Category Archives: Verbs

Linguistic gems from recent reading

Ages ago I discovered the joys of reading Spanish novels for fun. It helps to keep up my fluency and build my vocabulary, while adding bits of cultural knowledge. Of course, I always keep my linguistics hat on in case I find anything particularly interesting. This post describes two such findings.

The first is from La carta esférica, a novel about a sailor who joins a mysterious woman on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship carrying a priceless cargo of Jesuit emeralds. It’s by one of my favorite Spanish authors, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, best known for the Capitán Alatriste series. Besides its pleasantly page-turning plot, this novel features the best example I’ve ever seen of the stylistic exploitation of the two different versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. Here, the narrator alternates between -ra and -se subjunctives as he waits for the mysterious lady of the emeralds to stop him from walking out. This alternation adds an extra back-and-forth rhythm to the parallel structure of the successive que clauses.

Todo el rato, hasta que cerró [la puerta] detrás de sí, estuvo esperando que fuese hasta él y lo agarrara por el brazo, que lo obligase a mirarla a los ojos, que contara cualquier cosa para retenerlo.

“The whole time, until the door closed behind him, he hoped that she would go to him, take him by the arm, make him look her in the eye, and say anything to keep him there.

Right now I’m reading Magali García Ramis’s memoir of growing up in Puerto Rico, Felices Días Tío Sergio. I first learned about García Ramis when she was inducted into the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española (basically, the Puerto Rican branch of the Real Academia Española). In a previous post I described her inaugural lecture, on the Puerto Rican /r/. I bought a copy of Felices Días back then but only recently got around to reading it. It is absolutely delightful, written in simple Spanish that would make it a good first novel for a student to read.

The passage that caught my linguistic eye has to do with another cardinal aspect of Puerto Rican pronunciation, the aspiration of final -s. Here the protagonist, a young girl, is asking her mother to make cat-shaped cookies for the funeral in absentia of their lost cat, Daruel. It’s an interesting passage from a sociolinguistic perspective because it shows the two speakers’ awareness that this is a stigmatized feature. In the first line, Ramis uses the letter j to show the aspirated /h/ pronunciation of the /s/ of los.

— ¿Ah Mami? ¿Ah, nos laj haces? [Mom, will you make them for us?]
– Nos lassss hacesss – corrigió Mami [Will you make them for us? – Mom corrected]
– Bueno, nosss lass hacesss ¿Sí? [OK, will you make them for us?]

I love the exaggeration of the multiple ssss and the way the daughter extends them to nos, which she seems to have pronounced correctly from the start.

The most frequent Spanish verbs are irregular

It may seem perverse that the first verbs presented in most Spanish textbooks, typically ser and tener, are irregular. In fact, ser is undoubtedly the most irregular verb in the language. Why not start with nice, friendly regular verbs like hablarcomer, and vivir, and deal with the irregulars later?

The answer, of course, is that the most frequent, can’t-live-without-’em Spanish verbs are irregular. This is not a coincidence. Over time, the natural tendency in language evolution is to reduce irregularity by imposing a language’s normal patterns on previously exceptional forms, a process called analogy. That’s how English ended up with regular past tenses like helped in place of the Middle English form holp. Only the most frequently used words are able to resist analogy and maintain their irregularity.

(Analogy can also go in the opposite direction, causing previously tame verbs to ‘go rogue’, but we’ll sidestep this inconvenient fact for simplicity’s sake.)

Actual verb frequency data are impressive. The table below shows the regular and irregular verbs among the 100 most frequent Spanish words, as cataloged in Mark Davies’s A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish: Core Vocabulary for Learners. The dozen most frequent verbs are all irregular. The most frequent regular verb (llegar ‘to arrive’) appears more than halfway down the list, and irregulars remain common throughout.

Reg irreg verbs in top 100

I’ve counted llegar and creer as regular verbs, by the way, because their spelling complications (like the u in llegué and the y in creyó) are completely predictable given the rules of Spanish pronunciation and spelling.

Because Spanish splits ‘to be’ into ser and estar, and ‘to have’ into haber and tener, the English versions of these verbs are of higher frequency. According to Mark Davies and Dee Gardner’s A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English: Word Sketches, Collocates and Thematic Lists, ‘to be’ is #2 in English, and ‘to have’ #8. Another comparative goodie concerns subject pronouns. As you might expect, since Spanish usually relies on conjugation alone to say who did something, its subject pronouns are further down the frequency list than are those of English. See the comparison below.

subject pronoun frequency span eng


Overall, it’s surprising how much information one can glean from these lists. Muchas gracias, Prof. Davies.

