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One simple sound at the end of a verb changes the who, the how many, the when and the entire meaning of what is being said. Conjugating is one of the toughest parts of learning Spanish. It is helpful to understand the basics about verbs and how conjugation works.
Every sentence has a verb. Sometimes a sentence is only a verb. Either way, verbs are the star of any statement. Knowing how to conjugate verbs and to have gender and number agree with the subject is very important.
The 500 verbs conjugation book is about two inches thick. I thought to myself there is no way I will understand all the verb meanings or their page full of changes. The amount of words was overwhelming. But even worse, it seemed impossible to make sense of how conjugating verbs worked.
The good news is – you don’t need to learn all the moods, tenses, verbs. The second good news is – conjugation is a simple concept to learn. The third good news – conjugation and gender agreement are combined and are easy to practice on a daily basis.
Spanish Verbs and the Parts of Speech
A verb is one of the eight parts of speech. Every word fits into one of the following grammar categories. Next to the English, I give the Spanish name for each part of speech too:
- Noun – Sustantivo
- Pronoun – Pronombre
- Adjective – Adjectivo
- Verb – Verbo
- Adverb – Adverbio
- Preposition – Preposición
- Conjunction – Conjunción
- Interjection – Interjección
Of all the parts of speech, the verb is the only one that can make a complete sentence all by itself. That’s right, in Spanish, a one word sentence is possible. Because the verb contains many pieces of information, including subject references.
Veo. I see.
A verb is a word that expresses action or a state of being, links two words together or helps another verb. Verbs are the heart of the sentence. They are an action and a romance movie rolled into one. Without them, all you have are inanimate and nondescript subjects.
Verbs tell about the subject of a sentence. The subject has all the power. It contains all the action and being. The verb tells about the subject – the main noun – person, place, activity, or idea. These are the things we think and talk about. Every sentence has at least one subject and one verb.
El viento sopla. The wind blows.
The subject of this sentence is viento. A simple question – “What is being said about the (subject)?” uncovers the verb. For this example, ask, what is being said about viento? El viento sopla. The answer is the verb, sopla. The verb tells us what the subject does or is.
Spanish Verb Conjugation
I love Spanish verbs for their efficiency and predictability. The parts within the verb follow the same patterns. Even the irregular verbs contain the same elements, although they change for sound and spelling differences.
Regular Verbs – follow the patterns
Irregular Verbs – not rule bound
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I am going to cover the verb parts in slow motion with lots of juicy, practical details. The focus is on the patterns, the rule followers, the regular verbs. At the same time, the irregular verbs also fit the same patterns. They just need extra special attention for changing sounds and spelling. These are the differences that make them sound uniquely Spanish.
Spanish Verb Parts
Both regular and irregular verbs have the same internal parts. These parts are jam packed with important details. One letter tells you who or what, how many, when or how often. That’s so hard for beginners, even advanced learners, to take in so much information in one word accurately.
In a conversation, when you get lost in the details, in desperation say, “mas despacio, por favor”. The sooner, the better.
Every verb carries these key parts:
- Tense & Mood
- Person & Number
The verb looks like this: Stem + Tense & Mood + Person & Number
Instead of words there are letter patterns for each part.
Start with the Infinitive Form
The starting point for verb conjugation is always the infinitive verb form. The infinitive is easy to identify by the last letter R. That R at the end tells me this verb is time neutral. It is infinitive, a timeless classic indeed.
From the infinitive verb form, we find two pieces of crucial information that determine the word’s meaning and conjugation class. That’s a fancy word for saying pattern.
For fun let’s examine the details of the verb: CHIFLABA
The Verb Stem
From the infinitive verb form, the stem is always first.
The stem tells us the meaning of the verb. What does CHIFL mean? In this case, it’s a specific action. Oye bien, es el movimento de aire con sonido (it’s the movement of air with sound). The first letters of the verb show the action or state of being of the subject.
The Theme Vowel
Using the same infinitive form, the theme vowel follows the stem.
Spanish verbs have a reputation for being complex, yet I will prove that untrue.
The vowel theme (the vowel after the stem) tells which conjugation pattern to follow. There are only three patterns:
- AR – First Conjugation
- ER – Second Conjugation
- IR – Third Conjugation
Back to our word – CHIFLAR. The A tells me to follow the first conjugation patterns.
A couple more examples of stems and theme vowels based on the infinitive (ends in R).
SABER – Second Conjugation
SAB- significa investigación (means knowledge)
FINGIR – Third Conjugation
FING- significa falso (means false)
Every verb falls into one of the three conjugation patterns. These patterns determine what to add to the stem to indicate the next two ending pieces.
