spanish grammar rules

Spanish Grammar Rules: 7 Tricky Topics and How to Overcome Them

Does Spanish grammar make you sweat?

Have you ever purposefully stayed away from using the word “for,” just to avoid choosing between por and para?

Or driven yourself crazy mixing up ser and estar?

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

So take a deep breath, because today we’re going to end your fear of Spanish grammar for once and for all, by tackling seven of its trickiest topics.

Do I Really Need to Learn Spanish Grammar Rules?

The eternal question of whether or not we should learn grammar is always hanging above our heads, no matter the language of study.

Self-taught people will probably tell you that they didn’t pay much attention to grammar until they were in the advanced stages of learning. Hucksters will tell you their method is infallible, and that you will learn a new language in seven days without even knowing a single grammar rule.

Language teachers like me, well, we may not always agree on our methods, but we know something for sure: If you really want to command a language like a native speaker, to learn and not forget, you need to master that grammar. Embrace grammar and make it a part of your learning process from the very beginning—you’ll be glad you did!

For any doubters out there, imagine this conversation at the disco:

John: Hola, chica guapa. Me gusto mucho.
(John: Hi there, pretty girl. I like myself very much.)

Carmen: Emmm… OK, me alegro, supongo… Hasta luego.
(Carmen: Err… OK, I am happy for you, I guess. See you!)

Now let’s take a look at how John could have faired, had he learned grammar properly:

John: Hola, chica guapa. Me gustas mucho. ¿Quieres bailar?
(John: Hi there, pretty girl. I like you a lot. Do you want to dance?)

Carmen: [Sonriendo] ¿Por qué no? Oye, ¿dónde aprendiste español?
(Carmen: [Smiling] Why not? Listen, where did you learn Spanish?)

See the difference? So if your mission is to learn a language and actually be able to use it, you need to become friends with grammar.

When you learned how to ride a bike, you needed a bike, right? This is similar: If you want to learn a language you need your bike, and that bike is grammar!

Now let’s say you want to learn some tricks with your bicycle—to jump, do wall taps, the Can Can or even a front flip! It’s all doable with your Spanish grammar, which is why I have collected here for you seven of the trickiest yet most useful Spanish grammar topics.

I’ll show you how to easily ride gracefully with these topics, so enjoy the ride!

Spanish Grammar Rules: 7 Tricky Topics and How to Master Them

1. Irregular Spanish Verbs in the Present Tense

Verbs, sweet verbs! You were okay as long as you stuck to the present tense with regular verbs such as cantar (to sing), comer (to eat) or escribir (to write). And then the unthinkable happened: You ran into a wall full of irregular verbs.

No need to give up yet! Remember we can always divide a whole into smaller parts, and that will make our life easier. So when it comes to irregular verbs (verbos irregulares), we can divide them into four different groups: stem-changing verbs, irregular first person, stem-changing and irregular first person, and completely irregular verbs.

Stem-changing verbs

Many Spanish verbs change their stem in the present tense indicative mood. Unfortunately, there is no rule of thumb as to whether a verb will change its stem or not, and we have to learn their infinitive and their stem change together. However, stem-changing verbs can be divided into three subgroups, which will make the task much easier.

Here you have the three different subgroups with a conjugated verb as an example, and a list of other verbs which behave in the same way.

The first and second person plural forms, nosotros and vosotros, do not change their stem, and the endings are regular in all forms. Easy!

e → ie

Example: Preferir (to prefer)
prefiero       preferimos
prefieres     preferís
prefiere       prefieren

Similar verbs: cerrar (to close), empezar (to begin), entender (to understand), perder (to lose), querer (to want/love)

o → ue

Example: Dormir (to sleep)
duermo       dormimos
duermes     dormís
duerme       duermen

Similar verbs: contar (to count), morir (to die), recordar (to remember/remind), volar (to fly)

e → i

Example: Pedir (to ask for)
pido       pedimos
pides      pedís
pide        piden

Similar verbs: competir (to compete), corregir (to correct), despedir (to say goodbye), reír (to laugh), servir (to serve)

Irregular first person verbs

Sometimes only the first person singular is irregular. This group of verbs is pretty easy to learn, because you just have to memorize the infinitive and the irregular first person.

Even inside this group we can find patterns that repeat themselves, the two most important being –zco and –go.

