Mastering the Spanish Present Tense: A Beginner’s Guide
You finally understand the rules of gender, you can tell your Spanish listening and conversation skills have gotten better, and you’re watching plenty of Spanish movies.
But something’s missing—your grammar is a mess.
If you missed your verb conjugation class at school and still can’t tell the difference between an -AR and an -IR verb, help is here.
Using this guide, you can become the next master of the Spanish present tense!
- The Present Tense in Spanish
- Irregular Verbs in the Spanish Present Tense
- Spelling Rules in the Spanish Present Tense
- Why Is Spanish Grammar Important?
The Present Tense in Spanish
All Spanish verbs fall into one of just three categories when it comes to their endings in the infinitive:
- Those that end in -AR, like bailar (to dance)
- Verbs that end in -ER, such as comer (to eat)
- Verbs ending in -IR, as in vivir (to live)
In order to make the present tense in Spanish you must use the root (stem) of the word and then add on the appropriate ending, according to the subject and verb type (-AR/-ER/-IR).
The root or stem of the verb is the part before -ar/-er/-ir. Here are the stems of the three Spanish verbs we saw above:
- bailar → bail-
- vivir → viv-
- comer → com-
And then the endings change for each verb type, so let’s take a look, beginning with our -ar verbs.
-AR Verbs: How to Conjugate in Present Tense
-AR verb endings are as you see in the chart below:
So take the verb bailar and we get:
bailo, as in: Bailo todas las mañanas (I dance every morning).
bailas, as in: Bailas todas las mañanas (You dance every morning).
baila, as in: Baila todas las mañanas (He/she/it/you singular formal dances every morning).
bailamos, as in: Bailamos todas las mañanas (We dance every morning).
bailáis, as in: Bailáis todas las mañanas (You (plural) dance every morning).
bailan, as in: Bailan todas las mañanas (They dance every morning).
-ER Verbs: How to Conjugate in Present Tense
Here are the endings for -ER verbs:
You’ll notice that the endings for the -ER verbs are almost the same as the -AR verbs, except they use an “e” and not an “a”. The first person is the same.
According to these rules, the sentence “I eat a hamburger” can be changed as follows, depending on who gets to eat the burger:
Como una hamburguesa (I eat a hamburger).
Comes una hamburguesa (You eat a hamburger).
Come una hamburguesa (He/she/it eats a hamburger).
Comemos una hamburguesa (We eat a hamburger).
Coméis una hamburguesa (You guys eat a hamburger).
Comen una hamburguesa (They eat a hamburger).
And now that everyone wants a hamburger, let’s move on to the the -IR verbs!
-IR Verbs: How to Conjugate in Present Tense
The -IR endings are very similar to the -ER endings; the only differences are in the nosotros and vosotros forms of the verbs.
So vivir is conjugated as follows:
Vivo en Buenos Aires (I live in Buenos Aires).
Vives en Buenos Aires (You live in Buenos Aires).
Vive en Buenos Aires (He/she/it lives in Buenos Aires).
Vivimos en Buenos Aires (We live in Buenos Aires).
Vivís en Buenos Aires (You live in Buenos Aires).
Viven en Buenos Aires (They live in Buenos Aires).
The only way you’ll be able to master the present tense is through practice, practice, practice. Do grammar exercises, make up sentences in your head, recite the endings over and over again to yourself. Do whatever works until you can remember which ending is which and apply them appropriately.
It would be great if that were all there is to it, but the fun doesn’t end there. Once you’ve got the regular verb endings down, it’s time to introduce the bane of all language learners’ lives: irregular verbs.
Irregular Verbs in the Spanish Present Tense
Irregular Spanish Present Tense Verbs: Stem-changers
Some verbs change their stem in the present tense. Note that the stems of these verbs change in all forms except nosotros and vosotros. They’re usually categorized by the type of change, for example “o → ue” and “e → ie”.
“o” → “ue” Stem-changing Verbs
Dormir (to sleep)
These stem-changing verbs are often called “boot verbs,” and here’s why: When you organize the verb conjugations into two rows, the forms whose stems change look like a boot.
Let’s take a look at this shape with the verb acostar (to go to bed):
Can you see the boot? The toe of the boot is made by the Uds./ellos/ellas form, acuestan.
