Spanish verbal phrases are as interesting and ubiquitous as their English counterparts, if not more. Given their indispensability, it’s funny how little coverage they get in the classrooms and textbooks. Still wondering what the heck it is that I’m talking about? Well, verbal phrases are the very bedrock of any modern language and are largely responsible for making it sound matured. We have them aplenty in English as well, although we rarely acknowledge them. They are like good Wi-Fi, hardly noticed when present, yet sorely missed when absent. Let’s get acquainted with them once again.
Verbal phrases, as the name suggests, are phrases that involve at least one verb – Think phrases like put out, give up, etc. While practically speaking, an infinite number of such phrases is possible, we’re mainly concerned with ones of a certain kind. A very specific pattern. These are the ones that involve two verbs, one conjugated and the other in a present or past participle form. Think examples like come undone, go missing, play dead, etc. In this pattern, it’s always the first verb that’s conjugated while the second stays in either a present participle or past participle form. Although the examples you just saw were from English, Spanish verbal phrases also work the same way pattern-wise.
Spanish Verbal Phrases with Present Participle
In case you’re wondering, present participle is a snobbish name for the verb-form that represents some form of continuous action. In English, they come with the -ing ending. Every language has them. In Spanish they come with the -ando or -iendo endings depending on the verb’s original ending. So, for the verb caminar (to walk) it would be caminando (walking). Similarly, for vivir (to live) it would be viviendo and for beber (to drink) it would be bebiendo.
Now that we have a fair understanding of the present participle, let’s see what a verbal phrase involving this construct would look like. And it’s super-simple. For this discussion, English verbal phrases come with a main verb and another in the -ing form. Spanish verbal phrases, the ones we are going to discuss here, come with a main verb and another in the -ando or -iendo form. Here, we’ll discuss the six most ubiquitous Spanish verbal phrases of this kind. You’ll find them everywhere!
1. Andar + Present Participle
Meaning: To be going around/on doing something
This construct represents a continuous action which is obvious from its main verb, andar. The difference between this construct and the plain-vanilla present progressive is that of nuance. This one has a slightly negative connotation whereas the regular progressive is neutral. When you use andar this way, it’s almost like you don’t approve of what’s going on.
Mis primos andan comiendo todo el día (My cousins keep eating all day long).
Todos andamos buscando una vida alegre (We all waste our time looking for a happy life).
2. Estar + Present Participle
meaning: To be doing something
This is the plain-vanilla progressive I was talking about above. Some call it the present continuous. It represents an action in progress, just like its English counterpart, to be + -ing. However, there’s one big difference. While English is very liberal with this construct, Spanish tries to avoid it unless absolutely necessary. In Spanish, you use the progressive construct only when the action in question is actually in progress as we speak. For example, if you say I’m studying Spanish in English, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are actually studying at the time. You could be talking on the phone at the moment. Or watching TV. Not so in Spanish. If you say estoy estudiando español, it means you are studying right at that very moment. If not, you’d say estudio español (I study Spanish).
Estaba platicando con mi hermana (I was talking with my sister).
Está limpiando su clóset (She’s cleaning out her closet).
3. Ir + Present Participle
Meaning: To be gradually doing something
This is the same as the estar construct and the only difference is in the nuance it conveys. While still representing a continuous action, this construct gives a sense of gradualness. The progress here is rather slow and steady. Trudging along. Think of this as the andar construct but without all the the negative connotations associated with the latter.
Van ganando influencia (They’re slowly gaining influence).
Fueron comprando trozo a trozo el terreno (They went about buying the land, one piece at a time).
4. Llevar + Present Participle
Meaning: To carry/keep on doing something or to have been doing something
Llevar is to carry. So when you slap it with another verb, the most natural interpretation is to carry on doing whatever the slapped verb says. The Spanish verbal phrase is no different from its English counterpart in this case. There is no negative connotation, nor positive. It’s just a sense of continuity we’re conveying here. Exactly as we do with carry on. Do notice though that the preposition on in carry on is not translated into Spanish here, that one is implied. So, to carry on eating would be llevar comiendo and not llevar en comiendo. That’s the only difference I can think of between the Spanish verbal phrase and its English version, unless someone can come up with some nuance I might’ve missed.
Llevo viviendo aquí desde hace siglos (I’ve been living here for ages).
Lleva cantando más de dos años (She’s been singing for more than two years).
Both seguir + present participle and continuar + present participle have the exact same translation. There could be exceptions but I can’t think of any at the moment.
5. Seguir + Present Participle
Meaning: To continue or keep doing something
As you can notice, this one is nearly identical in meaning to the last one. This construct can also be found with the verb continuar instead of seguir. Both seguir + present participle and continuar + present participle have the exact same translation. There could be exceptions but I can’t think of any at the moment. If you can, please let us know in a comment.
Sigue trabajando más de lo que debería (She continues to work more than she should).
