Conjugator.

To practice conjugating verbs, try out ¡Practiquemos! Verb Conjugation Exercises.

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