Spanish verbal phrases are no different than their counterparts in any other language. What we have here can also be, more accurately, referred to as verbal periphrases. These are verb combinations made up of an auxiliary verb and a main verb of which the latter remains in an impersonal form, i.e. infinitive or gerund. As it follows, at least two different kinds of verbal periphrases are possible in Spanish – one with infinitives and one with participles (present or past). I have already discussed the latter in a separate article. This one is about the other kind.
What Makes Spanish Verbal Phrases Special?
That’s true, Spanish verbal phrases do happen to be special. Spanish uses verbal periphrasis at a much higher frequency than do, say, English or German. Ranging from something as colloquial as andar + present participle to something as eloquent as haber de + infinitive, Spanish verbal phrases are indispensable. And there’s a very good reason for that.
You see, Spanish speakers are not very fond of their adverbs. There aren’t many available for use anyway. In Spanish, most adverbs are formed by slapping –mente to an adjective. Take, for instance, evidentemente (evidently) which comes from evidente (evident). Such long words can sound quite loaded or pretentious to Spanish ears which are used to shorter words, hence the higher rate of speech. Shorter words is what makes Spanish such a rhythmic language and long adverbs stick out like a sore thumb, thus breaking the rhythm.
But adverbs are essential and you can’t just wish them away. If you don’t use one, you must have something good enough to make up for the loss. And that’s where Spanish verbal phrases come in handy. Since Germanic languages don’t mind long words or adverbs, verbal phrases are more of a luxury than a necessity in languages like English. Whereas Spanish verbal phrases aren’t mere luxury but a defining aspect of the language.
In Spanish, there’s over 60 such constructs and they’re very ubiquitous. Luckily for us, not all of them are equally important when it comes to daily usage. Here, we will look at the ones you need the most – the top 31. Learning these 31 would ensure you are equipped for any day-to-day conversation without much trouble. So let’s get started already as we have a lot of ground to cover today.
Spanish Verbal Phrases: The No-Brainers
If you’ve been learning Spanish for a while, I bet you’re already familiar with these without even realizing what they were called grammar-wise. For example, one of the first things you learn in any Spanish program is the expression ir a + infinitive (to be going to do something). So that’s one down, thirty more to go! Just be wary that not all Spanish verbal phrases are as literal as the example you just saw. Most of them mean nothing like their component verbs which is what makes them fun. So before we get to the fun bits, let’s review some of the most mundane ones that translate exactly as they literally should.
1. Comenzar a + Infinitive
Meaning: To begin doing something
Comenzar should be an easy one as it’s directly cognates with the English verb commence. To begin, to commence – same thing, no? In most cases (but not all!), a is Spanish for to. So comenzar a literally translates into to begin to. Easy peasy? Of course you don’t use the preposition if what’s to begin is a noun instead of a verb. That’s a no-brainer.
Comencé a trabajar a los dieciocho años (I began working at eighteen).
La nieve comenzó a caer de nuevo (The snow started falling again).
2. Empezar a + Infinitive
Meaning: To begin doing something
As you can see, empezar a and comenzar a are almost synonymous. I say almost because if you’re a native speaker, you somehow manage to see some very subtle differences between the two, otherwise not readily apparent to others. Think of it as commence vs. start. You know they are synonymous but still don’t always use them interchangeably. This is the best way I can explain the difference.
Quedan 15 minutos antes de que empiece el partido (There are 15 minutes before the game starts).
Ya empiezo a entrar en calor (I’m already beginning to feel warm).
3. Estar a Punto de + Infinitive
Meaning: To be about to do something
Punto means, and sounds like, point. That should make the whole phrase pretty straightforward to translate. Think of it as being at the point of – or, in other words, on the verge of – doing something. Since we’re speaking of being at a temporary point in time, estar is chosen over ser.
Estuve a punte de llamarte (I was about to call you).
Estábamos a punto de salir cuando llamaste (We had almost left when you called).
4. Ir a + Infinitive
Meaning: To be going to do something
Another absolute no-brainer, you probably learned this one within the first week of your Spanish-learning program. And like me, you didn’t even think of it as anything special, much less something as exotic as a verbal periphrasis. That’s because it has an exact equivalent in English.
Voy a decírselo a tu papá (I’m going to tell your dad).
Te voy a echar de menos (I’m going to miss you).