Spanish verb pairs that differ only in conjugation class

While researching the origin of the three conjugation classes of Spanish — ar, er, and ir — I recently turned to the lovely folks at the Spanish-English vocabulary forum to help me think of pairs of Spanish verbs that differ only in their conjugation class. The only two I had thought of were sentar/sentir and crear/creer.

These pairs are a nice reminder that the conjugation classes, by themselves, are void of meaning. Please see my original post (link above) for an example of a language (Hebrew) where the same verb root can appear in more than one conjugation class, with each class adding a predictable nuance to the verb root’s core meaning.

Here is my full list, which I will continue to edit as I learn of more. Note that there are no triplets on the list, and that all the pairs contrast -ar with either -er or -ir. This may be a coincidence, but the fact that -er and -ir verbs have almost identical conjugations (the only difference is in the nosotros and vosotros present indicative) would make triplets or an -er/-ir contrast hard to learn and to maintain.

Please let me know if can think of any more.

  • asentar/asentir
  • crear/creer
  • fundar/fundir
  • mentar/mentir
  • molar/moler
  • morar/morir
  • parar/parir
  • podar/poder
  • rendar/rendir (render is also in the RAE, but only as an antiquated form of rendir).
  • salar/salir
  • sentar/sentir
  • solar/soler
  • sumar/sumir
  • tejar/tejer
  • vivar/vivir

Categories or cases for Spanish grammar

My time and thoughts have mostly been in my classroom over the last few weeks, so this post is more teacher-y than usual. But it does, I hope, contain some interesting observations about some core grammatical issues in Spanish.

As I noted in an earlier post, Spanish teachers have to explain many differences that exist in Spanish but not in English. These vary in difficulty for the native English speaker. Simple vocabulary differences such as tocar versus jugar, which both mean “to play” (an instrument versus a sport), are the easiest. Other vocabulary differences are more complicated: for example, how por and para divvy up the various meanings of English “for”, or ser and estar the meanings of “to be”. Harder still are grammatical differences that English lacks either mostly (e.g. subjunctive versus indicative moods) or entirely (e.g. the pretérito and imperfecto aspects of the past tense).

When teaching these more challenging differences, I’m often torn between explaining them in terms of categories or cases. The former approach seeks overarching principles that distinguish the Spanish forms. The latter metaphorically throws up its hands and instead details the specific sub-uses of each form. As a linguist I much prefer the former since categorical differences often relate to core semantic concepts. In practice I always provide both frameworks and emphasize one or the other, depending on the topic at hand.

I ran head-first into this issue the first time I taught the Spanish past tense. The usual sequence in an American classroom is to teach the pretérito first, then the imperfecto, then how to use them in conjunction. For the final stage I followed the practice of a more experienced colleague and taught the students the SIMBA CHEATED mnemonic. SIMBA stands for some basic uses of the pretérito: Single actions, Interruptions, Main events, Beginnings and endings, and Arrivals or departures. CHEATED does the same for the imperfecto: describing someone or something’s Characteristics, Health, Emotion, or Age, telling Time, describing Endless activities, and giving a Date.

The net result: my students didn’t see the forest for the trees. In other words, they learned the specific cases covered by SIMBA CHEATED but failed to generalize to the overall difference between the two aspects: that the pretérito relates events, i.e. “what happened”, while the imperfecto describes the past, providing backgrounds and details.

This failure was a loss at an intellectual level, for this aspectual distinction is a perfect example of how different languages encode the world in different ways. At a practical level, the mnemonic slowed students down, since they tended to run through the entire mental checklist before using a past tense. It also proved useless when we moved on to subtler distinctions in the past tense. For example, while conocer retains its core meaning of “to know someone” in the imperfecto, in the pretérito it means “to meet” someone. This makes perfect sense — if one focuses on the overarching use of the pretérito to relate events.

I therefore now try to emphasize the broad categories of “event” and “description” as much as possible when teaching the past tense. While I do provide a reference sheet (see my teaching page) that shows some specific applications of these categories, I stay away from mnemonics and always aim to extract the basic principles from the examples that come up in class.

My approach to the indicative/subjunctive distinction still focuses mostly on categories, but veers slightly in the direction of cases (again see my teaching page). I focus on the overarching use of the indicative for reality and the subjunctive for uncertainty since this covers most uses of the two moods. However, in this case I do teach an acronym: the famous WEIRDO (Wish/Want, Emotions, Impersonal expressions, Require/Recommend, Doubt/Deny, and Ojalá). This is partly because some of the uses it covers trump the reality/uncertainty difference (e.g. emotional contexts like Me alegro de que Pablo esté aquí, where Pablo actually is here), but mostly as a handy way to remind students to practice a variety of subjunctive contexts in their written work.