Seguimos elegir malos políticos cada vez (We keep electing bad politicians each year).
6. Venir + Present Participle
Meaning: To have been doing something
There are two ways to interpret this one. The literal way to read this would be to come doing something. Take viene comiendo, for instance. In a literal sense this would indicate that he always happens to be eating every time he comes, he comes eating. But that’s not what Spanish verbal phrases are meant for. There’s a higher purpose to them than mere literal interpretations. In this case, that would be to indicate that something’s been going on for quite a while and is still continuing. The construct also conveys a tinge of displeasure at the fact that it’s still going on.
Vienen diciéndole que está gorda (They’ve been telling her that she’s fat).
En los últimos años, se viene hablando de su fallido liderazgo (In recent years, much has been spoken about his failed leadership).
Spanish Verbal Phrases with Past Participle
So far we have seen how Spanish verbal phrases work with the present participle, gerund in most cases. While the most prominent ones in that construct happen to be used almost synonymously with the plain-vanilla continuous tense, things get a little more interesting with the past participle thrown into the mix.
Past participle is a verb form that typically expresses a completed action, traditionally used along with another verb. Also traditionally, this is the verb you use when forming the passive voice. In English, they come with the -ed ending, unless irregular. In Spanish, they end in -ado or -ido depending on the verb’s original ending. Thus, caminar becomes caminado (walked), beber becomes bebido (drunk), and vivir becomes vivido (lived). We have seen what -ando or -iendo do to Spanish verbal phrases; now we’ll see what -ado or -ido do.
7. Dejar + Past Participle
Meaning: To leave something done
Dejar means to leave. When slapped with a past participle, this verb gives a Spanish verbal phrase that is as straightforward as they come. This expression gives a sense of something having already been done, let’s say, preemptively. It’s as if you had needed it done and somehow it’s already been.
Oh and dejar is an action verb. This is an important distinction to make because when an action verb pairs with a past participle, the latter can either function as an adverb or an adjective. In this construct, the past participle serves to qualify the object which is why it must agree with the latter in number and gender.
Nos dejó preparada la cena (She left us the dinner already prepared).
Juan dejó dicho que lo llames (Juan left a message for you to call him).
8. Haber + Past Participle
Meaning: To have done something
Spanish verbal phrase would be too prudish a way to describe something this commonplace. So commonplace that you’ve probably used it hundreds of times without even realizing what it is. Haber means to have and when used with the past participle, carries the exact same meaning as its literal English translation. In fact, this is the very raison d’être for the past participle form, this is what it’s meant for! In both Spanish and English, the construct is better known as the perfect tense.
Aún no he comenzado la reconstrucción (The reconstruction hasn’t yet started).
Ya he hablado de esto contigo (I have already discussed this with you).
Think of llevar here as a placeholder for to have been and everything else will fall in place. In fact, you can use llevar this way even without a past participle!
9. Llevar + Past Participle
Meaning: To have done something
When you pair llevar (to carry) with a past participle, you convey a sense of conclusion. Conclusion of an action that’s been going on for quite a while now. A sentence with this verbal phrase kinda has an inherent so far in its translation. This construct is also interesting because when literally translated, it makes zero sense. I mean, to carry done something? What does that even mean? Spanish verbal phrases often end up meaning entirely different from their constituent verbs. Don’t be surprised. Think of llevar here as a placeholder for to have been and everything else will fall in place. In fact, you can use llevar this way even without a past participle! In such cases, it actually would translate into to have been.
Just like dejar, llevar is also an action verb. And in this construct, the participle qualifies the object. Which is why it must agree with the latter in number and gender like a good boy. You can see this at work in the first example below. But it can also agree with the subject instead, if it’s the latter that’s getting affected by the action as shown in the second example below.
Llevo ganados nueve premios (I have, so far, won nine awards).
Esa tienda lleva cerrada desde 1990 (This store has been closed since 1990).
10. Quedarse + Past Participle
Meaning: To remain + past participle
Not all verbal phrases need an object and not all need be intransitive. Some, like this one, can also be reflexive. Quedar means to remain, to be left, or to stay, and so does quedarse. So when you pair it with a past participle, the meaning becomes to be left done or to be rendered done.
Just keep in mind that the participle must agree with the object in these sentences, just as in any other such case where the past participle also acts as an adjective. How do you know? You see, the Spanish past participle always behaves as an adjective and treated as one if it tags along with a verb that expresses the result of an action or a mere state of being. That would include verbs like quedar, resultar, parecer, estar, mostrar, etc. Many Spanish verbal phrases involve such adjectival constructs. Let a couple of examples illustrate this better:
Me quedé agotada después de la fiesta (I was wiped out after the party).
A ver esto, ella se quedó decepcionada (Upon seeing this, she was left disappointed).
11. Resultar + Past Participle
Meaning: To end/wind up doing something to someone
Resultar is a fairly easy verb to figure out. It sounds like result and pretty much means result. With a past participle, you can think of it as resulting in something, or leading to something. In this construct, both regular as well as reflexive forms are possible depending on the context.
