If you've studied Spanish before, you may have noticed that it has quite a few verb forms, or conjugations. As a struggling learner myself, I think they present the biggest hurdle to comprehension, especially when trying to understand rapid speech. So, because I'm a nice guy, I thought I'd help you out. This post is my attempt to find some rationality in the regular verbs of Spanish.
I've started by dividing all the forms into three basic tenses (for lack of a better word): past, present, and possible. That's right, not future exactly because the future is not absolutely predictable. Something can be really likely to happen, but that doesn't mean it will. Spanish grammar reflects this. For one thing, all the verbs of this type are patterned on the infinitive (the most basic dictionary form), which has no connection to past, present, or future, only possibility. Also, this "possible" tense doesn't refer exclusively to the future. It can also be used to express possibilities (likely probabilities) in the present. And anyway, the present tense is often used to refer to things that will happen in the near future, so it's not so easy to separate "present" and "future" in Spanish.
A little easier to understand (and certainly more common in speech) is the past tense. Spanish distinguishes between two aspects of the past tense: complete ("the preterite") and incomplete ("the imperfect"). The complete (or "simple") past is used to talk about past events as units with a definite beginning and end. The incomplete past refers to things that used to happen habitually or something that was taking place at some point in the past (without reference to when it started or stopped). In the "Past" column below (headed by the past participle), the simple past appears on the first line of each box, and the complete past on the second.
You maybe be wondering, OK, so "amé" is the simple past and "amaba" is the incomplete . . . What the heck is "amara"? That cantankerous little bugger is an example of the subjunctive mood. Past subjunctive to be specific. There's also a present subjunctive listed in the second column. This mood generally indicates uncertainty or subjectivity and usually occurs as part of a relative clause (a phrase beginning with "que").
The words appearing on the second line of the boxes in the "Possible" column are usually called "conditional". You might translate "amaría" to something like "I would love" or "I must have loved". In the first sense, it often follows an "if" ("si") clause. As far as I can tell, the last word in each of the columns (whether it's subjunctive or conditional) is just a little less real than the word that precedes it. Therefore, I'll be referring to both subjunctive and conditional forms as "unreal".
|0||amado ("loved")||amando ("loving")||amar ("to love")|
Notice the numbers running down the left side of the table? Those stand for person. If you don't remember from high school English, the first person includes "I" and "we", the second person includes all forms of "you", and the third person includes everything else ("he", "she", "it", and "they"). In each case, I've given the singular form[s] before the plural, just as I do in the table. The second person plural (something like "you guys") isn't used much in Latin America. But don't revert to the singular as you would in English; you need the third person plural instead. And of course remember that "usted" takes the third person conjugations (in case you want to be polite). Now that I've explained the numbers 1 through 3, you should be able to guess what "0" means. It's just impersonal, not associated with any pronoun.
You may have noticed that I left out imperatives, those little words that give commands or requests. The second-person singular form looks just like the third-person singular present tense indicative, the most normal form of the verb, "ama" in this case. You can get the plural form of this (if you live in a region that uses it) by taking the infinitive and changing its final "r" to a "d". For the other forms, just use the unreal present. It's kind of like your saying whatever it is should happen, but you know it's not currently happening.
I should also mention that the unreal past ("amara", "amáramos", etc.) can also be expressed by replacing the "ra" in the ending with "se", resulting in "amase", "amásemos", etc.
90% of the verbs in Spanish end in "ar" and so look a lot like "amar". However, you'll notice very soon, if you haven't already, that of the most common verbs, quite a large proportion don't fit this pattern, or paradigm. The different forms of "comer" shows a second paradigm.
|0||comido ("eaten")||comiendo ("eating")||comer ("to eat")|
Spanish really only has these two basic paradigms for regular verbs, so learn them well. Most people will tell you that Spanish has three paradigms (-AR, -ER, and -IR), but the -IR verbs (like "vivir") are pretty much the same as the -ERs (like "comer"). Excluding the "Possible" column (whose forms are built consistently from the infinitive), -IR verbs differ from -ERs in only two forms: the first-person plural present ("vivimos"), and the second-person plural present ("vivís"). That last form doesn't even occur in Mexican Spanish, so maybe all you need to remember is that when the infinitive ends in "ir" (as opposed to "er"), the present-tense "we" form ends in "imos" (as opposed to "emos").
|0||vivido ("lived")||viviendo ("living")||vivir ("to live")|
So now you have the raw data. Can we see a pattern here? If you strip off the roots ("am", "com", and "viv") from the present tense column, you get "o", "amos", "as", "áis", "a", and "an" for simple present -AR verbs. For -ER verbs, it's "o", "emos", "es", "éis", "e", and "en". (And as I said, -IR verbs are virtually identical to -ERs.) Notice that, except for the first-person singular, each of the forms in the -AR list start with "a", and each of them in the -ER list start with "e". Actually, the first person singular is a little funny in the simple past, present, and possible, but everywhere else, it's the same as the third-person singular. Keeping that in mind, notice the forms of the unreal present. The endings are exactly the same as the simple present, just switched! So if you want to make your present-tense statement a little less real, just switch your "a"s and "e"s (and remember to de-weirdify the first person singular).
Looking at all three columns, you might notice that all the first-person plural forms end in "mos", all the second-person plural forms end in "is" (usually with an accent mark floating around), all the third-person plural forms end in "n", and all the second-person singular forms except for the simple past end in "s" (though I've heard in some dialects the "s" is there for all the forms). Now that we know what those suffixes mean, we can ignore them and look at what's left.
I'll admit that the simple past tense is a little messy, but the other forms aren't so bad. Don't let the accent marks throw you off; the forms for the incomplete past, unreal past, simple possible, and unreal possible are virtually the same for all conjugations. Remember how we dropped of the person suffixes? Only the first-person plural "mos" is actually it's own syllable in the conjugated forms. Because Spanish likes stress on the next-to-last syllable by default, stress should fall on the last syllable of the above forms for the first-person plural and the syllable before that for the rest. This means that the different accent marking for the above forms actually indicates consistent pronunciation. The incomplete past form is always pronounced "ába" for -AR verbs and "ía" for -ERs and -IRs. The unreal past form is always pronounced "ára" for -AR verbs and "íera" for -ERs and -IRs.
You know how I said earlier that the forms in the "Possible" column build off of the infinitive? This means that all of the above possible-tense forms must begin with "ar", "er", or "ir" depending on the verb type. It also means that we can ignore these bits to find our pattern. Actually, all the unreal possible forms use "ía", and the simple possible forms are all split between "á" and "é". Just remember that "á" is the default, but the first- and second-person plurals use "é", and the first person singular just wants to be different for all the simple tenses (remember?), so it winds up using "é" too.
That's about it for the regular verbs. Most Spanish verbs follow this pattern, but in practice, irregular verbs show up much more frequently. So I guess I'll have to make another post really soon. I wouldn't want to leave you hanging.