Spanish Grammar Basics and Fundamentals

Spanish Grammar Basics & Fundamentals

While Spanish grammar is similar to English grammar, making it relatively easy for English speakers to learn, it can feel intimidating to get started.

In this article, you’ll learn about beginner Spanish grammar, including some key similarities and differences between English and Spanish grammar, how grammatical gender and verb conjugations work, and how lessons with an experienced tutor can help you master Spanish grammar basics.

How is Spanish similar to English?

Spanish and English have a lot in common, so let’s start here! They share lots of vocabulary and feature the same parts of speech. 

Cognados (cognates)

When native English speakers first learn Spanish, they might be surprised by how much vocabulary they can pick up. This is due to a large number of cognados (cog-NAH-dos), or “cognates,” which are words that look and/or sound similar in English and Spanish.

Some of these words are préstamos lingüísticos (PREH-stah-mos leen-GWEE-stee-cohs), or “loaner words,” from other languages, such as Arabic, French, and Indigenous languages. While these words may look similar to their English counterparts, be sure to pronounce these words with correct Spanish pronunciation.

Image

*note: many Spanish words ending in -ción and -sión are feminine and translate to English with the suffix -tion, and many ending in -dad are feminine and translate to English with the suffix -ity.

note: many Spanish words beginning in al- come from Arabic.

Amigos falsos

We couldn’t mention cognados without mentioning amigos falsos (ah-MEE-gos FAL-sos), which translates literally to “false friends.” These are words that appear to be friendly cognates … but aren’t. Some common examples are explained below.

  • Actual (ahk-too-ALL) looks and sounds like English “actual,” but it really means “current.” Use real (reh-AL) or verdadero/a (ver-dah-DEH-roh/-rah) in Spanish to mean “actual.”
  • La librería (lah lee-vreh-REE-ah) looks like the English word “library,” a place to check out books for free. Confusingly, it actually means “bookstore,” where you go to purchase books. Use la biblioteca (lah bee-blee-oh-TEH-kah) in Spanish to mean “library.” 

Embarazada (em-bah-rah-ZAH-dah) looks and sounds “embarrassed,” but it means pregnant. Instead, use avergonzado/a (ah-ver-gon-ZAH-doh/dah) to mean “embarrassed” or “ashamed.”

Image

An experienced Spanish tutor can help you nail your pronunciation and catch amigos falsos in real time, preventing you from being embarazada when you try to check out a book from the librería — I mean, avergonzado/a and biblioteca! See how important it is not to mix these up?

Image

Parts of Spanish speech

Beyond sharing vocabulary, English and Spanish share parts of speech and grammatical structures due to their common Indo-European ancestry. This differs from non Indo-European languages, such as Japanese, Arabic, and Basque, a language isolate still spoken in Northern Spain. Both English and Spanish use subjects and verbs to form full sentences, and more complex sentences can have adjectives, adverbs, direct and indirect objects, and prepositions sprinkled in. In some cases, the word order aligns perfectly, as in the following example:

Ayer, el perro habló con su dueño por cuarenta minutos – Yesterday, the dog spoke with its owner for forty minutes.

Ayer is “yesterday,” which acts as an adverb and provides temporal context for the rest of the sentence. El perro is “the dog,” which acts as the subject of the sentence. Habló is “(he/she) spoke,” which is the verb … you get the idea.

How is Spanish different from English?

As we’ve seen, parts of speech and their functions are similar in English and Spanish; however, syntax, or word order, can vary dramatically.

Word order

  1. Nouns and adjectives: In English, we’d say “the blue wall is over there” or “the energetic cats are playing in the field.” “Blue” and “energetic” are particular qualities of the nouns, and it feels natural to put these qualities before the nouns — we wouldn’t say “the wall blue is over there” or “the cats energetic are playing in the field.”

