What Are Verbs, and How Are They Used in Spanish?

Key difference with English involves extent of conjugation

Los dos bailan el tango.
Los dos bailan el tango en las calles de Buenos Aires. (The two dance the tango in the streets of Buenos Aires.).

Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

Verbs are used in Spanish much they same way as they are in English. However, there are some key differences, particularly that Spanish has numerous forms of each verb through a process known as conjugation, while English conjugated forms are typically limited to not more than a handful per verb.

Definition of ‘Verb’

A verb is a part of speech that expresses action, existence, or mode of being.

In both English and Spanish, a verb, to be used in forming a complete sentence, must be accompanied by a noun or pronoun (known as a subject). In Spanish, however, the subject can be implied rather than explicitly stated. So in Spanish a sentence such as "Canta" (he or she sings) is complete while "sings" isn't.

These sample sentences give examples of Spanish verbs performing each of these three functions.

  1. Expressing action: Los dos bailan el tango. (The two are dancing the tango.) Los equipos viajaron a Bolivia. (The teams traveled to Bolivia.)
  2. Indicating an occurrence: Es lo que me pasa cada mañana. (It is what happens to me every morning. Note in this Spanish sentence, there is no equivalent of "it.") El huevo se convirtió en un símbolo de la vida. (The egg became a symbol of life.)
  3. Indicating a mode of being or equivalence: No estoy en casa. (I am not at home.) El color de ojos es un rasgo genético. (Eye color is a genetic trait.)

The Spanish word for "verb" is verbo. Both come the Latin verbum, also the word for verb. Verbum and related words in turn come from an Indo-European word were that meant "to speak" and is related to the English word "word."

Differences Between Spanish and English Verbs


The biggest difference between verbs in English and Spanish is the way they change to show who or what is performing the verb's action and the time the verb's action occurs. This change, a type of inflection, is known as conjugation. For both languages, the conjugation usually involves a change to the end of the verb, but it can also involve a change in the main part of the verb as well.

English, for example, when speaking of something the occurs in the present, adds an -s or -es to most verbs when the action is being performed in the singular third person (or, in other words, by one person or thing that isn't the speaker or the person addressed). The form doesn't change when the person speaking, the person spoken to, or multiple persons or things are performing the action. Thus "walks" can be used when saying that he or she walks, but "walk" is used when referring to the speaker, the listener, or multiple people.

In Spanish, however, there are six forms in the simple present tense: como (I eat), comes (you eat), come (he or she eats), comemos (we eat), coméis (more than one of you eat), and comen (they eat).

Similarly, the conjugation of English changes for the simple past tense simply by added a -d or -ed for regular verbs. Thus the past tense of "walk" is "walked." Spanish, however, changes form depending on who performed the action: comí (I ate), comiste (singular you ate), comió (he or she ate), comemos (we ate), comisteis (plural you ate), comieron (they ate.)

The simple changes mentioned above for English are the only regular conjugated forms other than the addition of "-ing" for the gerund, and "-d" or "-ed" for the past participle, while Spanish typically has more than 40 such forms for most verbs.

Auxiliary Verbs

Because English doesn't have extensive conjugation, it is freer with its use of auxiliary verbs than Spanish is. In English, for example, we can add "will" to indicate something will happen in the future, as in "I will eat." But Spanish has its own future verb forms (such as comeré for "I will eat"). English can also use "would" for hypothetical actions, which are expressed by the conditional conjugation in Spanish.

Spanish also has auxiliary verbs, but they aren't used as much as in English.

Subjunctive Mood

Spanish makes extensive use of the subjunctive mood, a verb form used for actions that are desired or imagined rather than real. For example, "we leave" by itself is salimos, but in translating "I hope we leave," "we leave" becomes salgamos.

Subjunctive verbs exist in English but are fairly uncommon and are often optional where they'd be required in Spanish. Because many native English speakers are unfamiliar with the subjunctive, Spanish students in English-speaking areas typically do not learn much about the subjunctive until the second year of study.

Tense Differences

Although the tenses—the aspect of verbs usually used to indicate when the verb's action takes place—of Spanish and English usually parallel each other, there are differences. For example, some Spanish speakers the the present perfect tense (the equivalent of "have + past participle" in English) for events that happened recently. It is also common in Spanish to use the future tense to indicate that something is likely, a practice unknown in English.

Key Takeaways

  • Verbs perform similar functions in English and Spanish as they are used to refer to actions, occurrences, and states of being.
  • Spanish verbs are conjugated extensively, while English verb conjugation is limited.
  • Spanish makes extensive use of the subjunctive mood, which is seldom used in modern English.
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Erichsen, Gerald. "What Are Verbs, and How Are They Used in Spanish?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/verb-definition-in-spanish-3079908. Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 27). What Are Verbs, and How Are They Used in Spanish? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/verb-definition-in-spanish-3079908 Erichsen, Gerald. "What Are Verbs, and How Are They Used in Spanish?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/verb-definition-in-spanish-3079908 (accessed May 28, 2023).