All of the following sentences have two things in common.
See if you can spot ’em.
“Can you help me, please?”
“How much does this cost?”
“Repeat that, please.”
“I want to go home!”
First, they are all very useful phrases that frequently come up in casual conversation.
And second, they would all be impossible to say in Spanish without the use of stem-changing verbs!
Not quite regular but also not irregular, stem-changing verbs show up all the time in Spanish. They can be frustrating to memorize, but learning them can make all the difference in your spoken and written Spanish.
18 Commonly Used Spanish Stem-changing Verbs
What Are Stem-changing Verbs?
Spanish infinitive verbs consist of two parts: a stem and an ending. For example, the regular verb hablar (to speak) consists of the stem habl- and the ending -ar. To conjugate hablar in the present tense, simply take the stem and add the correct ending (o, a, as, amos, áis, an).
Stem-changing verbs do not follow this pattern. As you may have guessed, the stems of these verbs undergo a change when conjugated.
There are three basic types of stem-changing verbs.
1. e-ie stem-changing verbs: verbs in which an e in the stem changes to an ie.
2. e-i stem-changing verbs: verbs in which an e in the stem changes to an i.
3. o-ue stem-changing verbs: verbs in which an o in the stem changes to a ue.
Why Are Some Verbs Stem-changing?
Good question! Unfortunately, there is no rhyme or reason as to why some verbs are stem-changing and others aren’t. You just have to memorize them. As you continue speaking, listening and practicing, stem-changing verbs will become second nature.
One trick to increase your memory for stem-changing verbs is to pay attention to prefixes.
If a verb is stem-changing, any form of that verb with a prefix will also be stem-changing. Therefore, if you learn the stem change for tener (to have), you will also have learned the stem changes for the related verbs mantener (to maintain), entretener (to entertain), contener (to contain) and obtener (to obtain).
If you know the stem change for decir (to say), you also know the stem changes for contradecir (to contradict), predecir (to predict) and bendecir (to bless).
How Are Stem-changing Verbs Conjugated?
The Present Simple
Like all other verbs in Spanish, stem-changing verbs are conjugated by removing the –ar, -er or -ir ending from an infinitive and adding the appropriate ending. In the case of stem-changing verbs, there is just one intermediate step: You must also make the appropriate change to the stem.
In the present simple, the stem change applies to all forms of the verb except for the nosotros and vosotros forms. For nosotros and vosotros, keep the stem the same and treat it as you would any regular verb.
Let’s look at the e-ie verb empezar (to begin), the e-i verb repetir (to repeat) and the o-ue verb poder (to be able to).
|Empezar (e-ie)||Repetir (e-i)||Poder (o-ue)|
The Past Simple
In the past simple, only –ir verbs are stem-changing, and only in two persons: the él/ella/usted form and the ellos/ellas/ustedes form.
In the past simple, the stem changes are also different than in the present simple.
For e-i stem-changing verbs, change the e to an i (like in the present tense).
For e-ie stem-changing verbs, change the e to an i.
For o-ue stem-changing verbs, change the o to a u.
Let’s look at a chart using the e-i verb pedir (to ask), the e-ie verb sentir and the o-ue verb dormir (to sleep).
|Pedir (e-i)||Sentir (e-ie)||Dormir (o-ue)|
The Present Continuous
To review, the present continuous tense is composed of two parts: a conjugation of the verb estar (to be) and a gerund. English gerunds are verbs that end in -ing. In Spanish, they end in –ando or –iendo.
Only gerunds for –ir verbs undergo a stem change. The stem changes are the same as the past simple. Therefore,
For e-i stem-changing verbs, change the e to an i. The verb pedir becomes pidiendo.
For e-ie stem-changing verbs, change the e to an i. The verb sentir becomes sintiendo.
For o-ue stem-changing verbs, change the o to a u. The verb dormir becomes durmiendo.
18 Stem-changing Verbs to Learn
Meaning: To begin.
Hoy empiezo mi nuevo trabajo. (Today I begin my new job.)
Tip: Remember that the z sound in Spanish does not sound like an English “z.” In Peninsular Spanish, it sounds like the th in “tooth,” and in Latin American Spanish, it sounds like the “s” in “house.”
Meaning: To feel (an emotion)
Se sienten muy felices porque han ganado el partido. (They feel very happy because they have won the game.)
