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Introduction to Spanish Auxiliary Verbs

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 1/5/2012

If it's hard for you to figure out what auxiliary verbs are or if you don't kno how to manage the conjugation of helping verbs, this article will start at the very beginning. If you are a student of Spanish and have been conjugating two verbs in a row, this might show you why this is a mistake.

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    Helping Verbs

    Auxiliary, or helping verbs, are verbs that introduce an infinitive. They are also sometimes called modal verbs. When an infinitive is used after an auxiliary verb, it is known as the complementary infinitive because it completes the thought or idea of the helping verb. Without the infinitive, the idea would be left in suspense. English uses a number of helping verbs, as the following examples show:

    He wants to go to the beach.They ought to buy a new car.I can swim well.

    In these examples, the helping verbs are wants, ought and can. Each of these is followed by its respective complementary infinitive: to go, to buy and swim. It only so happens that when can is used, the to of the infinitive construction is omitted, but it is still an infinitive.

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    Querer, Deber & Poder

    This lesson deals with the Spanish equivalents of the above three auxiliary verbs. They are: querer, deber and poder. The construction in Spanish is identical to the English in two ways, and different in one. In both English and Spanish, the complementary infinitive is placed after the helping verb and only the helping verb is conjugated. What is different about English and Spanish in this construction is really what distinguishes their verb systems generally – the fact that the helping verb can be conjugated in all three persons, singular and plural.

    Of the three helping verbs in this article, deber is a regular –er verb. It means and is used in Spanish when English would use should or to ought to, followed by an infinitive. It isn’t always a helping verb. Used alone, it means to owe.

    Querer means to want, whether as a helping verb or not. In a romantic situation, used without a complementary infinitive, it means to love! It is irregular. The e of the verb stem (the main body of the verb, before the –er ending), changes to the diphthong (two vowels pronounced as one syllable) ie, except in the nosotros and vosotros forms. When pronounced, the stress falls on this diphthong. When the conjugated forms of querer are arranged in a two-column grid, with the singular forms on the left and the plural forms on the right, and the first-, second- and third-person forms are in descending order, the resulting pattern is said to resemble a shoe or boot, as do the patterns of many, many verbs in the present tense. They are nicknamed shoe verbs. The endings are not affected by the irregularity of the stem. Hence, the present tense of querer is:

    quiero queremos quieres queréis quiere quieren

    Poder means to be able and is used in Spanish when in English we use to be able to + an infinitive or can + infinitive. Like querer, it is irregular and like querer, is a shoe verb. The o of the stem changes to the diphthong ue which is the stressed syllable. Remember that with shoe verbs, nosotros and vosotros are always “outside” the shoe and hence the o is not changed to a diphthong:

    puedo podemos puedes podéis puede puede

    Let’s translate our three English examples into Spanish:

    Él quiere ir a la playa.Ellos deben comprar un carro nuevo.Puedo nadar bien.

    Notice that the bolded words contain only the helping verbs and their complementary infinitives and that the helping verb is is the only verb conjugated in this construction. The complementary infinitive is just what its name says it is. They each complete the idea of the helping verb that introduced them and they remain infinitives, that is, unconjugated.

    Notice how these three helping verbs deal with three very common and important human emotions or senses of duty: the will (querer), the moral sense (deber) and our power, or ability to do things (poder). The exercises for this lesson will deal only with the conjugation and use of these three helping verbs.

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    Beyond the Basics

    Now that you’ve learned the concept of auxiliary-verbs-plus-infinitive, you can learn a few more useful helping verbs, including a few that slightly differ from the basic format. There are a handful of expressions that are used a great deal and that therefore, every student of Spanish should learn and master. As is the case with the helping verbs poder and querer, some of these are also irregular.

    Nothing about these new auxiliary verbs changes the basic concept, in that only the auxiliary or helping verb is conjugated. There are two things that can make these expressions a bit difficult for English-speaking learners of Spanish to remember. First, there is nothing in their English translations to help them remember what is different about these helping verbs. Second, the present progressive is often used in English when the simple present is used in Spanish, tempting the English speaker to overuse that structure, from a Spanish-speaker’s perspective. Take a look at these sentences:

    He has to wear a hat.

