spanish grammar rules

18 Essential Spanish Grammar Rules Every Learner Should Know

Does Spanish grammar make you sweat?

I know how you feel, and I’m here to help!

By the end of this blog post, you’ll know 18 essential Spanish grammar rules that will help you construct and understand native-sounding sentences.

Contents

1. Feminine and Masculine Nouns

Nouns in Spanish are either feminine or masculine. We use the article el for masculine nouns and la for feminine nouns.

This is easy when it comes to people and living creatures. You’d call a male professor el profesor, and a female one, la profesora, for example. You call a male cat el gato, and a female one, la gata.

But what about cars, books, tables and chairs? How do we know if they’re masculine or feminine?

Answer: Look at the last letter of the word. 

In most cases (but definitely not all!) feminine and masculine words have specific endings. Let’s take a look at them:

Feminine word endings

  • a (as in, la manzana)
  • d (as in, la ciudad)
  • z (as in, la vejez)
  • ión (as in, la estación)
  • umbre (as in, la costumbre)

Masculine word endings

  • o (as in, el dormitorio)
  • e (as in, el equipaje)
  • á, é, í, ó, ú (as in, el sofá and el champú)
  • consonants (except d, z, and ión) (as in, el país and el amor)

You can explore this concept with these guides on Spanish gender rules and indefinite and definite articles.

2. Noun Pluralization

Like English, making nouns plural in Spanish is straightforward—you simply need to change two things: change el to los or la to las, then change the noun to its plural form according to these rules:

  • If the noun ends in a vowel, simply add s

El libro → los libros

La casa → las casas 

  • If the noun ends in a consonant, add es

El papel → los papeles 

La estación → las estaciones 

  • If the noun ends in a z, change z c and add es

La actriz → las actrices

La luz → las luces 

  • Lastly, if the noun ends in –ión, add es and drop the written accent on the ó

La sección → las secciones 

La televisión → las televisiones 

After familiarizing yourself with these examples, bookmark our guide on Spanish pluralization to boost your confidence on this simple subject even more.

3. Adjective Gender and Pluralization

Adjectives describe nouns, and in Spanish, they must match their nouns in both number and gender.

If the noun is in feminine and singular, then the adjective should feminine and singular. If the noun is masculine and plural, then the adjective should be masculine and plural. Catch the drift?

Take the adjective rojo (red) as an example. Notice how the adjective changes as it follows the gender and number of its target noun:

El libro rojo (masculine, singular) 

Las manzanas rojas (feminine, plural) 

Gender and pluralization agreement is the first step, but to master adjectives completely (such as knowing where they come in a sentence), check out this Spanish adjective complete guide.

4. Using Tú vs. Usted

Unlike English, Spanish conjugates verbs according to level of formality. There are two second-person pronouns: and usted. They both mean “you,” but  is informal and usted is formal.

You’d use in casual situations, like talking to friends, family, people younger than you, people with the same social status as you (such as coworkers) and the like.

Usted is used in formal situations such as business meetings, job interviews, meeting someone for the first time and people of authority.

Because there are two different pronouns, verbs are conjugated differently depending on which is used.

Usted follows the same conjugation rules as ella and él, whereas  has its own.

For example:

Verb conjugationUsted conjugation
Estar (to be)Tú estásUsted está
Entender (to understand)Tú entiendesUsted entiende
Tener (to have)Tú tienesUsted tiene

If you’re still not 100% confident in your ability to determine which pronoun to use, you’ll find this guide on tú and usted helpful.

In the end, knowing which pronoun to use is extremely context-dependent. Which means the more you immerse yourself in Spanish, the easier it’ll get. It can be nerve-wracking in real-life scenarios, but this is why I always recommend consuming a hefty amount of native Spanish media from home.

You can do this easily with a language learning program like FluentU.

FluentU lets you watch thousands of authentic Spanish videos (like music videos, commercials, telenovela clips and more) with interactive subtitles. This lets you see the words in context, while also being able to click on those you don’t understand to instantly see a definition, example sentences and a list of curated videos that use it in context.