My approach to por and para (teaching page again), in contrast, focuses almost entirely on cases. These two words correspond to so many different meanings of English “for” that I find it most helpful to emphasize individual uses, such as para for destinations and por for duration. However, since at a very high level para often implies directionality and por, apportionment, I also suggest the graphical metaphors of an arrow for para (X > Y) and a ratio line for por (X/Y). While I don’t expect the average student to find these useful in practice, he or she should at least be aware that the division of “for” into por and para isn’t random. There’s a method to the Spanish madness!



Summer summary for

While I’m not much of a “beach person” — I don’t like the heat! — the last few weeks I’ve been craving a beach day. It really wouldn’t feel like summer without going at least once. So on Saturday, a girlfriend and I visited lovely, peaceful Hammonasset State Park in Madison, CT. It hit the spot.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, CT

Just before leaving for the beach I received the long-anticipated “”Welcome to the fall semester” email from the Spanish language coordinators at Fordham University (this is where I teach). All of a sudden the first day of classes (Wednesday!) feels real. I’m sure my future students are going through the same mental process. I will be teaching two sections of second-semester Spanish, and getting to know a new textbook, Gente.

These end-of-the-season events have inspired me to review the summer’s activity on I’ve published 27 posts since the beginning of June, roughly 3 a week. My main focus (9 posts) has been on verbs, which are, or course, a Big Deal in Spanish. These include:

Five posts have concerned vocabulary: Spanish slang, Spanish last names (women’s issues and patronymics)  special vocabulary for disabilities, and new Spanish vocabulary from the economic crisis.

Five other posts have concerned the process of learning. Topics included mismatches between Spanish and English vocabulary (verging into grammar), the pedagogical value of reading popular fiction (including a terrific reading list), what I forgot when I didn’t speak Spanish for a few years, and the philosophy that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.”

Four posts address Spanish spelling: accent marks, phonetic spelling (or not), x vs j, and x vs. cc.

Three posts address contemporary language issues: the minority languages of Spain, the high degree of metalinguistic awareness of normal Spanish speakers, and the political [in?]correctness of the language name Spanish.

This leaves two miscellaneous posts, on voseo and the surprising history of the word yand“.

Four of the above posts were part of Spanish Friday: here, here, here, and here.

During the summer the blog has been enriched by comments from readers from around the world. I really appreciate this and encourage you to keep writing. Please feel free to suggest new topics you’d like this blog to address, or enhancements — I’ve added an RSS feed but still haven’t invested any time in Twitter or Facebook. I much prefer to “just write”, but if any bells and whistles would make a difference I will invest the time. I just added a snazzy new background (made with Wordle) and hope it renders well on your screen.

To subscribe by email, use the form on the right.

It’s been a great summer, and I’m looking forward to continuing into the new academic year.

Latin versus Spanish verb tenses

Believe it or not, after my last post about the subjunctive I had resolved to take a long break from writing about verbs. But as part of my research I just performed the following summary analysis, which I found so useful that I couldn’t resist sharing it.

The series of tables below summarizes the fate of the many Latin tenses in Spanish. What’s most interesting is that although Latin had a rich verb system, and Spanish does too, there’s very little direct overlap. The present indicative and subjunctive, and the two simple past tenses (imperfect and perfect), are the only four tenses to survive more or less “as is” in Spanish, though the perfect became a more general past tense (the pretérito). Two Latin pluperfect tenses were adapted as the two versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, and two others as the now-defunct future subjunctive (thereby hangs a future blog post). Seven other tenses were lost.

Latin tensesWhile losing 9 Latin tenses in total, Spanish added ALL the perfect tenses (haber + past participle), and also the future and conditional, which are likewise based on haber.

Now I promise to stay away from verbs for a while.

The sadistic Spanish subjunctive

I can remember the exact moment when Spanish utterly and permanently captivated me. I was fifteen years old and in my fourth year as a Spanish student. Our class had wrapped up the basic tenses and the present subjunctive, and was ready to launch into the imperfect subjunctive. Our teacher explained to us that this tense was based on the pretérito and incorporated all of its irregulars.

This struck me as laugh-out-loud funny. We had already learned that the present subjunctive inherited all the idiosyncrasies of the normal present tense, including the ones that only show up in the yo form (the -zco and -go types). But the preterit is even thornier. It seemed bizarre beyond belief that the subjunctive should adopt the most problematic elements of both these tenses.