Let’s have a look at them in action:

-zco verbs

Conocer (to know)
conozco     conocemos
conoces      conocéis
conoce        conocen

Traducir (to translate)
traduzco    traducimos
traduces     traducís
traduce       traducen

-go verbs

Hacer (to do/make)
hago     hacemos
haces    hacéis
hace      hacen

Poner (to put/place)
pongo    ponemos
pones     ponéis
pone       ponen

Irregular first person and stem-changing verbs

Here is where we have the real party! There are some verbs in Spanish which not only have an irregular first person, but also add a stem change to that.

Fortunately, there are not many verbs that behave this way. But the ones we have are pretty common, so let’s take a look and learn them for good!

Here you have three very interesting examples:

Decir (to tell)
digo    decimos
dices   decís
dice     dicen
(first person -go and e → i stem change)

Tener (to have)
tengo    tenemos
tienes   tenéis
tiene     tienen
(first person -go and e → ie stem change)

Venir (to come)
vengo    venimos
vienes    venís
viene     vienen
(first person -go and e → ie stem change)

Completely irregular verbs

There are a couple of verbs that are completely irregular, and boy do they know how to have fun! The two most common of these verbs are ir (to go) and oír (to hear). Here they are:

Ir (to go)
voy    vamos
vas    vais
va      van

Oír (to hear)
oigo    oímos
oyes    oís
oye      oyen

There is another very basic and irregular verb, ser (to be), which together with its brother estar (to be) keep making the learning road a bit bumpy for most of you. Let’s have a look at them:

2. Ser and Estar

Say what? Spanish has two different verbs that mean to be? Yes! And, well, actually there is a third Spanish verb—an impersonal form—that can also be translated as to be: haber – hay. It’s used to say “there is/are,” but more on that another day.

Ser and estar are not only irregular verbs, but using one instead of the other can drastically change the meaning of a sentence. This is why it’s so important to learn when to use which “to be” verb.

For a more in-depth look at these two verbs, we’ve written an entire post dedicated to the topic, or continue on for a quick summary of the basics:

Use ser when identifying or describing people and things, when talking about jobs and nationality, and when talking about belonging. Take a look at the following examples:

Nosotros somos muy guapos. (We are very handsome.)

Soy camarero. (I am a waiter.)

Mi primo es de Venezuela. (My cousin is from Venezuela.)

Este lápiz es mío. (This pencil is mine.)

On the other hand, use estar when you want to express physical or geographic location, feelings, and states/conditions (something temporary).

Estoy en la escuela. (I am at school.)

Ellos están cansados. (They are tired.)

Then there are times when the same adjective can be used with both ser and estar. Sometimes, the difference is that when used with estar it’s more temporary, and with ser, more stable. But many times the meaning of the sentence will change dramatically.

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

SerEstar
Ser aburrido – to be boringEstar aburrido – to be bored
Ser bueno – to be goodEstar bueno – to be tasty or sexually attractive
Ser cansado – to be tiringEstar cansado – to be tired
Ser listo – to be cleverEstar listo – to be ready
Ser moreno – to be dark-hairedEstar moreno – to be suntanned
Ser seguro – to be safeEstar seguro – to be sure
Ser vivo – to be livelyEstar vivo – to be alive

3. Past Tense: Imperfect vs. Indefinite

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

The good news is that the imperfect is quite easy to learn and behaves pretty well. The bad news is that the indefinite can give you a headache from time to time, especially if you are dealing with irregular verbs.

We’re going to focus on the usage of these tenses, which is the tricky part, and not conjugation. Besides, you can always easily look up conjugations if you don’t have those down yet.

So generally speaking, use the indefinite when you are talking about completed, mostly one-time actions that started and finished in the past. You will normally have a definite beginning and end of the action, although they do not necessarily need to appear on the sentence.

El niño se comió una manzana. (The boy ate an apple.)
I am looking at the action after it took place. It is finished.

Ayer visité a mi abuela. (I visited my grandma yesterday.)
Yesterday is finished, and so is my visit.

On the other hand, use the imperfect when the actions were not seen as completed, were repeated, or if they can be translated as “used to.”  Think about traveling to the moment in time described by the imperfect, and you would see an action in progress—not finished. Note that this past tense is often used for descriptions.

El niño se comía una manzana. (The boy was eating an apple.)
The action was then still in progress.

