Spanish verbs

Spanish verbs are one of the more complex areas of Spanish grammar. Spanish is a relatively synthetic language with a moderate to high degree of inflection, which shows up mostly in Spanish verb conjugation.

As is typical of verbs in virtually all languages, Spanish verbs express an action or a state of being of a given subject, and like verbs in most Indo-European languages, Spanish verbs undergo inflection according to the following categories:

The modern Spanish verb system has sixteen distinct complete[1] paradigms (i.e. sets of forms for each combination of tense and mood (tense refers to when the action takes place, and mood or mode refers to the mood of the subject – e.g., certainty vs. doubt), plus one incomplete[2] paradigm (the imperative), as well as three non-temporal forms (the infinitive, gerund, and past participle).

The fourteen regular tenses are also subdivided into seven simple tenses and seven compound tenses (also known as the perfect). The seven compound tenses are formed with the auxiliary verb haber followed by the past participle. Verbs can be used in other forms, such as the present progressive, but in grammar treatises they are not usually considered a special tense but rather periphrastic verbal constructions.

Accidents of a verb

A verbal accident is defined as one of the changes of form that a verb can undergo. Spanish verbs have five accidents. Every verb changes according to the following:

Person and number

Spanish verbs are conjugated in three persons, each having a singular and a plural form. In some varieties of Spanish, such as that of the Río de la Plata Region, a special form of the second person is used.

Because Spanish is a "pro-drop language", subject pronouns are often omitted.

First person

The grammatical first person refers to the speaker ("I"). The first person plural refers to the speaker together with at least one other person.

Second person

The grammatical second person refers to the addressee, the receiver of the communication ("you"). Spanish has different pronouns (and verb forms) for "you," depending on the relationship, familiar or formal, between speaker and addressee.

Singular forms

Plural forms

Third person

The grammatical third person refers to a person or thing other than the speaker or the addressee.

Singular forms

Plural forms


Grammatical mood is one of a set of distinctive forms that are used to signal modality. In Spanish, every verb has forms in three moods.

Verbal tense

The tense of a verb indicates the time when the action occurs. It may be in the past, present, or future.

Impersonal or non-finite forms of the verb

The Spanish non-finite verb forms refer to an action or state without indicating the time or the person. Spanish has three impersonal forms.


The infinitive is generally the form found in dictionaries. It corresponds to the English "base-form" or "dictionary form" and is usually indicated in English by "to _____" ("to sing," "to write," etc.). The ending of the infinitive is the basis of the names given in English to the three form classes of Spanish verbs:

Examples: hablar ("to speak"); cantar ("to sing"); bailar ("to dance")
Examples: beber ("to drink"); leer ("to read"); comprender ("to understand")
Examples: vivir ("to live"); sentir ("to feel"); escribir ("to write")


Although in English grammar the gerund refers to the -ing form of a verb used as a noun, in Spanish the term refers to a verb form that behaves more like an adverb.

Examples: hablando ("speaking"); cantando ("singing"); bailando ("dancing")
Examples: bebiendo ("drinking"); leyendo (with spelling change; "reading"); comprendiendo ("understanding")
Examples: viviendo ("living"); sintiendo (with stem-vowel change; "feeling"); escribiendo ("writing")

When used by itself, the Spanish gerund can mean the equivalent of English "by + [English] gerund" (e.g. "by doing", haciendo) and is additionally the only way of expressing this idea in Spanish; the gerund cannot be used as the object of a preposition, and por + infinitive means "for [English] gerund" (e.g. "for doing [something]") in English.

The gerund cannot be used as an adjective and, unlike in most European languages, generally has no corresponding adjectival forms. The now-generally archaic present participle, which ended in -ante or -iente and formerly filled this function, in some cases survives as such an adjective (e.g. durmiente ("sleeping"), interesante ("interesting")), but such cases are limited, and in cases where it does not, other constructions must be used to express the same ideas: where in English one would say "the crying baby", one would say in Spanish el bebé que llora ("the baby who's crying"; llorante is archaic).

Past participle

The past participle corresponds to the English -en or -ed form.

Examples: hablado ("spoken"); cantado ("sung"); bailado ("danced")
Examples: bebido ("drunk"); leído (requires accent mark; "read"); comprendido ("understood")
Examples: vivido ("lived"); sentido ("felt"); hervido ("boiled")

The past participle, ending invariably in -o, is used following a form of the auxiliary verb haber to form the compound or perfect: (Yo) he hablado ("I have spoken"); (Ellos) habían hablado ("They had spoken"); etc.

When the past participle is used as an adjective, it inflects for both gender and number – for example, una lengua hablada en España ("a language spoken in Spain").


In grammar, the voice of a verb describes the relationship between the action (or state) that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments (subject, object, etc.). When the subject is the agent or doer of the action, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject is the patient, target, or undergoer of the action, it is said to be in the passive voice.

Verbal aspect

Verbal aspect marks whether an action is completed (perfect), a completed whole (perfective), or not yet completed (imperfective).

Verbal conjugation in Spanish

For a set of conjugation tables, see Spanish conjugation.

In this page, verb conjugation is illustrated with the verb hablar ("to talk," "to speak").

The indicative

The indicative mood has five simple tenses, each of which has a corresponding perfect form. In older classifications, the conditional tenses were considered part of an independent conditional mood. Continuous forms (such as estoy hablando) are usually not considered part of the verbal paradigm, though they often appear in books addressed to English speakers who are learning Spanish. Modern grammatical studies count only the simple forms as tenses, and the other forms as products of tenses and aspects.

