Introduction to Spanish Verb Conjugation

English conjugates verbs too, but not nearly as much

Spanish spoken here
Letrero en Chicago. (Sign in Chicago.).

Seth Anderson/ Creative Commons.

The concept of verb conjugation in Spanish is the same as in English—only the details are far more complicated.

Verb conjugation refers to the process of changing a verb form to provide information about the action being performed. The conjugated form of the verb can give us some idea about who is performing the action, when the action is being performed, and the relation of the verb to other parts of the sentence.

To better understand the concept of conjugation in Spanish, let's look at some conjugation forms in English and compare them with some Spanish forms. In the examples below, the English verbs are explained first, followed by the corresponding Spanish forms. If you're a beginner, don't worry for now about what terms like "present tense," "auxiliary verb," and "indicative" mean. If you can't understand what they refer to by the examples given, you will learn them in your later studies. This lesson isn't intended to be an exhaustive analysis of the subject, but rather just enough that you can grasp the concept of how conjugation works.

Infinitives

  • To talk is the infinitive form of the verb in English. It is the basic form of the verb, by itself conveying no information about the verb action. It can be used as a noun, as in "To talk in public is difficult." (Some grammarians classify talk by itself as the infinitive).
  • The same things are true of Spanish infinitives; they convey no information about the verb action, and they can be used as nouns. Infinitives in Spanish always end in -ar, -er, or -ir. The verb for "to talk" is hablar.

Present-tense Indicative Verbs

  • I talk, you talk, he talks, she talks, we talk, they talk. In English, an "-s" is added at the end of most verbs to indicate that it is being used in the third-person, present-tense singular form. No suffix is added to indicate any subject other than the third person (someone other than the person speaking, also known as the first person, or the person being spoken to, the second person). Thus we say, "I speak, you speak, he speaks, she speaks, we speak, they speak."
  • In Spanish, various endings are attached to verbs to indicate who is speaking for first-, second-, and third-person forms in the singular and plural. For regular verbs, the -ar, -er or -ir at the end is replaced with the appropriate ending. Examples: yo hablo, I talk; hablas, you (singular) talk; él habla, he talks; ella habla, she talks; nosotros hablamos, we talk; ellos hablan, they talk. In many cases the verb form gives enough information that it isn't necessary to indicate with a subject noun or pronoun who is performing the action. Example: canto, I sing.

Future-tense Indicative

  • I will talk, you will talk, he will talk, we will talk, they will talk. In English, the future tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb "will."
  • For the future tense, Spanish uses a set of verb endings that indicate who is performing the action as well as indicate that it is happening in the future. No auxiliary verb is used. Examples: hablaré, I will speak; hablarás, you (singular) will speak; él hablará, he will speak; hablaremos, we will speak; hablarán, they will speak.

Preterite (Simple Past Tense)

  • I talked, you talked, he talked, we talked, they talked. In English, the simple past tense usually is formed by adding "-ed."
  • Spanish endings for the preterite tense also indicate who performed the action. Examples: hablé, I talked; hablaste, you (singular) talked; habló, she talked; hablamos, we talked; hablaron, they talked.

Present perfect (Another Past Tense)

  • I have talked, you have talked, he has talked, we have talked, they have talked. In English, the present perfect is formed by using the present tense of "to have" and adding a participle, which usually ends in "-ed."
  • The rule in Spanish is basically the same. Forms of haber are followed by a past participle, which usually ends in -ado or -ido. Examples: he hablado, I have spoken; él ha hablado, he has spoken.

The Gerund and Progressive Tenses

  • I am talking, you are talking, she is talking, we are talking, they are talking. English forms a gerund by adding "-ing" to the end of verbs and uses it in conjunction with forms of "to be" to indicate a continuity of action.
  • Spanish has a corresponding form that ends in -ndo and is used with forms of estar ("to be"). But it is used less often in Spanish than in English. Examples: estoy hablando, I am talking; estuvo hablando, he was talking.

Subjunctive Mood

  • If I were rich ... If that be the case ... English sometimes uses the subjunctive mood to indicate something that is hypothetical or contrary to fact. Distinctive forms for the subjunctive mood, although they used to be somewhat common, are nearly absent from modern English conversation.
  • Spanish also uses a subjunctive mood, but it is far more common than in English. Going into details about its use is beyond the scope of this lesson, but it is usually used in dependent clauses. Example: In Quiero que ella hable ("I want her to talk," or, literally, "I want that she talk."), hable is in the subjunctive mood.

Commands (Imperative Mood)

  • Talk. English has a simple command form based on an unconjugated form of the verb. To give a command, you simply use the infinitive without the "to."
  • Spanish has both formal and familiar requests that are indicated by verb endings. Examples: hable (usted), habla (tú), (you) talk. In some circumstances, such as in recipes, the infinitive can also function as a type of command.

Other Verb Forms

  • I could talk, I would talk, I could have talked, I will have talked, I was talking, I will be talking. English uses several auxiliary verbs to convey a sense of time for a verb's action.
  • Spanish uses the verb haber and/or a variety of endings to convey a similar sense of time. Most learning Spanish as a second language learn these forms at an intermediate level.

Irregular Verbs

Many of the most common verbs in English are conjugated irregularly. For example, we say "have seen" instead of "have sawed" and "heard" instead of "herd."

It is also true that the most common verbs in Spanish typically are irregular. For example, "seen" in Spanish is visto (from the verb ver) instead of verido, and "I will have" is tendré (from the verb tener) instead of teneré. Spanish also has many verbs, not all of them common, that are irregular in predictable ways, such as an e in the verb consistently changing to ie when stressed.

Key Takeaways

  • Both English and Spanish use verb conjugation, which is changing the form of a verb to indicate how it is being used.
  • Conjugation is used much more frequently in Spanish than it is in English.
  • English is more likely to use auxiliary verbs than Spanish in a way that often fulfills the same function as conjugation.