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Learning Those Pesky Irregular Verbs

Mastering Conjugations May Not Be As Difficult As It Appears



Spanish conjugation has similarities to that of Latin.

Photo by Geraldford; licensed via Creative Commons.

Learning the conjugation of verbs often seems foreign in more ways than one to those of us who have English as a native language. In English, after all, the forms of most verbs vary little — just add a "-s" or "-es" in the third-person singular and add "-ed" for the simple past tense.

But it's not quite so easy in Spanish, with separate forms for the various tenses and the three verb endings (-ar, -er, and -ir).

And then there are those irregular pesky verbs. As if learning the regular conjugations weren't bad enough, the student of Spanish needs to memorize 50-plus different patterns for irregular verbs. If you're perplexed by the challenge of learning those irregular forms, here are some tips that might make the task easier:

1. Don't sweat it too much. Many of the verbs that are the most irregular are also the ones most commonly used, so you'll run across those verbs more often and use them more often. So it won't take long until the irregular forms seem natural.

It shouldn't come as a big surprise that the most common verbs are the most irregular; that tendency is a natural way that many languages develop. The same is true in English: "Am," "is," "was," and "been" are all forms of the verb "to be," and another common verb, "to go," also has highly irregular forms. The equivalent verbs in Spanish are highly irregular as well.

2. Remember that many of the verbs are irregular according to regular patterns. A number of verbs with an e in the stem change to an -ie- form when that syllable is emphasized. Thus calentar becomes calienta, comenzar becomes comienza, and perder becomes pierde — all follow a similar pattern in certain conjugations. In some ways, when you learn one irregular verb you also can learn dozens more.

3. Remember that some verb forms are based on others. Most notably, most verbs that are irregular in the future tense are irregular in the same way in the conditional form. For example, decir becomes diría in the first-person conditional and diré in the first-person future.

4. Finally, pay attention to the way the letters are pronounced, because some verbs are irregular only in their spelling. Thus sacar becomes saqué in the first-person preterite, because if it were spelled regularly it would be pronounced incorrectly.

If all else fails, you can always look up the conjugation.

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