Imagine you’re using a stick of dynamite.
You light it up, see the fuse burn and, finally, it explodes.
The same can be said about Spanish conjugation.
You light it up (learn it), see the fuse burn (wait for results) and, finally, it explodes (the results are all over the place).
Well… Think about it.
When you start learning Spanish conjugation, you’re frightened. You come close to it slowly and start handling it carefully.
Once you see it’s not as dangerous as it seemed, you start working on it more confidently, with the hope that you’ll see the results quickly.
After waiting for those results for what seems to be ages, one day you realize you’ve mastered conjugation and you can use it everywhere, in every situation and while practicing all the language learning skills.
Boom! (I know, I need to work on my metaphors.)
But metaphors aside, you’ve probably heard many times that Spanish conjugation is super important and one of the biggest grammar topics you’ll ever need to learn.
Let’s see why.
Why Spanish Conjugation Is Important
I’m a native Spanish speaker and a language teacher, so I’m fully aware of the important role conjugation plays in Spanish.
And since you’re learning my language, let me give you a few reasons why:
- Conjugation tells you who carried out an action. I’m sure you know by now that Spanish allows you to omit the subject pronouns.
Why? Simple! Each person has its own endings, so there’s no need to say who performed the action of the verb. Conjugation takes care of that.
- Conjugation includes information about when an action took place. Who did the action isn’t the only info you’ll have in a conjugation ending, but when it took place, too.
Indeed, we have endings for each person in each tense, so by just having a look at how a verb is conjugated, we have a lot of information you guys don’t have in English.
- Spanish grammatical moods are also conjugated. As you’ll see later, there are four main grammatical moods in Spanish, and each of them is conjugated differently. If you manage to master Spanish conjugation, no verb will be able to keep any secret meaning or nuance from you.
- Your mastery of Spanish conjugation will probably determine your level of Spanish. We, native Spanish speakers, love our conjugations, and we obviously use them all the time (every sentence needs at least one verb to be complete).
The more tenses you learn and the more sets of endings you memorize, the higher your level of Spanish will be. Step by step, you’ll be able to say and write more things in correct Spanish, something that’d be impossible if you didn’t learn Spanish conjugation.
- By learning Spanish conjugation, you’ll learn other Romance languages more easily. The majority of Romance languages share a lot of grammar features, including tenses and conjugation.
Languages such as Italian, Portuguese, Catalan and even French share a lot of common tenses (and moods!). The endings for each tense are obviously different in each language, but once you master Spanish conjugation, learning conjugation in those languages will feel like a walk in the park.
As you can see, Spanish conjugation is actually important, but what exactly is it?
Let’s have a deeper look at it.
What Is Spanish Conjugation and How Does It Work?
So, first things first: What does conjugation mean?
Conjugation is a fancy way inflected languages have to say that verbs have different forms that show person, number, tense, mood, aspect and, many times, voice.
That’s a lot of information in a few letters! (Are you convinced of the importance of conjugation yet?)
When it comes to Spanish conjugation, by looking at the ending of a verb we’re able to know the person (first, second or third), the number (singular or plural), the tense (when the action took place), the mood (the intention of the speaker/writer) and the aspect (whether the action has been finished or not).
Have a look at one example:
corrimos (we ran)
The ending -imos tells us:
- The person: first.
- The number: plural.
- The tense: preterite.
- The mood: indicative.
- The aspect: finished action.
That’s more pieces of information than the actual number of letters of the ending! Isn’t that amazing?
But more on endings and Spanish tenses later. Let’s go back to conjugations in general.
Spanish has three conjugations:
- The first conjugation, which includes all the verbs whose infinitive ends in -ar.
- The second conjugation, which includes all the verbs whose infinitive ends in -er.
- The third conjugation, which includes all the verbs whose infinitive ends in -ir.
This means that every single Spanish infinitive will end in one of these three endings. And the best part? There are literally zero exceptions!