5. Pasar a + Infinitive
Meaning: To go on to do something
Pasar means to pass or to go on which, when slapped with a and an infinitive, translates literally as to go on to do something. However twisted the English version might sound, this construct is pretty commonplace in Spanish. In most of the cases, the go on to bit is not even explicit and merely implied. Let the following examples drive this home:
Te pasaré a buscar a las nueve (I’ll come looking for you at nine).
Pasa a verme cuando quieras (Come see me whenever you want to).
6. Venir a + Infinitive
Meaning: To come to do something
This is as literal as the construct using ir. But of course, the two expressions are not exactly synonymous just as venir and ir aren’t. You can think of venir a as a situation where one finally ends up doing something, probably but not necessarily reluctantly. But not always.
Los disparos vinieron a parar en su muerto (The firing came to end in her death).
Viene a costar un millón (It comes to about a million).
Acertar comes from the same Latin source that gives us the word ascertain. Extrapolating this meaning, you can think of acertar a as correctly and certainly doing something or, in other words, to manage to do something.
Spanish Verbal Phrases with A
This is perhaps the most obvious and relatable of all prepositions Spanish verbal phrases use. In most cases, a means to and makes a near-perfect fit when used between two verbs. Even if you put aside the idea of Spanish verbal phrases for a while and just approach this logically, it makes sense. Take, for example, ir a comer (to go to eat) or intentar a hacer (to try to do). See where this is going? Of all the fun possibilities, there’s only nine that matter the most and will serve you best. Let’s meet them now.
7. Acertar a + Infinitive
Meaning: To manage to do something
Acertar means to get right or to guess correctly. The trick to remember this lies in its etymology: Acertar comes from the same Latin source that gives us the word ascertain. Extrapolating this meaning, you can think of acertar a as correctly and certainly doing something or, in other words, to manage to do something. Rather twisted, I know, but that’s how Spanish verbal phrases work. Oh and the construct can also sometimes mean to happen to, depending on the context.
Acerté a conducir el carro hasta casa (I managed to drive the car home).
Acertamos a pasar por delante de su casa (We happened to pass by his house).
8. Alcanzar a + Infinitive
Meaning: To be able to do something
Alcanzar means to reach. That alone should give you a hint of ability. Think of the expression as to reach to do something which is super awkward but helps you arrive at the more sensible translation, i.e. to be able to do something. Learn this expression and use it as liberally as you want whenever you speak of ability because that’s what a native speaker would do.
Alcancé a verlo unos segundos (I managed to see him for a few seconds).
No alcanzó a comprender por qué (She could not understand why).
9. Echar a + Infinitive
Meaning: To break into doing something
Echar means to throw and is etymologically related to the English verb eject. Extrapolating this translation, you can see how echar a + infinitive can refer to throwing oneself into doing something or, in simpler terms, bursting into doing something. Given the reflexive nature of this translation, some people prefer echarse over echar in this expression but the meaning doesn’t change. Oftentimes, the burst into part is not even expressed explicitly.
Me eché una siesta (I took a nap).
Se echó a reír (She burst into laughter).
10. Liarse a + Infinitive
Meaning: To get involved in doing something
Liar means to roll or to tie up. Used reflexively, you can think of it as to get tied up or something like that. So far as this expression goes, think of the very commonplace English expression to be tied up doing something. See a similarity?
Se liaron a puñetazos (They set about one another).
Nos liamos a hablar y se nos pasó la hora (We got talking and lost track of time).
11. Llegar a + Infinitive
Meaning: To come to or get to do something
This one isn’t very different from the expression using pasar we discussed above. Llegar means to arrive which can easily imply the act of coming in some contexts. You can also use this synonymously with the expression using alcanzar above. Spanish verbal phrases are pretty flexible like that. The same meaning can be conveyed multiple ways. Don’t we do that in all languages anyway?
Llegó a conocer a varios directores (She got to know several directors).
Hemos llegado a sospechar de ella (We’ve come to suspect her).
12. Meterse a + Infinitive
Meaning: To get started doing something
Meterse is the reflexive form of meter which means to put which reflexively translates as something like to go in. The word is etymologically related to the English verb mete which is sparingly used these days. The periphrasis in question thus translates into something like to get into doing something which makes perfect sense. If you switch the infinitive with a noun, more specifically the name of a profession, you can also translate this as to get a job as.
Se metió a pintar todas las paredes de la casa (He started painting the whole house).
Me metí a recoger esos calabazas (I got started picking those pumpkins).
