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Spanish Verb Conjugations: How to Master the 3 Most Important Verb Tenses

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Ah, Spanish verb conjugations.

For many Spanish learners, conjugations are one of the trickiest parts of the language to get used to.

Verb conjugation in Spanish often seems unpredictable, with few rules to follow. That’s because Spanish has so many irregular verbs.

But if you think about it, so does English! Think find/found, sell/sold and ring/rang, to name just a few.

And you already learned those patterns. So you can do it again with Spanish.

The good news is most other aspects of Spanish are much easier. You can learn regular Spanish verb conjugation patterns pretty fast. And once you know the basics, and some of the common irregular verbs, it’s easier to get a sense of how a verb should change.

In this article, I’ll focus on the three main Spanish verb tenses for regular verbs: present, past and future.

Spanish Verb Tenses: The 3 Main Tenses to Master

The three main tenses you should learn first in Spanish are the present (el presente), the past (also called the preterite, el pretérito), and the future (el futuro). They’re the ones you’ll run into most. You can get a lot of things across from these tenses and still be understood in the beginning.

If you’re curious, there’s also the imperfect, perfect, conditional, subjunctive, imperative, and gerund forms, too. But you should go back to those later after you’ve mastered the main three tenses.

You do need to know the infinitive form of Spanish verbs, too. This is the dictionary form: the way the verb appears in the dictionary, unconjugated. In English, infinitives usually have the word “to” in front of them, such as “to eat” (comer in Spanish). That’s the infinitive form. You’ll need to know that because the infinitive form defines how verbs get classified.

Spanish Verb Conjugation: The Basics

First things first: there are three classes of Spanish verbs: -ar verbs, -er verbs, and -ir verbs. These are the infinitive verb endings (or dictionary form of the verb). I used comer (“to eat”) as an example above: it’s an -er verb, because it’s infinitive form ends in “er”. See how that works?

So to understand where to begin conjugating, you need to identify what kind of verb ending it has in its infinitive form, and what the stem of the verb is. In the case of comer, the stem is com-.

Each class of verbs uses a different conjugation pattern, and changes based on who the subject of the sentence is. So when learning Spanish word conjugation, you’ll have to learn how each one changes in each tense. It’s not as bad as it sounds!

So, let’s review the basic pronouns:

  • I: yo
  • You: (informal)
  • You: usted (formal)
  • He: él
  • She: ella
  • We: nosotros (all men, or men and women); nosotras (all women)
  • You (plural, informal): vosotros (male); vosotras (female)
  • You (plural, formal): ustedes
  • Them: ellos (male); ellas (female)

A couple notes here: vosotros/vosotras (“you”) is only used in Castilian Spanish, spoken in the country of Spain. Latin American Spanish uses ustedes as both the formal and informal plural “you”. The other thing is usted and ustedes conjugate in the same way as él, ella, ellos, and ellas. One less pattern you have to learn!

Now let’s look at how to conjugate the three verb classes in the three main tenses based on the pronoun. We’ll start with the easiest form: simple present tense. Keep in mind, this is for regular verbs, and there are many that won’t fall into this standard pattern… but plenty that will work this way.

Spanish Present Tense Conjugation: El Presente

Let’s take a look at how a verb in each category conjugations in the Spanish present tense with different pronouns.

Spanish Present Tense -ar Verbs

Look at how the -ar verb hablar (“to speak”) changes forms:

Hablar: To Speak   Verb stem: habl-
Pronoun Stem + Conjugation Present Tense
yo habl + o hablo
habl + as hablas
él, ella, usted habl + a habla
nosotros/nosotras habl + amos hablamos
vosotros/vosotras habl + áis habláis
ellos, ellas, ustedes habl + an hablan

Do you see a bit of a pattern here? Even though the verb stem is habl-, and drops both the a and the r, because it’s a -ar verb all the conjugations except with yo keep the a. It becomes hablas, habla, hablamos… So you’ll remember which class of verb it is. And with all three types of verbs, the yo conjugation is the verb stem + o.

Once you know the -ar verb forms, the other two become easier.

Spanish Present Tense -er Verbs

Beber: To Drink   Verb stem: beb-
Pronoun Stem + Conjugation Present Tense
yo beb + o bebo
beb + es bebes
él, ella, usted beb + e bebe
nosotros/nosotras beb + emos bebemos
vosotros/vosotras beb + éis bebéis
ellos, ellas, ustedes beb + en beben

This -er verb, beber (“to drink”), stays pretty consistent. Since it’s a -er verb, it keeps the “e” in all but the yo conjugation – just like -ar verbs. Now this doesn’t seem so bad, right? Once you remember things like “-s” is for you, and –mos is for we, and so forth… It becomes much easier to remember the general conjugation because you keep the a and the e for the verbs.

Spanish Present Tense -ir Verbs

Now, this is where that changes a bit.

Vivir: To Live   Verb stem: viv-
Pronoun Stem + Conjugation Present Tense
yo viv + o vivo
viv + es vives
él, ella, usted viv + e vive
nosotros/nosotras viv + imos vivimos
vosotros/vosotras viv + ís vivís
ellos, ellas, ustedes viv + en viven

The verbs ending in -ir keep the exact same conjugation as -er verbs for half the pronouns, opting to use e instead of i… But change to i when it’s “we” or “you” (plural), and keep o for “I” pronouns.

