Verbs in Spanish Grammar

What is a verb?

Verbs (verbos) are doing words or action words; they express states, processes or actions completed by the subject of the sentence (a noun or pronoun). Verbs always agree with the subject of the sentence in person and number. Verbs are often accompanied by additional elements that give information about the way in which the action happened or which actors were involved.

Personal and Impersonal forms

Verbs have different forms depending on where they appear in the sentence. Spanish verbs have personal and impersonal forms.

Impersonal forms of the verb

The impersonal forms of Spanish verbs are the infinitive (cantar), the gerund (cantando) and the participle (cantado). These forms are fixed; they remain the same regardless of the subject of the sentence.

  • The infinitive of the verb is the base form. In Spanish, all verb infinitives end in -ar, -er or -ir.
    Example:
    cantar, comer, vivirsing, eat, live
  • The gerund of Spanish verbs is equivalent to the English -ing form. In Spanish the gerund ends in -ando or -iendo.
    Example:
    cantar → cantandosing → singing
    comer / vivir → comiendo / viviendoeat / live → eating / living
  • The participle is equivalent to the English past participle (third form of the verb). In Spanish, the regular participle form of the verb ends in -do. In some cases the participle form can change to agree with a noun (-da/-dos/-das).
    Example:
    cantar → cantado (regular participle)sing → sung
    hacer → hecho (irregular participle)make → made
    La ópera es interpretada por Monserrat Caballé.The opera is performed by Monserrat Caballé. (variable participle in a passive sentence)
    Nosotros ya tenemos compradas las entradas. ↔ Nosotros ya hemos comprado las entradas.We have already bought our tickets. ↔ We have already bought our tickets. (variable participle because of the verb tener)

Read more about the infinitive, the participle and the gerund in Spanish grammar.

Personal forms of the verb

Personal forms are the conjugated forms of a verb in one of the Spanish tenses (tiempos verbales). When conjugated, the verb agrees in person and number with the subject of the sentence, which is why we typically omit subject pronouns in Spanish.

Example:
Nosotros cantamos.We sing.
subject: 1st person plural (we), verb: 1st person plural in the present indicative tense
Yo trabajo en un banco. → Trabajo en un banco.I work in a bank. → I work in a bank.
In English the verb is often the same regardless of the subject (I work, we work etc.), but in Spanish the conjugated form of the verb expresses the subject of the sentence, meaning that we can omit the subject pronoun yo (I)

Some verbs are regular and others are irregular; some are regular in some tenses and irregular in others.

Moods in Spanish Grammar

There are three moods in Spanish: the indicative, the subjunctive and the imperative. We can think of moods like categories, they provide information about the attitude of the speaker.

  • The indicative expresses real information that is known or certain. Normal sentences are usually formed in the indicative mood.
    Example:
    Desayuno café y tostadas todos los días.I have coffee and toast for breakfast every day.
  • The subjunctive expresses hypothetical, vague or unverified information. It is often used in subordinate clauses that follow a negative statement.
    Example:
    No creo que hoy desayune café y tostadas.I don’t think that I will have coffee and toast today.
  • The imperative expresses a command or a request. Unlike the indicative and the subjunctive, the imperative does not exist in different tenses and only has positive and negative forms.
    Example:
    Trae más leche, por favor.Bring more milk, please.
    No compres café descafeinado.Don’t buy decaf coffee.

Learn how to use the indicative, the subjunctive and the imperative correctly in Spanish grammar.

Tenses

The verb tense places the action of a verb in the present, past or future. Spanish tenses can be simple or compound and can exist in the indicative or subjunctive moods.

The simple tenses consist of one verb: the conjugated form of the main verb.

Example:
Como a la una.I eat at one o’clock. (indicative)
Te llamo cuando salga de trabajar.I’ll call you when I leave work. (subjunctive)

The compound tenses consist of two verbs; the conjugated form of the auxiliary (help verb) haber together with the main verb in the participle form.