    In Spanish, on the other hand, the order flips: most adjectives follow nouns. In Spanish, we’d say “la pared azul” and “los gatos energéticos.” Some exceptions to this rule include numbers (dos gatos, cuarenta dólares, seis mil personas), good and bad (buen día, mala fortuna), and others.

  2. Verbs and object pronouns: In both languages, a subject can apply an action to an object. In English, we would say, “We delivered it to our mother”: subject (“we”) comes first, verb (“delivered”) comes next, then the direct object (“it”) and recipient of the gift at the end (“to our mother”).

    In Spanish, the word order changes: Nosotros lo entregamos a nuestra madre. The direct English translation would be, “We it gave to our mother.” Here, we’ve flipped the order of the verb and direct object.
Image

Gender

Grammatical gender is one of the most common sources of errors for English speakers in Spanish, so ¡presta atención (pay attention)! In English, we associate gender with a person’s identity and expression. Some words in English have gender, such as gendered third-person pronouns (“he,” “she,” “they”), titles (“Mr.” and “Ms.”), and jobs (“actor” and “actress,” “waiter” and “waitress”).

This is true in Spanish, too: the male actor is el actor (el ahk-TOR), the female actor/actress is la actriz (lah ahk-TREES), five male actors are los actores, four female actors/actresses are las actrices, and group of seventy thespians featuring at least one male would be collectively dubbed the masculine plural los actores.

Now, on to the differences. In English, we’d refer to a broom, fork, or any other inanimate object as “it,” not “he” or “she.” (One quaint exception: some speakers may refer to beloved vehicles, like boats and cars, with “she” pronouns). In Spanish and many other world languages, people, objects, and even places have gender. La escoba (lah es-KOH-bah, “the broom”) is feminine and el tenedor (el teh-neh-DOR, “the fork”) is masculine.

Even the countries El Ecuador and La India are masculine and feminine, respectively.Whenever you learn a new noun, you should make a habit of learning its definite article (el for masculine and la for feminine) so that you remember the gender of the noun.

One helpful mnemonic is L.O.N.E.R.S. y D.IÓN.Z.A.. This corresponds to words ending in -l, -o, -n, -e, -r, or -s are usually masculine, and words ending in -d, -ión, -z, or -a are typically feminine. See examples and notable exceptions below.

Image

Moreover, grammatical gender not only refers to a noun’s masculinity or femininity, but also to its quantity.

For example, el gato is masculine and singular whereas las pelotas is feminine and plural. Adding on to our list of Spanish grammar rules that differ from English: adjectives must have the same exact grammatical gender as the nouns they describe, no matter their position in the sentence. This isn’t a mere stylistic choice; it’s correct Spanish grammar. Here are some examples:

  • El gato es negro. El gato negro. The cat is black. The black cat.
    • Here, we’ve placed the adjective after the noun, like we covered earlier in the article.
  • Los barcos siempre han sido rápidos. Los barcos rápidos. The boats have always been fast. The fast boats.
    • Here, we’ve placed the adjective after the noun and added an -s to the adjective to match the grammatical gender of barcos.
  • La pelota era redonda. La pelota redonda. The ball was round. The round ball.
    • In this example, we’ve placed the adjective after the noun and replaced the final letter of the adjective with -a to match the grammatical gender of pelota.
  • Las computadoras van a ser viejas. Las computadoras viejas. The computers will be old. The old computers.
    • Yet again, we’ve placed the adjective after the noun and replaced the final letter of the adjective with -as to match the grammatical gender of computadoras, which is feminine and plural.
  • La estudiante es inteligente. El estudiante es inteligente. The (female) student is smart. The (male) student is smart.
    • In these sentences, there are exceptions: estudiante and inteligente are both the same, regardless of the masculinity or femininity of the noun.

Verbs in Spanish

The function of verbs in both English and Spanish is to describe actions, such as jumping, cooking, making, being, or existing. Verbs are also a great place to expand your vocabulary, as many Spanish verbs can be turned into nouns and adjectives. However, verbs behave quite differently in the two languages.