As you’d expect, the participle in this case agrees with the subject because that’s kinda what it qualifies. So whatever winds up doing it is the key here. The past participle goes with the number and gender of this whatever. Unlike many other Spanish verbal phrases, this one will take some getting used to. But once you have had enough practice, needless to say it’ll become second nature in no time.
La clase media resultó beneficiada por la caída de los precios (The middle class would up benefitted from the price drop).
12. Sentirse + Past Participle
Meaning: To feel + past participle
Sentir means to feel and that should make this construct fairly easy to wrap your head around. The verbal phrase doesn’t have any out-of-the-box interpretation. It indicates that someone feels something, just as you’d expect. What one exactly feels is expressed using the past participle.
Remember we talked about verbs that represent a state of being or the result of some action? Well, sentir happens to be one of them. And what does that mean? It means that the past participle here must agree with the subject (since sentir is almost always used reflexively) it refers to in number and gender.
Me siento obligado a decirlo (I feel compelled to say it).
Nos sentimos cansados (We feel tired).
13. Tener + Past Participle
Meaning: To have something done
This one is a slightly twisted beast. To have something done and to have done something are not exactly the same thing, if you think about it. Although the difference is extremely fine and not quite a deal-breaker if missed. If you’d rather keep it simple at the risk of losing some finer nuances, you could consider this as synonymous to the haber construct discussed above. Spanish verbal phrases are all about nuance and that makes each one of them unique in some way or the other. That said, some pairs might be so similar in colloquial interpretation that you could even do without telling them apart.
Now coming back to the finer details, tener paired with a past participle is often used to express a situation where the you have gotten something done instead of doing it yourself (although not always). It’s the same difference as between, say, I married her and I got her married. This follows from the fact that the Spanish word order is slightly more flexible than its English counterpart. Therefore, if tengo casada una hija (I have married a daughter?) sounds absurd to your non-native ears, think of it as tengo una hija casada (I have a married daughter). Actually this is one of those occasional scenarios where interpreting tener as haber can be problematic. In most cases, though, you’ll do just fine. If interested, you can refer to some excellent discourse on this topic here and here (an entire book discussing tener with past participle and nothing else?).
El labriego tenía arado el bancal (The farmhand has the patch plowed).
Lo tengo recorrido diez o doce veces (I’ve gone down that path/road ten or twelve times).
14. Traerse + Past Participle
Meaning: To make someone + past participle
Like several Spanish verbal phrases, this one also translates into something very different from what its component verbs would make you believe. Traer means to bring but that has no bearing on the final interpretation of the construct. This one, when used reflexively, alludes to making or rendering someone something. This something is whatever the past participle says. Needless to say, the past participle here acts as an adjective and hence ought to be inflected as one. In fact, you could also use an actual adjective instead of the past participle in this construct.
Ese ruido me trae loco (That noise is driving me mad).
15. Verse + Past Participle
Meaning: To feel + past participle
Ver is to see. In case you’re struggling to relate, think veritable which means real. If you can see or ver it, it’s real or veritable, no? This mnemonic never fails. So having dealt with the vocabulary issue, let’s get back to the verbal phrase at hand. At first glance it might seem that the final interpretation of the expression doesn’t have anything to do with the meaning of ver. But look closely and you’ll see a connection. Ver means to see and verse means to see oneself. Let’s say the past participle here is rodeado (surrounded). Verse rodeado then literally translates into to see oneself surrounded. Does this sound like to find oneself surrounded? And does that, in turn, sound like to feel surrounded? So you see, not all Spanish verbal phrases disregard their components’ individuality.
Juan se vio a obligado a partir (Juan felt obligated to leave).
Él se vio rodeado de enemigos (He found himself surrounded by enemies).
This list is far from exhaustive, not even close. Discussing all Spanish verbal phrases (using a participle) in existence would warrant a big fat tome, rather tomes. But you can be reasonably certain that these 15 will have your back in a majority of day-to-day communications. That being said, it is entirely possible that I have missed out on some mighty critical phrase here. If that’s the case according to you, please don’t hesitate to point it out in a comment below. I would love to learn a verbal phrase or two myself, if you have any. Learning is only fun when done together.
Some of you might also feel a bit overwhelmed with all these constructs when it comes to remembering them. Don’t let the small number fool you, these are notoriously hard to memorize and recall. I must admit here that this one doesn’t really have a shortcut. You have to go with rote rehearsal for now. However, that alone is not going to be foolproof. If you want to do what I did, practice. Write leastwise 50-70 sentences using each of these phrases in every tense and mood you can think of. This might sound mundane but is the only solid way to reinforce your memory. The more you rub it in, the longer you’ll remember and the quicker you’ll recall them. Once you’re done with this, I invite you to check out my post on Spanish verbal phrases involving the infinitive.