In order to conjugate Spanish verbs, the only thing we need to do is lose the infinitive endings -ar, -er or -ir and add the corresponding endings depending on the person and tense we’re using.
So going back to our example, the infinitive form is correr (to run). After we take out the ending -er (which tells us correr belongs to the second conjugation), we get corr-. By adding the first person plural preterite ending -imos, we get our example corrimos. Easy! (Or better yet, Boom!)
Before we continue, let’s watch a video on how to conjugate verbs in the present tense. This will give you a general idea of how conjugation works in Spanish:
Apart from the infinitive, Spanish verbs have other two special verb forms: the gerundio (which is roughly equivalent to the English present participle) and the participio (past participle in English).
However, there’s a difference between English and Spanish with respect to participles: while English uses both the present and past participle to form adjectives, Spanish uses only the past participle.
We’ll see gerundios and participios later when we learn about the Spanish tenses. As for now, a few examples of the Spanish participio working as an adjective will suffice:
roto — broken (masculine singular)
aburrida — bored (feminine singular)
cansados — tired (masculine or mixed plural)
abiertas — open (feminine plural)
Oh, yeah, did I mention adjectives that come from past participles behave like every other Spanish adjective? Never forget they have to agree in gender and number with the noun they modify!
OK, I get it. This is starting to look more and more complicated and we’re just getting started, but I stand by my statement: Spanish conjugation is like a stick of dynamite, and your results will be all over the place very soon.
There are many ways to light up Spanish conjugation and numerous awesome resources that’ll make the waiting process bearable while allowing you to have fun.
One of those resources is FluentU, possibly the best program to learn Spanish out there.
FluentU is an indispensable tool if you’re serious about learning Spanish conjugation.
Each one of the hundreds of videos available in the program includes a set of contextual subtitles. Just hover your mouse over any word you don’t know and you’ll get a translation in context.
This means you won’t have to wonder which of the different meanings of a word is the appropriate one for that sentence. FluentU does that for you!
You now know hablamos is the first person plural (nosotros) of the present tense of the verb hablar (to speak), but maybe you want to know more about this word. No worries! Just click on it and an interactive flashcard will pop up.
FluentU’s flashcards aren’t only beautiful but also full of information. As you can see here, they include grammar info, pronunciations, translations, sample sentences and even other videos where your word appears in:
Do you need more? If so, you should definitely try the exercises and quizzes that come with each video. Since FluentU is a completely personalized program, you’ll only get tested on the words and topics you’ve studied in the videos. No surprises here!
In the case of our word, this is an example of how it can appear in an exercise:
There you have it. Just a couple of images and you’ve already learned that hablamos is the first person plural of the present tense of the verb hablar. Imagine the stuff you could learn about conjugation if you had access to all the videos!
That reminds me: you need to try FluentU’s video dictionary.
Since we’re talking about hablar, let’s look it up:
Boom! One search and you have 95 flashcards and 30 videos related to this verb. There’s no way you wouldn’t learn everything about it in the blink of an eye!
So if you want the perfect companion to learn Spanish conjugation in a fast, efficient and fun way, you have to give FluentU a go. Try it out for free and see for yourself.
And now that we’ve covered all the basics of Spanish verb conjugation and we know a program that’ll help us make the most out of our study sessions, let’s have a deeper look at Spanish verbs and how to learn them.
Spanish Verbs: Regular, Irregular, Stem-changing and “the Others”
Spanish verbs come in many shapes and sizes.
It’d be impossible to include everything you need to learn about them in one post, but we can start by getting to know them and dividing them into groups to make things easier.
Spanish regular verbs
Spanish regular verbs aren’t only the biggest group of verbs (around 58% of all Spanish verbs) but also the easiest one to handle.
All the verbs in this group behave “normally,” i.e. you just need to drop the ending –ar, -er or -ir and add the appropriate tense endings, nothing else!
