How To Use Auxiliary Verbs in Spanish

They are also known as helping verbs.

Uruguayan flag next to lighthouse.
La bandera uruguaya está ondeando. (The Uruguayan flag is waving.).

Krzysztof Dydynski / Getty Images

An auxiliary verb is one that is used with a main verb to help indicate its tense or otherwise explain the way in which the verb is understood. As such, the auxiliary verb often doesn't have any meaning in itself, only in how it affects the main verb. The auxiliary verb, sometimes known as a helping verb, and the main verb together form what is known as a compound verb.

For example, in the sentence "I have studied" and its Spanish equivalent, "he estudiado," "have" and he are auxiliary verbs. The main verbs "studied" and estudiado describe the action that is performed, in this case studying, but they don't give any information about who studied or when. That information is provided by the auxiliary verbs.

Spanish and English Auxiliary Verbs Contrasted

Auxiliary verbs are used much more often in English than they are in Spanish ​since Spanish is able to use conjugation to indicate tenses that sometimes are expressed in English with auxiliary verbs. For example, the future tense in English uses the auxiliary verb "will" as in "I will study." But Spanish needs no auxiliary verb in this case, as the future is expressed through a verb ending: an é is added to estudiar to make estudiaré. English also uses the auxiliary verb "do" to form many questions, as in "Do you study?" Such an auxiliary isn't needed in Spanish: ¿Estudias?

English also uses "did" to form a type of preterite tense, as in the sentence "I did study," which adds emphasis to the standard preterite used in "I studied." Spanish doesn't have a direct equivalent, so the compound preterite of English is translated with the simple preterite, or estudié for "I did study." English also uses "did" for the negative preterite, as in "I did not study," which Spanish forms simply by using the adverb no: No estudié.

Sometimes, however, auxiliary verbs can be used in the same way in both languages. For example, the "is" in "she is studying" could be expressed in Spanish using está: Ella está estudiando. Even in this case, however, Spanish speakers usually would use the simple present: Ella estudia.

English Auxiliaries and Their Equivalents

Here are the most English auxiliaries and how they are most often translated to Spanish.

  • be (when followed by a gerund): estar followed by a present participle (also known as a gerund)
  • be (when followed by a past participle to form the passive voice): ser followed by a past participle, or use of the reflexive verb
  • do (for adding emphasis): not translated
  • do (in questions): not translated
  • can (followed by the main verb): poder followed by an infinitive
  • have (followed by the past participle): haber
  • may (when used similarly to "can"): poder
  • may (when seeking permission): translated for meaning depending on the context
  • ought, should: deber
  • will: future tense
  • would: see lesson on translating "would"

The Auxiliary Verbs of Spanish

Although the auxiliary verbs of Spanish, known as verbos auxiliares, perform a similar function to English auxiliaries, they include verbs that have English equivalents but aren't always thought of as auxiliary verbs in English. In Spanish grammar, the main thing that makes a verb and auxiliary verb is that is precedes an impersonal verb form, namely an infinitive, a past participle, or a gerund. Dozens of verbs are used that way.

For example, in the sentence "estaban durmiendo" (they were sleeping), estaban precedes a gerund (also known as present participle).

An example of a Spanish auxiliary verb that isn't thought of an auxiliary verb in English is empezar, meaning to begin. It is used before an infinitive, as in "Empezaron estudiar" (they began to study).

Some of the Spanish verbs exist in compound forms. A very common one is tener que, used to express obligation: Tengo que estudiar. (I have to study.)

Here are some of the most common Spanish auxiliary verbs that aren't listed in the above section. Note that many of them are sometimes used as main verbs rather than auxiliaries. Forms of "do" are used in the translations for clarity.

  • acabar (present tense) de + past participle (to have recently done)
  • andar + present participle (to go about done)
  • alcanzar + infinitive (to manage to do)
  • comenzar + infinitive (to begin doing)
  • echar a + infinitive (to begin doing)
  • haber de + infinitive (to have to do)
  • parar de + infinitive (to stop doing)
  • resultar + infinitive (to end up doing)
  • quedar en + infinitive (to arrange to do )
  • seguir + gerund (to keep on doing, to continue to do)

Sample Sentences Using Auxiliary Verbs

Auxiliary verbs are in boldface; note that sometimes an auxiliary is used in one language but not the other.

  • He comprado los medicamentos. (I have bought the medicine.)
  • Anda pensando en la fiesta de graduación. (He goes about thinking about the graduation party.)
  • Estamos celebrando. (We are celebrating.)
  • No trabaja. (He does not work.)
  • No saldré hasta mañana por la tarde. (I will not leave until tomorrow afternoon.)
  • Puedo nadar. (I can swim.)
  • Los que pararon de fumar tuvieron un incremento de peso. (Those who quit smoking gained weight.)
  • Suelo manejar rápido. (I usually drive fast.)

Key Takeaways

  • In both English and Spanish, auxiliary verbs are used for a main verb to provide information about who or what performed the verb's action, or when.
  • English often uses auxiliary verbs to differentiate verb tenses in cases where Spanish uses conjugation.
  • Not all auxiliary verbs are translated to the other language using auxiliary verbs.