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Mastering Spanish Verb Conjugations: The Past, Present, Imperfect and Future Tenses Made Simple

Sigh, conjugations.

Do you ever feel like you just don’t have the time?

Even the word “conjugation” is complicated.

It means so much more than changing the base form of a verb.

When you conjugate a verb, you operate on a level of sophistication you might not even realize. Those small changes carry a lot of meaning!

Not only do you ask yourself who the subject is when you conjugate a verb, but you have to keep in mind the number of subjects, the tense (when an action will take place) and the mood, or purpose, of the sentence (i.e., make a statement, ask a question, propose a hypothetical situation).

Without a doubt, understanding how to conjugate a verb can be the most stressful part of learning a second language and keeps many from achieving the confidence they need to be fluent.

Remember, we’ve all been there and we have to start somewhere. So let’s just take it nice and easy and start with the most frequent verb tenses and regular verbs (you can tackle irregular verbs later). Once you get these, you’ll be constructing sentences in no time!
 


 

Mastering Spanish Verb Conjugations: The Past, Present, Imperfect and Future Tenses Made Simple

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Spanish Conjugation Basics

Spanish Personal Pronouns

To learn the basics of Spanish conjugation, let’s start with personal pronouns first.

Unlike English, which only has eight personal pronouns, Spanish has 12! But don’t panic. Over half of them exist in English, and the others are basically feminine versions of the masculine pronouns.

Here you have the 12 Spanish personal pronouns and their translations:

  • Yo — I
  • Él — He
  • Ella — She
  • — You (singular, informal)
  • Usted — You (singular, formal)
  • Nosotros — We (all-male or mixed group)
  • Nosotras — We (all female)
  • Vosotros — You (plural, informal, all-male or mixed group)
  • Vosotras — You (plural, informal, all female)
  • Ellos — They (all-male or mixed group)
  • Ellas — They (all female)
  • Ustedes — You (plural, formal)

Spanish is a Romance language, and as such, it treats mixed groups of people as masculine, and all-female groups as feminine. So if you have a group formed by Paul, Peter and Mary, you’ll have to use nosotros, vosotros or ellos, while if you have a group formed by Anne, Mary and Caroline, you’ll use nosotras, vosotras or ellas.

There are two pronouns (usted and ustedes) that don’t exist in English at all. We use them in formal conversation, when we aren’t familiar with the person or people we’re talking to. They work exactly like the rest of the pronouns, so you don’t have to worry about them too much.

As you will see later on, personal pronouns aren’t compulsory in Spanish. We use them only when we need to. I’m going to use them throughout this post so that you become familiar with them, but remember to drop them as soon as you can.

What Is a Verb Conjugation?

Very simply put, a verb conjugation is the modification of a verb in order for it to convey information about the action.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Verb conjugations, especially in Spanish, give us a whole lot of information about the person, the time and the mood.

Take as an example the verb “to eat,” which is comer in Spanish.

When you say “I eat,” you are saying that the person doing the eating is “I”, and that the action of the verb is in the present tense.

To express all of this in Spanish, change the infinitive comer to the conjugation como, and add the personal pronoun yo (I).

Yo como — I eat.

However, there are two key differences in verb conjugation between English and Spanish, and the sooner you learn about them, the better:

1. Spanish has an ending for each of the personal pronouns, in each of the tenses, in each of the moods.

In English, for example, you say “I ate,” “we ate,” “they ate,” “she ate” and so on. Spanish has a different conjugation for each and every person.

The bad news is that you’ll have to learn a lot of endings at the outset, but the good news is that Spanish endings tell you about the person, the time and the mood of the action. You get a lot of information in one single word!

2. Since the verb conjugation is different for each person, you don’t need to use personal pronouns.

As I mentioned before, we only use personal pronouns when we really have to. Use them only when you want to be clear or specific, or when there can be confusion about the subject.

For example:

Lo compraron. — They bought it.

Notice here that there’s no need for the pronouns ellos or ellas (they), because the subject “they” is implied by the verb ending.

If you really wanted to emphasize who is doing the action, you could add in the pronouns. In this case, something like:

Ellos lo compraron, no nosotras. — It was them who bought it, not us.

Once you have digested this information, you will be more than ready to attack the rest of the post. You will learn about four of the main Spanish tenses (the present simple, the preterite, the imperfect and the future simple). At the end of the post, I’ll briefly mention some other tenses worth knowing if you want to go from learner to master of Spanish.

Enjoy this crazy travel in time!

