The waves of incomprehensible muck are coming at you, lapping at your ankles, picking up—
That’s no way to think of irregular Spanish verbs!
Rather, these guys are fun, lovely waves of muck which—however messy—can be sculpted into beautiful phrases that will help you communicate your ideas in Spanish.
If you’re doubtful, for the sake of positivity and progress, just consider for a moment that these waves can be calm and pleasant.
To prove it, we’re going to demystify one subset of stem-changing verbs today: e-to-i stem changers.
They actually follow some basic patterns, plus lots of these verbs tend to be common and useful—so you’ll be able to put this new knowledge to good use right away.
The Champion’s Guide to E-to-I Stem-changing Spanish Verbs
A quick note before we dive in: This article assumes that you already know Spanish present tense regular verbs (in particular, those ending with -ir); if not, you’ll want to go back to that first, as this post builds on your knowledge of those verbs. You need to know the verb endings, and what types of situations you use present tense conjugations in, as you’ll apply them here. You should also understand Spanish spelling changes as used to maintain “g” and “j” sounds.
Also, the material here on these stem-changing verbs is not only worth learning for understanding these verbs, but it’ll also be useful to know when you arrive at the subjunctive (outlined briefly at the end of this post) and other conjugations. You know, like I was saying: waves.
The Basic Pattern of E-to-I Stem-changing Spanish Verbs
Let’s look at the present tense conjugation of pedir (to ask for, request, order), a very common verb.
yo pido nosotros pedimos
tu pides vosotros pedís
él/ella/Ud. pide ellos/ellas/Uds. piden
It almost looks like the regular conjugations that you learned for verbs ending in -ir except for that pesky letter “i” in bold for some of the conjugations. In four of the six cases, the “e” has changed to an “i.”
But also note that in two of the cases the “e” has not changed. For visual learners, one way to think of this is as a “boot verb”; you could draw the shape of a boot around the conjugations above that get a stem change.
For aural learners or those who like some drama, notice which syllable the stress is falling on (always the second-to-last syllable unless marked with an accent (´), remember?). Read the conjugations out loud to yourself and see if you notice the pattern before reading the next paragraph.
Got it? In the four conjugations that change “e” to “i,” the stress is falling on that changed syllable. It’s kind of like the pressure of that stress causes the blobby “e” to get squeezed into a svelte “i.” With pedimos and pedís, on the other hand, the stress is on the second syllables (in bold), so the “e” can relax and stay put.
To take advantage of this, suppose you are at a fancy cocktail bar in Santiago in Chile with some new, chic friends from all over the Americas. You want to negotiate who’s ordering which drink, and ideally you’d like some variety so you get to try the lovely things that Chile has to offer. You’re going to need phrases like:
- Todos pedimos cosas distintas.
(We’re all ordering different things.)
- Sara pide un pisco.
(Sara is ordering a pisco.) — Pisco is a grape-based hard liquor typical of Chile.
- Yo pido un pisco sour.
(I’m ordering a pisco sour.) — That’s a cocktail made with pisco and egg.
- Tú pides un vino tinto de la zona de Panquehue.
(You’re ordering red wine from the Panquehue region.)
As you read on, try to think of examples for how you would use this and other e-to-i stem-changing verbs in your fabulous future Spanish-speaking life.
Other Spanish E-to-I Stem-changing Verbs
Let’s look at another example of this pattern with the verb vestir (to dress):
yo visto nosotros vestimos
tu vistes vosotros vestís
él/ella/Ud. viste ellos/ellas/Uds. visten
Note that like this, the verb means “to dress” someone else, as in:
Mi novio viste al bebé cada mañana.
(My boyfriend dresses the baby each morning.)
Mi novio se viste.
(My boyfriend is getting dressed.)
Want to talk about investing power/rights in something? The verb investir follows exactly the same conjugation pattern, just with the prefix in- added! Nice freebie, huh? (Note that this is not the verb for investing money—that would be invertir.)
Likewise, there are a number of verbs that follow exactly the pattern of pedir, which we saw first in this post: despedir (to say goodbye, to emit, to release, to fire someone from a job), expedir (to dispatch) and impedir (to block).
The verb seguir (to follow) is just slightly more tricky because it has the “gu” → “g” spelling change in the yo form to maintain the hard “g” sound where necessary:
yo sigo nosotros seguimos
tu sigues vosotros seguís
él, ella, Ud. sigue ellos, ellas, Uds. siguen
Here are some other common e-to-i stem-changing verbs to know that follow this pattern. Click on any one to see the conjugations; they follow the pattern exactly but a few have spelling changes where necessary to maintain pronunciations.
- concebir (to conceive)
- corregir (to correct)
- elegir (to elect)
- gemir (to groan)
- regir (to govern, to regulate)
- rendir (to perform, do well, yield)
- repetir (to repeat)
- servir (to serve)
- teñir (to dye)
The verb reír (to laugh) follows a similar pattern, but there is a sneaky accent mark to keep track of, which maintains the stress in the right place:
yo río nosotros reímos
tu ríes vosotros reís
él/ella/Ud. ríe ellos/ellas/Uds. ríen
Practicing E-to-I Stem-changing Spanish Verbs
Understand how e-to-i stem-changing conjugations work? Great! But actually remembering these and using them in your speech and writing is another story. Here are some suggestions for practicing so that you can get to the point where these conjugations just seem “natural” and “sound right.”
- Quiz yourself. Use online quizzes like this one to check your ability to come up with the correct conjugation.
- Write sentences. Write context-rich sentences using each of the more common verbs above that are relevant to your life or that you think you might use someday. Have a native speaker check them through a site like lang-8.com.
- Ask questions verbally. Make sure that you can then apply these patterns in your own speech, too. With an online language exchange partner, try out your sentences about yourself and then ask your partner about himself or herself (tú is going to have a stem change!).
Application to the Spanish Subjunctive
If you’re just starting to get the hang of irregular verbs in the present tense, you’ll want to skip this section. But if you’ve already started learning the Spanish present subjunctive, it’s worth noting that the verbs you’ve learned about in this post also undergo similar changes in the subjunctive.
Here, for example, is the present subjunctive conjugation of medir (to measure):
que yo mida que nosotros midamos
que tu midas que vosotros midáis
que él/ella/Ud. mida que ellos/ellas/Uds. midan
Notice that all of the conjugations change in the subjunctive, not just those in the “boot.” That’s because the subjunctive conjugations are all based on the first person singular (yo) form of the present tense indicative (in this case, yo mido), and follow that form for their base.
Drowning? I hope not. With a little bit of careful work, you should be on to sculpting your own beautiful phrases with e-to-i stem changers—waves that will carry you along into a larger world of Spanish communication.
Mose Hayward blogs about languages as well as his favorite gear for roaming Latin America, Europe and beyond.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.