Verbs are the biggest and most complicated topic in Spanish grammar. If you want to master them (especially if you want to master Spanish irregular verbs), you've got a lot to learn – but don't let that put you off.
This article will look specifically at irregular verbs in Spanish. If you don't know what that means, don't worry. I'll explain what an “irregular verb” is, what the most important ones are, and how you can learn them quickly and efficiently. I won't assume much if any existing knowledge of Spanish grammar – so don’t be put off if you’re a complete beginner.
And even if you're not a complete beginner, hopefully you’ll still learn a thing or two!
So first, a quick primer on the difference between a regular and irregular verb:
What Is An Irregular Verb, Anyway?
To understand the difference between regular and irregular verbs, it helps to take a closer look at how verbs work in English. They usually follow a pretty simple pattern. I'll illustrate it with the verb “walk”:
To use “walk” in the present tense, you simply stick a pronoun in front of it, e.g. “I walk” or “they walk”. The one exception is the third-person singular form (he/she/it), which has an “s” on the end: “he/she/it walks“.
So far, so simple. Other tenses are just as easy: for the present continuous tense, you stick an “-ing” on the end of the verb and combine it with the present tense of the verb “to be”, as in “he is walking”. Or you can put an “-ed” on the end of the verb to make it past tense: “I walked”.
These aren't the only tenses, of course, but the point is that the different forms of the verb “walk” are made using some simple, consistent patterns that can be applied to many other verbs:
- walk, walks, walked, walking
- help, helps, helped, helping
- play, plays, played, playing
- climb, climbs, climbed, climbing
And so on. Most English verbs follow this simple pattern; as such, they're known as regular verbs.
But wait – what about the verb “speak”? This word doesn't follow the pattern above; its past-tense version is not “speaked” but “spoke”. Similarly, “buy” becomes “bought”, not “buyed”, and “throw” becomes “threw”, not “throwed”.
These are just a few of the many, many English verbs that don't play by the normal rules. These are the irregular verbs.
Spanish is similar. There are some basic patterns that most verbs – the regular verbs – follow, but there are also many irregular exceptions. If you want to communicate effectively in Spanish, you need to learn which verbs are irregular, and what their irregularities are.
But before we get deeper into the verbs that break the rules, let's remind ourselves what those rules are in the first place.
A Quick Recap of Spanish Regular Verbs
Remember that Spanish verbs (regular or irregular) can be divided into three categories, based on the ending of their infinitive form:
- “-ar” verbs, such as hablar (to speak), cantar (to sing), and bailar (to dance)
- “-er” verbs, such as deber (to owe), correr (to run), and comprender (to understand)
- “-ir” verbs, such as vivir (to live), existir (to exist), and ocurrir (“to happen”)
The regular present tense forms in each case are:
|tú (you, singular informal)||hablas||debes||vives|
|él/ella/usted (he/she/you, singular formal)||habla||debe||vive|
|vosotros/vosotras (you, plural informal)||habláis||debéis||vivís|
|ellos/ellas/ustedes (they/they/you, plural formal)||hablan||deben||viven|
(Remember that the vosotros form is only used in Spain; in Latin America, use ustedes.)
Hopefully you've spotted some of the patterns. For example, the first-person singular forms all end with “-o”, and the second-person singular forms all end with “-s”.
You'll spot similar patterns when you learn the rest of the tenses. For example, in the first-person plural (the “we” form of the verb), Spanish verbs always end in “-mos” no matter what the tense:
- corremos – we run
- corrimos – we ran
- correremos – we will run
- corríamos – we were running
I won't go into depth here about all the different patterns and regularities you can find in Spanish verbs. It's just worth noting that, when you hear that a single Spanish verb can have almost 100 different forms, it's not as scary as it sounds. Learn to spot the patterns, and it'll drastically reduce the amount of memorisation that you need to do.
The reason this is relevant to our discussion of irregular verbs is that, while irregular verbs are less regular (duh), you tend to see the same sorts of patterns shining through. No matter how weird and abnormal an irregular verb is, you can still expect that the first-person plural form will end in “-mos”, and with very few exceptions the first-person singular form will end in “-o”, to name just a few examples.
So bear this in mind as we explore the wild and wonderful world of Spanish irregular verbs. Always be on the lookout for the shortcuts that will reduce your mental workload and make everything easier to learn.
Spanish Irregular Verbs By Category
Unfortunately, while the vast majority of Spanish verbs are regular, irregularities are disproportionately found among the common verbs that get used the most often – words like “be”, “have”, “go”, and “know”.
This makes sense when you think about it: the more often a word is said, the more chances it’s had to change and evolve over the centuries.
But let's think about English irregular verbs again for a second. There are many of them – but sometimes you find groups of words which all follow the same pattern, like “blow/blew”, “throw/threw”, and “know/knew”. If you remember that these words all go together, you can learn them as a single unit.
Thankfully, Spanish irregular verbs can often be grouped like this too. So let's look at the most important groups to learn.