One example of a Spanish regular verb is the verb acabar (to finish, to end).
If we take out the ending -ar, we get acab-, which is the stem to which we’ll add all the different endings from all the different tenses in all the different moods:
acabo — I finish
acabábamos — we were finishing, we used to finish
acabarán — they will finish
acabaran — that they would finish
Pay special attention to accent marks when conjugating verbs. As you can infer from the last two examples, one small accent mark can change the tense, the mood and, sometimes, even the person (acabo — I finish; acabó — he finished).
Spanish irregular verbs
Spanish irregular verbs are a smaller group, yet they give students the biggest headaches.
The problem is that even some of the most common Spanish verbs are irregular, and you need to know them really well because they appear very often (ser and estar, I am looking at you!).
Essential Spanish verbs like haber (to be, to have), querer (to want, to love), pensar (to think) and oír (to hear) are irregular, so, unfortunately, irregularities need to be learned from the very beginning.
There are of course difficult Spanish verbs that’ll make you go crazy (like ir — to go, or conducir — to drive), but very often the irregularities are rather mild, or they appear only in the first person singular yo.
As you advance on your language learning journey, you’ll get to learn more and more difficult Spanish verbs with their irregularities, weird uses and nuances (like saber and conocer, both of which mean to know but are used in very different contexts).
Knowing that even the most commonly used Spanish verbs can be irregular and learning them as soon as possible will really help you in the long run, so don’t be afraid of them, face them!
Spanish stem-changing verbs
Stem-changing verbs are a special kind of irregular verb.
Their irregularities always happen in the last syllable of the stem, whose vowel goes rogue and affects every person except for nosotros (we) and vosotros (plural you).
This group includes different types of verbs depending on the change the vowel undergoes.
The three main types are:
- e → ie stem-changing verbs (like querer — to want/to love, mentir — to lie and pensar — to think).
- e → i stem-changing verbs (like pedir — to order/to ask, servir — to serve and repetir — to repeat).
- o → ue stem-changing verbs (like poder — to be able to, dormir — to sleep and morir — to die).
“Other types” of Spanish verbs
Verbs are normally classified into two big groups: regular and irregular.
However, there are other ways in which we can describe them.
Sometimes, a certain verb is so irregular that it needs a special mention, or it behaves in a way that makes it more challenging.
So, even though all the “other types” of Spanish verbs are either regular or irregular, they’re special enough to be included in this section.
The “other types” of Spanish verbs group includes:
- Spanish reflexive verbs, which are verbs that refer to an action the subject does on itself.
- Verbs like gustar. Knowing how to use gustar (to like, to enjoy, to be pleasing) and all the verbs that behave like it can be a little bit tricky at the beginning, but if you understand a couple of basic rules, they’ll stop bothering you.
- The verb haber. Haber (to be, to have) is possibly the most common Spanish impersonal verb. You’ll need to learn haber and its conjugation early on in order to be able to talk about things like the existence of things, animals and objects (much like there is and there are in English) and the weather, or to form the perfect tenses.
- Spanish modal verbs, which, as they do in English, express ability, possibility and necessity, among other uses.
- Spanish phrasal verbs, which are as difficult for learners of Spanish as English phrasal verbs are for learners of English.
What Are the Tenses in Spanish?
Spanish, like many other languages, distinguishes three points in time: the past, the present and the future.
Each of these points in time includes different tenses, which help the speaker situate the action of the verb in a specific place of the timeline.
Spanish tenses can be quite challenging for beginners, but with a little bit of practice and lots of patience, you too will be able to master them and use them like native speakers do.
You’ll see in the next section that Spanish has four moods (indicative, subjunctive, conditional and imperative). In turn, each mood includes different tenses with different conjugations each.
There are several tenses in Spanish, each with its own uses and endings.
The following is a list of all the tenses that exist in the indicative mood. I’ve added some of the Spanish progressive tenses separately, although they’re not really tenses but verb periphrases.