Plus it’s available as both an iOS and Android app, so you can take your Spanish study on the go with you.

5. Ser vs. Estar

Unlike in English, in Spanish there are two ways of saying “to be”: ser and estar

Not only are these both irregular verbs, but using one instead of the other can drastically change the meaning of a sentence. So how do you know which to use when?

Ser is used to identify or describe people and things. As such, you’ll use it when talking about jobs, nationality, belonging and more.

For example:

Nosotros somos muy guapos. — We are very handsome.

Soy camarero. — I am a waiter.

Mi primo es de Venezuela. — My cousin is from Venezuela.

On the other hand, estar is used when you want to express location, feelings and states/conditions (something temporary). Like in these sentences:

Estoy en la escuela. — I am at school.

Ellos están cansados. — They are tired.

Sometimes, adjectives can be used with both ser and estar. The difference is that when used with estar it’s more temporary, and with ser, more stable.

Here’s a selection of some of the most important ones:

SerEstar
Ser aburrido (to be boring)Estar aburrido (to be bored)
Ser bueno (to be good)Estar bueno (to be tasty or attractive)
Ser cansado (to be tiring)Estar cansado (to be tired)
Ser listo (to be clever)Estar listo (to be ready)
Ser moreno (to be dark-haired)Estar moreno (to be suntanned)
Ser seguro (to be safe)Estar seguro (to be sure)
Ser vivo (to be lively)Estar vivo (to be alive)

6. Spanish Contractions

Spanish contractions combine words to make talking easier, smoother and faster. Think of the English words “it’s,” “wasn’t” and “they’re.”

Thus, using them in your own sentences will make you sound more like a native, and learning them will help you understand natural Spanish conversations and media!

There are two main contractions in Spanish: al and del.

el al

De + el del

For example:

Juan subió al tren. — Juan got on the train.

Es el carro del vecino. — It’s the neighbor’s car.

These sentences are much easier to say than if the contractions weren’t used (a el tren and de el vecino).

Once you’ve got a grip on these, learn and practice more by reading this full guide on Spanish contractions.

7. Spanish Conjunctions

Conjunctions link other words, phrases and clauses together.

In Spanish, the two most important conjunctions to know as a beginner are y (and) and o (or).

Sometimes, you’ll see these words change slightly.

  • If y is followed by a word that begins or sounds like i, then y changes to e.

    For example:

Padre y hijo → Padre e hijo 

Cruel y inhumano → Cruel e inhumano 

Try pronouncing them without the conjunction changes, and you’ll understand why native speakers wisely changed the y to e!

  • If o is followed by a word that begins or sounds like o, it becomes u.

Sujeto o objeto → Sujeto u objeto 

Ayer o hoy → Ayer u hoy 

There are also a handful of other conjunctions, such as porque and como, which are useful to know. So once you’re comfortable with y and o, learn the rest with this in-depth guide on Spanish conjunctions.

8. Por vs. Para

In general, prepositions are easy to understand in Spanish because they practically work in the same way in English. However, two Spanish prepositions are easily confused since they both mean “for” in English: por and para.

Take into account the following guidelines, and you’ll never confuse them again:

Use por for the following purposes:

UsageExample
For frequency and velocity3 veces por semana.
(3 times a week.)

30 kilómetros por hora.
(30km per hour.)
To mean "along" or "through"Pasear por la calle.
(To walk along the street.)

Mirar por la ventana.
(To look through the window.)
To mean "on behalf of"Lo hice por ti.
(I did it for you.)
With means of communicationPor correo.
(By mail.)

Por teléfono.
(By phone.)
To mean "because of"Por el frío.
(Because of the cold.)

Por la falta de tiempo.
(Because of lack of time.)

Por tu culpa.
(Because of you.)
For exchanges and salesCambiar uno por otro.
(To change one for another.)

Comprar una camisa por 35 dólares.
(To buy a shirt for 35 dollars.)
To express actions that still need to be completedLos platos por fregar.
(The dishes to wash.)
To express duration in timePor dos horas.
(For two hours.)
To mean "about to"Está por llover.
(It's about to rain.)

