Verb conjugation (creating the different forms of each verb) can be one of the hardest parts of learning Spanish for an English speaker. There are many more ways to conjugate verbs in Spanish than in English. For example, the English verb “to go” only has 6 different ways conjugate, but its Spanish counterpart “ir” can be conjugated 42 different ways!
While most verbs in Spanish do follow a specific set of rules for how you conjugate them, there are many irregular verbs, and remembering whether every verb is irregular or not and how they are irregular can be difficult for many beginner Spanish learners.
The good news is that you can make communication easier using verb combinations (two or more verbs together in a row). In English, you don’t always say “I eat” but “I want to eat,” “I am trying eat,” I have to eat,” etc. It is more common than we think to communicate with multiple verbs in a chain together, especially in Spanish. And if you combine multiple verbs in Spanish, you only have to conjugate the first verb in the chain, not the subsequent verbs. So I want to eat would be quiero comer, he wants to eat – quiere comer, we want to eat – queremos comer, etc. So by using common “builder” verbs that you are most likely to start verb combinations with, you can communicate with hundreds of verbs while only needing to know how to conjugate a handful of verbs.
Here are 7 that I singled out as especially useful for making verb combinations. They are by no means the only ones you would start verb combinations with, but they are some of the most common ones. Since this blog is mostly targeted at beginners in Spanish, I will only be including the present tense conjugations of each verb (as well as some reference to the conditional tense for certain verbs where it is especially useful), but each verb will be linked to its listing in Spanish dictionary, where you can find all their different conjugations. Most of these verbs are irregular in the present tense, so please pay attention to their conjugations.
1. Querer – To want.
Querer can be used very easily in combinations with other verbs. Just like in English, when we express that we want to do something, we follow the word “want” with another verb. And that verb we don’t conjugate, but simply leave in it’s infinitive form. Here are some examples:
- I want to work – yo quiero trabajar.
- He wants to visit Europe – el quiere visitar a Europa.
- We want to leave – queremos salir.
- They want to buy a house – Ellos quieren compar una casa.
2. Tener + que – to have
Tener means “to have.” The other one is haber, which is an incredibly useful verb, but it’s a little more complex, and I’ll cover it separately in a future lesson. We use tener when we make phrases like “I have to do something.” When used tener in verb combinations, you add the word “que” after the conjugated version of tener to get the meaning of “have to.” Here are some examples
- I have to go – tengo que ir.
- She has to write now – tiene que escribir ahora.
- We have to unite – tenemos que unir.
- You have to dance – tienes que bailar.
3. Intentar – To try
Intentar, means to intend, or to try. And when we use the present tense in Spanish, it can mean both “I try” and “I am trying.” Here are some examples.
- I am trying to learning Spanish – intento aprender español.
- He is trying to do better – el intenta hacer mejor.
- We are trying to buy a car – intentamos comprar un carro.
4. Deber – Must
Deber means to “owe,” and can also be used in verb combinations the same way we use “must” in English. So if you are saying that you must do something, you would use deber + the verb. This has a lot of interchangeability with “tener que.” As “have to” and “must” are often interchangeable in English.
- I must sleep – debo dormir.
- you must study – debes estudiar.
- We must eat – Debemos comer.
Deber also is used as “should” when being used in the conditional tense. The conditional tense is a tense in Spanish that we use to express uncertainty, things that are probable or possible, but not definite. In English, we get the conditional tense by adding “would” in front of most verbs. So we would say “I would go” or “I would eat.” But in Spanish we have a seperate tense for that. And with Deber, when you express uncertainty, about how you “must” do something, it changes to “should.” So we can use “deber” in combinations in the conditional tense with things that a person “should” do. Here are some examples.
- I should go to school – debería ir a la escuela.
- You should rest – deberías descansar.
- He should wait – debería esperar (the “Yo” and the El/Ella/Usted conjugations are the same in the conditional tense).
- We should clean – deberíamos limpiar.
- They should look for it – deberían buscarlo.
5. Poder – Can
Poder is another useful builder verb in both the present and conditional tense. In the present, we use it to express that you “can” do something.
- I can cook tonight – puedo cocinar esta noche.
- We can win the game – podemos ganar el juego.
- They can start – pueden empezar.
Poder is also useful in the conditional tense, because when you add uncertainty to “can” you get “could.” This is useful in a number of other verb combinations.
- I could go- podría ir.
- We could try, but I we want to – podríamos intenter, pero no queremos.
- They could sleep – podrían dormir.
6. Ir + a – To go
The verb “ir” means to go, and like in English, it can be used to mean that you are going to do something. In English, it is one of the ways we illustrate that something is going to happen in the future. We will also say “I will do something.” In Spanish, there is a separate tense for when you want to say “I will do something,” but it is perfectly acceptable to say “I am going to do it.” In fact, you are much more likely to hear, especially in Panama, people use this “ir + a” tense to communicate the future than using the future tense. Here are some examples.
- I am going to find it – voy a encontrarlo.
- We are going to travel – vamos a viajar.
- You are going to lose – vas a perdir.
- He is going to pay – va a pagar.
- They are going to have dinner – van a cenar.
7. Gustar – to like
Gustar is a tricky verb that while it is used as “I like,” its technical translation is “it is pleasing to me.” So you conjugate not for the person that likes it, but for the subject that is pleasing to the person, and then use the pronoun for the person it is pleasing to. So “I like chicken” is “Me gusta pollo”, because it is really structured as “chicken is pleasing to me.” If you were talking about a plural thing that is pleasing to you, you would use “me gustan.” For example: “I like red cars” “me gustan carros rojos.” Those will be the two most common conjugation forms, although you can get situations where you want to say things like “he likes us” – “le gustamos nosotros” or “they like you” – “les gustas tu.”
This can be a little complicated, but the good news is that it’s simple in verb combinations, because when combining gustar with another verb, you are always going to use the singular “it” tense. Here are some examples:
- I like to run – Me gusta correr.
- We like to swim – nos gusta nadar.
- They like to sing – les gusta cantar.
- He likes to write letters – le gusta escribir las cartas.
In the conditional tense, gustar means “would like,” and we can use this in the same way that we use it in English, as a nicer way to say you want something. Just like in English, sometimes it is a little impolite to say “I want this” or “I want that.” So when you are at a restaurant, you could say Me gustarían papas fritas to say I would like french fries as opposed to quiero papas fritas (I want french fries). You can also use this conditional tense in verb combinations as well.
- We would like to go to the beach – nos gustaría ir a la playa.
- I would like to clean my room – me gustaría limpiar mi habitacíon.
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