Here’s one more o → ue stem-changing verb: volver (to return):
“e” → “ie” Stem-changing Verbs
Another group of stem-changing verbs change from “e “to “ie”. Examples include:
Empezar (to start)
Querer (to want)
Sentir (to feel)
If you’re feeling a little lost, don’t panic. All Spanish learners felt this way at some point, but the good news is that learning all these verbs is possible. Once you get used to the irregular verbs, they’ll come to you naturally and you’ll soon find your own ears wincing when listening to an improperly conjugated verb.
Irregular Spanish Present Tense Verbs: First Person
Other verbs are irregular in the first person, yet regular in all other forms. These are relatively simple to learn.
One example is dar (to give). The first person form is irregular: doy, as in doy un regalo (I give a present), but the other forms are regular:
The verbs poner (to put/place), traer (to bring) and salir (to leave/go out) are sometimes called the “go” or “yo-go” verbs because they end in “-go” in the first person. Poner becomes pongo, traer becomes traigo and salir becomes salgo. All three verbs are regular in all other forms. Here’s poner conjugated, for example:
Other similar verbs are hacer (hago) and tener (tengo).
Decir (digo) and venir (vengo) are both “go” verbs and also stem-changing verbs.
Other irregular verbs in the first person are: ver (to see), which becomes veo, and saber (to know), which becomes sé—as in yo sé, or I know.
Irregular Spanish Present Tense Verbs: Totally Irregular
There are three verbs that are so irregular they get their own special category: ser (to be), estar (to be), and ir (to go).
Ser (to be)
Estar (to be) seems almost normal, until you see the accents.
And ir (to go) is almost unrecognizable:
Spelling Rules in the Spanish Present Tense
Just to confuse matters further, some verbs change their spelling in the present tense. Luckily, there are rules that dictate when this happens.
Verbs ending in -cer/-cir
When the verb ends in a vowel + “cer” or “cir,” you need to change the “c” to “zc” in the first person. For example the verb conocer (to know) becomes: conozco in the first person and is regular in all other forms:
Other verbs that also have this spelling change are traducir (traduzco), aparecer (aparezco), crecer (crezco) and nacer (nazco).
Verbs ending in -ger/-gir
With verbs that end in “-ger” or “-gir” change the “g” to a “j” in the first person.
Examples are escoger (escojo), exigir (exijo), fingir (finjo) and elegir (elijo, which is also a stem-changing verb).
Verbs ending in -guir
Finally, when a verb ends in “-guir” change “gu” to “g” in the first person.
Conseguir becomes consigo.
Seguir becomes sigo (another stem-changing verb).
Distinguir becomes distingo.
Head hurt? Don’t worry. Take a deep breath, make a cup of tea and then work through each of these sections again, taking time to study each part before moving on to the next.
Trust me, it will be worth your time.
Why Is Spanish Grammar Important?
Although vocabulary may often hold the key to making yourself understood—walk into a shop and say pan (bread) for example, and you’ll likely come away with the desired product—grammar is equally crucial to getting your point across.
Consider the following sentence:
“Vivo en Barcelona.”
The verb vivir in this sentence is conjugated in the first person in the present tense, giving us vital information that the person talking currently lives in Barcelona.
If we simply said:
“Vivir en Barcelona.”
Then the listener has no idea who the sentence refers to or whether the speaker is referring to the past, present, future or a hypothetical scenario.
Aside from the communication breakdown mixing up your verbs can cause, conjugating your verbs correctly will make you sound like a much better Spanish speaker. Many native Spanish speakers consider conjugating verbs one of the most challenging aspects of learning their language, so get those verb endings right and you’ll be sure to impress!
Speaking of natives, a great way to learn these concepts is by watching native speakers use them in action. To do that, try reading a good Spanish-language novel or diving into a telenovela.
You could also use a virtual immersion platform. FluentU, for example, takes culturally-relevant short videos and turns them into Spanish lessons. There are annotated captions that let you read along and watch for how the verbs are conjugated.
There are lots of resources out there that will help you make the connection between Spanish conjugations and their meanings, regardless of your learning style.
So don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it right away. With the right combination of study, practice and immersion, you’ll understand the Spanish present tense in no time.
¡Puedes hacerlo!—You can do it!