Use para for the following purposes:

UsageExample
To mean "in order to"Para llegar a tiempo.
(To be on time.)

Para ahorrar dinero.
(To save money.)
To mean "intended for"Para la fiesta de cumpleaños.
(For the birthday party.)

Para ti.
(For you.)
To describe a destinationEl tren para Madrid sale en 10 minutos.
(The train to Madrid leaves in 10 minutes.)
To specify a future moment in timePara el lunes.
(On Monday.)

Para la semana que viene.
(The coming week.)

There’s much more to por and para than what I’ve covered here—such as a list of phrases that take on their own meanings when por or para proceeds them. For a full rundown, check out this guide on por vs. para here.

9. Spanish Sentence Structure

Spanish uses the subject—verb—object (SVO) pattern, just like English.

For example, the phrase “She reads a book” in Spanish is Ella lee un libro. The subject (ella) comes first, the verb (leer) comes second and the object (libro) is last.

As you reach upper-beginner and intermediate levels, though, you’ll start to see the occasional verb-subject pattern. For example, these sentences all mean “Juanita works at home”:

Juanita trabaja en casa.

Trabaja Juanita en casa.

En casa trabaja Juanita.

Trabaja en casa Juanita.

Another important word order rule to know is that adjectives come after the object. For example:

El vestido rojo. — The red dress.

El país grande. — The big country.

La chica guapa. — The good-looking girl.

When you’re ready to dive deeper, here’s a bookmark-worthy guide on Spanish sentence structure that’ll take you to the next level.

10. Spanish Verb Conjugation

There are three types of verbs in Spanish, each grouped according to their endings:

  • -ar verbs (such as hablar, trabajar, comprar)
  • er verbs (such as correr, aprender, entender)
  • -ir verbs (such as vivir, decidir, venir)

The verb examples you just saw are in their infinitive form—they end in r and their endings haven’t changed.

But when using verbs in a sentence, you’ll most likely need to conjugate it—this means you’ll need to take off the ending (-ar, -er or -ir) and replace it with another.

Which ending you choose depends on the pronoun that comes before the verb (yo, tú, él/ella/usted, nosotros, vosotros or ellos/ellas/ustedes) and the tense.

For now, we’ll focus on the present tense. Here are the corresponding endings for each pronoun:

 -ar verbs-er verbs-ir verbs
Yo-o-o-o
-as-es-es
Él/ella/usted-a-e-e
Ellos/ellas/ustedes-as-en-en
Nosotros-amos-emos-imos
Vosotros-áis-éis-ís

You can see that the endings for -er and –ir verbs are different to endings for verbs that end in -ar. But the good news is, they’re almost identical to each other apart from the nosotros and vosotros forms.

To see these conjugations in action, let’s look at the verb hablar and see how it changes based on the pronoun:

PronounConjugation
YoHablo
Hablas
Él/ella/ustedHabla
Ellos/ellas/ustedesHablan
NosotrosHablamos
VosotrosHabláis

Now let’s see what some -er and -ir verbs look like when conjugated, using aprender (to learn) and vivir (to live) as examples:

PronounConjugation
YoAprendo
Vivo
Aprendes
Vives
Él/ella/ustedAprende
Vive
Ellos/ellas/ustedesAprenden
Viven
NosotrosAprendemos
Vivimos
VosotrosAprendéis
Vivís

Of course, there’s way more to Spanish verbs than this brief rundown. Many tenses are beginner and intermediate-friendly, while others you won’t learn until you reach advanced Spanish grammar.

But now that you know the present tense and the six pronouns, check out this in-depth guide on how to conjugate Spanish verbs when you’re ready to conquer the next.

11. Asking Questions in Spanish

To turn a statement into a question in Spanish is pretty simple: you can either end the sentence with a questioning tone or place the pronoun after the verb.

For example:

¿ puedes ayudarme? — Can you help me?
¿Puedes ayudarme?
— Can you help me?

