5 Important Spanish Grammar Lessons Every Beginner Oughta Know
Grammar is a special ingredient in language; it’s the glue that binds your vocabulary words together—the spices you need to be understood.
Here, I’ll teach you five important lessons about noun genders, contraction, pluralization, noun-adjective pairing and basic verb conjugations.
Consider these lessons your salt and pepper of Spanish, the basics that will get you started on the road to mastery.
- 3 Reasons Why Spanish Grammar Can Be Tricky
- 5 Spanish Grammar Lessons All Beginners Need on Their Shelf
3 Reasons Why Spanish Grammar Can Be Tricky
1. Spanish Is a Gender-based Language
In Spanish, a cup is a female.
Yup. Like German, French and Russian, Spanish nouns have a gender. Now this always sounds a bit strange to speakers of English, a language whose evolution dropped gendered nouns around 1200 AD.
We are often caught exclaiming, “How can a cup be feminine?!” (cup – la taza).
We think that maybe it’s the curves found in a cup that make it all girly. We hold that assumption until we find out that “table” (la mesa), with its perfectly straight features, is also considered feminine.
We’re so used to thinking about gender in human terms that we forget the noun genders in Spanish are actually “grammatical genders,” not sex. This means that genders are assigned not because an object looks girly or manly, but often because of the last letter of the noun. (We’ll have more to say on this matter later on.)
With a gender-based grammar, instead of having one world for nouns, now you have two: the masculine and feminine.
Things are simpler in English. Take the article “the,” for example. We use “the” whether we’re referring to “book” or “magazine”: “the book” and “the magazine.”
In Spanish, however, a book (libro) is considered masculine, and a magazine is feminine (revista).
So in Spanish, we say, “el libro” (the book) and “la revista” (the magazine). For plural nouns, we’d say, “los libros” and “las revistas,” whereas in English you’d still just use “the” (the books, the magazines).
In short, Spanish is more exciting.
2. There Are a Number of Exceptions to the Rules
Imagine that you’re in your car waiting for the green light at an intersection. It was a fine day and you can’t wait to get to work. You were holding the steering wheel and about to step on the gas in expectation of the green light. Then, suddenly, the light turns violet!
What do you do? You’ve never seen that one before.
Do you go and speed ahead?
Do you remain still?
Or do you jump out of the car and dance the Macarena?
That’s the same feeling you get when you come across grammar exceptions. They tickle your funny bones and make you feel like dancing.
In noun genders, for example, the general rule is that nouns that end in “o” are masculine and nouns that end in “a” are feminine. Sounds straight forward, you say?
Wait ‘til you meet words like el día (day), el mapa (map) and el clima (climate) that break those rules.
So what do you do? As usual, you commit them to memory.
3. Spanish Verbs
You’ve heard about conjugations, right?
We conjugate a verb in order to specify when and who did the action. By changing the verb’s form, we can, for example, signify that the action was done in the past.
Let’s take the word “walk” as an illustration. We can conjugate it by adding “-ed” to form the word “walked.” Then we know that the walking was done in the past.
By conjugating verbs, we can specify the tense, number, person, mood, voice, aspect and familiarity (formal/informal) of the action.
The thing is, with Spanish, there are plenty of irregular verbs. So for those verbs, you’ll just have to learn the unique conjugations.
But with enough practice and enough mistakes, you can totally come to grips with these challenging Spanish verbs. And honestly, they’re not as bad as they may seem; English verbs are actually a ton trickier (but you already know those, lucky you).
5 Spanish Grammar Lessons All Beginners Need on Their Shelf
1. Rules of Noun Genders
Okay, let’s get the ball rolling with nouns. We already know that nouns in Spanish are either feminine or masculine. We use the article “el” for masculine nouns and “la” for feminine nouns.
So the question becomes, “How do we know if the noun staring back at us is feminine or masculine?”
Well, for living things it’s much easier because they actually have true genders. So you call a male professor “el profesor,” and a female one, “la profesora.”
You call a male cat “el gato,” and a female one, “la gata.”
But what about cars, books, tables and chairs that don’t have sexual orientations? How do we know if they’re masculine or feminine?
Answer: Look at the last letter of the word.
The “La” Words (Feminine)
Words that end in “a,” “d,” “z,” “ión” and “umbre” are usually feminine.
Words ending in “a“
- La manzana (apple)
- La piscina (pool)
- La cabeza (head)
[Exceptions: Some words that end in “-ma,” “-pa,” and “-ta,” like el clima, el mapa, el planeta that are Greek in origin.]
Words ending in “d” (including the “-dad,” “-tad,” “-tud” families)
- La salud (health)
- La ciudad (city)
- La libertad (freedom)
- La juventud (youth)
Words ending in “z” ( including the “-triz” and “ez” families)
- La actriz (actress)
- La vejez (old age)
- La emperatriz (empress)
Words ending in “ión” (the “-cion,” “-sión,” “-gión” families)
- La estación (station)
- La profesión (profession)
- La religión (religion)
Words ending in “umbre”
- La costumbre (custom)
- La pesadumbre (sorrow)
- La lumbre (fire)
Words that were originally feminine in form, but have been shortened over the years.