13. Ponerse a + Infinitive
Meaning: To start doing something
Too many ways to skin a cat. At least when it comes to Spanish phrasal verbs, variety is the name of the game. To start doing something – this is exactly what almost every expression in this section has been all about. Why should you still learn them all if you can just pick a favorite and stick to it all the time? Because you can’t choose what others use and you still ought to understand them, no?
Si me pongo a pensar en lo que me espera (If I started to think what awaits me).
Se va a poner a llover (It’s going to rain).
14. Romper a + Infinitive
Meaning: To suddenly start doing something
This one should immediately remind you of the expression using echar we discussed above. It’s safe to assume the two expressions can be used interchangeably. Romper means to break, so this one might sound a tad more literal and natural to you than echar in this context.
Rompió a proferir insultos contra todo el mundo (He suddenly started hurling insults at everyone).
Al verme rompió a llorar (When he saw me he burst into tears).
15. Volver a + Infinitive
Meaning: To do something again
Not a hard cookie, this one. Volver means to return and is easy to remember given it comes from the same Latin source that gives us words like revolve which involves returning to where one started. Think of this expression as to return to do something which sounds like to get back to doing something, and you’ll see how it works. Another way to express the same idea is using de nuevo. So volver a hacerlo is the same as hacerlo de nuevo (to do it again).
Tengo que volver a limpiarlo todo (I have to clean everything again).
Volverá a llover este fin de semana (It will rain again this weekend).
Spanish Verbal Phrases with De
De means of in most contexts. While of is rarely used before infinitives in English verbal phrases, de enjoys better currency in Spanish verbal phrases. To unaccustomed ears most periphrastic constructs containing de are gonna sound odd because they would expect an a instead. But don’t worry, treat them as you would any set phrase and you’ll get used to them in no time. While there are practically countless possibilities using this preposition, only eight matter the most when it comes to commonplace Spanish.
16. Acabar de + Infinitive
Meaning: To have just done something
Arguably the most important of all Spanish verbal phrases, or at least one of them, you can hear this one on either side of the Atlantic with equal ubiquity. Except in Mexico where, people favor another synonymous construct, recién + past participle. So, acabo de comer is kinda the same as recién comí, meaning I just ate. Nevertheless, the expression still remains worth learning.
Me acabo de dar cuenta que se me quedaron las llaves en casa (I just realized that I left my keys at home).
Mi hermana acabas de cumplir diecisiete (My sister just turned seventeen).
17. Cesar de + Infinitive
Meaning: To stop doing something
This one is almost a no-brainer because cesar is cognates with cease. I say almost because there’s that pesky de to deal with. To your English ears, a would sound like a more natural preposition of choice here. But since Spanish likes doing things differently, especially when it comes to prepositions, de is what it is. Other than that little anomaly, the expression is as literal as it gets.
El público no cesaba de gritar (The audience didn’t stop shouting).
El paro no cesa de aumentar (Unemployment is constantly increasing).
18. Deber de + Infinitive
Meaning: Must do something, to ought to do something
When you must do something, you kinda owe it to someone to do it. And when you owe something, there’s some kind of debt (figuratively) involved. Debt and deber – rings a bell? That’s because they’re etymological cousins. That should help you remember deber. And that should also help you understand how this expression works. Incidentally, the expression can also be seen used without the preposition with hardly any apparent difference in translation. But difference, there is.
Deber + infinitive is what you ideally use when you’re expressing a mandate that one must do something (you must clean your room by the time I return). However, when you are merely expressing a strong probability (he must be tired), you plug in a de and use deber de + infinitive. You see, the difference is extremely subtle but not uncertain by any stretch.
Lo siento, debo de haberlo hecho mal (I’m sorry, I must have done it badly).
Debo de haberme quedado dormida (I must’ve fallen asleep).
19. Dejar de + Infinitive
Meaning: To stop doing something
Dejar means to leave and that should be clue enough to how this expression works. Having trouble memorizing the word? Think deject. When you leave someone, you make them feel dejected. The clear hint of similarity between deject and dejar should be a good enough memory hack. Just remember that you use de only when it’s an action you’re quitting or stopping, otherwise there’s no de. So, stop playing is deja de jugar; but leave me in peace is déjame en paz. See the difference?
Ha dejado de fumar (He has given up smoking).
Poco a poco dejaron de llamarse (They gradually stopped calling one another).
