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Spanish Verbs Made Simple(r)

Spanish Verbs Made Simple(r)

An easier, yet more complete approach to learning Spanish verbs than the highly popular 501 Spanish Verbs.

January 2005
285 pages | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 |

It's time for a new approach to learning Spanish verbs. Unlike popular verb guides that require the rote memorization of hundreds of verb forms, this book clearly explains the rules that govern the conjugation of all classes of Spanish verbs—especially the irregular ones that give second-language learners the most trouble. These simple, easy-to-understand rules for conjugating Spanish verbs are effective learning tools for both beginning students and more advanced speakers who want to perfect their usage of Spanish verb forms.

Spanish Verbs Made Simple(r) has many helpful features that you won't find in any other verb guide:

  • Clear explanations of all verb tenses and forms.
  • The simple rules that govern the conjugation of all verbs—including the 90% of irregular verbs whose irregularities are entirely predictable.
  • A detailed discussion of how each verb form is used, with numerous examples.
  • A full explanation of the distinction between ser and estar—the single most confusing element in the Spanish verbal system.
  • An extended treatment of the subjunctive that will help you understand why it is used in some situations but not others.
  • Conjugations for 35 model Spanish verbs and a comprehensive listing of 4,800 verbs that indicates which of the models each verb follows.

Going well beyond any other guide in the clarity and detail of its explanations—as well as the innovative manner in which individual verbs are linked to model conjugations—Spanish Verbs Made Simple(r) is the only guide to Spanish verbs a learner needs.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Forms of Verbs
    • 1. Present, Simple Past, Imperfect, Participles
    • 2. Irregularities: Present Tense
    • 3. Irregularities: Simple Past Tense
    • 4. Future and Conditional Tenses
    • 5. Subjunctive and Imperative
    • 6. Compound Verb Forms
    • 7. Orthographic Modifications
    • 8. Vosotros/Ustedes and Tuteo/Voseo
    • 9. Summary and Presentation of Verb Classes
  • Part II. Uses of Verbs
    • 10. Indicative
    • 11. Special Topic: Ser versus Estar
    • 12. Subjunctive
  • Part III. Annexes
    • A. Models of Verb Classes and Sub-classes
    • B. Index by Class and Sub-class for 4,818 Verbs
  • Selected References

David Brodsky is a writer and consultant currently residing in Aix-en-Provence, France. He holds advanced degrees from MIT and Yale University. His extensive experience working abroad as an economist and project manager showed him how foreign languages can be learned—and taught—in far more effective and less complicated ways than the normal "rote" approach.


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The fundamental aim of this book is to provide:

  1. easily understood—yet comprehensive—tools to recognize and learn the patterns that govern the large majority of "irregular" verbs in Spanish; and
  2. clear and systematic illustrations of the use of all of the principal Spanish verb forms, with particular emphasis placed on the subjunctive.

It is intended for both the relatively new student grappling with the apparent complexities of Spanish verbs, as well as for the more advanced student seeking to "perfect" his or her understanding.

The book is divided into three parts, which to a certain extent are independent:

Part I provides a description of the various verb tenses and forms, the emphasis being on establishing rules for the more than 90 percent of irregular verbs whose irregularities are entirely "predictable". Emphasis is also given to the stress accent patterns of the various forms, which play a critical role in the Spanish verbal system.

Chapter 8 highlights one of the major differences between the Spanish language of Spain and that of the Americas, namely the contrasting use of personal pronouns (and verb forms) corresponding to "you". Chapter 9 provides an overall summary of verb forms and presents 35 general models (or classes) into which all Spanish verbs can be placed.

Part II illustrates the use of the various verb tenses and forms, with particular emphasis given to the subjunctive and its use in "if . . . then" clauses. Chapter 11 is devoted to the distinctions in use between ser and estar, which many students find to be the most confusing element of the Spanish verbal system.

Annexes: By reviewing Annex A, the student can become familiar with the various classes of verb "irregularities" and their unifying features. Complete conjugations are presented for each of the 35 model verbs, as well as for various sub-classes including those displaying purely orthographic changes. Verb classes are nested, so that one can easily see that a verb like colgar (sub-class 4B-2) is identical in form to the basic model mostrar (class 4B), apart from regular orthographic modifications which are highlighted in the conjugations, and described in detail in Part I of the text. Mostrar itself is clearly identified as following a very regular pattern—a vowel change (e.g., muestro) in the 9 conjugations where the stress accent falls on the initial syllable.

