Factors That Affect Verb Conjugation

Spanish verbs have to be “conjugated” or “inflected”; that is, changed according to how they are used. Each Spanish verb has at least five — but usually six — different conjugations in each tense and mood.

FACT

The infinitive is the most basic form of a verb. In English, it is expressed as “to + verb.” Spanish infinitives are single words with one of three infinitive endings: — AR, — ER, or — IR. For example, hablar (to speak), comer (to eat), abrir (to open).

In most conjugations, you will need to drop the infinitive ending (leaving the radical or root) and add the appropriate ending. There are a total of five elements in conjugation: number, person, voice, mood, and tense.

Number and Person

Number and person go hand in hand; together, they indicate the grammatical person: who or what is performing the action of the verb. Number may be singular (one) or plural (more than one). Person may be first person (the speaker), second person (the listener), and third person (third party). This means there's a total of six grammatical persons, and each has at least one subject pronoun:

singular

plural

1st person

yo (I)

nosotros/as (we)

2nd person

(you, inf.)

vosotros/as (you, inf.)

3rd person

él, ella, ello, Ud. (he, she, it, you)

ellos, ellas, Uds. (they, you)

Ello is rarely used; él and ella mean “it” when they replace a noun of that gender, so el perro becomes él and la ciudad is replaced by ella. Nosotros, vosotros, and ellos are used for men, male nouns, and mixed gender groups. Nosotras, vosotras, and ellas can only be used for a group of women and/or female nouns.

ESSENTIAL

Ud. (which can also be written Vd.) is short for usted, which is itself the contraction of vuestra merced (your honor). Just as we might say “Your Majesty” and use the third person, Ud. and Uds. are considered third-person pronouns and take the same verb conjugations as él, ella, ello, ellos, and ellas.

In looking at the chart, you might notice what appears to be an excess of “you”s. In Spanish, two important distinctions are made when talking to “you”: Is there one person or more than one? Is it someone to whom you want to indicate closeness (a friend, parent, pet) or someone to whom you wish to show respect (a doctor, teacher, lawyer)? Once you've answered these questions, you'll know which “you” to use: In Spain, is singular/informal, Ud. is singular/formal, vosotros (vosotras in the feminine) is plural/informal, and Uds. is plural/formal. In Latin America, vosotros is no longer in use; instead, Uds. is used for all plural “you”s.

Making Sense of Tense

Tense refers to the time a verb's action takes place: present, past, or future. There are two kinds of tenses. A simple tense is a verb form that consists of a single word like hablamos (we talk). A compound tense is a verb form made up of two words: auxiliary verb + participle: he comido (I have eaten), estamos hablando (we are talking). Note that escucharé is a simple tense in Spanish, while its translation “will listen” is a compound tense in English.

Get in the Mood

Mood refers to the attitude of the speaker toward the action/state of the verb — how likely or factual the statement is. Spanish has three moods: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. The indicative is what you might call the “normal” mood — it indicates a fact:Vivimos en España. (We live in Spain.)

The subjunctive expresses subjectivity, such as doubt and unlikelihood: Quiero que lo hagas. (I want you to do it.) Note that the subjunctive is extremely rare in English but common in Spanish. The imperative is the mood of command: Esperad aquí. (Wait here.)

Verb Forms

Once you know the tense and mood that you would like to use, you have a verb form and you can start figuring out its conjugations. There are more than two dozen Spanish verb forms, the most important of which will be explained in this chapter.

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