- la disco, from “la discoteca” (disco)
- la foto, from “la fotografía” (photography)
- la moto, from “la motocicleta” (motorcycle)
- la tele, from “la televisión” (television)
The “El” Words (Masculine)
Words that end in “o,” “e,” accented vowels (á, é, í, ó, ú) and consonants (except “d,” “z” and the “ión” family) are masculine.
Words that end in “o”
- El dormitorio (bedroom)
- El carro (car)
- El banco (bank)
Words that end in “e” (except “-umbre,” some “-ie” and “-ente”)
- El verde (green)
- El catorce (fourteen)
- El equipaje (the luggage)
Words that end with accented vowels (á, é, í, ó, ú)
- El sofá (couch)
- El café (coffee)
- El rubí (ruby)
- El champú (shampoo)
Words that end in consonants (except “d,” “z” and the “ión” family)
- El país (country)
- El amor (love)
- El exámen (test)
- El corazón (heart)
That’s it! Follow these general rules and you are well on your way to mastering the Spanish noun genders.
Remember: Resist the temptation to look for object qualities that make it feminine or masculine. Instead, look at the last letter(s) of the word.
2. Rules of Pluralization
Wait a minute! Did you notice something in the first grammar lesson? Look at the words again.
The nouns were all in their singular form.
But what if you wanna talk about “books” and not just a “book”? What if you wanna describe many people, and not just one “man”? What good is a noun if it doesn’t reflect the true number of objects that exist?
Let’s remedy that, shall we?
Here we’ll perform magic, and with the blink of an eye, one will turn into many, and singular nouns will be transformed into their plural cousins.
In order to do that, you will have to change two things:
- Change “el” → “los” or “la” → “las”
- Change the noun into its plural form, according to the rules.
Here are the rules (Notice again that they have everything to do with the letters at the end of the word):
A. If the noun ends in a vowel, add “s.”
- El libro → los libros (books)
- El gato → los gatos (male cats)
- La casa → Las casas (houses)
- La manzana → las manzanas (apples)
B. If the noun ends in a consonant, add “es.”
- El papel → los papeles (papers)
- El rey → los reyes (kings)
- La ciudad → las ciudades (cities)
- La estación → las estaciones (stations)
C. If the noun ends in a “z,” change “z” → “c” and add “es.”
- La actriz → las actrices (actresses)
- La luz → las luces (lights)
- La vez → las veces (times)
D. If the noun ends in “-ión,” add “es” (Don’t forget to drop the written accent on the “ó”!)
- La sección → las secciones (sections)
- La televisión → las televisiones (televisions)
- La conversación → las conversaciones (conversations)
E. When the group you are referring to contains a mix of both males and females, use the masculine plural form.
2 hermanos (brothers) + 2 hermanas (sisters) = 4 hermanos (siblings)
1 gato (male cat) + 9 gatas (female cats) = 10 gatos (cats)
Are you getting the hang of it? With these five simple rules, you can create magic with all those nouns and turn one into many.
3. Rules of Contraction and Conjunction
The Spanish are smooth talkers. No, I don’t mean that they can sweep a woman off her feet with words, (although that may very well be the case). What I mean is that they employ techniques that make the words roll smoothly off the tongue.
That’s where contractions and conjunction changes come in. They make Spanish sound so slick, and they can also make you sound so cool.
I bet you are.
Contractions in Spanish involve two prepositions: “a” and “de.”
a = to, at, from, by, on, for, upon
de = of, about, on, because of, by, at
Here is the one rule for contractions:
When “a” or “de” comes before the masculine article “el,” the two are contracted.
a + el = al
de + el = del
So if we want to say “John got on the train,” we have [Juan subió a] + [el tren], which together is:
Juan subió al tren.
Likewise, to say “It’s the neighbor’s car,” we’d have [Es el carro de] + [el vecino], which together is:
Es el carro del vecino.
Rolls off the tongue better, right?
C’mon say it with me, “Contractions!”
Now let’s move to conjunctions. These are words used to link other words, phrases and clauses. Here we’re interested in the Spanish words for “and” and “or”:
Here are the rules:
A. If “y” is followed by a word that begins or sounds like “i,” then “y” changes to “e.” (This is for good reason, because “y” and “i” are so similar-sounding.)
[Padre y] + [hijo] is: Padre e hijo (Father and son)
[Cruel y] + [inhumano] is: Cruel e inhumano (Cruel and inhumane)
Try pronouncing them without the conjunction changes, and you’ll understand why the Spanish wisely changed the “y” to “e.”
B. If “o” is followed by a word that begins or sounds like “o,” then the conjunction becomes “u.”
[Sujeto o] + [objeto] is: Sujeto u objeto (Subject or object)
[Ayer o] + [hoy] is: Ayer u hoy (Yesterday or today)
So you wanna sound cool? Master these contractions and conjunctions and you will be a step closer to that silky smooth Spanish fluency.