Stem-Changing Verbs in Spanish
The simplest irregular verbs in Spanish are the so-called stem-changing verbs. They're easy to learn.
The “stem” of a verb is the part you get when you remove infinitive suffix (that is, the “-ar”, “-er”, or “-ir”) from the infinitive form. So the stems of hablar, deber, and vivir are “habl-“, “deb-“, and “viv-” respectively.
When dealing with regular verbs, you never change the stem. All you do is remove the infinitive suffix and add an ending like “-o” or “-as”.
Many verbs, however, have an added complication. It's best illustrated by example. Here are the present-tense endings of cerrar (“to close”); pay close attention to the stem:
- cierro – I close
- cierras – you (s.) close
- cierra – he/she closes
- cerramos – we close
- cerráis – you (pl.) close
- cierran – they close
Do you see what's going on? In the first, second, third, and sixth forms, the vowel in the stem changes from “e” to “ie”. Other than that, everything is as normal – the endings are what you would expect if the verb was regular.
It might seem confusing that the stem only changes in four of the six verb forms. To understand why this is the case, realise that in the “-amos/-áis” forms, the stem is unstressed; in both of these cases the stress goes on the second syllable.
The vowel in the stem of a stem-changing verb only changes in those conjugations where that vowel is stressed. In practice, you only need to know that these are the yo, tú, él/ella and ellos/ellas forms (i.e. the first, second, third, and sixth forms given above). But it's better if you understand why this is the case. It's as if you're “stressing” the vowel so hard that it breaks apart into two pieces.
To understand why the stem's vowel is stressed in some verb forms and unstressed in others, see this detailed explanation of accents and word stress in Spanish.
Types of Stem-Changing Verbs in Spanish
There are three main types of stem-changing verbs in Spanish, plus a few weird ones which don't fit into those three main categories.
I'll start with the categories. First of all, you have verbs which change an “e” to an “ie”. We've already seen cerrar above, which follows this pattern. Some of the most important similar verbs are:
- acertar – to guess
- advertir – to advise, warn
- atender – to attend to
- atravesar – to cross
- calentar – to warm/heat (up)
- cerrar – to close
- comenzar – to begin
- confesar – to confess
- consentir – to consent
- convertir – to convert
- defender – to defend
- descender – to descend
- despertarse – to wake up
- divertirse – to have fun, enjoy oneself
- empezar – to begin, start
- encender – to light
- encerrar – to enclose, encircle
- entender – to understand
- fregar – to scrub
- gobernar – to govern
- helar – to freeze
- hervir – to boil
- mentir – to lie
- negar – to deny
- nevar – to snow
- pensar – to think
- perder – to lose
- preferir – to prefer
- recomendar – to recommend
- remendar – to mend
- sentar(se) – to sit down
- sentir – to feel
- sugerir – to suggest
- tropezar – to stumble, trip
Secondly, verbs which change an “o” to a “ue”. For example, here's colgar (“to hang”) in the present tense:
- cuelgo – I hang
- cuelgas – you (s.) hang
- cuelga – he/she/it hangs
- colgamos – we hang
- colgáis – you (pl.) hang
- cuelgan – they hang
Here are some more examples from this category:
- absolver – to absolve
- acordarse (de) – to agree on
- almorzar – to eat lunch
- aprobar – to approve
- cocer – to bake
- colgar – to hang
- conmover – to move (emotionally)
- contar – to count, to tell
- costar – to cost
- demoler – to demolish
- demostrar – to prove, demonstrate
- devolver – to return (an object)
- disolver – to dissolve
- doler – to hurt
- dormir – to sleep
- encontrar – to find
- envolver – to wrap
- llover – to rain
- moler – to grind
- morder – to bite
- morir – to die
- mostrar – to show
- mover – to move (an object)
- poder – to be able to
- probar – to prove, sample, test
- promover – to promote
- recordar – to remember
- remover – to remove
- resolver – to resolve
- retorcer – to twist
- revolver – to mix, shake
- rogar – to beg, pray
- soler – to be accustomed to, to usually be/do
- sonar – to sound, ring
- soñar – to dream
- tener – to have
- torcer – to twist
- tostar – to toast
- tronar – to thunder
- volar – to fly
- volver – to return (from somewhere)
The third common category of stem-changing verb is that of verbs that change an “e” to an “i”. For example, corregir (“to correct”):
- corrigo – I correct
- corriges – you (s.) correct
- corrige – he/she corrects
- corregimos – we correct
- *corregís – you (pl.) correct
- corrigen – they correct
Here's the list you should learn:
- colegir – to deduce
- competir – to compete
- conseguir – to get, obtain
- corregir – to correct
- decir – to say
- despedir – to dismiss, fire, say goodbye to
- elegir – to elect
- freír – to fry
- gemir – to groan, moan
- impedir – to impede
- medir – to measure
- pedir – to ask for, order
- perseguir – to follow, pursue, persecute
- repetir – to repeat
- reír(se) – to laugh
- seguir – to follow, continue
- servir – to serve
- sonreír(se) – to smile
- vestir(se) – to get dressed
And finally, some weird stem-changing verbs that don't quite fit into the above categories:
First, the verb oler (“to smell” – either to smell an object, such as a flower, or to emit an odour). This is a “o” to “ue” stem-changing verb as above, with the added detail that when the stem changes, you must add an “h” to the beginning:
- huelo – I smell
- hueles – you smell
- huele – he/she/it smells
- olemos – we smell
- oléis – you (pl.) smell
- huelen – they smell
(Remember that an “h” in Spanish is always silent, so this extra letter doesn't have any effect on the pronunciation.)