De pequeño, visitaba a mi abuela cada domingo. (I used to visit grandma every Sunday when I was a child.)
This is a repeated action in progress for an indefinite number of years.

4. Verbs of Change (“To Become”)

Los verbos de cambio, or verbs of change, are a group of verbs that can be roughly translated as “to become.” Each should be used in a specific context, though. The most important are:

  • Ponerse: used for involuntary, uncontrollable reactions
    Mi vecino se puso furioso. (My neighbor became furious.)
  • Volverse: used for sudden and profound changes, often negative
    Se ha vuelto loco. (He has gone mad.)
  • Hacerse: used for changes that have been accomplished thanks to one’s own effort and for ideological choices
    Se ha hecho rico. (He has made his fortune.)
    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.)

5. Spanish Prepositions: Por and Para

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

Take into account the following guidelines, and you will never, ever confuse them again:

Use por for the following purposes:

  • For frequency and velocity: tres veces por semana, 30 kilómetros por hora.
  • With the meaning of “along” or “through”: pasear por la calle, mirar por la ventana.
  • With the meaning of “on behalf of”: Lo hice por ti.
  • With means of communication: por correo, por fax, por teléfono.
  • With the meaning of “because of”: por el frío, por la fata de tiempo, por tu culpa.
  • For exchanges and sales: cambiar uno por otro, comprar una camisa por 35 dólares.
  • To express actions that still need to be completed: los platos por fregar, la casa por barrer.
  • To express duration in time: por dos horas, por tres años, por mucho tiempo.

Finally, there are many expression with por that you need to learn by heart. Here you have the most common ones:

  • por fin (at last)
  • por supuesto (of course)
  • por lo menos (at least)
  • por lo visto (apparently)
  • por mí (as far as I am concerned)
  • por desgracia (unfortunately)
  • por favor (please)
  • por si acaso (just in case) 

Use para for the following purposes:

  • With the meaning of “in order to”: para llegar a tiempo, para ahorrar dinero, para estar seguro.
  • With the meaning of “intended for”: para mí, para ti, para la fiesta de cumpleaños.
  • With destination: El tren para Madrid sale en 10 minutos.
  • When you want to specify a future moment in time: para el lunes, para mañana, para la semana que viene.
  • With the meaning of “to be about to”: Está para llover.

Again, we have some expressions which you’d better learn by heart:

  • para más inri (to make matters worse)
  • para siempre (for good)
  • para variar (just for a change)
  • para colmo (on top of that)
  • para que (so that)

6. Direct and Indirect Pronouns

Using direct and indirect pronouns alone is quite straightforward.

You may already know the direct pronoun substitutes the direct object and answers the questions “Who?” or “What?,” while the indirect pronoun substitutes the indirect object and answers the questions “To whom?” or “For whom?.”

Here you have a table with all the direct and indirect pronouns:

Indirect Object
Pronouns
    Direct Object
Pronouns
English Equivalent
me      me      me
te      te      you (familiar)
le      lo, la      him, her, it, you (formal)
nos      nos      us
os      os      you all (familiar)
les      los, las      them, you all (formal)

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. There is your direct object. According to the table above, the direct object pronoun for third person feminine plural is las, so when you do the change in the sentence you will have the following:

Antonio las envía.
(Antonio sends them.)

Remember that we always insert the pronoun in front of the verb, unless in the case of two exceptions explained farther down.

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.)

It can feel confusing when we need to use both direct and indirect pronouns in the same sentence. But follow these rules and you’ll get it right every time:

1. The indirect pronoun always comes first.

I always remember the Spanish order of pronouns with the word RID: reflexive, indirect, direct. As you can see, indirect pronouns always come before direct, like in this example:

Antonio se las envía.* 

*Wait! I thought we’d said the indirect pronoun was “le,” so why did it change to “se”? Well, check out rule #2:

2. When we have two pronouns in a row beginning with the letter “L,” change the first one (indirect) to “se.”

Antonio se las envía.
(Antonio sends them to her).

3. If you have a negative sentence, the negative word always comes directly before the first pronoun.

Antonio no se las envía.
(Antonio does not send them to her).

Antonio nunca se las envía.
(Antonio never sends them to her).

4. Since “se” can have different meanings, it is always helpful to add a prepositional phrase to the sentence:

Antonio se las envía a ella.
(Antonio sends them to her.)