Simple tenses (tiempos simples)

The simple tenses are the forms of the verb without the use of a modal or helping verb. The following are the simple tenses and their uses:

Present (presente)

The present tense is formed with the endings shown below:

Pronoun subject -ar verbs
(primera conjugación)
-er verbs
(segunda conjugación)
-ir verbs
(tercera conjugación)
yo -o
-as -es
vos -ás -és -ís
él/ella/ello/usted -a -e
nosotros/nosotras -amos -emos -imos
vosotros/vosotras -áis -éis -ís
ellos/ellas/ustedes -an -en

Uses of the present indicative

This tense is used to indicate the following:

María habla con Juan por teléfono = "María is speaking with Juan on the telephone"
María va al campo todos los sábados = "María goes to the countryside every Saturday"
Dos más dos son cuatro = "Two plus two equals four"
Los planetas giran alrededor del sol = "The planets revolve around the sun"
Fernando Magallanes descubre las Filipinas el 15 de marzo de 1521 = "Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines on 15 March 1521"
Este junio, viajo a España = "This June, I am travelling to Spain"
¡Ahora te vas y pides disculpas al señor Ruiz! = "Now go and ask pardon from Mr. Ruiz!"
Imperfect (pretérito imperfecto)

The imperfect is formed with the endings shown below:

Pronoun subject -ar verbs -er and -ir verbs
yo -aba -ía
tú/vos -abas -ías
él/ella/ello/usted -aba -ía
nosotros/nosotras -ábamos -íamos
vosotros/vosotras -abais -íais
ellos/ellas/ustedes -aban -ían

Uses of the imperfect

This tense is used to express the following:

Cuando era pequeño, hablaba español con mi abuela = "When I was young, I used to speak Spanish with my grandmother"
Tomábamos la cena cuando Eduardo entró = "We were having dinner when Eduardo came in"
Todo estaba tranquilo esa noche. Juan Eduardo miraba el partido de fútbol con su amigo Alejandro. Comían unas porciones de pizza. = "Everything was calm that night. Juan Eduardo was watching the football match with his friend Alejandro. They were eating some slices of pizza."
Preterite (pretérito indefinido)

The preterite is formed with the endings shown below:

Pronoun subject -ar verbs -er and -ir verbs
tú/vos -aste -iste
él/ella/ello/usted -ió
nosotros/nosotras -amos -imos
vosotros/vosotras -asteis -isteis
ellos/ellas/ustedes -aron -ieron

Uses of the preterite

This tense is used to express the following:

Ayer, encontré la flor que tú me diste = "Yesterday, I found the flower that you gave me"
Tomábamos la cena cuando entró Eduardo = "We were having dinner when Eduardo came in"
Las Filipinas fueron parte del Imperio Español = "The Philippines were part of the Spanish Empire"
Future (futuro simple or futuro imperfecto)

The future tense uses the entire infinitive as a stem. The following endings are attached to it:

Pronoun subject (All regular verbs) Infinitive form +
tú/vos -ás
nosotros/nosotras -emos
vosotros/vosotras -éis
ellos/ellas/ustedes -án

Uses of the future

This tense is used to express the following:

El año próximo, visitaré Buenos Aires = "Next year, I shall/will visit Buenos Aires"
¿Quién estará tocando a la puerta? — Será Fabio. = "Who (do you suppose) is knocking at the door? — It must be Fabio" or "Who will that be knocking at the door? — That'll be Fabio"; this use of the future tense also occurs in English; see Future Tense, Relation among tense, aspect, and modality implications of "will" and "going to").
No llevarás a ese hombre a mi casa = "Do not bring that man to my house" or, more accurately, "You will not bring that man to my house"; this form is also used to assert a command, prohibition, or obligation in English.
¿Te importará encender la televisión? = "Would you mind turning on the television?"

Another common way to represent the future is with a present indicative conjugation of ir followed by a plus an infinitive verb: Voy a viajar a Bolivia en el verano ("I'm going to travel to Bolivia in the summer").

Compound tenses (tiempos compuestos)

All the compound tenses are formed with haber followed by the past participle of the main verb. Haber changes its form for person, number, and the like, while the past participle remains invariable, ending with -o regardless of the number or gender of the subject.

Present perfect (pretérito perfecto)

In the present perfect, the present indicative of haber is used as an auxiliary, and it is followed by the past participle of the main verb. In most of Spanish America, this tense has virtually the same use as the English present perfect:

In most of Spain the tense has an additional use—to express a past action or event that is contained in an unfinished period of time or that has effects in the present:

Past perfect or pluperfect (pretérito pluscuamperfecto)

In this tense, the imperfect form of haber is used as a modal, and it is followed by the past participle of the main verb.


This form is used to express the following:

Yo había esperado tres horas cuando él llegó = "I had been waiting for three hours when he arrived"
Past anterior (pretérito anterior)

This tense combines the preterite form of haber with the past participle of the main verb. It is very rare in spoken Spanish, but it is sometimes used in formal written language, where it is almost entirely limited to subordinate (temporal, adverbial) clauses. Thus, it is usually introduced by temporal conjunctions such as cuando, apenas, or en cuanto. It is used to express an action that ended immediately before another past action.

For example:

This tense is often replaced by either the preterite or the pluperfect, with the same meaning:

Future perfect (futuro compuesto)

The future perfect is formed with the future indicative form of haber followed by the past participle of the main verb.