Second, the verb jugar is the only example of a verb whose stem changes from a “u” to a “ue”:
Third, two verbs exist that change an “i” to an “ie”. They are adquirir (to acquire) and inquirir (to inquire). So in the first-person singular they're adquiero and inquiero, respectively.
Can you figure out the other five present-tense forms of adquirir and inquirir? Hopefully by now it should be easy.
Spanish Verbs With an Irregular “yo” Form
A confession: I misled you slightly earlier. I told you that decir, which means “to say”, is an “e”-to-“i” stem-changing verb. This isn't wrong – but I left out an important detail.
Decir is one of a small number of verbs which has a non-standard yo form. Remember that yo means “I”. “I say” is (yo) digo, which isn't what you'd expect if you followed the rules that I already explained above.
To be clear, here are all six present-tense forms of decir:
- digo – I say
- dices – you (s.) say
- dice – he/she says
- decimos – we say
- *decís – you (pl.) say
- dicen – they say
As you can see, the first form uses the weird “-go” suffix; the rest of the forms proceed as normal, subject to the stem changes that I already explained.
Several other common Spanish verbs follow this pattern in the present tense. The first-person singular form is irregular; all other forms are either regular or, as in the case of decir, have a stem change.
Here's what you need to learn. For each verb, I'll give the infinitive, the first-person singular (which is irregular), and the second-person singular (so you can see the stem change, or lack of it).
Irregular “yo” form with no stem change
- conocer – “to know” – yo conozco, tú conoces
- dar – “to give” – yo doy, tú das
- hacer – “to do, make” – yo hago, tú haces
- poner – “to put” – yo pongo, tú pones
- salir – “to exit” – yo salgo, tú sales
- traer – “to bring” – yo traigo, tú traes
- ver – “to see” – yo veo, tú ves
- oír – “to hear” – yo oigo, tú oyes
- saber – “to know” – yo sé, tú sabes
- ir – “to go” – yo voy, tú vas
- estar – “to be” – yo estoy, tú estás
- caber – “to fit” – yo quepo, tú cabes
- lucir – “to wear” – yo luzco, tú luces
- valer – “to be worth” – yo valgo, tú vales
Irregular “yo” form with a stem change
- decir – “to say” – yo digo, tú dices
- tener – “to have” – yo tengo, tú tienes
- venir – “to come” – yo vengo, tú vienes
It's time to look at the biggest and baddest of all Spanish irregular verbs: ser, which means “to be”.
Like its English counterpart, ser is highly irregular – and not just in the first-person singular. Here are the six present-tense forms of ser:
- soy – I am
- eres – you (s.) are
- es – he/she/it is
- somos – we are
- sóis – you (pl.) are
- son – they are
I recommend you commit these conjugations to memory as soon as possible. It's probably the most important irregular verb in Spanish, and it will show up in most of the sentences you’ll see, hear, read, or speak.
Another highly irregular (and important) verb is haber. The dictionary might tell you that haber means “to have”, but this doesn't paint the full picture.
To say “I have a dog” in Spanish, you'd say “tengo un perro”. Tengo, as we saw above, is the irregular first-person singular form of tener, and tener is the normal way to say “have” in this sense in Spanish.
So where does haber come in? Well, think of an English sentence like “I have eaten “. The word “have” is doing something different here. It doesn't convey ownership or possession, which is what tener is for. Instead it's a grammatical device that changes the tense of the word, in this case telling you that the action took place in the past.
This is the primary function of haber in Spanish – it's used in compound tenses, like the “have” in “I have eaten”. Here's how it's conjugated (and I'll stick with “eaten”, comido, as my example):
- he comido – I have eaten
- has comido – you (s.) have eaten
- ha comido – he/she/it has eaten
- hemos comido – we have eaten
- habéis comido – you (pl.) have eaten
- han comido – they have eaten
The End of the Beginning
You don’t need to learn all of this now. For one thing, if you still haven’t got a solid grasp of regular verb endings, you should work on that before worrying too much about irregular endings.
When you feel ready, go forth with these irregular endings, and, as always, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you forget which verbs are irregular, and say something like yo sabo instead of yo sé, people will still understand what you mean.
In fact, mistakes like “yo sabo” are common among children who are learning Spanish as their first language – which just goes to show, it doesn’t always come naturally even to native speakers!