Annex B provides an alphabetical index of more than 4,800 verbs, showing for each verb its class model and, where applicable, sub-class, e.g.,

verb class (sub-class) number
prevenir venir (convenir) 32-1
prever ver (prever) 14-1
primar cantar 1
pringar cantar (pagar) 1-2
priorizar cantar (cazar) 1-4
privar cantar 1

Thus one can determine at a glance that: (a) primar and privar follow the model of the (perfectly regular) verb cantar; (b) pringar and priorizar also follow the model of cantar, but with orthographic modifications as per the sub-models pagar and cazar; (c) prevenir follows the model of venir, with the same modifications as the sub-model convenir; and (d) prever follows the basic model ver, and is itself a sub-model for certain modifications, as shown in Annex A.

A more advanced student will have the option of reading the book either sequentially or "à la carte". A student at a more elementary level may find it preferable to concentrate initially on those chapters dealing with the indicative—both forms and uses—before passing on to the subjunctive. In this case the suggested order of chapters would be the following:

chapter topic
1-4 indicative verb forms
6 compound verb forms
8 second person pronouns: tuteo and voseo
9 summary and presentation of verb classes
10 uses of indicative
11 ser versus estar
7 orthographic modifications
5 subjunctive and imperative forms
12 uses of subjunctive

The structure of Spanish verbs is not difficult to comprehend for a native English speaker, as most of the forms parallel or are very close in meaning to those employed in English. This basic similarity is at times obscured, however, by the lack of uniformity in naming the various verb forms. Consider, for example, some of the names variously applied to the two verb forms represented by I took and I have taken:

I took I have taken
preterite present perfect
past past perfect
simple past compound past
past definite past definite
past indefinite past indefinite

To emphasize the close correspondence between English and Spanish verb forms, we have chosen to use names which are simple to remember and convey the essential nature of the verb form in question, even if some grammarians might not always consider them the most appropriate.

One seeming major difference between Spanish and English verb systems is that Spanish employs two "moods": the indicative and the subjunctive. The mood of the verb does not refer (at least directly) to that of the speaker but rather to the type of statement he or she is making. The indicative can be thought of as the "normal" verb mood (or mode), while the subjunctive is used in a number of special circumstances—in connection with orders, desires, uncertainty, etc. Contrary to what many might think, the subjunctive also exists in English, though its existence generally passes unnoticed since subjunctive and indicative verb forms in Modern English are almost always the same. But a sentence like

I insist that he be punished.

provides an illustration that there is at times a difference between the two.

In Spanish the subjunctive is an essential element of the verb system and it is virtually impossible to have a meaningful conversation without using it. For this reason we will devote a substantial portion of Part II to a discussion of its use.

In addition to the indicative and subjunctive, there is a third verbal "mood"—the imperative ("Go!" "Run!" etc.). In Spanish some forms of the imperative are distinct, while others (including all negative imperatives) use subjunctive forms.

For any English verb there are essentially only five "simple" forms:

infinitive (to) write
present write(s)
past wrote
past participle written
present participle writing

All other verb forms are compound ones created from the simple ones using various auxiliaries or "helping" verbs (e.g., I was writing, I will write, I would have written). For Spanish, there are eleven simple verb forms—the five English ones, plus:

indicative subjunctive imperative
imperfect present present
future imperfect  

Each Spanish verb thus has associated with it 47 basic "simple" conjugations, e.g., for the verb cantar ("to sing"):

infinitive cantar
present indicative canto, cantas, canta, cantamos, cantáis, cantan
simple past canté, cantaste, cantó, cantamos, cantasteis, cantaron
imperfect cantaba, cantabas, cantaba, cantábamos, cantabais, cantaban
past participle cantado
present participle cantando
future cantaré, cantarás, cantará, cantaremos, cantaréis, cantarán
conditional cantaría, cantarías, cantaría, cantaríamos, cantaríais, cantarían
present subjunctive cante, cantes, cante, cantemos, cantéis, canten
imperfect subjunctive cantara, cantaras, cantara, cantáramos, cantarais, cantaran
imperative canta, cantad (you: singular and plural)

There are in addition a number of compound verb forms, most having close English counterparts.

The Spanish future and conditional tenses are each equivalent to very specific English compound forms (I will write, I would write). For the imperfect tense, there is no one-to-one correspondence with a specific English verb form, which probably is why among the various indicative verb forms it often causes the greatest difficulty.

The table below illustrates basic English equivalents for the simple and principal compound Spanish indicative verb forms. In each case the name in bold type (e.g., simple past) is the name by which the form will be referred to throughout the text; for several of the forms common alternative names are shown in parentheses.

