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Learning the Basics of Spanish Conjugation

By Fay, published on 06/06/2018 Blog > Languages > Spanish > A Complete Guide to Spanish Tenses

Learning Spanish and conjugating verbs in different tenses is beneficial for the brain.

In fact, a scientific study led by Ping Li, a psychology and linguistics professor, gave intensive Chinese language courses to 39 English-speaking students for six weeks: researchers concluded that learning a foreign language could not only improve cognitive abilities but also delay cognitive decline in the elderly.

Languages can help you communicate Practising a new language with a native speaker is the best way to learn (Source: Pexels)

Here is How to Conjugate all the Verbs in the Spanish Language:

Let’s look at how to conjugate verbs in Spanish.

Ser and Estar

The Spanish language uses two irregular verbs for the verb to be.

This means that they follow an irregular conjugation in which the vowels turn into a diphthong (combination of two vowel sounds within the same syllable).

For an irregular verb with diphthong:

  • The “ i ” and the “ e ” become “ ie ” (or “ ye ” for the verb “ errar ” which means “ to be mistaken”)
  • The “ u ” and the “ o ” become “ ue ” (or “ hue ” for “ oler ”, which means “ to smell ”).

Whether you use Ser or Estar depends on the context of the sentence. In fact, these two verbs can change the meaning of the adjective that follows them.

Ser is used to describe something definitive that doesn’t change, to describe a person or an object.

Conversely, Estar is used for states of being, likes mood, health, appearances, locations of things and people) that aren’t permanent. It is also used to evoke an ongoing action.

In Spanish, what verb would you use to say “I am English”, “I am a man”, “ This man is young”?

Use the verb “ ser ”: 

  • I am English: soy ingles
  • I am a man: soy un hombre,
  • This man is young: Este hombre es jóven.

On the other hand, to evoke a temporary state, use the verb “ estar ”:

  • I was ill: Estaba malo,
  • I agree with you: Estoy de acuerdo contigo,
  • You are reading: Estas leyendo.

Here is a list of adjectives that modify the meaning of the sentence according to whether you use “ser” or “estar”.

You must then learn the verb endings for each tense. A good tip for learning Spanish verb tenses is to read the word three times, write it three times, listen to it three times, and use it in three separate sentences.

Indicative Tense

In Spanish, the preterite tense is used a lot.

It is used to evoke a completed action in the past. Spanish speakers use this more than the perfect tense which is closer to the present.

In Spanish grammar there are 4 tenses in the indicative:

  • Present indicative
  • The past (perfect and preterite)
  • Imperfect
  • Future (simple and future perfect).

Indicative present

This tense is used to describe, state, assert or argue a situation of general truth: “the house is red”, “you eat an apple”, “they live in Mexico” (“ la casa es roja ”, “ comes una manzana ”, “ ellos viven a Mexico ”), etc.

It is the most used tense, so you will find that it is also the easiest to learn.

Start by learning the 3 verb groups and their endings:

  • -AR verbs (Andar, hablar, cantar, etc.) : o, as, a, amos, áis, an,
  • -ER verbs (Beber, conocer, nacer, comer, tener, coger, etc.) : o, es, e, emos, éis, en,
  • -IR verns (Vivir, conducir, elegir, huir, etc.) : o, es, e, imos, ís, en.

Then you must learn the list of irregular verbs where there is diphthong or ‘weak’ vowels (when the vowel “e” becomes “i” in the 1st 2nd and 3rd person singular).

Simple future

The future is one of the easiest to learn: it expresses the same thing as in English – an action not yet produced and a hypothesis), and is formed by adding an ending onto the infinitive: é, ás, á, emos , éis, án.

Warning: twelve Spanish verbs are irregular in the future tense where the radical changes.

It should be noted that in Spanish, the future perfect expresses either a hypothesis in the past, or an action fully completed in the future (“in July, the school year will be over”).

This is formed with the auxiliary “haber” conjugated in the simple future + the past participle of the verb concerned: habrás entendido (you had to understand).

Imperfect

This tense is used to express a continued action in the past.

To form it take the infinitive of the verb plus the endings: aba, abas, aba, ábamos, abais, aban for the AR verb group, and for the IR and ER verb groups: ía, ías, ía, íamos, íais, ían.

Three Spanish verbs are irregular in the imperfect: “ ir ”, “ ser ”, and “ ver ”.

Preterite

This tense is used to evoke a completed action in the past.

The endings are:

  • AR verbs :  é, aste, ó, amos, asteis, aron,
  • IR and ER verbs :  í, iste, ió, imos, isteis, ieron.

