Only 13 verbs. In Spanish, this is how many you need. At least when it comes to covering the most important life situations. You might already know that these verbs also happen to be irregular…Worry not though! There are some easy tricks to overcome this challenge.
Why do we need to learn irregular verbs in Spanish?
Whether Spanish is the first new language you’re learning, or one in the line of many, you might have noticed a certain peculiarity. Namely, that most—if not all!—languages of the world come with both many clear rules and…exceptions to those rules.
Take Spanish with its multiple subjunctive forms, irregular articles, differences between ser and estar…It can sometimes make you wonder what grammatical sadist designed such systems. You might ponder, is it just Spanish that has all these grammatical quirks?
The truth is…no one designs the language in any planned fashion. Languages evolve depending on how speakers use them. The words and forms used most often, change the quickest and are prone to developing irregularities.
The exceptions can happen in all parts of grammar. Just think of the English plurals:
- plumber => plumbers
- child => children
Or of English verbs:
- speak => spoke => spoken
Why do we need irregularities?
Well, we don’t really need them… They just happen. And, there are many reasons for that.
One of them is speed. Speakers tend to shorten the most common words, or change their pronunciation to make them easier, and quicker, to pronounce. This is one of the reasons why pronouns tend to be short in most languages.
Another reason can be morphology — the structure of the words— in combination with pronunciation rules of a given language. In order to preserve specific pronunciation we need to change the spelling.
There are specific types of verbs that tend to behave in an irregular way. For example, verbs that are used very frequently, or those that describe simple actions, such as to be, to go, to speak. All of them have irregular forms both in English and in Spanish.
We know you’re eager to practice irregular verbs in Spanish at LingoDeer! But, trust us, it will be much easier after you’ve grasped basic grammatical concepts. Combining grammar and vocabulary is one of the core philosophies at LingoDeer.
Let’s start then!
What are the most commonly used verbs in Spanish?
A lot of beginner learners cram new verbs, thinking the more they learn, the easier it will be to speak.
This is not the case.
Fluency is more about knowing how to say the most common phrases with confidence. This is what helps you find your way in a language quickly, even in new situations.
Language is about communicating thoughts and desires. Whether you’re talking to a new Spanish amigo about your favorite film, or are ordering a café con leche, you’re trying to achieve a specific goal—pass information to another speaker to complete a transaction or build a connection.
Knowing most frequently used verbs in Spanish will help you communicate in most common situations.
Based on an analysis of a lot of Spanish texts, Mark Davies, the author of “A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish. Core Vocabulary for Learners” made a list of the most frequently used verbs in Spanish. Based on what we explained above about verb usage, you won’t be surprised to learn the first 13 of the frequency list are in fact irregular verbs.
There is no need to cram 100 new verbs in Spanish. Especially not in the initial stages of your learning. You can achieve 80% of results learning just the most commonly used ones. Because regular verb conjugation is a piece of cake in this post we’ll focus on the top 13 irregulars. You’re probably aching to know which ones they are.
Here is the list of most frequent verbs in Spanish:
- Ser – to be
- Haber – to must, helping verb in compound tenses
- Estar – to be
- Tener – to have
- Hacer – to do
- Poner – to put
- Decir – to say
- Ir – to go
- Ver – to see
- Dar – to give
- Saber – to know
- Querer – to want, like, love
- Llegar – to arrive
After the first 13, the frequency list has a mix of regular and irregular verbs. To teach you a round number of 15 verbs in one post we’ll add another two. The two following irregulars on the Davies’ frequency list are: poder (to be able to) and parecer (to seem).
One note here before we move on. Remember that it’s hard to give each of the verbs in Spanish a one simple equivalent in English. There will rarely be one-for-one translations. We provided the translations above for convenience, but bear in mind that they may not work for every sentence. For example, ser and estar have the same translation, but their usage differs. Mastering the distinctions between ser and estar in Spanish is something that even advanced learners have to work on!
You’ll learn about the nuances of each verb as you progress through the LingoDeer Spanish course.
How to use irregular verbs in Spanish
It will be surprisingly easy for you to learn irregular verbs in Spanish. Why? Because they appear so often! Not only do they describe your daily activities, but also feature in many common set phrases or as parts of phrasal verbs and sayings.
In other words:
There is no way to escape irregular verbs in Spanish, regardless of what you do to avoid them.
Regular irregulars? Stem Change
We keep using the term “irregular verbs”, but the truth is there are regularities that can be found in the ways they behave.