The present tense
The Spanish present tense, called presente simple in Spanish, is mainly used to talk about our routines and about actions that take place habitually:
Los jueves tengo clases de inglés. (I have English lessons on Thursdays.)
Me ducho cada mañana. (I shower every morning.)
Spanish allows you to use the present simple to talk about actions that are taking place at the moment of speaking:
¿Qué hace Carla? (What is Carla doing?)
Ella come. (She is eating.)
However, we can also use the so-called progressive or continuous tense for this.
The present progressive
The Spanish present progressive isn’t actually a separate tense but a verb periphrasis.
It consists of the present simple of the verb estar (to be) plus the gerundio (present participle) of the main verb.
As I mentioned before, it can be used to talk about things that are happening at the moment of speaking:
Mary está cantando. (Mary is singing.)
Estamos corriendo ahora mismo. (We are running right now.)
The preterite tense
The Spanish preterite tense (pretérito indefinido) is possibly one of the most complicated ones because of its many irregularities.
However, it’s one of the most commonly used Spanish past tenses because it’s the tense that describes actions that happened and were completed in the past (so it’s the equivalent of the past simple in English):
Ayer me comí una pizza entera. (I ate a whole pizza yesterday.)
Visitamos Canadá el año pasado. (We visited Canada last year.)
The imperfect tense
On the other hand, the Spanish imperfect tense (pretérito imperfecto) is one of the easiest Spanish tenses when it comes to conjugation, because it only has three irregular verbs!
It’s mainly used to talk about repeated or habitual past actions and past actions that lasted in time:
Mi hermano jugaba a las cartas. (My brother was playing cards.)
De pequeña me gustaba leer cuentos de hadas. (I used to like reading fairy tales when I was a little girl.)
The imperfect and the preterite tenses, when used together in sentences, can be difficult for beginners because there are instances where it’s not crystal-clear which of them has to be used. However, once you get the gist of them, you’ll be able to talk about almost anything that happened in the past.
The past progressive
Just as it happens with the present progressive, the Spanish past progressive isn’t a tense in itself but a verb periphrasis.
It’s formed by using the imperfect tense of the verb estar and the gerundio (present participle) of the main verb.
This periphrasis refers to actions that were taking place at some point in the past, so in this sense, it can substitute the imperfect tense. However, it can’t do that when we talk about past habitual actions:
Mi hermano estaba jugando a las cartas. (My brother was playing cards.)
De pequeña me estaba gustando leer cuentos de hadas.* (This sentence is incorrect.)
The future simple tense
The Spanish future tense is obviously used to talk about future actions.
Unlike English, which normally uses will plus an infinitive, the Spanish futuro simple is conjugated like any other tense:
No podré venir mañana. (I won’t be able to come tomorrow.)
Compraremos una casa si ganamos la lotería. (We’ll buy a house if we win the lottery.)
There are also other ways of expressing the future in Spanish, ir a + infinitive (going to + infinitive) possibly being the most commonly used:
Vamos a comprar una casa. (We’re going to buy a house.)
Voy a ir al dentista. (I’m going to go to the dentist.)
The perfect tenses
Apart from these simple tenses, Spanish has four perfect tenses.
The present perfect
The Spanish present perfect tense is called pretérito perfecto in Spanish.
It’s mainly used, much like in English, to talk about actions that took place in the past but have consequences or effects in the present.
This tense formed by using the verb haber conjugated in the present tense plus a Spanish past participle:
Hoy no he ido a la escuela. (I haven’t gone to school today.)
¿Has visto mis gafas? (Have you seen my glasses?)
Spanish past participles should be learned in the beginner stages of your language journey. They’re very easy to form, and they’re used in all the perfect tenses and the Spanish passive voice.
The pluscuamperfecto tense
The Spanish pluscuamperfecto sounds way more intimidating than it really is.
