Identifying Spanish verb tenses when used in a sentence is not a mere fun activity. It’s an important step in the way of decoding real-world Spanish. Verbs form the pivot around which you weave a sentence in any language. And that’s why decoding the verb means decoding almost all of what’s being said. Yes there’s vocabulary and other figures of speech but none of those packs as much punch as verbs and their tenses.
In English, it becomes much easier to guess or even interpret what’s being said once you recognize the verb and its tense. The same holds true in Spanish. But the challenge gets much bigger in Spanish as this one’s a heavily inflected language. Take the English verb go, for instance. All you need to remember is go, going, gone, and went, and you’re good. But no such luck with Spanish. The Spanish translation for go is ir which, from voy to vaya, has no fewer than 70 different forms depending on the tense!
Memorizing these forms doesn’t have an alternative. Sooner or later you have to do that. But given their sheer volume, being able to recognize them in a sentence using guesswork could come in real handy. This ability makes understanding the context much easier. And that, in turn, often makes up for a lack of linguistic skills. So this article is all about how to decipher Spanish verb tenses from the verbs’ appearance, I mean spelling. There are patterns. Let’s learn to spot them.
Spanish Verb Tenses
Before I begin with the 11 most defining patterns, it’s important that I introduce you to the mother of all Spanish conjugation patterns. It’s like that hidden key in a picture puzzle; once you see it, it’s everywhere. I am talking about the present tense conjugation in the indicative mood. In layman terms, the simple present tense. You must memorize this particular conjugation before you do anything else because this is the pattern all other tenses follow to varying degrees. It’s the very fundamental of Spanish grammar. And I don’t mean everything, just the regulars from each of the three classes. Just do hablar, beber, and vivir, and you’ll be able to conjugate an overwhelming majority of Spanish verbs painlessly.
Just like everything else in Spanish (or any language for that matter), there are ways to make the job easier. Memory hacks is what I mean. I have already discussed one such hack for the simple present tense conjugation and urge you to check it out if you’re still not thorough with this tense. Now let’s get started with the identifiers we all gathered to discuss.
1. Spanish Verb Tenses: -O
If you ever spot a verb that ends in -o, you can safely make a few assumptions right away. Despite all the apparent conjugation mayhem, Spanish verb tenses are more consistent than you think. For example, almost all of them end in -o when conjugated in the present tense for the singular first person. Goes without saying there’s bound to be exceptions but the consistency is dependable nonetheless.
So if you run into a verb with this ending, you know it’s talking about an action in the present and the subject is singular first person. Hablo (I speak), vivo (I live), bebo (I drink) – they all attest to this theory. Just keep the subjunctive out of this. Oh and no accent please. If the -o has a little tick on its head, it becomes something else altogether. Hablo and habló are different, very different!
2. Spanish Verb Tenses: -S
The telltale -s of the second person singular conjugations is another bankable pattern. Any verb that ends in this letter in a sentence should hint you to a second person singular subject in an informal context. The informal bit is key here because formal contexts take a very different conjugation.
A good thing about this trick is that it holds water across tenses, be it present or future. And it also holds water regardless of whether it’s an -ar, -er, or -ir verb. Not only that, this consistency even transcends mood barriers. So a verb conjugated to end in -s indicates the informal singular second person in both indicative as well as subjunctive moods.
The only tense where this pattern breaks is the preterite. That one takes a different ending but we’ll get to that a little later. So, hablas (you speak), hablabas (you used to speak), hablarás (you will speak), hablarías (you would speak) – they’re all second person singular in the casual context. The same goes with hables, hablaras, hablases, and hablares in the subjunctive. You could do this with vivir and beber too. As well as with something irregular like ir or ser.
3. Spanish Verb Tenses: -MOS
If the sentence has a verb ending in -mos, you know it’s a we-sentence. That’s first person plural for you. And this goes with all verb types, -ar, -er, and -ir. This marker is also mood and tense agnostic, which means a verb conjugated for the plural first person always carries this ending, be it past tense or the present, indicative mood or the subjunctive. So be it hablamos (we speak), hablábamos (we were speaking), hablaríamos (we would speak), or hablemos (let’s speak), they’re all indicative of a we sentence. Without exception.
Remember Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother and you’ll instantly recall how to conjugate a verb in any tense for the plural first person.
I could be wrong but I doubt there’s any other verb ending that stays put with this consistency. I mean even the irregulars don’t mind this ending! Now that’s what I call dependable. And here’s a quick mnemonic to help you remember this. Remember Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother? Just keep note of his last name. That’s your key. Mosby is made up of Mos-, which should remind you of the mos-ending, and -by which rhymes with we. As long as you remember Mosby, you’ll remember that -mos signifies a we-sentence. Or you could come up with something better of your own. And guess what, you can do this with all Spanish verb tenses under the sun!
4. Spanish Verb Tenses: -IS
This one isn’t terribly useful if you’re never gonna speak with a Spaniard as nobody in Latin America uses the informal second person plural. That’s the y’all form we’re talking about. On this side of the Pond, it’s ustedes all along, whether it’s your parents or your kids. Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to know something, does it? Especially given the amount of good literature Spain has churned out over the centuries.
Coming back to second person plural, this one always takes a verb conjugated to end in -is. Always and without exception. This goes for both indicative as well as subjunctive and across all tenses. And for all three verb classes – -ar, -er, and -ir. Using hablar as our example, think habláis (y’all speak), hablasteis (y’all spoke), hablaréis (y’all will speak), and so on. Even subjunctives like habléis and hablarais neatly fall in line.