For example:

This tense is used to indicate a future action that will be finished right before another future action.

The conditional

Simple conditional (condicional simple or pospretérito)

As in the case of the future tense, the conditional uses the entire infinitive as a stem. The following endings are attached to it:

Pronoun subject (All regular verbs) Infinitive form +
yo -ía
tú/vos -ías
él/ella/ello/usted -ía
nosotros/nosotras -íamos
vosotros/vosotras -íais
ellos/ellas/ustedes -ían

Uses of the conditional

This tense is used to express the following:

Señor, ¿podría darme una copa de vino? = "Sir, could you give me a glass of wine?"
Querría ver la película esta semana = "I would like to see the film this week"
Si yo fuera rico, viajaría a Sudamérica = "If I were rich, I would travel to South America"
¿Cuantas personas asistieron a la inauguración del Presidente? — No lo sé; habría unas 5.000 = "How many people attended the President's inauguration? — I do not know; there must have been about 5,000")
Cuando era pequeño, pensaba que me gustaría ser médico = "When I was young, I thought that I would like to be a doctor"
Yo que tú, lo olvidaría completamente = "If I were you, I would forget him completely"

Conditional perfect or compound conditional (condicional compuesto or antepospretérito)

This form refers to a hypothetical past action.

For example:

The imperative

The imperative mood has three specific forms, corresponding to the pronouns , vos, and vosotros ( and vos are used in different regional dialects; vosotros only in Spain). These forms are used only in positive expressions, not negative ones. The subjunctive supplements the imperative in all other cases (negative expressions and the conjugations corresponding to the pronouns nosotros, él/ella, usted, ellos/ellas, and ustedes).

The imperative can also be expressed in three other ways:[4]

Affirmative imperative (imperativo positivo)

The positive form of the imperative mood in regular verbs is formed by removing the infinitive ending and adding the following:

Pronoun subject -ar verbs -er verbs -ir verbs
-a -e
usted -e -a
nosotros/nosotras -emos -amos
vosotros/vosotras -ad (-ar) -ed (-er) -id (-ir)
ustedes -en -an

The singular imperative coincides with the third-person singular of the indicative for all but a few irregular verbs. The plural vosotros is always the same as the infinitive, but with a final -d instead of an -r in the formal, written form; the informal spoken form is the same as the infinitive. The singular vos drops the -r of the infinitive, requiring a written accent to indicate the stress.

Negative imperative (imperativo negativo)

For the negative imperative, the adverb no is placed before the verb, and the following endings are attached to the stem:

Pronoun subject -ar verbs -er and -ir verbs
tú/vos -es -as
usted -e -a
nosotros/nosotras -emos -amos
vosotros/vosotras -éis -áis
ustedes -en -an

Note that in the imperative, the affirmative second-person forms differ from their negative counterparts; this is the only case of a difference in conjugation between affirmative and negative in Spanish.

Beginner's rule:

  1. To conjugate something that is positive in the imperative mood for the form (which is used most often), conjugate for the form and drop the s.
  2. To conjugate something that is negative in the imperative mood for the form (which also is used most often), conjugate in the yo form, drop the o, add the opposite ending (if it is an -ar verb add es; for an -er or -ir verb add as), and then put the word no in front.
Emphasizing the subject

If one wishes to place emphasis on the subject of a command, it is placed after the verbal word:


Positive command forms of the verb comer
Subject Command Gloss Remarks
¡Come! "Eat!" General form of the informal singular
vos ¡Comé! "Eat!" Used in the Ríoplatense Dialect and much of Central America. Formerly, vos and its verb forms were not accepted by the Real Academia Española, but the latest online dictionary of the RAE shows, for example, the vos imperative ‘’comé’’ on a par with the imperative come.[5]
usted ¡Coma! "Eat!" Formal singular
nosotros/nosotras ¡Comamos! "Let us eat!" Used as an order or as an invitation.
vosotros/vosotras ¡Comed! "Eat!" Normative plural for informal address, though its use is becoming rare
vosotros/vosotras ¡Comer! "Eat!" Common plural used in Spain for informal address, though not admitted by the Real Academia Española
ustedes ¡Coman! "Eat!" General plural formal command; used also as familiar plural command in Spanish America
Negative command forms of the verb comer
Subject Command Gloss Remarks
tú/vos ¡No comas! "Do not eat!" General form of the informal singular; the only form accepted by the Real Academia Española, even on standard voseo conjugation.
vos ¡No comás! "Do not eat!" Used by the general voseante population; not accepted by the Real Academia Española
usted ¡No coma! "Do not eat!" Formal singular
nosotros/nosotras ¡No comamos! "Let's not eat!" Used as a suggestion
vosotros/vosotras ¡No comáis! "Do not eat!" Informal plural in Spain
ustedes ¡No coman! "Do not eat!" General negative plural formal command; used also as familiar plural command in Spanish America
The pronominal verb comerse
Subject Command Gloss Remarks
¡Cómete ...! "Eat!" Used emphatically
vos ¡Comete ...! "Eat!" Used normatively in the Ríoplatense Dialect; used informally in Central America
usted ¡Cómase ...! "Eat!" Formal singular
nosotros/nosotras ¡Comámonos ...! "Let's eat!" the original -s ending is dropped before the pronoun nos is affixed to prevent cacophony or dissonant sound
vosotros/vosotras ¡Comeos ...! "Eat!" The original -d ending is dropped before the pronoun os is affixed to prevent cacophony or dissonant sound
vosotros/vosotras ¡Comeros ...! "Eat!" Colloquial plural used in Spain for informal address, though not admitted by the Real Academia Española
ustedes ¡Cómanse ...! "Eat!" General plural formal command; used also as familiar plural command in Spanish America

Note that the pronouns precede the verb in the negative commands as the mode is subjunctive, not imperative: no te comas/comás; no se coma/coman; no nos comamos; no os comáis.