From this point on, the stem is alone and needs a couple friends to tag along on the end.
Spanish Tense & Mood Ending
Complex and complicated are two words commonly used to describe verb tenses and moods. Yet, the creation (or conjugation) of verbs is actually straight forward. This is how it works:
Back to the original verb, this time with a twist, CHIFLABA.
What part is the tense & mood?
-AB tells us this is in the indicative mood (an independent fact) and the imperfect tense (one of the two past tenses)
Spanish Person & Number Ending
The subject of the sentence matches the person and number ending of the verb. For each tense there are three persons – first, second and third and two numbers – singular and plural. That’s a total of 6 person & number endings for each mood and tense.
A list of personal subject pronouns
These subjects tell the verb what ending to take:
First person – singular: yo (I)
FIRST PERSON – PLURAL: nosotros (we)
SECOND PERSON – SINGULAR: tú (you)
SECOND PERSON – PLURAL: vosotros (you all)
THIRD PERSON – SINGULAR: él, ella, usted (he, she, (formal address in singular))
THIRD PERSON – PLURAL: ellos, ellas, ustedes (they, (formal address in plural))
Sample Conjugation Set
Each of these subject pronouns has a different verb ending, as you can see in this pattern.
COMER – Second Conjugation, Indicative, Present Tense
él, ella, usted COME
ellos, ellas, ustedes COMEN
This is one set of verb conjugations. All of the regular verbs in the second conjugation, present tense follow this same pattern. First and third conjugation have a different set of endings for person and number.
Comparison Conjugation Set
CHIFLAR – First Conjugation, Indicative, Present Tense
él, ella, usted CHIFLA
ellos, ellas, ustedes CHIFLAN
In the indicative – fact finding mood – the theme vowel most often comes before the person and number ending. Sometimes that vowel is left out though.
That leaves us with the final ending in CHIFLABA. The A tells us the subject is either first person or third person singular.
Every verb has these three parts – the stem for meaning, the mood & tense and person & number.
Ready to dig deeper?
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Spanish Verb Conjugation Strategies
Conjugating verbs is a skill that every Spanish learner needs to have. Combining the verb stem with endings, creates a picture of action and descriptive details. So here’s what you can do to improve your recall of verbs in all their forms:
1 – Do memory work – repetition, repetition, repetition.
This activity comes in many forms – chanting, singing, writing, sorting, etc… The purpose is to create a complete verb with the stem and endings. By repeating the patterns, it will help you to have instant recall in conversations, reading and writing.
2 – Find interesting verbs in a good read aloud book.
Reading is a great way to enjoy verbs in their natural beauty. Books are a source of a wide variety of verbs. Different genres and styles of writing use different kinds of words. Pick one that fits your life.
Find some sample verbs to conjugate by changing the ending for a different mood, tense and person. Copy sentences from the reading and underline the verb and label each of its parts. Books are a great source of quality samples.
3 – Conjugate one regular verb, one tense, one mood each day.
Focusing on one regular verb per day will expose you to many useful words. If you do this Monday through Friday, 5 times per week, that totals 250 sets of verbs in one year. The more you conjugate the quicker you will understand the meaning.
4 – As you learn the basics, add a new tense or mood.
It’s a good idea to start with the most common forms. I list them in order – indicative mood – present, preterite, imperfect, future, subjunctive mood – present, preterite, imperfect, future, imperative mood. Then move on to compound tenses.
5 – Try out the subjunctive mood.
Don’t wait too long to start learning how to use the subjunctive mood. These verbs depend on another verb and are left open. They express uncertainty, doubt, desire, emotions and denial. This is not a complete list, yet they are important for dependent clauses. It’s a somewhat unfamiliar concept to English speakers, so study is necessary to understand the useage. A good starting point is learning the all the tenses in the subjunctive.
6 – Take note of prepositions used after a verb.
We do this by habit in English all the time. Hold on… Belong to… Talk about… Blow up… Naturally, the verb and the preposition go together. The same happens in Spanish, except they do not translate directly. Acabar de… Volver a… They pair together very specifically.
7 – Give special attention to irregular verbs.
Practice one set of the irregular verbs each day. These are some of the most commonly used and important verbs. A lot of them follow most of the pattern, but have a couple variations in some sets. Again that is 250 sets in one year
Spanish Verb Conjugation Practice
Making conjugating verbs a part of your study routine has many benefits. You will be able to listen, speak, read and write brilliantly in Spanish. The more familiar you are with the conjugation patterns – the moods, tenses, person and number, the easier it will be for you to understand others and express your thoughts effectively. A little effort on a regular basis will take your verb usage to the next level.
Grab a copy of the free conjugation practice sheets