Quick Trick to Ace the Spanish Present Tense Conjugation

The present indicative tense, also known as simple present tense, is in all certainty your first interface with the confusing world of Spanish verb conjugations. Vocabulary is easy to ace once you know how to come up with visual cues, mnemonics, or other mental bridges. But how do you deal with conjugations? Spanish is notorious for giving the newbies a hard time and if there’s one this that makes it possible, it’s those verb endings. Yes English has them too but Spanish, and most other European languages, go overboard with the idea. For example, take the English verb to go. Just memorize went, going, gone, and goes and you’re set. Now compare this with its Spanish counterpart ir. There’s no fewer than 10 different endings and permutations for you to contend with before you even start using this one verb for any practical purposes!

What’s So Special about Present Indicative?

Alright, enough whining about how Spanish is wired to make us miserable. But can we do something about it? Turns out we totally can. To begin with, strategize. All tenses are important, almost. But when it comes to learning, not all of them need be your top priority. You see, it’s all about patterns. Conjugations are all about verb endings and these endings, believe it or not, follow a pretty regular pattern! Catch the pattern, and you have your conjugations down.

When it comes to deciding which tense to deal with first, the present indicative form takes beats all others hands down. And there’s a very solid reason for this. The pattern followed by verb endings in this form are mimicked by almost all other forms in varying degrees. One look at the conjugation tables and you’ll see what I’m talking about. For example, whatever verb you take and whatever form and tense you conjugate it in, you’ll notice the third person plural will always end in something like a “-mos.” And this is just one of the many happy coincidences. I am not saying that the similarity is 100% absolute; but it’s close enough to make life tangibly easier once you’ve aced your present indicative verb endings.

What Is Present Indicative?

As I said above, this is just another name for your plain-vanilla simple present tense. The following sentences are all in this tense:

Soy Optimus Prime (I am Optimus Prime).

No puede hacerlo solo (He cannot do it alone).

¿Me conoces? (Do you know me?)

Regardless of the language you speak, present indicative seems to be the single most important of all verb forms simply because it’s the one that gets used the most. That alone justifies learning this form before all others. And if that were’t enough, present indicative also happens to be more anomaly-free and easier to learn than others. Yet another thing that makes learning this tense more practical than others is that it can be used to discuss actions not only in the simple present tense but also a few others like future and continuous. See these examples:

Llego mañana (I’m arriving tomorrow).

Su hermano estudia artes marciales (Her brother is studying martial arts).

Es importante que regreses a casa antes de que llegue la tormenta (It’s important that you return home before the storm arrives).

You can even recount past events using this tense, and you often do, especially when relating the plot of a movie:

¿Crees que la mujer muere antes de la última escena? (Do you think the woman dies before the last scene?)

These examples illustrate nothing new and we English speakers have been using the simple present tense in these contexts for years without even stopping to think. The fact that we can do the same in Spanish too makes it a lot easier on us. Now that we are on the same page with reference to what this tense is, let’s quickly go over how verbs are conjugated in it.

Present Indicative Conjugation for “-ar” Verbs

This example uses the verb “cantar” for illustration.
Person Verb Explanation
yo canto I sing
cantas you sing
él/ella/Usted canta he/she/you sing
nosotros cantamos we sing
ello/ella/Ustedes cantan they sing

The same pattern is followed by verbs ending in “-er” and “-ir” except that the “-a-” turns into “-e-.” The differences are too minor to warrant much discussion. See for yourself:

Present Indicative Conjugation for “-er” Verbs

This example uses the verb “beber” for illustration.
Person Verb Explanation
yo bebo I drink
bebes you drink
él/ella/Usted bebe he/she/you drink
nosotros bebemos we drink
ello/ella/Ustedes beben they drink

So the trick is to somehow memorize that one pattern shown above for “-ar” verbs. Not a very lofty goal as you’ll find out momentarily.

The Pedro Trick!

Pedro? What’s Pedro got to do with learning Spanish? We’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s first establish what it is that we need to memorize. The verb endings for the present indicative tense conjugation, right? Take a look at the table above once again. Notice the order of persons and numbers. It goes from first person singular to third person plural in a single column skipping over the familiar third person plural, i.e. vosotros. This order shouldn’t be hard to commit to memory since it’s fairly intuitive.

He’s so famous, they named a town after him!
Panchonto licensed cc by 2.0

Next, check out the verb endings in the exact same order. Your task here is to memorize these verb endings in the exact same order: -o, -as, -a, -amos, -an. That’s all there is to it. With these endings down, you can conjugate any verb in this tense without any fuss. With the task cut out for us, now it’s time we summoned Pedro. But Pedro is not an easy guy to get hold of. He’s a busy man. Why? Because he is famous! Luckily for our purposes, we don’t need him in person. All we need is to remember that he is a famous man. And that itself is your mnemonic:

Pedro is a famous man.

In case you’re still scratching your head, read the above sentence again and pay extra attention to the parts in red. Now it doesn’t matter how many well-known Pedros you know personally. It could be the dude who plays for Barça. Or the one who makes those twisted Spanish movies. Or it could be someone else who’s famous only for you. None of that matters. All that matters is the mnemonic above and the parts in red. Let’s see how:

Pedro – corresponds to -o

is – corresponds to -as

a – corresponds to -a

famous – corresponds to -amos

man – corresponds to -an

See how seamlessly it fits in? It’s as if Pedro was born to make conjugations easier for you! As for the other two suites of verbs (“-er” and “-ir” verbs), their patterns are not much different from the one we’ve addressed here. There are only a couple of very minor and intuitive changes which you’ll remember without any help out of common sense.

Do note that this mnemonic doesn’t account for the vosotros form and that’s because this form enjoys a very niche usage. Only Spain bothers with vosotros and even there, you won’t be crucified for not using it which is why it’s fairly safe to leave it out of your worries for now. Later when you are reasonably proficient in Spanish, you may choose to take it up depending on which flavor of Spanish appeals to you the most. For now, just forget it exists.

So there you go. That’s how you remember an entire table of alien verb endings in a jiffy. I can safely wager you’re gonna have a hard time losing this for a long time now. Rote memorization is neither fun, nor lasting which is why a little out-of-the-box thinking works wonders. Do you have any better mnemonic or trick to nail this conjugation? Please do share it with us lesser beings in a comment. We’re forever eager to learn. Who knows, with a little brainstorming you could even come up with a better mnemonic covering even the vosotros form that Pedro conveniently leaves out!