20. Haber de + Infinitive
Meaning: Must do something, to have to do something
Haber means have and the similarity between the two cognates is too obvious to miss. Does haber de remind you of deber de? They are eerily synonymous with a small caveat: Haber de signifies obligation (he must study hard) whereas deber de signifies supposition (he must be studying). Therefore, it’s safe to assume that haber de + infinitive is closer to deber + infinitive than to deber de + infinitive. Another construct synonymous to haber de is tener que but we’ll come to that later. That being said, the supposition vs. obligation distinction isn’t always maintained in the case of haber de.
Alguien le ha de haber contado (Someone must have told her).
Lo que la gente diga no te ha de importar (What people say must not bother you).
21. Hincharse de + Infinitive
Meaning: To overdo something, to be full of something, to have had enough of something
Hincharse means to swell up, to be full. When you’re full of doing something, you’re obviously fed up with it and have had enough of it. Everything follows a logical order, don’t you think? This is especially true since de means of in general. Hinchar, by the way, derives from Latin inflāre. Does that remind you of inflate? The combination fl morphed into ch when Latin evolved into Vulgar Latin and Spanish. And hinchar is just one case in point. You could also replace the infinitive with a noun if it’s a thing you’re fed up with instead of an action.
Se hincharon de reír (They split their sides laughing).
Me hinché de comer en la fiesta (I overate at the party).
22. Parar de + Infinitive
Meaning: To stop doing something
Parar sounds like park and parking your car involves stopping it. Although the similarity is purely coincidental, this should be a good hack to remember that parar means to stop. Having understood parar, the rest of the periphrasis should be fairly easy to wrap your head around. If you recall, dejar de means the same thing. Spanish verbal phrases are so redundant! Maybe but not exactly in this case.
Although both parar de and dejar de imply stoppage of an action, dejar de is more lasting. Think of it as giving up something. So parar de is when you were to stop smoking because your boss called you for something. And dejar de is when you have stopped smoking because your doctor asked you to.
¡Para ya de hacer ruido! (Stop making noise!)
Nunca para de quejarse (He never stops complaining).
Spanish uses prepositions in strange ways. Why else would you say pensar en when in English you’d say think of? Well, deal with it, that’s life.
23. Terminar de + Infinitive
Meaning: To finish doing something
Terminar, terminate – Need I explain more? But wait a minute, doesn’t parar de imply the same thing? Not exactly. You see, parar de doesn’t care if your work is actually over. It just means that you stop doing it, even if you had just started and far from done. Terminar de, on the other hand, indicates completion. The work is actually over. The difference is quite evident if you ask me.
Terminó de llenar el vaso con helado (He topped the glass with ice-cream).
Dígame cuando él termine de hablar (Tell me when he’s done talking).
Spanish Verbal Phrases with En
This section is going to be smaller – not because there are not enough Spanish verbal phrases using this preposition, but because very few of them are ubiquitous enough to matter. By very few, I mean two. Sounds dead easy, doesn’t it? Spanish uses prepositions in strange ways. Why else would you say pensar en when in English you’d say think of? Well, deal with it, that’s life.
24. Quedar en + Infinitive
Meaning: To plan on or to plan to meet
if you use this construct with a noun instead of the infinitive as mentioned, the meaning changes to something like to end up in or to come to. With an infinitive, though, it means to agree upon doing something or to plan to do something. Do note that this usage enjoys a better currency in Latin America than in Spain. So if that’s where you’re planning to eventually be using your Spanish, memorize this one.
Quedaron en esperar unos días (They agreed to wait for a few days).
Quedamos en vernos mañana (We arranged to meet tomorrow).
25. Tardar en + Infinitive
Meaning: To take a long time to do something
Tardar is related to tardiness, hence the similarity. That should help you remember that tardar means to be late. En is easy since it sounds like and, in most cases, means in. Putting it all together, tardar en naturally translates into to be late in, or to be slow in.
No tardaron en hacerlo (They were quick to do it).
No tardará en llegar (He won’t be long).
Spanish Verbal Phrases with Por
Por is slightly more ubiquitous than en as the preposition of choice in periphrastic expressions. But if you find it just as uncanny as the latter, don’t call yourself crazy just yet. It most certainly is uncanny to non-native Spanish speakers. In most of these constructs, your English brain will root for the preposition a instead, given how common to is in that language. Luckily for us, there are only four por expressions that we need to worry about as rookies which is so doable.