The verb ir
Subject Pronoun Imperative Form Gloss Remarks
¡Ve! "Go!" General form of the singular imperative
vos ¡Andá! "Go!" Used because the general norm in the voseo imperative is to drop the final -d and add an accent; however, if this were done, the form would be í
usted ¡Vaya! "Go!" Same as the subjunctive form
nosotros/nosotras ¡Vamos! "Let's go!" More common form
nosotros/nosotras ¡Vayamos! "Let's go!" Prescribed form, but rarely used
vosotros/vosotras ¡Id! "Go!" Prescribed form
vosotros/vosotras ¡Ir! "Go!" Colloquial form
ustedes ¡Vayan! "Go!" Formal plural; also familiar in Spanish America

The pronominal verb irse is irregular in the second person plural normative form, because it does not drop the -d or the -r:

The subjunctive

The subjunctive mood has a separate conjugation table with fewer tenses. It is used, almost exclusively in subordinate clauses, to express the speaker's opinion or judgment, such as doubts, possibilities, emotions, and events that may or may not occur.

Simple tenses (tiempos simples)

Present subjunctive (presente de subjuntivo)

The present subjunctive of regular verbs is formed with the endings shown below:

Pronoun subject ar verbs er and ir  verbs Remarks
yo -e -a  
tú/vos -es -as For vos, the Spanish Royal Academy prescribes Rioplatense Spanish: ames, comas and partas
vos -és -ás In Central America, amés, comás, and partás are the preferred present subjunctive forms of vos, but they are not accepted by the Spanish Royal Academy[6]
él/ella/ello/usted -e -a  
nosotros/nosotras -emos -amos  
vosotros/vosotras -éis -áis  
ellos/ellas/ustedes -en -an  
Imperfect subjunctive (imperfecto de subjuntivo)

The imperfect subjunctive can be formed with either of two sets of endings: the "-ra endings" or the "-se endings", as shown below. In Spanish America, the -ra forms are virtually the only forms used, to the exclusion of the -se forms. In Spain, both sets of forms are used, but the -ra forms predominate there also.

Imperfect subjunctive, -ra forms
Pronoun subject -ar verbs -er and -ir verbs
yo -ara -iera
tú/vos -aras -ieras
él/ella/ello/usted -ara -iera
nosotros/nosotras -áramos -iéramos
vosotros/vosotras -arais -ierais
ellos/ellas/ustedes -aran -ieran
Imperfect subjunctive, -se forms
Pronoun subject -ar verbs -er and -ir verbs
yo -ase -iese
tú/vos -ases -ieses
él/ella/ello/usted -ase -iese
nosotros/nosotras -ásemos -iésemos
vosotros/vosotras -aseis -ieseis
ellos/ellas/ustedes -asen -iesen
Future subjunctive (futuro (simple) de subjuntivo)

This tense is no longer used in the modern language, except in legal language and some fixed expressions. The following endings are attached to the preterite stem:

Pronoun subject -ar verbs -er and -ir verbs
yo -are -iere
tú/vos -ares -ieres
él/ella/ello/usted -are -iere
nosotros/nosotras -áremos -iéremos
vosotros/vosotras -areis -iereis
ellos/ellas/ustedes -aren -ieren

For example:

Compound tenses (tiempos compuestos)

In the subjunctive mood, the subjunctive forms of the verb haber are used with the past participle of the main verb.

Present perfect subjunctive (pretérito perfecto de subjuntivo)
Pluperfect subjunctive (pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo)
Future perfect subjunctive (futuro compuesto de subjuntivo)

Like the simple future subjunctive, this tense is no longer used in modern Spanish.


  • The present subjunctive is formed from the stem of the first person present indicative of a verb. Therefore, for an irregular verb like salir with the first person salgo, the present subjunctive would be salga, not sala.
  • The choice between present subjunctive and imperfect subjunctive is determined by the tense of the main verb of the sentence.
  • The future subjunctive is rarely used in modern Spanish and mostly appears in old texts, legal documents, and certain fixed expressions, such as venga lo que viniere ("come what may").

Continuous tenses

In Spanish grammars, continuous tenses are not formally recognized as in English. Although the imperfect expresses a continuity compared to the perfect (e.g., te esperaba ["I was waiting for you"]), the continuity of an action is usually expressed by a verbal periphrasis (perífrasis verbal), as in estoy leyendo ("I am reading"). However, one can also say sigo leyendo ("I am still reading"), voy leyendo ("I am slowly but surely reading"), ando leyendo ("I am going around reading"), and others.

The passive

"True" passive

The "true" passive is formed with ser + the past participle, which in this case behaves like a normal adjective. Thus:

The "true" passive is used in a variety of situations, but its use is somewhat more limited than that of its English counterpart.

Se passive

In the third person, reflexive constructions are often used to express ideas that could also be expressed in the passive. In such constructions, the recipient of the action is said to do the action to itself. Thus:

The se passive is very common in the third person, but equivalent constructions cannot be used for the first and second persons: Yo me amo always translates to "I love myself" and never "I am loved".