¿Ella baila bien? — Does she dance well?
¿Baila ella bien? — Does she dance well?

We also use Spanish question words (also known as the interrogative pronouns) to find out specific information. These are:

  • Qué — What
  • Cuál — Which
  • Quién — Who
  • Dónde — Where
  • Por qué — Why
  • Cuándo — When
  • Cuánto — How many
  • Cómo — How

For the full rundown, checkout this complete guide to Spanish question words.

12. Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns

Using direct and indirect pronouns alone is quite straightforward.

The direct object pronoun replaces the direct object, and answers the questions “who” and “what.”

While the indirect object pronoun replaces the indirect object and answers the questions “to whom” and “for whom.”

Before looking at some examples, let’s meet the object pronouns.

Personal PronounDirect Object Pronoun
YoMe
Te
Él/usted (m)Lo
Ella/usted (f)La
Ellos/ustedes (m)Los
Ellas/ustedes (f)Las
NosotrosNos
VosotrosOs
Personal PronounIndirect Object Pronoun
YoMe
Te
Él/ella/ustedLe
Ellos/ellas/ustedesLes
NosotrosNos
VosotrosOs

Now let’s look at the following sentence:

Antonio envía cartas. — Antonio sends letters.

If we ask “What does Antonio send?” the answer is cartas. Thus, cartas (or, “letters”) is the direct object.

According to the table above, the direct object pronoun for the third person feminine plural is las. So if you want to say “Antonio sends them” instead of “Antonio sends letters,” you’d replace cartas with las, like this:

Antonio las envía. — Antonio sends them.

Now imagine the following sentence:

Antonio envía cartas a María. — Antonio sends letters to María.

To whom does Antonio send letters? To María (a María).

María is your indirect object, which according to the table will be substituted by le (third person feminine singular):

Antonio le envía cartas. — Antonio sends letters to her.

There are a few specific rules for using direct and indirect object pronouns, but once you’ve practiced, they’ll roll off your tongue naturally.

After familiarizing yourself with these examples, check out this guide on object pronouns in Spanish to take it up a notch!

13. Conjugating Gustar (To Like)

The verb gustar (to like) can be tricky for some Spanish learners because it requires the use of an indirect object pronoun and isn’t conjugated like most verbs.

Instead of conjugating gustar according to the pronoun, you’ll attach the correct indirect object pronoun at the front.

The basic formula is:

Me/te/le/nos/os/lesgusta/gustan + object

If the object is singular, use gusta. If it’s plural, use gustan.

For example:

Me gustan los perros. — I like dogs.

A él le gustan las películas españolas. — He likes Spanish movies.

Me gusta esta camisa. — I like this shirt.

Te gusta aprender español. — You like learning Spanish.

Check out this in-depth guide on the verb gustar once you’ve got down the basics.

14. Verbs of Change

Los verbos de cambio—or, verbs of change—is a group of verbs that mean something like “to become.”

Each should be used in a specific context, though. The most important are:

  • Ponerse. Used for involuntary, uncontrollable reactions

Me pongo nervioso. — I get nervous.

  • Volverse. Used for sudden and profound changes, often negative

Él se vuelve loco. — He goes crazy/is going crazy.

  • Hacerse. Used for changes that have been accomplished thanks to one’s own effort and for ideological choices

Se ha hecho rico. — He has become rich.
Se ha hecho judío. — He has become a Jew.

  • Quedarse. Used mainly for physical ailments and life-changing events

Mi amigo se ha quedado sordo. — My friend went completely deaf.
María se ha quedado embarazada. — María has gotten pregnant.

15. The Imperfect vs. Preterite Tense

As you may already know, there are two simple past tenses in Spanish: the imperfect and the preterite.

The good news is that the imperfect is quite easy to learn. The bad news is that the preterite can give you a headache sometimes, especially if you’re dealing with irregular verbs.

Generally, use the preterite when talking about completed actions that started and finished in the past.

You’ll normally have a definite beginning and end of the action, although they don’t necessarily need to appear in the sentence. For example:

El niño se comió una manzana. — The boy ate an apple.