26. Acabar por + Infinitive
Meaning: To end up doing something
This one looks deceptively similar to acabar de but don’t take the prepositions lightly. The difference between having just done something and finally doing something is subtle but certain. Acabar means to finish in Spanish and that should help understand the idea behind these constructs. This particular expression can also be rendered using the participle as acabar + present participle. So, acabé por decirle la verdad is the same as acabé diciéndole la verdad. Both translate into I ended up telling him the truth. Which one you use is purely a matter of personal and maybe regional preference.
Acabó por comerlo (She ended up eating it).
Acabé por viajar a México (I ended up traveling to Mexico).
27. Empezar por + Infinitive
Meaning: To start by doing something
Although empezar seems synonymous to comenzar, the latter doesn’t fly well in this context. Just stick to empezar when using this construct. Por might sound a bit odd here since your English ears would think of it as Spanish for for, that’s not how prepositions work. There’s never a perfect one-to-one mapping across languages and por can have a whole range of translations other than for depending on the context. In this case, it translates into by or with.
Puedes empezar por limpiar tu clóset (You can start by cleaning out your closet).
Empecé por escribirle una carta (I began with writing him a letter).
28. Estar por + Infinitive
Meaning: To be on the verge of doing something
Remember estar a punto de? Well, this is just another way to say the same thing. There does exist a very slight difference of nuance between the two expressions but unless you are a purist, don’t beat yourself up over it. Another alternative is estar para. Again, they all indicate an imminent action very slightly varying in the imminency of the said action.
Estuve por pegarle (I was about to hit him).
Estuvo por estornudar (You were about to sneeze).
29. Quedar por + Infinitive
Meaning: To be left to do something
Since quedar means to remain or to stay, the construct is fairly straightforward to understand. The only gremlin is the preposition – you’d expect an a instead of por there – but then, that’s how prepositions roll, especially in Spanish. The implication here is that you’re having to do something you’re not particularly happy about. Think of it as being left with the short end of the stick.
Nos queda por pagar la luz (We still have to pay the electricity bill).
Eso queda todavía por estudiar (That still remains to be studied).
Spanish Verbal Phrases with Que
This class of Spanish verbal phrases includes haber que, perhaps the most eloquent of all I’ve come across so far. Alright, eloquence here might be subjective but haber que certainly figures among my top favorites. Again, no English speaker worth their salt would see que as a better option than a in these constructs but you simply can’t argue these rules. Luckily for you, there’s no novelty here because both haber que and tener que are made familiar to you in the first few classes of any Spanish learning course. Tener que is alright but haber que? But I never read about this one until now! Yes you did. Remember hay que? Read on, it’ll all fall in place.
See those examples? Add them to your flashcards. Memorizing entire sentences might sound silly at first but don’t let that fool you.
30. Haber que + Infinitive
Meaning: To have to do something
Wait a minute, haven’t we already gone over this one? No, we haven’t. You’re probably thinking haber de. But you’re right, the two expressions are synonymous. Both indicate obligation, with only one tiny difference. You see, haber que can only be used in an impersonal context, i.e. in a sentence where the subject is not explicit. So the verb must be in the third-person singular form. And guess what, you’re already familiar with this expression if you’ve been learning Spanish even for a few weeks. Recognize hay que? Well, hay is one of the two third-person singular conjugations of haber in the present tense, the other being ha. Why two forms, is a topic for another day.
Habrá que sobrellevar la crisis (The crisis has to be endured).
Hay que hacer reservaciones para el hotel (Hotel reservations have to be made).
31. Tener que + Infinitive
Meaning: To have to do something
Tener que is precisely the same as haber que except that it’s not impersonal as the latter. You can compare tener que with haber de in that both express obligation in varying degrees. Haber que expresses a much stronger sense of urgency than tener que. Think of the difference as the one between have to do and must do.
Tienes que comer todo en tu plato (You must eat everything on your plate).
Tengo que terminar mis deberes antes de salir a la fiesta (I have to finish my homework before going to the party).
Before I conclude this long-winding post, I must reinforce the importance of mad practice when it comes to assimilating new grammar and vocabulary. Memorizing new words is one thing but expressions and constructs are still best absorbed with practice. How long must you practice? There’s no magic number so I can’t really tell. What I can really tell, though, is that it’s how much that makes a difference and not how long. Try making sentences using these expressions. Gun for no fewer than 30-40 sentences using each of these phrases and you should have it down.
See those examples? Add them to your flashcards. Memorizing entire sentences might sound silly at first but don’t let that fool you. This is key to being able to produce the patterns confidently when needed. This is how you get fluent. This is how you avoid translating in your head. Got more ideas? Please drop in a comment and let’s have a conversation.