4. Rules of Noun-adjective Pairing
Now let’s turn our attention to adjectives this time.
You remember adjectives from school, right? Words that describe things? So for example, if you wanna describe what a tennis ball looks like, you’d use adjectives such as “small,” “round” and “green.”
Is it all coming back to you?
So let’s talk about Spanish adjectives. For this lesson, there is only one rule that governs all noun-adjective pairing, and it is this:
Adjectives must match their nouns in both number and gender.
So in order to supply the correct adjective form, you must look at two things: gender and number.
If the noun is in feminine, singular form, the adjective should be too. If it’s masculine and plural, the adjective form should be too. They should be a solid set.
Think of adjectives as butlers who are at the beck-and-call of the nouns.
Take the adjective rojo (red) as an example and let’s apply it to nouns of varying gender and number. Notice how the adjective changes as it follows the gender and number of its target noun.
El libro rojo (the red book) – masculine, singular
La manzana roja (the red apple) – feminine, singular
Los libros rojos (the red books) – masculine, plural
Las manzanas rojas (the red apples) – feminine, plural
Did you notice that? Did you see the four forms of rojo as it tries to pair itself with the noun? (rojo, roja, rojos, rojas) Did you also hear how they rhyme? (That’s one cool thing about Spanish. It all starts to rhyme.)
Let’s take another example: interesante (interesting).
El chico interesante (interesting boy)
La chica interesante (interesting girl)
Los chicos interesantes (interesting boys)
Las chicas interesantes (interesting girls)
In this case, there are only two forms of adjectives (interesante and interesantes) because the form is the same for both masculine and feminine genders.
As a tip, remember this:
Adjectives that end in “-e” and consonants have only two forms.
Adjectives that end in “-o” and “-dor” have four forms.
Always remember, adjectives must play servant to the nouns.
Get acquainted with this rule by delving into some authentic content, so you can see how nouns and adjectives play together in Spanish. A good Spanish-language book or two can help with this. You could also find videos with high-quality subtitles, whether on a YouTube channel or on a virtual immersion platform like FluentU.
Okay, let’s go to the final lesson in this post; it has something to do with verbs.
5. Rules of Verb Conjugation (Present Tense)
Did you remember when you were a kid and verbs were banned from your home?
You were forbidden from all that great action because mom would always say, “Don’t jump!” or “Don’t run!”
You wanted to do all these verbs, but mom said you were too young then.
Well, you’re not too young now.
In fact, verbs are vital for your linguistic health.
You probably know by now that verbs are a challenging subject in Spanish. But don’t you worry, in this beginner lesson we’ll only be dealing with regular (a.k.a. friendly) verbs. The irregular ones we’re gonna tackle in different posts.
Before we begin, you will have to remember the Spanish pronouns. (Get a quick review here.)
Now, let’s classify the Spanish verbs.
Basically, there are three. They are grouped according to their endings.
We have the -ar, -er and -ir verbs. Check out some verbs from each category:
-ar: hablar, preguntar, trabajar, comprar, juntar
-er: correr, comprender, responder, vender, aprender
-ir: partir, existir, vivir, permitir, decidir
All of the verbs above are in their purest state (called the “infinitive”). Infinitives in English start with the word “to” (to jump, to run, to understand, etc.).
Remember “-ar,” “-er” and “-ir” because these are the letters that get dropped from the verb when we start conjugating.
Well, why don’t we do just that? So let’s start by going through each of the six different subjects with the following three verbs as examples:
- hablar (to speak)
- correr (to run)
- partir (to leave)
1. Yo (I):
- AR: hablo
- ER: corro
- IR: parto
Yo hablo inglés. (I speak English)
2. Tú (you-informal):
- AR: hablas
- ER: corres
- IR: partes
¿Tú hablas inglés? (Do you speak English?)
3. Él (he), ella (she), usted (you-formal):
- AR: habla
- ER: corre
- IR: parte
Ella habla inglés. (She speaks English)
4. Nosotros/nosotras (we):
- AR: hablamos
- ER: corremos
- IR: partimos
Nosotros hablamos inglés. (We speak English.)
5. Vosotros/vosotras (you-informal, plural):
- AR: habláis
- ER: corréis
- IR: partís
Note: Be careful to remember the accents!
¿Vosotros habláis inglés? (Do you guys speak English?)
6. Ellos/ellas (they), ustedes (you-formal, plural):
- AR: hablan
- ER: corren
- IR: parten
Ellos hablan inglés. (They speak English.)
Regular present verb forms are easy to memorize. You just observe the rules and you’ll hit a home run.
So that’s it!
Whew! This post was a mouthful, wasn’t it? We’ve covered plenty of ground and gone from identifying noun genders, to studying pluralization and contraction rules, to noun-adjective pairs and finally to conjugating verbs.
You have to master these five grammar lessons if you ever wanna take Spanish to the next level. Keep them on your shelf as basics—your salt and pepper of the Spanish world—and watch as your collection grows!