Exceptions

There are two situations when the pronouns can act differently. If you have a conjugated verb next to an infinitive in the sentence, you can choose if you want to put the pronouns either before the conjugated verb or attached to the infinitive/gerund:

Antonio se las quiere enviar.
Antonio quiere enviárselas.
(Antonio wants to send them to her).

Antonio se las está enviando.
Antonio está enviándoselas.
(Antonio is sending them to her).

Finally, if you have an imperative form, you need to attach the pronouns to the end of it:

¡Envíaselas! (Send them to her!)

7. Gustar: To Like

Gustar and other similar verbs constitute a group of special verbs that do not act “normally.” Let’s first take a look at how we use “to like” in English sentences:

I like dogs.
I = subject
like = verb
dogs = direct object

He likes Spanish movies.
He = subject
likes = verb
Spanish movies = direct object

So when talking about likes in English, we use the subject plus the verb (to like), followed by the object that is liked. But this is not the case in Spanish!

Take a look at the Spanish equivalents of our first two examples, and pay special attention to the literal English translations:

Me gustan los perros. (I like dogs.)
Literal translation: Dogs are pleasing to me.
me = indirect object
gustan = verb
los perros = subject

A él le gustan las películas españolas. (He likes Spanish movies.)
Literal translation: Spanish movies are pleasing to him.
A él le = indirect object
gustan = verb
las películas españolas = subject

See the difference in how the sentence is constructed? In “I like dogs,” I is the subject. But in the Spanish equivalence, “dogs” is the subject. So our English object becomes the Spanish subject! Now just give yourself a minute to wrap your head around that.

Once you understand the difference, it’s not too difficult, but initially getting used to the change in structure can take some time.

There are two very important things that you need to remember if you want to use gustar and other similar verbs:

1. The English subject will always correspond to the Spanish indirect object:

I like apples → Me gustan las manzanas.
(Apples are pleasing to me.)

You like apples → Te gustan las manzanas.
(Apples are pleasing to you.)

You (pl.) like apples → Os gustan las manzanas.
(Apples are pleasing to you guys.)

2. The verb in Spanish will always have one of two possible forms: singular (gusta) or plural (gustan). When the subject is singular (the thing that is liked), use gusta, and when the subject is plural, use gustan.

Me gusta la manzana (I like the apple.)
The subject “apple” is singular.

Me gusta comer la manzana (I like to eat the apple).
When the subject is an infinitive (in this case, comer), we use the singular.

Me gustan las manzanas (I like the apples).
The subject “apples” is plural.

Me gusta comer las manzanas. (I like to eat the apples.)
We have an infinitive as our subject again, so we need to use the singular gusta!

There are sometimes situations when we want to emphasize who is doing the liking. In those cases, we may add a prepositional phrase with “a” at the beginning of the sentence:

A mí me gustan las manzanas.

A ti te gustan las manzanas.

A ellos les gustan las manzanas.

If this is the first you’ve seen of gustar, stick with the information above until you’re comfortable with the construction.

For curious and more advanced learners, know that there is a similar verb in Spanish, gustarse, which is a reflexive verb. Many people use it incorrectly thinking this is the real infinitive of the verb gustar, but it is not!

As a reflexive verb, the verb gustarse has the same direct object and subject:

Yo me gusto. (I like myself).

te gustas. (You like yourself).

Él se gusta. (He likes himself).

Finally, you may be wondering how you can say in Spanish that you like somebody. This is probably the most complicated part of all this, but pay attention and you will be flirting in Spanish in no time!

Just take a look at these examples and explanations to get the picture:

Me gustas (tú) (I like you.)
Literally: You are pleasing to me.

Te gusta (él) (You like him.)
Literally: He is pleasing to you.

Nos gustan (ellos) (We like them.)
Literally: They are pleasing to us.

And now you are ready to go! Remember that Spanish grammar is not a monster. There may be times when you feel lost (which is natural, by the way), but if you keep in mind the above rules, life will be easier for you.

Here’s something to try: Step away from this post, let it all sink in, practice by watching your favorite shows and movies in Spanish, and then come back and re-read this article in a week or two. I think you’ll enjoy how much clearer it all is!

And now give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back, because you’re that much closer to having tackled Spanish’s trickiest grammar topics. Well done!

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