Also called the Spanish pluperfect, this tense is basically the equivalent of the English past perfect, and it’s used, as its English counterpart, when we need to refer to past actions that took place before another past action.
This tense is formed by using the imperfect tense of the verb haber and the past participle of the main verb:
No había llegado nadie cuando volví. (No one had arrived when I came back.)
Fue entonces cuando me di cuenta de que me había mentido. (It was then that I realized he had lied to me.)
The pretérito anterior tense
The pretérito anterior, a name that is translated into English as “preterite perfect” or “preterite anterior,” is a tense that you’ll barely see or hear in Spanish nowadays.
It was used to talk about past actions that took place before other past actions, but it’s now commonly replaced by the pluscuamperfecto or, less often, by the preterite tense.
In case you’re curious, this tense is formed by using the preterite tense of haber and a past participle:
Apenas el ladrón hubo escapado, llegó la policía. → Apenas el ladrón había escapado, llegó la policía. (Immediately after the thief had escaped, the police arrived.)
En cuanto hube terminado, volví a casa. → En cuanto terminé, volví a casa. (I went back home as soon as I finished.)
The future perfect tense
The last perfect tense in this list is the Spanish futuro perfecto.
The Spanish future perfect is mainly used to talk about actions that’ll have finished at some point in the future.
It’s conjugated by using the future tense of the verb haber plus the past participle of the main verb:
Antonio habrá terminado ya a las 7 de la tarde. (Antonio will have already finished by 7 p.m.)
¿Habrás vuelto para la fiesta de cumpleaños? (Will you have come back for the birthday party?)
Spanish has four grammatical moods, which are the ways the language has to help the speaker convey their intentions correctly.
These four moods are:
- The indicative
- The subjunctive
- The conditional
- The imperative
The indicative mood
The indicative mood is used to talk about facts and objective reality.
It includes eight tenses, which are the ones you’ve seen in the previous section.
The subjunctive mood
The Spanish subjunctive mood is used to talk about hypotheses, uncertainty, desires and wishes, personal opinions and recommendations, among other uses.
It includes six tenses, each of them with its corresponding conjugations and endings:
- The present subjunctive
- The present perfect subjunctive
- The imperfect subjunctive
- The pluscuamperfecto subjunctive
- The future simple subjunctive
- The future perfect subjunctive
Modern Spanish barely uses the future simple and future perfect subjunctives. They’re normally substituted for other subjunctive tenses.
As you can see, the names of these tenses are pretty much the same as the names of the indicative tenses, but remember they’re not the same and, thus, they have different sets of endings.
One of the biggest challenges of intermediate and advanced learners of Spanish is learning when to use the indicative and when the subjunctive. Learning the uses of each tense helps a lot, but only practicing until you master them will really help you conquer this difficult topic.
The conditional mood
The conditional mood is mainly used to talk about actions that depend on a condition in order to become true.
For example, if you say:
I will go if I finish on time.
You are actually saying that, in order for you to go, a condition (you finishing on time) has to be fulfilled.
Spanish conditional has two tenses:
- The conditional simple
- The conditional perfect
Each of these tenses has, in turn, its own set of endings you’ll have to memorize, but don’t worry! The conditional tenses are among the easiest ones in Spanish.
These two tenses are very often used in conditional sentences, also called Spanish conditionals.
As it happens in English, there are different types of Spanish conditionals, each of them denoting a different degree of possibility.
The imperative mood
The imperative mood is the mood we use to form requests and commands.
We can distinguish two types of commands in Spanish, which (you’ve guessed it!) have their different sets of endings:
- Spanish affirmative commands
- Spanish negative commands
Spanish commands behave quite well in comparison to tenses like the preterite, but since they have their own conjugation, you’ll have to learn them as you’d do with a normal tense.
Nosotros commands and vosotros commands are normally learned after other person’s commands because they can behave differently (read: irregularly) sometimes, but they’re not that difficult.