Simple Forms (Indicative)
infinitive To live is to love.
present He writes in the book.
simple past (preterite) He wrote a book about Shakespeare (in 1974).
imperfect When I was young I played baseball every day.
When the phone rang I was leaving the house.
future Some day I will write a book about Shakespeare.
conditional If I were not so lazy, I would write a book about Shakespeare.
present participle / gerund I saw your brother crossing the street.
I am writing a book about Shakespeare.
past participle The book, written in the Middle Ages, is now in the British Museum.
Compound Forms (Indicative)
compound past (present perfect) He has written a number of best-sellers.
past perfect (pluperfect) By the age of 30, he had written a number of best-sellers.
future perfect By the time I retire, I will have worked 40 years.
conditional perfect (past conditional) I would have done it, if only I had had the chance.

Verb Classes

Spanish has three basic classes of verbs:

1. -ar verbs cantar "to sing"
2. -er verbs comer "to eat"
3. -ir verbs subir "to climb"

The -ar verbs are by far the most numerous.

Distribution of Spanish Verbs
-ar -er -ir
85% 7% 8%

They are also the most dynamic, in the sense that the vast majority of verbs created in the post-Latin period have taken this ending, e.g.,

espiar "to spy"
esquiar "to ski"
robar "to rob"
escanear "to scan"
telefonear "to telephone"
xerografiar "to photocopy"
chatear "to chat" (in common use but without "official" approval)

Endings of the -er and -ir verbs are nearly always the same, differing for only three of the 47 simple conjugations (present indicative 1p and 2p, and imperative 2p).

Stress Accent

As in English, each word in Spanish is pronounced with a stressed or accented syllable. The place of the stress accent plays a critical role in Spanish, particularly in the verbal system. This is illustrated by the following examples, where the stressed syllable is shown in bold:

a•mo Te amo. "I love you."
a•mo Te amó. "He loved you."
can•te ¡Cante la canción! "(You, usted) sing the song!"
can•te Canté la canción. "I sang the song."
ter•mi•no termino "I finish"
ter•mi•no terminó "he finished"
ter•mi•no término "term", "limit"
ma•mas Todas las mamás son invitadas. "All the mothers are invited."
ma•mas Todas las mamas son invitadas. "All the breasts are invited."

The syllable on which the stress falls is determined according to the following general rule:

In the absence of a written accent mark, words ending in

  1. a consonant other than n or s are stressed on the last syllable;
  2. n, s, or a vowel are stressed on the next-to-last syllable.

When the stress accent does not fall on the "expected" syllable, it is marked by placing a written accent mark (tilde, in Spanish) over the vowel in the stressed syllable. The letter y is treated as a consonant.

It is thus necessary to distinguish between the stress accent, which every word has, and the written accent which only occurs when the stress accent does not fall on the "expected" syllable.

The above rule does not cover the very tricky issue of vowel combinations, which can be pronounced either as part of separate syllables or as elements of a diphthong. This issue will be addressed in Chapter 7.

Irregular Verbs

In Spanish, as in most languages, a "Murphy's law of verbs" seems to hold:

  1. Regular verbs are infrequently used.
  2. Frequently used verbs are irregular.

There is actually a simple explanation apart from that of señor Murphy: frequently used verbs simply have much greater capacity to resist the constant pressure to become uniform. Consider, for example, the English verb to crow, whose historical past tense was crew:

Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew. (Matthew 26:74, King James Version)

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted—"Open then the Door!" (Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám)

Yet the verb was so infrequently used that most people assumed, or were easily convinced, that the past tense must be crowed and so it has become.

Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, "I do not know the man." And immediately the cock crowed. (Revised Standard Version)

The verb to mow (old past tense mew) had a similar experience, while the much more commonly used verbs to know, to blow, to grow have been able to resist such uniformizing tendencies and still have "irregular" past tenses: knew, blew, grew.

Of course if one goes back far enough in the history of English (and its predecessors) one will discover that most irregular verbs are really quite regular, following archaic patterns that have become obscured by several thousand years of gradual phonetic (and other) changes. In Spanish a similar situation prevails, but with one important advantage: more than 90 percent of (seemingly) irregular verbs follow easily understood and readily remembered patterns. Recognizing and learning these patterns is a far more efficient way to learn Spanish verbs than simply attempting to memorize what may at first seem like almost random irregularities.

In Spanish, a fundamental distinction can be made between verbs having regular simple past tenses—whose irregularities in other tenses, if any, generally follow predictable patterns—and those with irregular simple past tenses, which generally have unpredictable irregularities in other forms as well.