As a student, it amused me to imagine that a twisted “Spanish committee” (perhaps a branch of the Spanish Inquisition?) had designed the subjunctive. (My little PowerPoint below depicts this scenario.) As a teacher, I now like to tell my students that the present subjunctive is God’s way of getting them to review the irregular verbs that they’d studied weeks, months, or even years ago. I figure that teaching at a Jesuit university authorizes me to invoke God in the classroom.

In fact, the many irregulars of the subjunctive are neither a cosmic joke, an evil machination, nor an act of God. They’re simply a coincidence. The present and imperfect subjunctive happened to follow the same evolutionary paths as several distinct categories of irregular verbs in the present and pretérito indicative.

Consider the examples of irregular verbs shown in the table below, color-coded for your convenience.

irregular subjunctive

The “boot” verbs, in yellow, are irregular in the present tense because of a language-wide process that changed stressed /o/ to /ue/ and stressed /e/ to /ie/. The corresponding present subjunctives have the same vowels and the same stress pattern, and therefore the same irregularity.

The -ir “sole” verbs, in blue, are irregular in the present and the pretérito because of another general process: the raising of /e/ to /i/ and /o/ to /u/ before /j/ (the sound of English y). All Latin -ire present subjunctive endings, and the “sole” (3rd person) endings of the imperfect subjunctive, contained (or still contain) /j/, triggering the vowel change.

The -zco and -go irregulars of the present tense, in green, evolved because the o ending of the yo form insulated it from changes that affected the other present tense forms and the infinitive. The subjunctive endings for these verbs begin with a, which had the same insulating property.

Finally, the drastic stem-changing pretéritos, in magenta, descend from Latin’s “strong perfect” past tense forms. The imperfect subjunctive is based on Latin’s pluperfect tense, which had the same irregularities.

This leaves “only” the six additional irregulars of the present tense subjunctive. Their diverse origins are summarized below.

6 irregular present subjunctives

As always, if you want to learn more, the best source is Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language. But beware — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Enfatizando los verbos

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Este verano he escrito mucho sobre los verbos españoles: sobre el presente (aquí, aquí, aquí, aquí, y aquí), el subjuntivo, y el pretérito. Este énfasis ha sido en parte porque actualmente estoy investigando los verbos por un libro que estoy escribiendo sobre el español (todavía busco una editorial, si tienes una conexión…). Pero más fundamentalmente ha sido por la importancia que tienen los verbos dentro del español.

Hablo, en parte y como siempre, del punto de vista pedagógico. A veces me parece que paso la mayoría del tiempo en la clase ayudándoles a mis estudiantes a comprender, aprender de memoria, y practicar nuestros varios tiempos verbales. Pero este énfasis recibe apoyo cuantitativo de nuestros textos. Por ejemplo, en mi libro de gramática favorito (The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice), más de la mitad del libro trata sobre los verbos. En Amazon se venden al menos 36 libros específicamente sobre los verbos españoles, incluso libros especializados como The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close y Spanish Past-Tense Verbs Up Close(Tengo que confesar que no sé si esto es igual o más de lo típico en libros sobre otros idiomas.)

A veces todos nosotros nos sentimos aplastados por los verbos.

A veces todos todos nos sentimos aplastados por los verbos.

De todas formas, los verbos les importan a nuestros libros, a nuestras clases, a nuestros estudiantes, a nuestro idioma. Por eso deben importarles también a nuestras comunicaciones sobre el español, como este blog, y puedes anticipar más aportes de mi parte en el futuro.


This summer I’ve written tons about Spanish verbs: the present (herehereherehere, y here), the subjunctive, and the preterit. This emphasis has partly been because I’ve been researching verbs for a book I’m writing about Spanish (I’m still looking for a publisher, if you have a connection…). But more fundamentally, it’s been because of the importance of verbs within Spanish.

I’m partly speaking, as always, from a pedagogical point of view. Sometimes it seems like I spend most of my classroom time helping students to understand, memorize, and practice our many verb tenses. But books about Spanish certainly provide quantitative support to this emphasis. For example, more than half the pages of my favorite grammar book (The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice) are devoted to verbs. Amazon sells at least 36 books specifically about Spanish verbs, including specialized books like The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close and Spanish Past-Tense Verbs Up Close(I confess that I don’t know how this compares to grammar books for other languages.)

At any rate, verbs matter to our books, our classes, our students, our language. Therefore, they should matter also in our communications about Spanish, like this blog, and you can expect to see more here in the future.

The Spanish pretérito is like Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the wonderful observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This quote always makes me think of the Spanish pretérito (preterit) past tense. The pretérito has lots of irregulars, and they are irregular in many different ways.