Example:
Hoy he comido a la una.Today I ate at one o’clock. (indicative)
Lucía te llamará cuando haya salido de trabajar.Lucia will call you when she has left work. (subjunctive)

The three verbs often chosen as model verbs to show regular conjugation are amar, temer and partir (love, fear, leave).

Go to Lingolia’s overview of Spanish tenses to learn more about the conjugation and use of the different tenses in the indicative mood.

Main Verbs and Auxiliaries

The verb is the heart of the sentence. When there are two or more verbs in a sentence it is possible to distinguish between the verb that communicates meaning (the main verb) and the verb that communicates the time of the action (the auxiliary, or help verb).

The main verb expresses the meaning and content of the action. In simple tenses the main verb appears alone, while in compound tenses it appears together with an auxiliary. When it is alone, the main verb is conjugated; when it is together with an auxiliary the main verb takes the participle form.

Example:
Como a la una.I eat at one o’clock. (simple tense)
Hoy he comido a la una.Today I ate at one o’clock. (compound tense)

The auxiliary acts as a help verb to form the compound tenses. It is always conjugated and precedes the main verb in the participle form. The most important auxiliary in Spanish is haber.

Other auxiliaries include ser and estar. Ser and haber are used to form the passive, while the verb estar is combined with the gerund to form progressive tenses.

Example:
He sido invitado a una cena.I’ve been invited to dinner.
Estoy comiendo en un restaurante.I’m eating in a restaurant.

What is verbal periphrasis?

Verbal periphrasis (or verbal structures) is the combination of two verbs, the first conjugated and the second in an impersonal form (infinitive, gerund or participle).

Ejemplo:
Mañana voy a ir de compras.Tomorrow I’m going to go shopping. (periphrasis with the infinitive)
El gato está durmiendo.The cat is sleeping. (periphrasis with the gerund)
Tengo preparada una tortilla en la nevera.I’ve got a tortilla ready in the fridge. (periphrasis with the participle)

Learn more about verbal periphrasis with Lingolia.

Active or passive?

Verbs can be conjugated in the active voice or the passive voice.

The active voice is most common: a subject performs an action that is expressed by the verb.

Example:
El camarero del restaurante atendió a los clientes con mucha amabilidad.The waiter in the restaurant served the clients with great friendliness.

The passive voice is used when we want to emphasise the object of the action; in passive sentences the subject is unknown or unimportant.

Example:
Mis padres y yo fuimos atendidos con mucha amabilidad por el camarero del restaurante.My parents and I were served with great friendliness by the waiter in the restaurant.

Reflexive Verbs

Reflexive verbs are the verbs we use when the subject and the object of the verb are the same. These verbs always take a reflexive pronoun that agrees with the subject of the sentence.

Example:
Por las mañanas, me lavo los dientes después de desayunar.In the mornings I brush my teeth after I’ve had breakfast.

ser, estar and paracer

The verbs ser, estar and paracer (be, seem) can be used to connect a subject with an adjective or a noun. When used in this way, they have no meaning of their own, they are simply there to introduce the attribute (atributo).

Example:
Marta es inteligente.Marta is intelligent.
Marta es ingeniera.Marta is an engineer.

In contrast, full verbs have their own meaning and can express this without help of an attribute.

Example:
Marta desayuna temprano.Marta has breakfast early.

Transitive and intransitive verbs

Transitive verbs need an object in order to make sense.

Example:
El panadero vende pan y pasteles.The baker sells break and cakes.

Intransitive verbs do not require an object.

Example:
Voy al trabajo en bicicleta.I travel to work by bike.
Nací en 1988.I was born in 1988.

Modal Verbs

The Spanish modal verbs are deber, querer, saber, poder y soler.must, want, know, be able to, tend to Modal verbs express obligation, a wish, knowledge, permission, possibility, probability or repetition. The meaning of these verbs can change depending on whether they are used in the positive or negative form.

Learn more about the Spanish modal verbs with Lingolia.