Ways to Learn Pesky Irregular Verbs

Unlock the Key to the Verbs and You Can Unlock the Language

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Spanish conjugation has similarities to that of Latin. Photo by Geraldford; licensed via Creative Commons.

Learning the Spanish conjugation of verbs can seem cumbersome for those of us who are native English speakers. Most forms of English verbs vary little, we often add a "-s" or "-es" in the third-person singular and add "-ed" for the simple past tense.

In Spanish, by comparison, verbs undergo many changes. If you can unlock the key to verbs, then you can unlock the key to the language.

Regular verbs, meaning verbs with three common endings, -ar, -er and -ir that are conjugated or change the same way according to their ending, can take on 16 different forms due to changes in tense, mood or inflection.

Irregular verbs, may seem even more insurmountable. Irregular verbs can have more than 50 different patterns.

What follows are some handy tips for handling irregular verbs. Thankfully, there are few patterns that emerge that can help Spanish learners grasp irregular verb changes.

Irregular Verbs Are Common

Since many irregular verbs are commonly used, it will not take long until the irregular forms come naturally. English provides a good example of this. The English verb, "to be," is perhaps the most commonly used verb in English. Its conjugation is irregular, too. "Am, is, are" are all forms of the verb.

In Spanish, the verb "to be," has two forms that are both irregular. Let's look at one form, ser, which is the permanent form. The conjugation is not regular, and like English, the forms must be memorized. An example of ser translated into the indicative, present tense is soy, meaning "am," eres, meaning "are" and es, meaning "is." 

Irregular Verbs Can Follow Regular Patterns

A number of verbs with an e in the stem change to an -ie- form when that syllable is emphasized. Thus calentar becomes calienta, comenzar becomes comienza and perder becomes pierde. All follow a similar pattern in certain conjugations. In some ways, when you learn one irregular verb you will also learn dozens more.

Irregular Verbs Have Many Similarities

Many irregular verbs have similarities, most notably, verbs that are irregular in the future tense are irregular in the same way in the conditional form. For example, decir, "to tell," becomes diría in the first-person conditional and diré in the first-person future. Another example of this is hacer, "to do," becomes haría in the first-person conditional and haré in the first-person future. In these examples, for decir, the -ec- in the stem turns into -ir- and for hacer, the -ac- in the stem turns into -ir-. The ending gets dropped and gets conjugated according to the regular ending changes in the conditional and future tense for -ir and -er.

Look at Pronunciations

Some verbs are irregular only in their spelling. A good example of this is the verb sacar, meaning "to take out," which becomes saqué in the first-person preterite. If sacar was conjugated using the regular -ar verb change, it would be sacé, which is not a Spanish spelling. It looks and sounds incorrect in Spanish. This skill will take some time to acquire since pronunciations will start to look or sound incorrect the more a speaker practices Spanish.

Most Used Irregular Verbs

Irregular VerbMeaning
Ser or EstarTo be
Haber or TenerTo have
HacerTo do
DecirTo say, to tell
SentirTo feel
PonerTo put
SeguirTo follow
IrTo go
VerTo see
SaberTo know
QuererTo want
DarTo give