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Understanding Verbs in English and Spanish

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 7/17/2014

Verbs cause learners of Spanish more difficulty than any other part of speech. Pronouns come in close behind them in terms of difficulty. This article examines what verbs are, what kinds there are, the parts of a verb -- and has links to two books about the subjunctive and past tenses in Spanish.

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    What Is a Verb?

    A verb tells what the doer of an action -- a subject – does, did or will do. Verbs express action and states of being. Examples: John Flag of Spain runs. John ran. John will run. John is an athlete.

    This article examines verbs and prepares students of Spanish so they will understand what their texts or their teacher is talking about. First, let us examine the different types of verbs.

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    Types of Verbs

    There are existential verbs -- verbs that express being -- ser and estar. There is one verb, haber, which when used in its third person singular forms, expresses presence. The present tense, hay, for instance, means either there is or there are.

    The other verbs express various types of actions. There are three types of actions, in addition to the verbs of being above.

    First, there are intransitive verbs -- these are mainly verbs of motion. They are called intransitive because their action cannot affect another noun. For instance, you cannot say He goes a book. It simply makes no sense. The verb run is a verb of motion in only one of its many uses, so when we say He runs a business, it is not being used in the same way as when we say He runs a mile every day. In this last sense, used as a verb that expresses motion, a sentence such as They run the flower is nonsense.

    There are also transitive verbs, that is, verbs whose actions directly affect another noun (or pronoun). In such cases, the noun that receives the action of the verb is called the direct object of the verb. Examples: We see the flower. She eats the cookies. We want a dog. If the action affects the noun indirectly, that noun (or pronoun) is called the indirect object. Example: He spoke to Mary. Mary is the receiver of words or speech.

    Finally, there are ditransitive verbs. These are verbs that take both direct and an indirect object. The best example of a ditransitive verb is the verb to give: She gave us a smile. The direct object of the verb is a smile, because that is what she gave. The receivers of the smile are the indirect objects: us. Of course, she is the subject, or doer of the action to smile. Reflexive verbs in Spanish involve a use of reflexive pronouns, which are really a subclass of indirect objects -- in which the doer and the receiver are the same person. A Spanish example is: Me lavo las manos (I wash my hands; literally, I wash me the hands).

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    Spanish Verbs

    Spanish verbs have three base forms: those that end in -AR, -ER or -IR. The model verbs for each of these three families are, respectively: hablar, comer and vivir. They are good models because all their forms in all tenses they are predictable - that is, they follow all the rules. Such verbs are called regular verbs. These base forms are properly called infinitives, because they simply mean to speak, to eat and to live -- in this form and simply spoken alone, they have no subject.

    By manipulating the endings of verbs in Spanish, a verb is conjugated. This means that it is assigned a subject -- characterized by person and number. It is assigned a tense -- a time of action (present, past, future, etc.), a mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, etc.) and an aspect (emphatic, progressive, aoristic, perfective, etc.).

    By far, the most difficulty students have with Spanish involves the formation and use of verbs in the past tenses and the forms and uses of the subjunctive mood in its four tenses.


  • Author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.

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