Tip: Me siento means “I feel,” but it also means “I sit down”—from the verb sentarse, which is also stem-changing!
Meaning: To want
¿Quieres ir al cine? (Do you want to go to the movies?)
Tip: Use te quiero to express love to a romantic partner or a very close friend.
Meaning: To think
Ella piensa mucho en los demás. (She thinks a lot about others.)
Tip: To say “I think that,” use the phrase pienso que.
Pienso que voy a llegar sobre las 8. (I think that I am going to arrive around 8:00.)
Meaning: To lose
Ella pierde su móvil muy a menudo. (She loses her phone frequently.)
Tip: The reflexive verb perderse means “to get lost.” Siempre me pierdo en Lisboa porque las calles son muy estrechas. (I always get lost in Lisbon because the streets are very narrow.)
Meaning: To prefer
Me gustan las fresas, pero prefiero las manzanas. (I like strawberries, but I prefer apples.)
Tip: When using the verb preferir to describe actions, remember to use the word que and the subjunctive mood.
Prefiero que no vayas al concierto con él. (I prefer that you don’t go to the concert with him.)
Meaning: To have
¿Tienes un bolígrafo? (Do you have a pen?)
Tip: Tener que means “to have to (do something).”
Tienen que ir al gimnasio mañana. (They have to go to the gym tomorrow.)
Meaning: To be able to
Ellos no pueden venir porque tienen que trabajar. (They can’t come because they have to work.)
Tip: You can also use the verb poder to politely ask somebody to do something.
¿Puedes cerrar la puerta, por favor? (Can you close the door, please?)
Meaning: To tend to do something, to do something habitually.
Él suele llegar tarde. (He tends to arrive late.)
Tip: When using soler with another verb, remember that the second verb must always be in the infinitive.
Meaning: To return
¿Vuelves a los Estados Unidos después de tu viaje? (Do you return to the United States after your trip?)
Tip: Volver is used to describe a person’s return. To talk about returning an object—for example, a library book—use the verb devolver (also stem-changing!).
Meaning: To move
Mueve los brazos cuando camina. (He moves his arms when he walks.)
Tip: To translate the English word “move” as in “to move to a new home,” use the reflexive verb mudarse instead of mover.
Meaning: To sleep
Cada noche duermo 8 horas. (Every night, I sleep 8 hours.)
Tip: The reflexive verb dormirse means “to fall asleep.”
Se durmió a las 10 de la noche. (She fell asleep at 10:00 PM.)
Meaning: To cost
La camisa cuesta diez dólares. (the shirt costs ten dollars.)
Tip: Costar can also me used to describe something that you find difficult.
Me cuesta entenderla porque habla muy rápido. (It’s hard for me to understand her because she speaks very quickly.)
Meaning: To ask, to request, to order.
Cada vez que voy a ese restaurante, pido la sopa de pollo. (Every time I go to that restaurant, I order the chicken soup.)
Tip: Pedir means “to ask (for something).” Preguntar means “to ask (a question).”
Meaning: To follow, to continue
Mis gatos siempre me siguen. (My cats always follow me around.)
Le duele la pierna, pero sigue jugando al fútbol. (Her leg hurts, but she continues to play football.)
Tip: Like the English verb “to follow,” you can use the verb seguir to mean “to understand.”
¿De qué hablas? No te sigo. (What are you talking about? I’m not following you.)
Meaning: To repeat
La chica repite lo que dice su hermano. (The girl repeats what her brother says.)
Tip: The verb repetir also means “to have second helpings (of a food or drink).” This is very useful to know when having a meal at the home of a Spanish-speaking family!
Meaning: To say
Ella dice que a su padre no le gusta la película. (She says that her father doesn’t like the movie.)
Tip: Decir is an irregular verb beyond also being stem-changing! The present-tense yo form of decir is digo.
Meaning: To smile.
Sonrío cuando te veo. (I smile when I see you.)
Tip: Sonreír resembles the verb reír (to laugh). Reír is also a stem-changing verb, and it follows the same conjugation pattern as sonreír.
With stem-changing verbs, you’ll be able to speak about your thoughts, your abilities, your preferences, your wants and the things that make you smile. Clearly, this is a very useful class of verbs, so pull out those flashcards and start memorizing!
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