The most common regularity is called a stem change. The stem is a part of the verb, before the ending, like here:
In some stems we’ll see a change in spelling and pronunciation in one or more persons. The most common changes are:
- e > ie which happens in, for example: sentir (to feel), pensar (to think), or, entender (to understand)
- o > ue which happens in, for example: cocer (to bake), encontrar (to find), poder (to be able to), tener (to have)
- e > i which happens in, for example: seguir (to follow), decir (to say), pedir (to ask for)
Let’s see how these work in practice!
You’d expect the verb sentir to look like this:
- Sento el olor del chocolate.
But, following the rule above, e turns into ie, and the correct version of this sentence is:
- Siento el olor del chocolate. (I feel the smell of chocolate.)
Since this post is about the most common irregular verbs in Spanish, below we give you present tense conjugations of the verbs we listed earlier, and in which we can see the stem change.
|e > ie||e > ie||o > ue|
Let’s have three short—and useful!—example sentences for easier memorization.
- No me siento bien. — I feel unwell.
- ¿Puede usted ayudarme? — Can you help me?
- ¿Quieres ir a la playa? — Do you want to go to the beach?
Hey-yo! First person change
There are also several verbs where the only change you’ll witness is in the first person. Since it’s the one you use to talk about yourself—and that’s what we all talk about most often 😛 — you’ll have an easy time remembering it!
This category includes seven verbs from our list of the most common verbs in Spanish. Take a look at the conjugations:
If you follow the LingoDeer course you have probably come across sentences using these verbs. But, let’s have a few more sentences to illustrate how they work and help you memorize the irregular forms. To make your learning even more efficient, try to come up with some more sentences yourself!
- Te doy un café. — I give you a coffee.
- No hago más. — I don’t do (anything) more.
- Pongo la mesa. — I set the table.
- No te veo. — I don’t see you.
- Voy al bar. — I’m going to the bar.
- Me parezco a una tortuga. — I look like a turtle.
- Estoy cansada. — I’m tired.
- No sé cuándo. — I don’t know when.
Challenge: Try to come up with a storyline that would fit all these sentences in! 😉
Combo: Stem change with irregular yo
Now that you know the two important concepts above, we can quickly handle the verbs to say and to have in Spanish. The verbs decir, and tener have both a stem change (i > e) and an irregular first person form.
|e > ie||e > ie|
Speaking Spanish, you’ll often be using phrases that use the verbs above. For example:
- ¿Qué dices? — What are you saying?
- Te digo que… — I’m telling you that…
- No tengo mucho dinero. — I don’t have a lot of money.
- ¿Tienes ganas de comer? — Do you feel like eating?
Take note of the phrases using the verb to say that appear in the LingDeer Spanish course or write your own. The more you use them the easier it will be to remember how the Spanish verb conjugation looks like.
To be… an expert on verbs in Spanish!
If you go back to the initial list of most common verbs you’ll notice that we already covered 13 out of the 15 we promised to talk about. We have two left.
One is them is the verb llegar. It’s common in use but, it’s only showing irregular behavior in its subjunctive and imperative forms, something you’ll learn at the later stages of your Spanish journey. So, we can actually skip it for now.
The only verb we have left to cover is the ubiquitous verb ser, to be. You probably already learned to say your name, so you know at least one of its conjugations. Let’s take a look at the full table.
Notice that most forms start with “so-” and follow an almost regular pattern. The only irregularities are in:
- The first person, which ends with “-y”, just like in the case of ir (=> voy) or dar (=> doy).
- The second and third person singular. These are truly irregular, and start with “e-” rather than “so-”.
Now, because eres un buen estudiante (you’re a good student), we’ll end this section with a task.
Come up with an example sentence for each of the forms above. Creating sentences that are meaningful to you is one of the best ways to practice new material. And, if you want to accompany that with a structured course, LingoDeer is here for you!
Bonus: Explore most common verbs in Spanish
After this article you might be drawn to exploring more nouns and verbs in Spanish. You’ll be happy to learn, there are several good destinations where you can delight yourself in frequency tables and analyze language corpora yourself. Here are a few:
- Real Academia Española, a corpus based on 160 million word forms found in the Corpus de Referencia del Español Actual.
- A search tool based on Mark Davies’ corpus.
- Google Books
And, if you’d rather jump straight to hands-on practice of verbs in Spanish…start right away with the LingoDeer Spanish course!