And here’s some good news: Spanish negative commands use the present subjunctive forms, so you won’t have to learn new endings for them!
11 Tips for Mastering Spanish Conjugation
Now that you know all there’s to learn about Spanish conjugation, you might be wondering how on earth you’re going to memorize all that.
I know this may seem like an impossible venture, but believe me, it’s possible. I’ve seen hundreds of students do it, and you will too.
Every learner has their own way of learning, but the following 11 tips will help every one of you master Spanish conjugation so you can use it like a native speaker:
- Order is important. Just as you wouldn’t start building a house from the roof down, you shouldn’t start learning Spanish conjugation with the pluscuamperfecto subjunctive, for instance.
I’ve been teaching Spanish for many years, and I’ve perfected a “tense-learning order” that seems to make my students’ learning much easier:
- Study the indicative simple tenses first.
- Continue with the indicative perfect tenses.
- After the indicative, study the conditional mood.
- Learn Spanish affirmative commands.
- Study the subjunctive simple tenses.
- Learn the negative commands.
- Study the rest of the subjunctive tenses (except for the two tenses we don’t normally use).
- Study regular and irregular verbs together. You can divide verbs by tense or conjugation, but don’t study only regular verbs and leave the irregular ones for the future. For instance, if you decide to learn a list of verbs ending in -ar, study both its regular and irregular verbs together.
- Use FluentU. My students love using FluentU because it gives them a sense of immersion they can’t find in other programs. FluentU is an amazing tool to practice Spanish conjugation. Give it a free try and see for yourself.
- Practice, practice, practice. At the end of the day, mastering conjugation means you’ll have to have a ton of Spanish conjugation practice for every mood and tense until you know them perfectly well.
I especially recommend you spend some time doing some Spanish verb drills, subjunctive practice and, especially, indicative vs. subjunctive exercises. They’ll give you a real feel of how natives use Spanish.
- Write lots of sample sentences. Whenever you learn a new tense, write sample sentences with different verbs and different persons. You can look for inspiration on Google or watch some FluentU videos to help you with the task.
- Create your own flashcards. Learning Spanish verbs with flashcards is something not many students think of, but it works! Use flashcards to learn difficult or irregular verbs, commands or full conjugations of verbs, for example.
- Use a good Spanish conjugation app. Spanish conjugations apps can be an awesome tool to learn Spanish tenses. They normally include plenty of models of fully conjugated verbs, and many of them even have exercises and quizzes.
- Use Spanish media to your advantage. Spanish media such as TV programs, videos, films, series, the radio, podcasts, etc., include plenty of examples of conjugated Spanish verbs. The more often you have contact with native Spanish, the easier it’ll be for you to determine which tense and person is being used.
- Read like there’s no tomorrow. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that reading is a superb way to learn Spanish conjugation. When you read, you’re looking at correct instances of the language and verbs that are conjugated in many different tenses in a natural, native environment. Read as much as you can to see your verb mastery go through the roof.
- Review what you’ve learned. From time to time, review the verbs and tenses you’ve already studied. It’s a good idea to go back and have a look at previous conjugations to make sure you don’t forget any of them.
- Be patient. There’ll be times when learning conjugation will look like an impossible task. You’ll want to quit several times and have nightmares about the subjunctive stalking you… That’s normal. There’s a lot to take in, but if you’re patient and follow this guide, you’ll soon be on the other side of this immense ocean of endings.
There you have it, the ultimate guide to light up your Spanish conjugation skills and become a Spanish verb master.
Spanish conjugation can be challenging because it includes many tenses with different endings each, but many students have made it, and so will you.
Think of Spanish verbs and conjugations as a group of friends that’ll be with you from the beginning till the end of your language learning journey. You’ll have to study many other topics along the way, but conjugations will be a constant that’ll always be with you.
So, are you ready to conjugate?
Stay curious, my friends, and as always, happy learning!
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.
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