    She’s learning to swim.

    We’re beginning to understand this lesson.

    I’m teaching them to read.

    Since you’re already familiar with what the auxiliary-plus-infinitive construction is, you must notice that to wear, to swim, to understand and to read are the infinitives. That leaves has to as the auxiliary verb in the first example, but the remaining three involve the present progressive, shown by the be verb having been contracted into the subject pronoun and the ing verbs following. Let’s see their Spanish translations:

    Él tiene que llevar un sombrero.

    Ella aprende a nadar.

    Empezamos a entender esta lección.

    Les enseño a leer.

    The first thing that should particularly attract your attention as you approach this somewhat different application of the basic auxiliary-verb-plus infinitive structure is that the simple present is used, not the present progressive. Second, you can easily identify the infinitives: llevar, nadar, entender and leer.

    But what do you notice about their respective auxiliaries? Can you identify them? They are: tiene que, aprende a, empezamos a and enseño a

    Now you can see a slight modification to the construction you’re familiar with. The way to say one has to or have to in Spanish is expressed by some conjugated form of tener, followed by que, then by the infinitive. The que is not translatable in this construction but must be there. The other three are, notice – verbs that express learning, teaching and beginning. They are all followed by a before completing the construction as you would expect with their respective complementary infinitives. From these examples, we have used some inductive reasoning to find the rule, or pattern, to be followed when using these auxiliary verbs which have an interposed word between the helping verb and the infinitive.

    The verb tener is a shoe verb, a concept explained in detail in Part 1 of this series of lessons on Auxiliary Verbs. It has an additional irregularity in its yo form: tengo. Its other forms change the e of the stem to the diphthong ie, in the shoe pattern.

    The exercises for this lesson will test and reinforce your ability to conjugate these auxiliary verbs correctly and to be sure you remember to use the correct interposed word when translating from English to Spanish.

    Review what you've learned with the quizzes on the next pages.

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    Spanish Auxiliary Verbs, Part 2, Quiz A, with Key

    Exercise Set A

    Spanish Auxiliary Verbs, Pt. 2: tener que + inf.; enseñar, empezar and aprender + a + infinitive.

    I. Give the proper form of the each of the auxiliary verbs above, completing the phrase with hablar, for the subject nouns and pronouns indicated.

    1. ella

    2. yo

    3. usted

    4. Juanita y Teresita

    5. tú

    6. mis padres

    7. Juan y Marta

    8. nosotros

    9. ustedes

    10. los niños

    II. Match the following Spanish sentences with their correct Spanish translation .

    1. Ellos tienen que volver al trabajo. a. She’s learning to sing.

    2. Yo empiezo a estudiar mucho. b. They have to return to work.

    3. Nosotros le enseñamos a bailar. c. You’re teaching me to swim.

    4. Ella aprende a cantar. d. We’re teaching her to dance.

    5. Tú me enseñas a nadar. e. I’m beginning to study a lot.

    III. Translate the following English sentences into Spanish, using the proper helping verbs and complementary infinitives.

    1. Do they have to bring their friend?

    2. He’s learning to walk.

    3. You (tú) are teaching us to cook.

    4. We’re beginning to understand.

    5. I am learning to play the guitar.

    Exercise Set A KEY

    Spanish Auxiliary Verbs, Pt. 2: tener que + inf.; enseñar, empezar and aprender + a + infinitive.

    I. Give the proper form of the each of the auxiliary verbs above, completing the phrase with hablar, for the subject nouns and pronouns indicated.