Irregular verbs

A considerable number of verbs change the vowel e in the stem to the diphthong ie, and the vowel o to ue. This happens when the stem vowel receives the stress. These verbs are referred to as stem-changing verbs. Examples include pensar ("to think"; e.g., pienso ["I think"]), sentarse ("to sit"; e.g., me siento ["I sit"]), empezar ("to begin"; e.g., empiezo ["I begin"]), volver ("to return"; e.g., vuelvo ["I return"]), and acostarse ("to go to bed"; e.g., me acuesto ["I go to bed"]).

Virtually all verbs of the third conjugation (-ir), if they have -e- or -o- in their stem, undergo a vowel-raising change whereby e changes to i and o changes to u, in some of their forms (for details, see Spanish irregular verbs). Examples include pedir ("to ask for"; e.g., pide ["he/she asks for"]), competir ("to compete"; e.g., compite ["he/she competes"]), and derretirse ("to melt"; e.g., se derrite ["it melts"]).

The so-called I-go verbs add a medial -g- in the first-person singular present tense (making the Yo ["I"] form end in -go; e.g., tener ["to have"] becomes tengo ["I have"]; venir ["to come"] becomes vengo ["I come"]). These verbs are often irregular in other forms as well.


Contrasting simple and continuous forms

There is no strict distinction between simple and continuous forms in Spanish as there is in English. In English, "I do" is one thing (a habit) and "I am doing" is another (current activity). In Spanish, hago can be either of the two, and estoy haciendo stresses the latter. Although not as strict as English, Spanish is stricter than French or German, which have no systematic distinction between the two concepts at all. This optionally continuous meaning that can be underlined by using the continuous form as a feature of the present and imperfect. The preterite never has this meaning, even in the continuous form, and the future has it only when it is in the continuous form.


Note that since the preterite by nature refers to an event seen as having a beginning and an end, and not as a context, the use of the continuous form of the verb only adds a feeling for the length of time spent on the action. The future has two main forms in Spanish, the imperfect (compound) future and the simple one. The difference between them is one of aspect. The compound future is done with the conjugated ir (which means "to go," but may also mean "will" in this case) plus the infinitive and, sometimes, with a present progressive verb added as well.


Contrasting the present and the future

Both the present and the future can express future actions, the latter more explicitly so. There are also expressions that convey the future.

The future tense can also simply express guesses about the present and immediate future:

The same is applied to imperfect and conditional:

Studies have shown that Spanish-speaking children learn this use of the future tense before they learn to use it to express future events (the English future with "will" can also sometimes be used with this meaning). The other constructions detailed above are used instead. Indeed, in some areas, such as Argentina and Uruguay, speakers hardly use the future tense to refer to the future.

The future tense of the subjunctive mood is also obsolete in practice. As of today, it is only found in legal documents and the like. In other contexts, the present subjunctive form always replaces it.

Contrasting the preterite and the imperfect

Fundamental meanings of the preterite and the imperfect

Spanish has two fundamental past tenses, the preterite and the imperfect. Strictly speaking, the difference between them is one of not tense but aspect, in a manner that is similar to that of the Slavic languages. However, within Spanish grammar, they are customarily called tenses.

The difference between the preterite and the imperfect (and in certain cases, the perfect) is often hard to grasp for English speakers. English has just one past-tense form, which can have aspect added to it by auxiliary verbs, but not in ways that reliably correspond to what occurs in Spanish. The distinction between them does, however, correspond rather well to the distinctions in other Romance languages, such as between the French imparfait and passé simple / passé composé or between the Italian imperfetto and passato remoto / passato prossimo.

The imperfect fundamentally presents an action or state as being a context and is thus essentially descriptive. It does not present actions or states as having ends and often does not present their beginnings either. Like the Slavic imperfective past, it tends to show actions that used to be done at some point, as in a routine. In this case, one would say Yo jugaba ("I used to play"), Yo leía ("I used to read"), or Yo escribía ("I used to write").

The preterite (as well as the perfect, when applicable) fundamentally presents an action or state as being an event, and is thus essentially narrative. It presents actions or states as having beginnings and ends. This also bears resemblance to the Slavic perfective past, as these actions are usually viewed as done in one stroke. The corresponding preterite forms would be Yo jugué ("I played"), Yo leí ("I read") or Yo escribí ("I wrote").

As stated above, deciding whether to use the preterite or the imperfect can present some difficulty for English speakers. But there are certain topics, words, and key phrases that can help one decide if the verb should be conjugated in the preterite or the imperfect. These expressions co-occur significantly more often with one or the other of the two tenses, corresponding to a completed action (preterite) or a repetitive action or a continuous action or state (imperfect) in the past.