Did you pick up the patterns? The easiest part of present tense is when talking about yourself, the conjugation is always the same for first person, no matter which type of verb ending you’re using. And -ir verbs can be easy if you remember only the nosotros and vosotros forms differ from -er verbs. Since they’re spelt almost the same, I think of them as a unit for -ir verbs.

When first learning the conjugation patterns, it’s easiest to “stack” them, starting with -ar verbs. If you learn the basics of those, then you can see the patterns emerge in -er verbs, and -ir verbs are almost identical.

Spanish Past Tense Conjugation: El Pretérito

Here’s the good news: In past tense conjugation, -er and -ir verbs use all the same forms! And you can keep up with the “stacking” method of memorizing here. The “we” form of the verbs stay almost the same, and there are patterns that emerge here, too.

Past Tense -ar Verbs

Hablar: To Speak   Verb stem: habl-
Pronoun Stem + Conjugation Past Tense
yo habl + é hablé
habl + aste hablaste
él, ella, usted habl + ó habló
nosotros/nosotras habl + amos hablamos
vosotros/vosotras habl + asteis hablasteis
ellos, ellas, ustedes habl + aron hablaron

Pay attention to those accent marks. Hablo is “I speak”, but habló is “he/she/you spoke”. Most of these look a little like their present tense forms, but with more added. Hablas added -te and became hablaste, for example. Hablan becomes hablaron, still the form ending in “n” but with an extra “ro” in the middle. And hablamos is the same!

Past Tense -er and -ir Verbs

Beber: To Drink   Verb stem: beb-
Pronoun Stem + Conjugation Past Tense
yo beb + í bebí
beb + iste bebiste
él, ella, usted beb + ió bebió
nosotros/nosotras beb + imos bebimos
vosotros/vosotras beb + isteis bebisteis
ellos, ellas, ustedes beb + ieron bebieron
Vivir: To Live   Verb stem: viv-
Pronoun Stem + Conjugation Past Tense
yo viv + í viví
viv + iste viviste
él, ella, usted viv + ió vivió
nosotros/nosotras viv + imos vivimos
vosotros/vosotras viv + isteis vivisteis
ellos, ellas, ustedes viv + ieron vivieron

As I said before, both of these verbs conjugate the same in past tense. One thing to note: while the “we” form of the verb is the same as present tense for -ar and -ir verbs, they change slightly with -er verbs. In present tense nosotros form, beber became bebemos. In past tense, it’s bebimos. One tiny thing to remember.

Spanish Future Tense Conjugation: El Futuro

Everything gets easier as we go! When using future tense, you have only one conjugation pattern. That’s right – all three verbs will use the same endings to form future tense.

The difference with this form is that you keep the -ar, -er, and -ir endings. So the verb stays in its infinitive form, and then you add the conjugation.

Hablar: To Speak   Verb stem: habl-
Pronoun Infinitive + Conjugation Future Tense
yo hablar + é hablaré
hablar + ás hablarás
él, ella, usted hablar + á hablará
nosotros/nosotras hablar + emos hablaremos
vosotros/vosotras hablar + éis hablaréis
ellos, ellas, ustedes hablar + án hablarán
Beber: To Drink   Verb stem: beb-
Pronoun Infinitive + Conjugation Future Tense
yo beber + é beberé
beber + ás beberás
él, ella, usted beber + á beberá
nosotros/nosotras beber + emos beberemos
vosotros/vosotras beber + éis beberéis
ellos, ellas, ustedes beber + án beberán
Vivir: To Live   Verb stem: viv-
Pronoun Infinitive + Conjugation Future Tense
yo vivir + é viviré
vivir + ás vivirás
él, ella, usted vivir + á vivirá
nosotros/nosotras vivir + emos viviremos
vosotros/vosotras vivir + éis viviréis
ellos, ellas, ustedes vivir + án vivirán

That makes this form much easier to memorize. One thing you’ll notice when hearing this form used in Spanish? The speakers use future tense for the more distant future. In English, the near future is still expressed with future tense, but that’s not the case here. In Spanish, there’s a different verb tense for the near future, but you can use present tense, too. So, just know that you won’t use this tense as much as you do in English.

The Most Common Irregular Verbs

Some of the most commonly used verbs also happen to be irregular verbs in Spanish. That’s what makes verb conjugation seem so difficult. But there are patterns with irregular verbs, too, and you'll have lots of practice with these verbs to get used to the conjugation. So don’t get discouraged! For now, I wanted to point out a few verbs that may throw you a curveball:

  • To be (permanent): ser
  • To be (impermanent): estar
  • To have: tener
  • To go: ir
  • To think: pensar
  • To do/to make: hacer
  • To see: ver
  • To meet: encontrar
  • To know: saber
  • Can do: poder

Those are probably the top 10 most common and most used irregular verbs. Now that you recognize them, learn how to conjugate and spot the patterns in irregular verbs.

Go Forth and Practice

That’s it! You’ve learned your three main tenses in Spanish. That wasn’t too bad, right? If your brain is feeling like it might explode, rest assured: they get easier with practice. You’ll recognize and remember the patterns the more you speak and write them, as well as listening to them spoken. So make sure you’re practising all four of the basic language skills.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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