But first…

Tips and Tools for Spanish Verb Conjugations

As you grow more comfortable with conjugating verbs, keep the following tips and tools in mind.

  • Try writing and speaking (or even just thinking!) in complete sentences. Using the verbs in context is ideal, and the more information you can associate with a verb, the easier it will be for you to remember and recollect what you’ve learned. A perfect way to start is using those verbs in everyday phrases that you use around the house.
  • The Spanish Verb Conjugation online tool will do all of the work for you. With this tool, you can simply type out the Spanish verb you want to see and it will lay out the verb conjugated for each subject and to every tense there is to learn. Yes, it works on the irregular verbs, too!
  • For more on-the-go studying, there’s also this nifty book of Spanish verbs. It contains 501 Spanish verbs, with a complete listing of the tenses and conjugations.

spanish verb conjugations

Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.

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Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store for iOS and Android devices.

To practice your verb conjugation with FluentU’s program, watch actively with a pen and paper nearby, stopping at verbs and trying to deconstruct them. Which tense is being used?

Make your own verb vocabulary list (or use any of FluentU’s premade flashcard decks). Can you properly conjugate all the words on your vocabulary list?

How to Conjugate Verbs in Spanish

El Presente (The Present)

To be technical, there are a few varieties of the present tense. But here we’re going to learn the simple present, which will likely be the one that you’ll encounter the most.

For this tense, you need to learn quite a few new conjugations, but don’t worry, most of them follow a similar pattern and it only gets easier as you go.

How to conjugate verbs in the present tense:

1. Pay attention to the performer of the verb. There are six different ways the verb can be conjugated, depending on which of these is the performer:

  • yo — I
  • — you (informal)
  • él/ella/usted — he/she/you (formal)
  • nosotros/nosotras — we
  • vosotros/vosotras — you all (informal)
  • ellos/ellas/ustedes — them / you all (formal)

2. Focus on the last two letters of the verb you want to conjugate. All verbs end in either -ar, -er or -ir.

3. Drop those last two letters of the verb and add the appropriate ending.

You’ll see the three types of regular verbs (-ar, -er, -ir) conjugated below with the appropriate ending.

Tomar (to take)

  • yo tomo
  • tú tomas
  • él/ella/usted toma
  • nosotros/nosotras tomamos
  • vosotros/vosotras tomáis
  • ellos/ellas/ustedes toman

Comer (to eat)

  • yo como
  • tú comes
  • él/ella/usted come
  • nosotros/nosotras comemos
  • vosotros/vosotras coméis
  • ellos/ellas/ustedes comen

Escribir (to write)

  • yo escribo
  • tú escribes
  • el/ella/usted escribe
  • nosotros/nosotras escribimos
  • vosotros/vosotras escribís
  • ellos/ellas/ustedes escriben

Examples:

  • Juan toma café con el desayuno. (Juan takes/drinks coffee with breakfast.)
  • Comemos helado en el verano. (We eat ice cream in the summer.)
  • Yo escribo en mi diario todas las noches. (I write in my diary every night.)

Notes:

  • All of the present-tense conjugations have the same first-person conjugation, regardless of their endings.
  • The conjugations for -er and -ir are mostly the same in this tense. The only change is in the nosotros/nosotras and vosotros/vosotras forms.
  • These endings are only guaranteed to work with regular verbs. There are many irregular and stem-changing verbs in the Spanish language and they can stray from the above rules.

El Pretérito (The Preterite)

While there are different conjugations that can denote that something happened in the past, the preterite tense is the simplest one, equivalent to when we just add an -ed to the end of a word and call it done in English.

For this tense, to cover all of the regular verbs in the preterite tense, you’ll need to learn 12 new conjugations. Sounds like a lot, but thankfully they’re not too different from what you’ve already learned.

How to conjugate verbs in the preterite tense:

And conjugating verbs in the preterite tense follows the same procedure as the present tense. The only difference is that -er and -ir verbs use all of the same endings in this tense.

The Endings:

  • For -ar verbs:
    • é
    • aste
    • ó
    • amos
    • asteis
    • aron
  • For -er/-ir verbs:
    • í
    • iste
    • imos
    • isteis
    • ieron

Examples:

  • Anoche canté mi canción favorita. (Last night I sang my favorite song.)
  • Ayer escribí a mi tía. (Yesterday I wrote to my aunt.)
  • Los chicos comieron en la cafetería esta mañana. (The boys ate in the cafeteria this morning.)

