Four. Cuatro


Why Complicate Things? The Role of Irregular Verbs in Spanish

Why do irregular verbs exist in Spanish? Just as in English, irregular verbs have evolved as a result of spoken usage and ease of pronunciation. For example, compare the sounds of the word teno with the word tengo. The second word sounds cleaner and clearer, doesn’t it?

If tener was a regular verb, its “yo” form would be “teno.” But it’s not. Look at the verb endings for venir and tener in the following table:

Yo ten-go ven-go
tien-es vien-es
Ud., él, ella tien-e vien-e
Nosotros/as ten-emos ven-imos
Vosotros/as ten-éis ven-ís
Uds., ellos, ellas tien-en vien-en

The irregularity of the verbs occurs in two areas.

1. The “yo” form is completely irregular, with a ‘g’ added before the –o ending.
2. The stem of the verbs changes in the tú, Ud., and Uds. forms. The “e” is replaced by “ie”.

Try saying the word tene. Now say tiene. Can you hear why the stem changes?

Por ejemplo:

1. Tú vienes de Brasil, ¿verdad?
No, yo vengo de Argentina.
You come from Brazil, right?
No, I come from Argentina.
2. ¿Tienen Ustedes familia en España?
Sí, nosotros tenemos familia en España.
Do you have family in Spain?
Yes, we have family in Spain.

Using TENER to Talk about Age, What You Have, Whether You’re Hungry, and What You Feel Like Doing.

The verb “tener” is extremely common in Spanish. A mastery of it will enable you to say everything from how old you are to whether you’re cold or thirsty.

In its most basic meaning, tener means “to have.” For example, “Tengo un trabajo,” means I have a job. If you want to say that you have to do something, you will use tener que. For example, “Tengo que ir al mercado,” means I have to go to the market.

Tener is also used in the colloquial phrase, “I feel like…” If you want to say you feel like doing something, start your sentence with, “Tengo ganas de…”

Por ejemplo:

1. Tengo ganas de salir. Tú tienes que venir conmigo.

– I feel like going out. You have to come with me.

2. Tengo que ir a comprar. ¿Tienes ganas de venir conmigo?

– I have to go shopping. Do you feel like going with me?

Tener can also mean the same thing as the English “to be” in many situations.

For example, if you feel hot, cold, hungry, or thirsty, you will use tener to express your state. “Tengo calor,” means I am [feeling] hot.
When you want to express how many years old someone is, you can say, “Ella tiene 17 años.” In other words, She is 17 years old.
You will also use tener in some expressions, like “tener cuidado,” or to be careful.

Por ejemplo:

1. Tengo mucha hambre.

– I’m very hungry.

2. Tenemos que comer algo.

– We have to eat something.

3. Hay que tener cuidado cruzando la calle.

One must be careful crossing the street.

4. ¿Cuántos años tienes? Tengo 25.

– How old are you? I’m 25.

Spanish Stem Changing Verbs: In the Present Tense

What is a Stem Change?

Remember the two ways in which the verbs venir and tener were irregular? First, their yo form had a ‘g’ before the ‘o,’ and second, they had a stem change in the tú, Ud., and Uds. forms.

This notion of a stem change will become quite familiar to you over time, as many Spanish verbs are stem changing in every form exept nosotros/as and vosotros/as..

Let’s go back and review what a stem is. The stem of a verb is the part of the verb that is left once you take away the –ar, -er, or –ir ending. In regular verbs, the stem does not change no matter what ending you add on to it..

However, in stem changing verbs, the stem will change in every form but two. There are three common types of stem changing verbs: ‘e’ to ‘ie’, ‘e’ to ‘i’, and ‘o’ to ‘ue.’.

Review the following examples:

         e to ie Comenzar                      e to i MEDIR                              o to ue DORMIR
         to begin                                      to measure                                  to sleep
Yo                            comienzo                            mido                                            duermo
Tú                           comienzas                          mides                                          duermes
él                              comienza                             mide                                           duerme
Nosotros/as      comenzamos                       medimos                                      dormimos
Vosotros/as           comenzáis                          medéis                                           dormís
Ellos                       comienzan                            miden                                       duermen

Por ejemplo:

Mis primos duermen mucho.
My cousins sleep a lot.
Mido mi altura todas las semanas.
I measure my height every week.
Nosotros comenzamos el juego.
We start the game.

A Rare Stem Change: i to ie

The stem change patterns above are the most common, but you will find a few verbs that make a different stem change: from i to ie.

                                          ADQUIRIR                                     INQUIRIR
                                          to acquire                                       to inquire
yo                                      adquiero                                         inquiero
tú                                      adquieres                                        inquieres
Ud., él, ella                       adquiere                                         inquiere
nosotros/as                     adquirimos                                     inquirimos
vosotros/as                     adquirís                                          inquirís
Uds., ellos, ellas             adquieren                                       inquieren

Por ejemplo:

1. Hoy tus padres adquieren una casa nueva.
– Today your parents acquire a new house.

2. Mi hermano inquiere sobre su equipo de fútbol.
– My brother inquires about his football team.

Hoy tus padres adquieren una casa nueva.
Today your parents acquire a new house.
Mi hermano inquiere sobre su equipo de fútbol.
My brother inquires about his football team.

Another Rare Stem Change: u to ue

A verb that you will use often in Spanish is jugar (to play). Jugar is a stem-changing verb with a u to ue stem change.

Yo                            juego
Tú                            juegas
Ud., él, ella             juega
Nosotros/as           jugamos
Vosotros/as            jugáis
Uds., ellos, ellas    juegan

Por ejemplo:

Los niños juegan en el parque.
The kids play in the park.
Jugamos con ellos.
We play with them.

Please note that jugar does not include the sense of playing music or an instrument. If you want to say that you play the guitar, you will use the verb tocar, as in, “Toco la guitarra.”

The Last and Strangest Stem Change: o to hue

Last of all, you should note that the verb oler (to smell) is also irregular. You’ll need to memorize this stem change if you want to talk of smelling the roses.

Yo                         huelo
Tú                         hueles
Ud., él, ella          huele
Nosotros/as        olemos
Vosotros/as         oléis
Uds., ellos, ellas  huelen

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. 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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