Tag Archives: Spanish verbs

Spanish linguist’s guide to verb conjugations

I just wrote out some thoughts on Spanish verb conjugations in order to answer a question on Reddit, and thought they might be of more general interest.

The question was how to learn Spanish verb conjugations. I recommended conjuguemos.com, as always, for verb practice. But I also summarized the different conjugations, lumping them into eight groups from a learner’s perspective.

In this effort I wasn’t careful to distinguish tense, aspect, and mood; life is too short. And of course, the longer-term challenge is knowing WHEN to use each conjugation.

  1. The present tense takes a lot of practice because (i) it is usually the first tense you study, (ii) -ar, -er, and -ir verbs have distinct endings, and (iii) there are a lot of irregulars.
  2. The imperfect is super-easy because (i) -er and -ir verbs have the same endings and (ii) there are only three irregulars.
  3. The preterite, like the present, has tons of irregulars, but at least -er and -ir verbs have the same endings. I have a nice summary on my Teaching page (look for “Todo el pretérito”).
  4. The two subjunctive (present and past) conjugations are similar to the normal (“indicative”) present and the preterite for historical reasons, so once you have learned these it’s mostly a matter of getting used to a somewhat different set of endings. It helps that -er and -ir verbs have the same endings in the present subjunctive, and that -ar, -er, and -ir verbs ALL have the same endings in the past (“imperfect”) subjunctive. However, the present subjunctive does have six irregulars of its own. And the imperfect actually has two possible sets of endings (-ra and -se), though learners can just stick with the -ra set.
  5. The future and conditional are a piece of cake because you aren’t really conjugating, you’re just sticking endings (the same for -ar, -er, and -ir verbs) onto the infinitive. Although there are a bunch of irregulars, they all evolved to simplify pronunciation, so they feel good in your mouth.
  6. The perfect tenses with haber (like he comido) all use the same participle (the -ado/-ido thing), so once you (i) memorize a few irregular participles (like escrito) and (ii) know how to conjugate haber in the tense of your choosing, you are set.
  7. Same for the various progressive tenses (like estoy comiendo and estaba bailando), except that here you probably already know how to conjugate estar, so all you need to learn is the present participle (the -ando/-iendo thing), which again has a few irregulars (like durmiendo and leyendo) which are predictable once you get the hang of them.
  8. Commands build on what you already know. Mostly you use the subjunctive. The only exception is affirmative informal commands, both singular () and plural (vosotros). For historical reasons, affirmative  commands resemble the él/ella/usted form of the present tense, plus 8 irregulars, while affirmative vosotros commands simply change the -r of the infinitive for a -d, e.g. hablad ‘Speak, you guys’. A complication with commands is that object pronouns go before negative commands (No lo hagas) but glom onto the end of affirmative commands, often requiring an accent mark to maintain the normal stress position (Cómelo).


Mirar with ‘a’

I recently finished Las chicas de alambre, one of Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s top-selling novels. It is about a reporter’s investigation of a top model’s disappearance; the alambre ‘wire’ in the title is a reference to the model’s anorexia. This was my first Sierra i Fabra novel outside of the author’s Inspector Mascarell series, and actually read a lot like a detective novel. It was a good story though I prefer the Mascarell books.

The second person the reporter interviewed for his story was the photographer who took the model’s first photographs. His description of the session included a use of the verb mirar that truly threw me for a loop.

Mirar is one of those verbs that often puzzles English speakers learning Spanish because its English translation, ‘look at’, includes a preposition (at). My students always want to add an explicit (and incorrect) preposition, Spanish a ‘at’, to the verb, as in Juan mira a la pintura ‘Juan looks at at the painting’. Spanish has plenty of verbs of this sort, mostly involving perception or motion, simply because English, as a Germanic language, favors two-part verbs, whereas Spanish, as a Romance language, does not. Other examples are buscar ‘look for’, escuchar ‘listen to’, subir ‘go up’, and sacar ‘take out’. (It’s worth noting that a few Spanish verbs require prepositions whereas their English equivalents don’t — salir de ‘leave’ and entrar en ‘enter’ come to mind — but these are clearly outnumbered.)

Mirar is especially challenging because it is correctly followed by a when its object is a person, as in Pablo mira a Juan ‘Pablo looks at Juan.’ But the a in such sentences is an instance of the untranslatable “personal a” required before human objects — also seen in sentences such as Pablo visita a Juan or Pablo ayuda a Juan ‘Pablo visits/helps Juan’ — rather than a verbal complement (if that’s the right term).

The relevant sentence in Las chicas de alambre was nadie puede enseñarte a mirar a una cámara ‘nobody can teach you how to look at a camera’. Assuming that this wasn’t a typographical error, I wondered whether this could be a most intriguing use of the personal a. Could looking at a camera be like looking at a person, since a camera, like a person, has an eye?

To investigate this question I consulted one of my favorite resources, the website wordreference.com. Its listing for the verb mirar included the specific phrase mirar a la cámara but also other uses of mirar a without a human object:

  • mirar a ambos lados antes de cruzar ‘look both ways before crossing’
  • mirar a las musarañas ‘look at the bugs’, i.e. daydream
  • mirar a otro sitio ‘look away’
  • mirar al futuro ‘look to the future, think ahead’
  • mirar al vacio ‘stare off into space’

In all these cases, including mirar a la cámara, a clearly acts as ‘toward’ rather than just ‘to’, expressing the direction of one’s gaze.

In sum, the possible personal a interpretation turned out to be a red herring, but I ended up learning more than I expected about the use of this ubiquitous Spanish verb.

The top 10 Spanish verb mysteries unraveled

The wait is over — here is my “listicle” (slide presentation) that unravels the top 10 mysteries of Spanish verbs. Why is hay always singular? Why are there so many more irregulars in the preterite past tense than the imperfect? Why do positive and negative commands have different pronoun rules? The answers lie in the history of Spanish.

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 wordreference.com 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