Unhappy families are like the pretérito.

We’ve already seen that in the present tense, most irregulars — the boot verbs-zco and -go verbs, and ver — developed as Vulgar Latin transitioned to Spanish. The pretérito is different because most of its irregulars were already irregular in Latin. (Well, Spanish added a few for good measure…keep on reading.)

Basically, the Spanish pretérito tense derives from the Latin perfect, which was riddled with irregulars. Latin scholars refer to them as “strong” perfects, as opposed to the regular, or “weak” perfects. The strong perfects were characterized by stress on the root instead of the ending in some of the verb forms. You can still hear this difference in Spanish. For example, irregular dije and dijo are stressed on the di- root, while regular hablé and habló are stressed on the and endings. The strong perfects also lacked the normal /v/ ending of regular perfects, such as laudāvī “I praised” (from laudāre) or audīvit “he heard” (from audīre).

Caeser loved those strong perfects!

Most of today’s irregular pretéritos can be traced to three subtypes of the Latin strong perfect:

Strong perfects

As always, analogy muddied the evolutionary trail. Several common verbs that were regular in Latin picked up the u pattern of hube, supe and the like, including tener/tuve, estar/estuve, and andar/anduve. The irregular pretérito of ver (vi, viste, vio, etc.) influenced that of dar (di, diste, dio, etc.), while the pretéritos of ser “to be” and ir “to go” merged. On the other hand, many verbs with strong perfects in Latin became regular in Spanish. Some examples are temer, which belonged to Latin’s –class (Latin timuī, timuístī, etc.), escribir “to write”, in the – class (scrīpsī, scrīpsístī, etc.), and leer “to read”, in the –ī class (lēgī, lēgístī). Their modern yo pretéritos are regular temí, escribí, and leí instead of something like tume, escrise, and lije.

Finally, to make matters worse, Spanish “invented” its very own irregular pattern: the so-called “sole” verbs. These are -ir verbs with a “boot” change in the present, like servir (sirvo, sirves etc.), mentir (mientomientes, etc.), and dormir (duermoduermes, etc.). In the pretérito, the e or o of the root changes to an i or u in the él and ellos forms. This happens for the same reason I described in my boot verb post: raising an /e/ to /i/ and an /o/ to /u/ anticipates the height of the y sound (transcribed properly as /j/) that you get when you pronounce the -ió and -ieron in fluent speech.


Suela verbs are only Irregular in the sole of the boot

That’s a lot of irregulars — and a lot of unhappy families, at least the night before a major test…

Those wacky -ir verbs

In a previous post I described the origin of the three main categories of Spanish “boot” verbs, shown below:

Boot verbsThe first two types of vowel change, from e ie and from o ue, affect -ar-er, and -ir verbs. The third type, with a vowel change from e iaffects only ir verbs. I also described how a fourth change for -ir verbs, from o u , was sidetracked, with the relevant verbs switching over entirely to u (e.g. mullir, from Latin mollire).

At the time I overlooked a simple yet dramatic truth: the “boot” pattern has taken over all possible -ir verbs! This amounts to a significant difference between -ir verbs and -ar/-er verbs. When you learn a new -ar or -er verb that might be a boot verb (say, the hypothetical verbs felar and foler), you need to check a dictionary to see how the verb works. Is it regular, in which case the present tense forms are (yo) felo and (yo) folo, or boot (fielo, fuelo)? For a hypothetical -ir verb like felir, this question is moot: it’s a boot verb for sure. The only remaining issue is which type it is, i.e. fielo or filo.

[Note that the total change of o u in -ir verbs means that one will never encounter a new verb like folir; it would have changed to fulir.]

To verify this generalization, have a look at the comprehensive list of -ir verbs at (a website with which I am not affiliated; I just admire their verb lists). With a single bizarre exception (abolir, see below), every verb on the list whose final stem vowel is e or o is a “boot” verb.

FYI abolir (click for conjugation) belongs to yet another weird category: it’s a so-called “defective verb”, which means that its only allowed forms are those whose verb ending begins with i. For the present tense, this means that the verb only exists in the nosotros and vosotros forms, which are both outside the “boot”.

This generalization about -ir boot verbs is hardly earth-shaking. In fact, if you’re not a Spanish grammar lover, you’re probably asleep by now (but then how can you still be reading???). To me, though, it is somehow aesthetically pleasing. These -ir boot verbs are weird in general — consider their gerunds (dUrmiendo, sugIriendo) and preterits (dUrmió, sugIrió). Shouldn’t their present tense be special, too?