Basically regular verbs are those with regular simple past tenses and include verbs that

  1. are (perfectly) regular;
  2. are predictably regular;
  3. are irregular in the first person singular present, but otherwise (largely) predictable;
  4. have mixed patterns.

Fundamentally irregular verbs are those with irregular simple past tenses.

Those in the second group are "fundamentally" irregular not only because they tend to have more than one irregularity, but also because of the nature of the past tense irregularity itself: the pattern of accentuation is different and in most cases there is a vowel change (e.g., infinitive poder # pude).

The 17 fundamentally irregular verbs are:

ser/estar to be
ir to go
haber/tener to have
poder to be able (can)
andar to walk
poner to put
caber to fit
querer to want
dar to give
saber to know
decir to say
traer to bring, carry
hacer to do, make
venir to come
-ducir (conducir, producir, seducir, etc.)

Apart from caber and andar, all would likely appear on any list of the 25 most important Spanish verbs. It is also interesting to note that the majority correspond to English irregular verbs.

We will use the nomenclature "perfectly regular", "predictably regular", "basically regular", and "fundamentally irregular", in accordance with the above schema.

Personal Pronouns

One of the major differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and that spoken in the Americas concerns the pronouns used for the second person ("you"), and in some cases the verb forms used in the second person as well. This will be considered in Chapter 8. Until that point we will consider only the "standard" forms:

  singular   plural  
1st person yo "I" nosotros/nosotras "we"
2nd person "you" vosotros/vosotras "you"
3rd person él/ella "he/she" ellos/ellas "they"
  usted "you" ustedes "you"

It should also be noted that, like Latin and most other Romance languages, Spanish generally does not use personal pronouns unless there is a specific need for emphasis or, in the case of third person pronouns, to identify the subject with greater precision:

Voy a hacerlo. "I am going to do it."
Yo voy a hacerlo. "I am going to do it!"
Él está ausente pero ella está aquí. "He is absent but she is here."

Additional Observations

1. Real Academia Española

At various points in the text we will make reference to the Real Academia Española (RAE). Since 1714 the RAE has been charged with the responsibility to "fix the words and expressions of the Castilian language in their greatest propriety, elegance and purity." The RAE thus functions in a role similar to that of the Académie Française with regard to French, but with the important difference that the RAE has to take into account the views of 21 other national academies of Spanish, whereas—at least in principle—the Académie Française rules unchallenged in the Francophone world. The RAE's excellent online site contains not only the entire text of its Diccionario de la lengua española, but also the complete conjugations for all Spanish verbs.

2. Definitions and Dictionaries

Brief definitions (one or two words) are given for most of the verbs presented in the text, either the first time they appear or at a later stage. These definitions are meant to be suggestive only and are in no manner a substitute for fuller definitions to be found in a dictionary. As early as possible, one should try to use a Spanish-Spanish dictionary, preferably one with examples. Outstanding (and perhaps unique) in its class is the VOX Diccionario para la enseñanza de la lengua española which is specifically designed for non-native speakers. Apart from good examples, it offers a feature found surprisingly rarely in Spanish dictionaries, pronunciations of individual words. The RAE's dictionary, while authoritative, does not have examples (or pronunciations). The "Rolls Royce" of Spanish dictionaries is the two-volume Diccionario de uso del español by María Moliner, frequently referred to simply as Moliner. A CD-rom version is available and includes conjugations of individual verbs.

3. Prepositions Accompanying Verbs

Just as in English we insist on something and laugh at somebody, Spanish verbs are often associated with specific prepositions. Thus, corresponding to the two English examples, in Spanish one generally says insistir en and reírse de. When learning the definition of an individual verb, it is a good idea to learn at the same time the associated preposition(s).

4. Historical References

At various stages in the text references are made to the historical development of Spanish and its relation to other Romance languages and Latin. While many are limited to footnotes, there are also several extended historical and methodological notes. The motivation for all such references is to help provide answers to the "why" questions which occur to many students—e.g., why do some verbs have vowel changes (yo cuento) but only in certain conjugations (nosotros contamos) and tenses (yo conté)?



“It is certainly evident that Spanish Verbs Made Simple(r) is the work of someone who has spent a professional lifetime—and then some—teaching Spanish grammar. The pitch seems to me perfect: it is a detailed, complex, and [virtually] complete treatment, without engaging in useless simplifications or complicated linguistically technical discussions that students (and many professors) are unable to grasp.”
David William Foster, coauthor of The Writer's Reference Guide to Spanish