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How to conjugate verbs in Spanish

Written by tutor Dominic J.

This section provides a general overview into how to conjugate verbs in Spanish. This section highlights tendencies and patterns that span different verb tenses. For more info regarding a particular verb tense, there are more specific pages available.

Introduction

Essentially, the way you conjugate a verb depends on two things:

  • Verb tense
  • Subject

In order to understand how to conjugate verbs, we first need to understand about the different subject types in Spanish. There are 6:

Yo I
Tu Singular you (informal)
Ud./el/ella Singular you (formal), he, she
Nosotros/as We (male/female)
Vosotros/as Plural you (informal male/female)
Uds./ellos/ellas       Plural you (formal), they (male/female)

Examples: He has homework to do tonight. -> Tiene que hacer tarea esta noche.
                Do you know where they went? -> Sabes adonde se fueron?

In English, we nearly always explicitly write out who the subject is (‘He’ and ‘you’ in the above examples). In Spanish, that is not the case. Based on the verb conjugation, you can get a pretty clear idea of who the subject is. It can get confusing if you are using third person and you do not specify who you are speaking about... but you can either figure it out by context or you just explicitly use that person as the subject.

AR verb conjugation

Let’s start with –ar verbs. For example, cocinar (to cook), caminar (to walk), or patinar (to skate). These are all regular –ar verbs (to be distinguished from irregular verbs later). To conjugate this in the present tense, we have the following:

Yo -o (cocino)
Tu -as (cocinas)
Ud./el/ella -a (cocina)
Nosotros -amos (cocinamos)
Vosotros -áis (cocináis)
Uds./ellos/ellas      -an (cocinan)

The "-" just represents the root of the word, which, for regular verbs, does not change with the verb conjugation. As you notice in the table, it’s always "cocin" and then the appropriate ending.

Example: My wife cooks during the week and I cook during the weekends. -> Mi esposa cocina durante la semana y yo cocino durante los fines de semana.

ER verb conjugation

There are a lot of –er verbs in Spanish, as well. For example, correr (to run), comer (to eat) and beber (to drink). There is not much difference between how regular –ar verbs and regular –er verbs are conjugated, but there are some differences. The following table provides a verb conjugation in the present tense for –er verbs.

Yo -o (corro)
Tu -es (corres)
Ud./el/ella -e (corre)
Nosotros -emos (corremos)
Vosotros -éis (corréis)
Uds./ellos/ellas      -en (corren)

As you can see, the "yo" form doesn’t change between –ar and –er verb conjugation (the same will be true for –ir verbs as you will see). And the only thing that really changed with the other 5 subject conjugations was that instead of an "a", we have an "e", which kind of makes sense considering that we are dealing with "-er" verbs instead of "-ar" verbs.

Example: My wife and I run in the afternoon, but sometimes, she runs with our daughter in the stroller. -> Mi esposa y yo corremos en la tarde, pero a veces, corre con nuestra hija en la carriola.

IR verb conjugation

Lastly, we have the –ir verbs. For example, vivir (to live), escribir (to write) and decidir (to decide). The conjugation of –ir verbs mirrors that of the –er verbs in a lot of cases, with some notable differences where the "e" is replaced by an "I". For example, in the present tense, we have the following conjugation of vivir:

Yo -o (vivo)
Tu -es (vives)
Ud./el/ella -e (vive)
Nosotros -imos (vivimos)
Vosotros -ís (vivís)
Uds./ellos/ellas      -en (viven)

The only subject conjugations that changed from comer to vivir were in the nosotros and vosotros forms. Instead of "emos", we have "imos" and instead of "éis", we have "ís". The relationship between –er and –ir verbs is similar in other verb tenses.

Irregular verbs

While there are a lot of regular verbs in Spanish, like English, there are also a few irregular verbs. The ways in which they are conjugated do not follow the patterns of regular verbs, but they have some notable patterns in their own right. There are separate pages which attack –car, -gar and –zar verbs. For example, buscar (to search), jugar (to play) and cazar (to hunt). Also, there are pages that look at stem-changing and reflexive verbs. An example of a stem-changing verb is tener, which has the following present tense conjugation:

Yo tengo Nosotros tenemos
Tu tienes Vosotros tenéis
Ud./el/ella tiene Uds./ellos/ellas tienen

What you may notice here is that for the first person (yo) format, we have "tengo" (the "-go" ending is very common with verbs that end in "-ner"), but when we look at second person (tu) format, we have "tienes." This is what we call an e -> ie stem-changing verb. There are other types of stem-changing verbs as well, which can be viewed on a separate page.

Commands

In English, we do not really modify the verb much when we command someone. For example,

"You cook after you finish your homework" and
"Cook after you finish your homework."

Each sentence has a very differnet tone behind it, even though all we’ve done is remove two words. The verb “cook” did not change, though. In Spanish, if we wanted to say the same statements, we’d have

"Cocinas despues de hacer tu tarea" and
"Cocina despues de hacer tu tarea."

When we command someone to do something, we go from second-person to third-person subject. Anytime we command someone, we are in the present tense, so cocinas becomes cocina, corres becomes corre, etc.

This applies when you are telling someone to do using the informal you. If you were commanding someone that you speak to using the formal you, then you actually jump from present tense verb conjugation to subjunctive verb conjugation (see the page on subjunctive for more information on how those verbs are conjugated). Instead of saying

"Cocina despues de hacer tu tarea"

You would say:

"Cocine despues de hacer tu tarea"

It may seem comical to think that you would order someone that you would call in the Ud. form, but it happens and this is the way to handle that in terms of the conjugation.

Conclusion

Again, the general idea behind verb conjugation is that you have to consider both who the subject is and the tense in which you want to conjugate. There are specific pages that are tailored to attack each verb tense and, as such, will not be elaborate here. Those verbs tenses are:

Future
Perfect
Conditional
Subjunctive
Preterite and Imperfect

Verb conjugation practice quiz

In order to conjugate a verb, you need to know which two aspects of the sentence?

A. Verb tense and subject
B. Subject and verb
C. Verb and verb tense
D. Verb tense and verb ending
The correct answer here would be A.

How many different verb endings are there in Spanish?

A. 1
B. 2
C. 3
D. 4
The correct answer here would be C.

Fill in the blank: El _____ con una gorra azul pero nosotros ______ con gorras verdes

A. corra; corramos
B. corre; corremos
C. corre; corramos
D. corra; corremos
The correct answer here would be B.

What happens to the verb if you are commanding a friend (tu form) to do something?

A. The verb is conjugated in subjunctive third-person plural
B. The verb is conjugated in the third-person plural
C. The verb is conjugated in the subjunctive third-person singular
D. The verb is conjugated in the present third-person singular.
The correct answer here would be D.
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