Notes:

  • The accents are very important in the preterite tense. Without them, some of them would be exactly the same as present tense conjugations.
  • The accents are used only in the first and third person.
  • The endings for nosotros/nosotras in the preterite tense are the same as those used in the present tense.

El Imperfecto (The Imperfect)

We use the Spanish imperfect to talk about habitual actions in the past, to describe an ongoing past action that was interrupted by another sudden action and to make general descriptions of the past.

For example, if you want to say that you went to the gym once last week, use the preterite tense. But if you want to tell someone that you used to go to the gym every single day when you were younger, that’s where the imperfect comes in.

How to conjugate verbs in the imperfect tense:

In order to conjugate verbs in the imperfect, you only have to remember there are two groups: the –aba group and the -ía group. Infinitives ending in -ar belong to the -aba group, while infinitives ending in -er/-ir belong to the -ía group.

The endings:

  • For -ar verbs:
    • aba
    • abas
    • aba
    • ábamos
    • abais
    • aban
  • For -er/-ir verbs:
    • ía
    • ías
    • ía
    • íamos
    • íais
    • ían

Examples:

  • Visitaba a su abuela cada domingo después del almuerzo. (He used to visit his grandma every Sunday after lunch.)
  • Cuando me estaba duchando, el teléfono sonó. (When I was having a bath, the phone rang.)
  • La casa tenía tres ventanas enormes. (The house had three huge windows.)

Notes:

  • As you can see from the above examples, English doesn’t have a direct equivalent to the imperfect tense. In English, we generally use constructions like “was…” or “used to…” to express the same concept. As you’re learning, thinking about those English phrases can help you remember when to use the imperfect.
  • Pay attention to accents. While the -aba group only has an accent mark in nosotros, the -ía group has an accent mark in every person!
  • The endings of the -ía group are exactly the same as the Spanish conditional tense endings. The only difference is that while the imperfect removes -er/-ir before adding the endings, the conditional does not (yo comía — I used to eat vs. yo comería — I would eat). So, if you master the imperfect, you’re really getting a two-for-one tense deal.
  • There are only three irregular verbs in this tense. Yes, only three! They are ir (to go), ser (to be) and ver (to see, to watch).

El Futuro (The Future)

Luckily, we get a short break when learning the simple future tense.

Forming this future tense is a much easier process than most of the others.

For this tense, we’ll be using very similar endings to what you’ve just learned, they’re just put together differently.

How to conjugate verbs in the future tense:

1. Pay attention to the performer of the verb. Just as in the present and preterite tense, you’ll need to know which pronoun to use.

2. Do not remove the endings of the verbs. In this tense, it doesn’t matter whether the verb ends in -ar, -er or –ir, the endings will stay the same.

3. Find the ending that matches. Attach the corresponding ending to the performer of the action and attach directly onto the end of the verb.

The Endings:

  • For all verbs:
    • é
    • ás
    • á
    • emos
    • éis
    • án

Examples:

  • En enero viajaré a Alemania. (In January I will travel to Germany.)
  • ¿Quién ganará el juego? (Who will win the game?)

Notes:

  • It can be a little confusing at first. This tense can be used in different ways than we’re used to and can also vary in usage from region to region.
  • Future tense is reserved for a slightly more distant future. This tense is often not used for something that will happen in the very near future (as in hours or minutes). When something is happening relatively soon, but still somewhat in the future, you’d more often use the present tense, or the ir + a + infinitive form, to describe this.
  • For asking a person if they’re willing to do something, this tense is usually not used.
  • This tense can be used for expressing the probability of something and you can also use it to ask about uncertain situations: ¿Por qué será? (Why would that be?)

Conjugating Other Tenses

As you may already know, Spanish has many other tenses and, yes, we use practically all of them!

We use the present perfect to talk about an action that took place in the past but has an influence in the present.

We use the pluperfect or pluscuamperfecto to talk about an action that took place before another past action.

We use the present progressive to talk about things that are happening at the moment of speaking.

And that’s just a couple of them!

We take endings so seriously that we even have a set of endings for positive commands and another set for negative commands. And then there’s the subjunctive mood, which is a whole new world in itself.

Learn them one step at a time, and remember you can also use conjugators to help you get started.

 

¡Felicidades! Has terminado. (Congrats! You’ve finished.)

Well, for now..

That last one was an example of the past perfect tense, which is a post for another day!

But first give yourself a pat on the back and enjoy what you’ve learned. Your Spanish can now travel through time!

Happy studies and ¡buena suerte! (Good luck!)
 

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