5. Spanish Verb Tenses: -N
Speaking of third person plural, Latin America takes the ustedes form for both casual as well as formal situations. And the quickest way to identify a sentence involving this form is to look for an -n at the end of the conjugated verb. This form also serves the third person plural on both sides of the Atlantic. I can’t think of any exception to this pattern as of now so please feel free to point it out if you can come up with one. Also, so far as I can tell, no other conjugation ends in this letter.
So if you ever run into words like hablan (they speak), hablaban (they used to speak), hablaron (they spoke), hablarían (they would speak), etc., you know you’re looking at a third person singular sentence. This pattern is also mood-independent which means verbs conjugated in the third person singular end in -n even in the subjunctive.
6. ER and IR Verbs Are Almost Identical
Conjugation-wise, that is. Take any tense, mood, or person, the two verb types follow the exact same conjugation pattern! Phew, that’s one big monkey off your back, isn’t it? With two key exceptions though. There’s always that one guy who loves spoiling the party, no? But don’t worry, it’s still a party. One of these exceptions is the present tense. Only the first and second person plural to be more precise. So while beber (to drink) becomes bebemos (we drink), vivir (to live) becomes vivimos (we live). If you ask me, this doesn’t seem absurd though.
The second exception comes from the imperative. The second person plural imperative in the informal context to be accurate. That is when you’re commanding a bunch of people to do something. Vivir becomes vivid and beber becomes bebed. But then, this is hardly your problem if Peninsular Spanish isn’t what you’re gunning for. Remember, ustedes doubles up as the informal second person plural in Latin America. And ustedes conjugations follow the third person anyway.
7. The Dependable Imperfect
Why dependable? Because this is one tense that gives you the least amount of grief. How come? You see, every conjugation pattern in every Spanish verb tense and mood comes with its own set of exceptions. Were it not for these pesky little exceptions, Spanish verb conjugations would have been a breeze for us learners. But that’s not the case and we have to deal with memorizing them while still maintaining a reasonable level of motivation. That’s where the imperfect tense shines. All conjugations are regular in this tense!
Alright, I wasn’t entirely honest but the exceptions are too few to bug you. The only verbs that don’t toe the line in this tense are ir (to go), ser (to be), and ver (to see). Other than that, all verbs follow the regular conjugation pattern in the imperfect tense. That should be manageable, don’t you think?
8. First Person Plural in Preterite
If the imperfect tense has suddenly become the apple of your eye because of its discipline, let me tell you a thing or two about its buddy, the preterite. In case you haven’t noticed, the we form conjugation in this tense is the same as the one in the present indicative tense! At least as far as regular -ar and -ir verbs go. But don’t let the exception put you off because remember, both -er and -ir verbs conjugate the exact same way in the preterite tense. There are some other minor exceptions but don’t worry about them.
But this small convenience comes at a price. Since both preterite and present tense conjugations take identical endings, telling the two apart might become a challenge at times although the context should be a good enough help. So hablamos could mean both we speak and we spoke depending on the context. Similarly, vivimos is both we live as well as we lived.
9. The Signature Stress of the Preterite
We aren’t done with the preterite yet. When it comes to identifying Spanish verb tenses by the ending, few can beat the convenience this tense offers. Look at the third person singular. We all know that an o-ending hints at the first person singular. But the preterite likes going against the grain. Here, the o-ending signifies the third person singular instead. The -o, however, must take an accent in this case. So he/she spoke is habló and not hablo which translates into I speak instead.
In fact, this accent mark over the last letter is the hallmark of the preterite tense. No other tense, except the future, does that. Even in the first person singular, you’ll notice they end in -é. So if you ever spot a verb with an accent mark over its last letter, you know the sentence is in the past – more precisely, preterite – tense. It could be the future tense too but there’s a very easy way to tell them apart.
10. A Blemish-Free Future
All three classes of verb have one common theme running through them. They all lose their default endings when conjugated. I’m speaking of -ar, -er, and -ir. Take hablar, for instance. You must first shave off the -ar before conjugating it to, say, hablo or hablaste. Similarly, vivir must first become viv- before you stick an appropriate verb-ending to it and turn it into vivo or vivía.
But, that’s what the future tense begs to differ on. In this tense, conjugation means just slapping on the appropriate ending without mutilating the infinitive form first. How sweet! So if you ever find a conjugated verb that looks like it contains the original form in entirety, you’re looking at a future tense sentence. This is the only tense that shares the last-letter accent mark with the preterite. But the preterite tense doesn’t keep the whole form in its conjugation, so the difference should be easy to tell. Hablé (I spoke) and hablaré (I will speak) are easy to tell apart, aren’t they?
11. The Disciplined Conditional
This is the tense you invoke when the sentence involves a would. Since a would almost always involves some kind of a condition, it’s referred to in Spanish as the conditional tense. The moment you use would in a sentence, the listener expects an if, sooner or later. Try it.
A good thing about this tense when it comes to memorizing conjugations is that all three classes of verbs conjugate the exact same way! They all take the same endings. Both hablaría and viviría end in -ía and that’s despite one being an -ar verb and the other an -ir verb. This discipline runs through all three persons in both singular as well as plural forms.
There are many more defining traits of Spanish verb tenses and their conjugations but I don’t want to leave you confused. Even if you can keep the above in mind, you’ll go a long way. Remember though, that this is no alternative to actually memorizing the conjugation patterns by any stretch. You still gotta burn the elbow oil doing that. But these quick hints will certainly make it much easier for you to decipher what you read or hear in context. Even if you don’t know the exact conjugation, you’ll at least not go blank.
So that would be all for now. Stay tuned for more conjugation-related hacks to make the most of your time with Spanish. And why just wait – Feel free to get creative and come up with your own tricks for the rest of us. I’m sure you can do much better than me. So unless you’ve applied for a patent, do share your own memory hacks with us in a comment below. We all love learning!