Trick to Conjugate Ir in a Blink without Memorization
So you can memorize virtually any Spanish word, however alien-sounding, in an instant with fun and creative mnemonics. That’s great. However, vocabulary happens to be just one of the roadblocks on your way to fluency. The other most common pain-area for most Spanish learners is conjugation. It’s frustrating to have to memorize that never-ending stream of verb-endings and then to be able to use them seamlessly in a conversation. They just don’t roll off your tongue as you’d want them to, isn’t it? Well, like they say, where there’s a will there’s a way. There’s always a smart way to do even the most complicated of things and that holds particularly true when it comes to Spanish. Mnemonics and memory tricks are as effective with grammar as they are with vocabulary and you already know this if you have read my notes on dealing with the three most ubiquitous tenses in Spanish – the present indicative, the imperfect, and the preterite.
Problem is, an organic language with a history as rich as Spanish hardly ever follows a set pattern without exception. One trick to ace each verb tense would have been great if all verbs conjugated alike. However, there are these little gremlins known as irregular verbs that do not like following the convention which makes them an additional headache to deal with. Ir is one such example. I mean who would think voy, fui and iba could be forms of the same verb? Another unfortunate thing about these irregular verbs is that you can’t just wish them away or even shelve them for later because they happen to be some of the most heavily used verbs in day-to-day conversations. They are at the very heart of what we call core Spanish. So, let’s conquer this pesky verb once and for all today.
Ir in the Present Indicative Tense
As always, we’ll start with the simplest of all tenses, the plain-vanilla present indicative. This is the tense that corresponds most closely to the simple present tense in English. This is when you depict events going down in the present without any emphasis on the nature of their continuity or frequency. Examples would be “I go,” “she goes,” “we eat,” etc. This is how ir conjugates in this tense:
Present Indicative Conjugation for “Ir”Note that the only irregularity is in the singular first-person form.
As always, I have done away with the vosotros form for the sake of simplicity and also because those who use that form are but a minority, anyway. My sincere apologies to the nice folks from Spain!
The nagging question you might have at this point is, “Where the heck did voy come from?” The question nagged me too which is why I tried digging into its history and came out with this gem. Feel free to skip this paragraph if trivia isn’t your thing because this one doesn’t have anything to do with the trick we’ll discuss soon. Back in the day, there were two words for this verb when they spoke Latin – īre and vādere. I don’t know why two but both enjoyed more or less equal usage. Over a period of time, both words entered Spanish and when they did, īre morphed into ir whereas vādō – the present indicative form of vādere – became voy. Do note that vādere also gave us gems like invade and vade mecum.
Now time for the trick. All you need to somehow commit to your memory is that voy means I go. I am assuming you already know your pronouns and that yo is Spanish for I. When you flip yo horizontally, you get oy. And oy is what voy is made up of. Nonsensical, right? But this is precisely why you’ll remember it. Another mnemonic idea is to imagine a cute little boy going to school. Since boy and voy rhyme so well, this visual will always remind you of the verb’s conjugated singular first-person form. Once you have your voy down, you should easily be able to figure out the rest of the table since it’s pretty much standard and follows the regular conjugation pattern. For additional reinforcement, add a visual of a van going at high speed along the highway. This will help you remember van, the singular third-person form.
Ir in the Preterite Tense
This is the tense that covers one-time events from the past and loosely corresponds to the plain-vanilla simple past tense of English. I say loosely because while the simple past tense of English covers habitual actions as well, the Spanish preterite doesn’t. So in English, “I went” could imply that I went there once or I used to go there regularly. It’s up to the context to prevent any ambiguity. In Spanish, on the other hand, the two implications would call for two different tenses. If I went there once, that would be the preterite and rendered as fui. Let’s see the formula here:
Preterite Conjugation for “Ir”Note that the only irregularity is in the singular first-person form.
But why fui, you might wonder. This one also has an interesting story. Like you’d have guessed already, the answer lies in Latin. In Latin, to be was sum which is where we get somewhat related English words like essence from. When conjugated in the past and future tenses, this verb turned into words starting with an “f-.” For example, in the singular first-person form of the past indicative tense, it was fuī. This is what entered Spanish to become fui. It also entered English to give us words like future. The interesting thing here is that while the Latin verb only meant to be, its Spanish descendent means to go. This is funny because the preterite tense conjugation for ir also happens to be the preterite tense conjugation for ser (to be)! Think this relationship between to be and to go is unnatural to your English eyes? If so, think of the times you heard about some going mad instead of someone becoming mad. The two verbs are more similar that we realize.
Another little nugget of history – and this one might even help us as a mental hook for the conjugation – that could explain fui could be that of the verb flee. The verb comes from Latin fugere which also gives us related words like fugitive and refugee. Now although to go and to flee aren’t exactly the same thing (unless you’re fleeing your soccer mom while going for a friend’s birthday party in which case it would totally make sense), the correlation is not entirely non-existent. Both do involve an act of movement from one’s original location. Many etymologists argue that it is fugere and not sum that gave us fui. Let’s not worry about who’s right.
Now, how do we memorize the table above? If you’re like me, the correlation between flee and fui should in and of itself be a big help given the similarity in how they sound. For reinforcement, think of the “-i” in fui as a reminder that it’s meant for yo, Spanish for I. Extrapolating fui into the plural third-person territory, fuimos should come naturally to you if you are familiar with the general conjugation patterns of all Spanish verbs.
Likewise, fue is easy to remember as the singular third-person form because it ends in “-e,” just like he and she. This should ensure you never confuse your fue with fui. If the post on preterite conjugations taught us anything it’s that all Spanish verbs take some kind of “-ron” ending in the plural third-person form, which should explain fueron. Same thing can be said of fuiste but if you still need more help, see the “-te” in fuiste as related to tú.
Ir in the Imperfect Tense
Imperfect is when the actions in question were either habitual or continuous. These are not one-time affairs. If by “I went” you mean you went to Harvard for your MBA, it would be in this tense. Fui won’t work here. What you’ll need, instead, is iba.
Imperfect Conjugation for “Ir”Note that the only irregularity is in the singular first-person form.
I wish I could stress on this enough: No matter what you do, do not mix up your imperfect tense with the preterite. They are as different as any two tenses and hate each other with passion. That being said, this is perhaps the sweetest of all tenses as far as conjugating ir goes. I mean, look at the table above. The pattern pops out so naturally! The only thing you need to keep in mind all the time are the fact that in singular numbers the first-person form of this verb is the same as its third-person form: iba. Oh and one more thing to remember: the “ib-” root.
When I was learning this verb, I invented a very stupid mnemonic to nail iba:
I used to be a good boy.
The letters in red should be pretty self-explanatory. One good thing about this trick is that it also helps you remember that the iba-series is meant for habitual or continuous action. This will ensure you never confuse between iba and fui.
That concludes my rant on the pesky little rebel called ir. I am pretty sure you guys are way more creative, way smarter, and can come up with way better tricks for this problem. Got something up your sleeve? Please do enlighten us in your comments below.