Key words and phrases that tend to co-occur with the preterite tense:

  • ayer ("yesterday")
  • anteayer ("the day before yesterday")
  • anoche ("last night")
  • durante dos siglos ("for two centuries")
  • por un rato ("for a while")
  • el otro día ("the other day")
  • entonces ("then")
  • luego ("then"; "and then")
  • esta mañana ("this morning")
  • esta tarde ("this afternoon")
  • la semana pasada ("last week")
  • el mes pasado ("last month")
  • el año pasado ("last year")
  • hace dos días/años ("two days/years ago")
  • de repente ("suddenly")
  • en 1954, etc. (years)
  • el 25 de enero, etc. (dates)
  • durante ("during")
  • muchas veces ("many times")
  • dos/tres veces ("twice"/"three times")
  • tantas veces ("so many times")
  • varias veces ("several times")
  • nunca ("never")
  • tan pronto como ("as soon as")
  • después de que ("after")
  • desde que ("since")

E.g.: Esta mañana comí huevos y pan tostado ("This morning I ate eggs and toast")

Key words and phrases that tend to co-occur with the imperfect tense:

  • a menudo ("often")
  • a veces ("sometimes")
  • cada día ("every day")
  • cada semana ("every week")
  • cada mes ("every month")
  • cada año ("every year")
  • con frecuencia ("frequently")
  • de vez en cuando ("from time to time")
  • en aquella época ("at that time")
  • frecuentemente ("frequently")
  • generalmente ("usually")
  • todas las semanas ("every week")
  • todos los días ("every day")
  • todo el tiempo ("all the time")
  • constantemente ("constantly")
  • mientras ("while")
  • regularmente ("regularly")
  • por lo general ("generally")
  • todavía ("still")
  • ya ("already")
  • Eran las tres, etc. ("It was three o'clock," etc.)
  • Estaba nublado, etc. ("It was cloudy," etc.)

E.g.: Cada año mi familia iba a Puerto Rico. ("Each year my family went to Puerto Rico.")

Comparison with English usage

The English simple past can express either of these concepts. However, there are devices that allow us to be more specific. Consider, for example, the phrase "the sun shone" in the following contexts:

  1. "The sun shone through his window; John knew that it was going to be a fine day."
  2. "The sun was shining through his window; John knew that it was going to be a fine day."
  3. "The sun shone through his window back in those days."
  4. "The sun used to shine through his window back in those days."
  5. "The sun shone through his window the moment that John pulled back the curtain."

In the first two, it is clear that the shining refers to the background to the events that are about to unfold in the story. It is talking about what was happening. We have a choice between making this explicit with the past continuous, as in (2), or using the simple past and allowing the context to make it clear what we mean, as in (1). In Spanish, these would be in the imperfect, optionally in the imperfect continuous.

In (3) and (4), it is clear that the shining refers to a regular, general, habitual event. It is talking about what used to happen. We have a choice between making this explicit with the expression "used to," as in (4), or using the simple past and allowing the context to make it clear what we mean, as in (3). In Spanish, these would be in the imperfect, optionally with the auxiliary verb soler.

In (5), only the simple past is possible. It is talking about a single event presented as occurring at a specific point in time (the moment John pulled back the curtain). The action starts and ends with this sentence. In Spanish, this would be in the preterite (or alternatively in the perfect, if the event has only just happened).

Further examples

The imperfect is used for "was" in Spanish because it forms the background to the specific event expressed by "was run over", which is in the preterite.

In both languages, the continuous form for action in progress is optional, but Spanish requires the verb in either case to be in the imperfect, because it is the background to the specific event expressed by "was run over", in the preterite.

The imperfect is used for both verbs since they refer to habits in the past. Either verb could optionally use the expression "used to" in English.

The preterite is used if this refers to a single action or event—that is, the person took a bath last night.

The imperfect is used if this refers to any sort of habitual action—that is, the person took a bath every morning. Optionally, solía bañarme can specifically express "I used to take baths".

The preterite is used if this refers to an event—here, a birth.

The imperfect is used if this refers to the number of children by a certain point, as in "She had one daughter when I met her ten years ago; she may have more now". A description.

Note that when describing the life of someone who is now dead, the distinction between the two tenses blurs. One might describe the person's life saying tenía una hija, but tuvo una hija is very common because the person's whole life is viewed as a whole, with a beginning and an end. The same goes for vivía/vivió en... "he lived in...".

Perhaps the verb that English speakers find most difficult to translate properly is "to be" in the past tense ("was"). Apart from the choice between the verbs ser and estar (see below), it is often very hard for English speakers to distinguish between contextual and narrative uses.

Here the preterite is used because it is an event. A good clue is the tense in which cogió is.

Here the imperfect is used because it is a description (the start and end of the action is not presented; it is something that was in progress at a certain time). Again, a good clue is the tense of the other verbs.

Contrasting the preterite and the perfect

The preterite and the perfect are distinguished in a similar way as the equivalent English tenses. Generally, whenever the present perfect ("I have done") is used in English, the perfect is also used in Spanish. In addition, there are cases in which English uses a simple past ("I did") but Spanish requires a perfect. In the remaining cases, both languages use a simple past.

As in English, the perfect expresses past actions that have some link to the present. The preterite expresses past actions as being past, complete and done with. In both languages, there are dialectal variations.

Frame of reference includes the present: perfect

If it is implicitly or explicitly communicated that the frame of reference for the event includes the present and the event or events may therefore continue occurring, then both languages strongly prefer the perfect.

With references including "this" including the present
With other references to recent periods including the present
With reference to someone's life experience (his/her life not being over)

Frame of reference superficially includes the present: perfect

Sometimes we say "today", "this year", and the like, but we mean to express these periods as finished. This requires the simple past in English. For example, in December we might speak of the year in the simple past because we are assuming that all of that year's important events have occurred and we can talk as though it were over. Other expressionssuch as "this weekend," if today is Mondayrefer to a period which is definitely over; the word "this" just distinguishes it from other weekends. There is a tendency in Spanish to use the perfect even for this type of time reference, even though the preterite is possible and seems more logical.