Infinitive verbs

In English, verbs have no consistent appearance, and some even come directly from nouns. For example, the verbs “to swim,” “to vote,” and “to google” only share the word “to,” which helps us know they’re verbs. This most basic form of verb is called the infinitive, meaning the verbs haven’t been altered to match a particular subject or timeframe.

In Spanish, infinitive verbs always end with -ar, -er, or -ir endings. Some examples are saltar (sal-TAR, “to jump”), charlar (char-LAR, “to chat”), parecer (pah-reh-SER, “to seem”), ser (sehr, “to be”), vivir (vee-VEER, “to live”), and salir (sah-LEER, “to leave”). Just like the “to” in infinitive verbs in English, the infinitive endings in Spanish let us know that the word is the most basic version of the verb. When you work with a Spanish tutor on expanding your vocabulary, you’ll likely learn infinitive verbs before conjugated verbs.

Verb conjugations

In English, we use a relatively limited number of verb conjugations to reflect the intended subject (the person or thing responsible for the action in the sentence), tense (the time in which the action occurs), and mood (the speaker’s attitude toward what they’re describing).

For instance, the verb “to open” can become “I open,” “we open,” or “she opens.” While these verbs are all in the present tense, we have to add the -s ending in the third case to match “she,” a singular third-person subject. To conjugate “to open” for the past tense, we get to use “opened” for all three subjects: “I opened,” “we opened,” and “she opened.” Here, we’ve added an -ed to indicate that the event happened in the past, and we don’t have to worry about adding an -s ending or anything else.

On the other hand, Spanish verb conjugations are notoriously challenging. Every combination of subject, tense, and mood has its own conjugation.

Verb tenses

Just like in English, Spanish verbs not only describe what action a subject performed, but also when they performed it. The temporal position of a verb is called its tiempo verbal (“tense,” literally “verbal time”).

In this article, we’ll mention the present tense, past tense, and future tense only. Check out the blurbs and table below for explanations and representative examples from each tense.

El presente (present tense Spanish): In English, we use the present tense to describe events happening now or that happen habitually. Spanish is the same, using present tense conjugations.

El pasado (Spanish past tense): In English, we use only one past tense to describe singular events or series of events that terminated in the past and ill-defined, habitual behaviors from the past. In Spanish, however, we typically use the preterite for the former and the imperfect for the latter. This is too complicated to cover in more detail here, so check out this article for a more comprehensive explanation.

El futuro (Spanish future tense): In English, we use the future tense to describe events that haven’t happened yet. The key word here is “will”: it’s an auxiliary verb, meaning that it acts in service of forming a verb tense or mood. In Spanish, we use verb conjugations, not an auxiliary verb, to form the future tense. For more details, here’s another blog that can help a ton!

Image

Here are Spanish grammar charts for hablar (ah-BLAR, “to talk”), a regular verb, and ser (sehr, “to be”), a very irregular verb:

Image

Keep in mind, these are only some of the tenses and moods for each verb! Check out WordReference for full conjugation charts. There are tons of Spanish grammar exercises to help you master conjugations, but they can be repetitive and tedious. Spanish lessons with a fluent speaker can help you learn shortcuts and patterns — what patterns do you notice right off the bat?

Image

Lastly, here’s an example showing the power of Spanish verb conjugations. With just one word, the Spanish verb existiríamos means “we would exist.” This single word encapsulates the verb (existir, “to exist”), the subject (nosotros, “we”), the tense (future), and the mood (conditional) … big things come in small packages! In general, Spanish allows you to drop the subject because the conjugation of the verb always connotes it while English necessitates the inclusion of the subject in almost all cases.

Image

More Spanish learning

Now that you have some familiarity with the basics of Spanish grammar, it’s time to put them into practice! Consider hiring an expert Spanish tutor who can assess your baseline understanding of Spanish grammar and guide you through these complex topics with conversation, grammar exercises, and other activities.

Latest Posts

Scroll to Top