    1. Tiene que hablar; enseña a hablar; empieza a hablar; aprende a hablar

    2. Tengo que hablar; enseño a hablar; empiezo a hablar; aprendo a hablar

    3. Tiene que hablar; enseña a hablar; empieza a hablar; aprende a hablar

    4. Tienen que hablar; enseñan a hablar; empiezan a hablar; aprenden a hablar

    5. Tienes que hablar; enseñas a hablar; empiezas a hablar; aprendes a hablar

    6. Tienen que hablar; enseñan a hablar; empiezan a hablar; aprenden a hablar

    7. Tienen que hablar; enseñan a hablar; empiezan a hablar; aprenden a hablar

    8. Tenemos que hablar; enseñamos a hablar; empezamos a hablar; aprendemos a hablar

    9. Tienen que hablar; enseñan a hablar; empiezan a hablar; aprenden a hablar

    10. Tienen que hablar; enseñan a hablar; empiezan a hablar; aprenden a hablar

    II. Match the following Spanish sentences with their correct Spanish translation .

    1. b.

    2. e.

    3. d.

    4. a.

    5. c.

    III. Translate the following English sentences into Spanish, using the proper helping verbs and complementary infinitives.

    1. ¿Tienen que llevar su amigo?

    2. Él aprende a caminar. (or andar)

    3. Nos enseñas a cocinar.

    4. Empezamos a entender.

    5. Aprendo a tocar la guitarra.

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    Quiz B

    Exercise Set B

    Spanish Auxiliary Verbs, Pt. 2: tener que + inf.; enseñar, empezar and aprender + a + infinitive.

    I. Give the proper form of the each of the auxiliary verbs above, completing the phrase with bailar, for the subject nouns and pronouns indicated.

    1. ellas

    2. tú y Enrique

    3. nosotros

    4. Juan

    5. tú

    6. yo

    7. ella

    8. ustedes

    9. usted y José

    10. mi papá

    II. Match the following Spanish sentences with their correct Spanish translation .

    1. Yo empiezo a leer a las ocho. a. She has to eat soon.

    2. Ella tiene que comer pronto. b. I begin reading at eight.

    3. Tú aprendes a pintar. c. He’s beginning to run.

    4. Ellos me enseñan a usar la computadora. d. You’re learning to paint.

    5. Él empieza a correr. e. They’re teaching me to use the computer.

    III. Translate the following English sentences into Spanish, using the proper helping verbs and complementary infinitives.

    1. He and I have to make dinner.

    2. Do you (tú) want to begin to study?

    3. She is teaching her to read.

    4. They’re beginning to travel.

    5. She and I are learning to speak Spanish.

    Exercise Set B KEY

    Spanish Auxiliary Verbs, Pt. 2: tener que + inf.; enseñar, empezar and aprender + a + infinitive.

    I. Give the proper form of the each of the auxiliary verbs above, completing the phrase with bailar, for the subject nouns and pronouns indicated.

    1. Tienen que bailar; enseñan a bailar; empiezan a bailar; aprenden a bailar

    2. Tienen que bailar; enseñan a bailar; empiezan a bailar; aprenden a bailar

    3. Tenemos que bailar; enseñamos a bailar; empezamos a bailar; aprendemos a bailar

    4. Tiene que bailar; enseña a bailar; empieza a bailar; aprende a bailar

    5. Tienes que bailar; enseñas a bailar; empiezas a bailar; aprendes a bailar

    6. Tengo que bailar; enseño a bailar; empiezo a bailar; aprendo a bailar

    7. Tiene que bailar; enseña a bailar; empieza a bailar; aprende a bailar

    8. Tienen que bailar; enseñan a bailar; empiezan a bailar; aprenden a bailar

    9. Tienen que bailar; enseñan a bailar; empiezan a bailar; aprenden a bailar

    10. Tiene que bailar; enseña a bailar; empieza a bailar; aprende a bailar

    II. Match the following Spanish sentences with their correct Spanish translation .

    1. b.

    2. a.

    3. d.

    4. e.

    5. c.

    III. Translate the following English sentences into Spanish, using the proper helping verbs and complementary infinitives.

    1. Él y yo tenemos que preparar la cena.

    2. Quieres (or Deseas) empezar a estudiar?

    3. Ella le enseña a leer a ella.

    4. Ellos empiezan a viajar.

    5. Ella y yo aprendemos a hablar español.

References

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