Consequences continue into the present: perfect

As in English, the perfect is used when the consequences of which an event are referred.

These same sentences in the preterite would purely refer to the past actions, without any implication that they have repercussions now.

In English, this type of perfect is not possible if a precise time frame is added or even implied. One cannot say "I have been born in 1978," because the date requires "I was born," despite the fact there is arguably a present consequence in the fact that the person is still alive. Spanish sporadically uses the perfect in these cases.

The event itself continues into the present: perfect or present

If the event itself has been happening recently and is also happening right now or expected to continue happening soon, then the preterite is impossible in both languages. English requires the perfect, or better yet the perfect continuous. Spanish requires the perfect, or better yet the present simple:

This is the only use of the perfect that is common in colloquial speech across Latin America.

Dialectal variation

In the Canary Islands and across Latin America, there is a colloquial tendency to replace most uses of the perfect with the preterite. This use varies according to region, register, and education.

The one use of the perfect that does seem to be normal in Latin America is the perfect for actions that continue into the present (not just the time frame, but the action itself). Therefore, "I have read a lot in my life" and "I read a lot this morning" would both be expressed with leí instead of he leído, but "I have been reading" is expressed by he leído.

A less standard use of the perfect is found in Ecuador and Colombia. It is used with present or occasionally even future meaning. For example, Shakira Mebarak in her song "Ciega, Sordomuda" sings,

Contrasting the subjunctive and the imperative

The subjunctive mood expresses wishes and hypothetical events. It is often employed together with a conditional verb:

The imperative mood shows commands given to the hearer (the second person). There is no imperative form in the third person, so the subjunctive is used. The expression takes the form of a command or wish directed at the hearer, but referring to the third person. The difference between a command and a wish is subtle, mostly conveyed by the absence of a wishing verb:

With a verb that expresses wishing, the above sentences become plain subjunctive instead of direct commands:

Contrasting the present and the future subjunctive

The future tense of the subjunctive is found mostly in old literature or legalese and is even misused in conversation by confusing it with the past tense (often due to the similarity of its characteristic suffix, -ere, as opposed to the suffixes of the past tense, -era and -ese). Many Spanish speakers live their lives without ever knowing about or realizing the existence of the future subjunctive.

It survives in the common expression sea lo que fuere and the proverb allá donde fueres, haz lo que vieres (allá donde can be replaced by a la tierra donde or si a Roma).

The proverb illustrates how it used to be used:

Contrasting the preterite and the past anterior

The past anterior is rare nowadays and restricted to formal use. It expresses a very fine nuance: the fact that an action occurs just after another (had) occurred, with words such as cuando, nada más, and en cuanto ("when", "no sooner", "as soon as"). In English, we are forced to use either the simple past or the past perfect; Spanish has something specific between the two.

The use of hubo salido shows that the second action happened immediately after the first. Salió might imply that it happened at the same time, and había salido might imply it happened some time after.

However, colloquial Spanish has lost this tense and this nuance, and the preterite must be used instead in all but the most formal of writing.

Contrasting ser and estar

Main article: Romance copula

The differences between ser and estar are considered one of the most difficult concepts for non-native speakers. Both ser and estar translate into English as "to be", but they have different uses, depending on whether they are used with nouns, with adjectives, with past participles (more precisely, passive participles), or to express location.

Only ser is used to equate one noun phrase with another, and thus it is the verb for expressing a person's occupation ("Mi hermano es estudiante"/"My brother is a student"). For the same reason, ser is used for telling the date or the time, regardless of whether the subject is explicit ("Hoy es miércoles"/"Today is Wednesday") or merely implied ("Son las ocho"/"It's eight o'clock").

When these verbs are used with adjectives, the difference between them may be generalized by saying that ser expresses nature and estar expresses state. Frequently—although not always—adjectives used with ser express a permanent quality, while their use with estar expresses a temporary situation. There are exceptions to the generalization; for example, the sentence "Tu mamá está loca" ("Your mother is crazy") can express either a temporary or a permanent state of craziness.

Ser generally focuses on the essence of the subject, and specifically on qualities that include:

  1. Nationality
  2. Possession
  3. Physical and personality traits
  4. Material
  5. Origin

Estar generally focuses on the condition of the subject, and specifically on qualities that include:

  1. Physical condition
  2. Feelings, emotions, and states of mind
  3. Appearance

In English, the sentence "The boy is boring" uses a different adjective than "The boy is bored". In Spanish, the difference is made by the choice of ser or estar.

The same strategy is used with many adjectives to express either an inherent trait (ser) or a transitory state or condition (estar). For example:

When ser is used with the past participle of a verb, it forms the "true" passive voice, expressing an event ("El libro fue escrito en 2005"/"The book was written in 2005"). When the past participle appears with estar, it forms a "passive of result" or "stative passive" ("El libro ya está escrito"/"The book is already written"—see Spanish conjugation).

Location of a person or thing is expressed with estar—regardless of whether temporary or permanent ("El hotel está en la esquina"/"The hotel is on the corner"). Location of an event is expressed with ser ("La reunión es en el hotel"/"The meeting is [takes place] in the hotel").

Contrasting haber and tener

The verbs haber and tener are easily distinguished, but they may pose a problem for learners of Spanish who speak other Romance languages (where the cognates of haber and tener are used differently), for English speakers (where "have" is used as a verb and as an auxiliary), and others.