Ayer yo visité a mi abuela. — I visited my grandma yesterday.

On the other hand, use the imperfect when the action was not completed, was repeated or was habitual.

A cool trick is to think any time you’d say “I/you/he/etc. used to…” in English, you’d use the imperfect tense in Spanish.

Let’s look at two examples:

El niño se comía una manzana. — The boy was eating an apple.

De pequeño, visitaba a mi abuela cada domingo. — I used to visit grandma every Sunday when I was a child.

To completely grasp these two tenses, check out this full guide on the preterite and imperfect.

16. Irregular Spanish Verbs

Spanish irregular verbs are verbs which don’t follow the standard conjugation patterns.

Examples include words like tengo (I have), conozco (I know someone), hago (I do) and more.

Often only the first person singular is irregular, making them fairly easy to memorize. But a few—I’m looking at you, ser and estar—take different forms for all the pronouns (yo, tú, él/ella/usted, nosotros, vosotros, ellos/ellas/ustedes).

Here are a few examples of common irregular verbs in Spanish:

VerbYo conjugation 
Conocer (to know someone)Yo conozco (I know)
Traducir (to translate)Yo traduzco (I translate)
Hacer (to do/make)Yo hago (I do/make)
Poner (to put/place)Yo pongo (I put)
Tener (to have)Yo tengo (I have)
Decir (to say)Yo digo (I say)
Ir (to go)Yo voy (I go)
Ser (to be)Yo soy (I am)
Estar (to be)Yo estoy (I am)

After you’ve learned these, check out this in-depth guide on irregular verbs to master them fully.

17. Reflexive Verbs

A verb is reflexive when the subject is doing something to itself—such as showering, washing, relaxing, going to bed, putting on clothes, etc.

You know a verb is reflexive when an indirect pronoun is either attached to it or in front of it.

As a refresher, the indirect pronouns are:

  • Me (instead of yo)
  • Te (instead of )
  • Se (instead of él/ella/usted and ellos/ellas/ustedes)
  • Nos (instead of nosotros)
  • Os (instead of vosotros)

Take a look at these common Spanish reflexive verbs and how they’re used in sentences:

Reflexive VerbExample
Ponerse (to put on)Me pongo la ropa
(I put on clothes)
Relajarse (to relax)¿Te relajaste el fin de semana?
(Did you relax this weekend?)
Ducharse (to shower)Voy a ducharme en 15 minutos
(I'm going to take a shower in 15 minutes)
Bañarse (to bathe)Me estoy bañando
(I'm taking a bath)
Acostarse (to go to bed)Se acuesta a las 9 de la noche
(He goes to bed at 9pm)
Lavarse (to wash)Nos lavamos las manos
(We wash our hands)

18. Stem-changing Verbs

Spanish stem-changing verbs also don’t follow the typical conjugation rules. They’re not the same as irregular verbs, though—instead, one or two letters in the stem change when conjugated.

Most verb changes apply to the yo, tú, él/ella/usted and ellos/ellas/ustedes forms, and there are three main types:

  • eie
  • ei
  • oue

For example, the verb empezar (to start) is an e → ie stem-changing verb, repetir is e → i and poder is o → ue.

Take a look at how these stem-changing verbs are conjugated:

Empezar (i → ie)
YoEmpiezo
Empiezas
Él/Ella/UstedEmpieza
NosotrosEmpezamos
VosotrosEmpezáis
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesEmpiezan
Repetir (e → i)
YoRepito
Repites
Él/Ella/UstedRepite
NosotrosRepetimos
VosotrosRepetís
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesRepiten
Poder (o → ue)
YoPuedo
Puedes
Él/Ella/UstedPuede
NosotrosPodemos
VosotrosPodéis
Ellos/Ellas/UstedesPueden

 

And now you’re ready to go!

There may be times when you feel lost when studying Spanish grammar terms (which is natural!), but with these 18 simple rules, you’ll be well on your way to native-sounding Spanish.

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