These 10 irregular verbs are commonly used: “ dar ”, “ ir ”, “ ser ”, “ estar ”, “ hacer ”, “ poder ”, “ poner ”, “ querer ”, “ tener ” and “ decir ”.

Perfect tense

This tense is used if the action still has links with the present, if the context is present, or if the action still has consequences in the present.
For example, we say “ayer, ha nevado mucho, por eso hace frio todavia” for “it snowed a lot yesterday, so it’s cold today”.
To build it, we take the auxiliary HABER in the present and add the past participle of the verb concerned.

Pluperfect

Used to express an action further back that the preterite. Formed by taking the imperfect form of the auxiliary Haber plus the past participle of the verb concerned.

For a reminder HABER in the imperfect : había, habías, había, habíamos, habíais, habían.

Example: I had known Maria at school  (Había conocido Maria a la escuela) or I had already eaten everything (“ Ya había comido todo ”).

Subjunctive

The subjunctive is used a lot in Spanish, it allows you to express desire, wishes, conditions, hypotheses that haven’t been realised yet or doubts, advice or even orders.

It has many irregularities and different forms depending on the sentence so can be hard to learn.

Let’s have a look at the different subjunctive tenses in Spanish :

Present subjunctive

As a general rule, the present subjunctive is constructed with the first person present form of the verb eg: Tengo (I have) minus the –o ending and plus the subjunctive ending:

  • Endings for AR verbs: e, es, e, emos, éis, en,
  • Endings for IR and ER verbs: a, as, a, amos,  áis, an.

The subjunctive is in everyday speech, every time a hypothetical condition is expressed.

Warning: an irregularity in the first person singular causes the same irregularity to all persons of the subjunctive present.

For example, the verb “poner” (put, in English): has the irregular stem “pong” in the first person singular in the present (“yo pongo”).

So you have to form the rest of the subjunctive present for this verb on the irregular stem ‘pong’ eg: ponga, pongas, ponga, pongamos, pongáis, pongan, and so on.

Making a list of the unavoidable irregular verbs is the only way to learn them.

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Imperfect subjunctive

If the condition or proposition is in the past you must use the imperfect form of the subjunctive.

Structure :

  • Verbs ending in AR : stem from 3rd person plural + ara, aras, ara, áramos, arais, aran,
  • Verbs ending in ER and IR : stem from 3rd person plural +  iera, ieras, iera, iéramos, ierais, ieran.

The subjunctive is widely used, even in spoken Spanish, to express a condition in an earlier context.

For example: “ if you knew, would you tell me? ” : “ si lo superia, me lo diría ? ”

The Present Conditional and the Imperative

The last group of frequently used tenses are the conditional and the imperative.

Conditional

The conditional serves to express an action unrealised or unachievable.

It is formed by taking the inifnitive of the verb plus the imperfect endings of the auxillary verb “ haber ” :  ía, ías, ía, íamos, íais, ían.

For example: “ if I could I would do a tour of the world ” In Spanish: “ si lo pudiera, daría la vuelta al mundo ”.

Conjugating irregular verbs in the conditional is easy because you just have to take up the irregularities of the simple future, and we only have the ending to modify.

For irregular verbs like caber, decir, haber, hacer, poder, poner, querer, saber, salir, tener, valer and venir, take the irregular stem as in the simple future and add the regular conditional endings.

Imperative

The imperative is used to give orders, do this, do that etc.

The irregularities in this tense are similar to those in the present and the subjunctive.

Note: when a personal pronoun or reflexive pronoun is used with an imperative, the pronoun goes after the verb.

For example the order ‘give it to me’ becomes dámelo.

Structure :

  • AR verbs:  stem + a, e, emos, ad, en,
  • ER  verbs:  stem + e, a, amos, ed, an,
  • IR verbs:  stem + e, a, amos, id, an.

Negative imperative

Quite simply, this form of the imperative is used to express defence or prohibition.

It is formed by adding the negation to the present subjunctive. It follows the same irregularities as those of the present subjunctive:

  • Do not enter: no entre
  • Do not come: no vengas
  • Do not sing: no cantéis,
  • Do not eat: no comas

In the negative imperative form the pronouns go before the verb: no me lo des (“ don’t give it to me ”), no me lo digas (“ don’t tell me ”).

So there you go! You have the basis of conjugation in Spanish. Now you just have to keep repeating the exercises and start expanding your vocabulary.

Try out our Spanish classes London to progress even more!

See the most common Spanish verbs.

Check out irregular verbs in Spanish.

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