Haber derives from the Latin habeō, habēre, habuī, habitum; with the basic meaning of "to have".

Tener derives from the Latin teneō, tenēre, tenuī, tentum; with the basic meaning of "to hold", "to keep".

As habeo began to degrade and become reduced to just ambiguous monosyllables in the present tense, the Iberian Romance languages (Spanish, Gallician-Portuguese, and Catalan) restricted its use and started to use teneo as the ordinary verb expressing having and possession. French instead reinforced habeo with obligatory subject pronouns.

Haber: expressing existence

Haber is used as an impersonal verb to show existence of an object or objects, which is generally expressed as an indefinite noun phrase. In English, this corresponds to the use of "there" + the corresponding inflected form of "to be". When used in this sense, haber has a special present-tense form: hay instead of ha. The y is a fossilized form of the mediaeval Castilian pronoun y or i, meaning "there", which is cognate with French y and Catalan hi, and comes from the Latin ibi.

Unlike in English, the thing that "is there" is not the subject of the sentence, and therefore there is no agreement between it and the verb. This echoes the constructions seen in languages such as French (il y a = "it there has"), Catalan (hi ha = "[it] there has"), and even Chinese (有 yǒu = "[it] has").

It is possible, in cases of certain emphasis, to put the verb after the object:

There is a tendency to make haber agree with what follows, as though it were the subject, particularly in tenses other than the present indicative. There is heavier stigma on inventing plural forms for hay, but hain, han, and suchlike are sometimes encountered in non-standard speech. The form habemos is common (meaning "there are, including me"); it very rarely replaces hemos to form the present perfect tense in modern language,[7] and in certain contexts it is even acceptable in formal or literary language.

Haber as an existence verb is never used in other than the third person. To express existence of a first or second person, the verb estar ("to be [located/present]") or existir ("to exist") is used, and there is subjectverb agreement.

Haber: impersonal obligation

The phrase haber que (in the third person singular and followed by a subordinated construction with the verb in the infinitive) carries the meaning of necessity or obligation without specifying an agent. It is translatable as "it is necessary", but a paraphrase is generally preferable in translation. Note that the present-tense form is hay.

This construction is comparable to French il faut and Catalan cal, although it should be noted that a personal construction with the subjunctive is not possible. Hay que always goes with the infinitive.

Haber: personal obligation

A separate construction is haber de + infinitive. It is not impersonal. It tends to express a certain nuance of obligation and a certain nuance of future tense, much like the expression "to be to". It is also often used similarly to tener que and deber ("must", "ought to"). Note that the third personal singular of the present tense is ha.

Haber: forming the perfect

Haber is also used as an auxiliary to form the perfect, as shown elsewhere. Spanish uses only haber for this, unlike French and Italian, which use the corresponding cognates of haber for most verbs, but cognates of ser ("to be") for certain others.


Tener is a verb with the basic meaning of "to have", in its essential sense of "to possess", "to hold", "to own". As in English, it can also express obligation (tener que + infinitive). It also appears in a number of phrases that show emotion or physical states, expressed by nouns, which in English tend to be expressed by "to be" and an adjective.

There are numerous phrases like tener hambre that are not literally translated in English, such as:[9]

Note: Estar hambriento is a literal translation of "To be hungry", but it is rarely used in Spanish nowadays.


Verbs are negated by putting no before the verb. Other negative words can either replace this no or occur after the verb:

Expressing movement

Spanish verbs describing motion tend to emphasize direction instead of manner of motion. According to the pertinent classification, this makes Spanish a verb-framed language. This contrasts with English, where verbs tend to emphasize manner, and the direction of motion is left to helper particles, prepositions, or adverbs.

Quite often, the important thing is the direction, not the manner. Therefore, although "we drove away" translates into Spanish as nos fuimos en coche, it is often better to translate it as just nos fuimos. For example:

La llevé al aeropuerto en coche, pero se le había olvidado el tiquete, así que fuimos a casa [en coche] por él, luego volvimos [en coche] hacia el aeropuerto, pero luego tuvimos que volver [en coche] por el pasaporte, y ya era imposible que consiguiésemos facturar el equipaje... = "I drove her to the airport, but she had forgotten her ticket, so we drove home to get it, then drove back towards the airport, but then had to drive back home for her passport, by which time there was zero chance of checking in..."

Verbal nouns

Spanish verbal nouns (e.g. "running", "coming", "thinking" in English) are identical in form to the infinitive of the verb from which they are derived, and their gender is masculine. They are generally used with the definite article, and enclitic pronouns attach to them as they would a normal infinitive. Thus:

See also

For a list of words relating to Spanish verbs, see the Spanish verbs category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1. "Complete" here means having forms for all three grammatical persons in both singular and plural.
  2. "Incomplete", with reference to the imperative, means having forms only for the second person and the first-person plural, and lacking third-person forms.
  3. In José Rizal's Noli me tangere, Salomé uses vosotros to refer to Elías and his passengers that day. In its sequel, El filibusterismo, in the chapter entitled Risas, llantos, Sandoval addresses his fellow students using vosotros.
  4. Other Ways of Making Commands and Requests
  5. Diccionario de la lengua española. Click the blue button labeled "Conjugar".
  6. See amar, comer and partir in the Dictionary of the Royal Academy.
  7. See Corpus del Español
  8. Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, haber
  9. Spanish Idioms of the Form 'Tener' + Noun - Learn Spanish Language

External links

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