Stem-changing verbs in Spanish: Get to know them and master them once and for all!

May 19, 2021

What are stem-changing Verbs?

As you will certainly know, in Spanish, all verbs consist of a stem (root) and an ending. The stem is the first part of the verb, whereas in the infinitive, the endings are:  -ar, -er, -ir. In other words, stem-changing verbs in the present tense, when conjugated, use the same endings as regular -ar, -er, and -ir verbs, but in the last syllable of the stem, they undergo a vowel change.

Regular verbs alter their ending without affecting the first part of the verb, following simple rules. However, when they are conjugated in the present, there is a group of verbs that behave in a similar way to regular verbs but change both their stem and ending. In everyday situations, some of these verbs with stem changes in Spanish are very common and useful. Bear in mind that all regular verbs keep the stem (it is always the same stem) but irregular verbs don’t.

Let’s take a look at the regular verb amar (to love). It consists of the stem am- and the ending -ar. To conjugate amar in the present tense, simply take the stem and add the correct ending (o, a, as, amos, áis, an). In the following examples, the stem is underlined and the ending is in bold.

Present simple (Presente de indicativo)

(yo) amo

(tú) amas

(él) ama

(ns) amamos

(vs) amáis

(ellos) aman

You can apply the same rule for all regular verbs, ending in -ar (1st conjugation), -er (2nd conjugation), -ir (3rd conjugation). Remember: the stem does not change for regular verbs, however it does change for irregular verbs.

There are three basic types of stem-changing verbs (see below: 1,2 and 3) and another two that are restricted to some verbs (4 and 5).Now, we’ll take a look at the following present tense stem changes for irregular verbs:

  1. e > ie changes
  2. o > ue changes
  3. e > i changes
  4. i > ie changes
  5. u > ue changes

Stem-changing verbs:

1. e changes to ie

The largest number of verbs are affected by this type of stem change. For verbs in this group, the e changes to ie in the last syllable of the stem. An example of this can be found in the conjugation table for the verb querer (to want).

Present simple (Presente de indicativo) – querer 

(yo) quiero

(tú) quieres

(él) quiere

(nosotros) queremos*

(vosotros) queréis*  (formal: ustedes quieren)

(ellos) quieren

*With the second group of stem-changing verbs, the letter e in the stem changes to ie in all forms except the nosotros and vosotros.

Another example:

Present simple (Presente de indicativo) – tener (to have) 

(yo) tengo

(tú) tienes

(él) tiene

(nosotros) tenemos*

(vosotros) tenéis*  (formal: ustedes tienen)

(ellos) tienen

*The patterns for stem‐changing verbs are very consistent. The affected conjugations are in singular, the first person (yo), the second person () and second person formal (usted), the third person (él, ella), and in plural, the second person formal (ustedes), and the third person (ellos, ellas). In the present simple, the stem change applies to all forms of the verb except for the nosotros and vosotros forms. For nosotros and vosotros, keep the stem the same and treat it as you would any regular verb.

Memory trick:

Have a close look at this trick to memorize changes more easily: prefixes. About the aforementioned example, if you learn the stem change for tener (to have), you will also have learned the stem shifts for the associated verbs: obtener (to obtain), contener (to contain), mantener (to maintain) and entretener (to entertain).

Let’s have a look at some common verbs:

SPANISH ENGLISH SPANISH ENGLISH
empezar to begin entender to understand
mentir to lie pensar to think
perder to lose negar to deny
sentar(se) to sit down preferir to prefer
cerrar to close comenzar to begin
sugerir to suggest sentir to feel
venir to come tener to have
atravesar to cross calentar to warm up
despertarse to wake up divertirse to have fun
recomendar to recommend defender to defend

Watch out for venir and tener. The personal pronoun yo form is completely different and does not follow any of the rules aforementioned.

  • venir: (yo) vengo /(tú) vienes /(él) viene /(nosotros)venimos /(vosotros)venís /(ellos) vienen
  • tener: (yo) tengo /(tú) tienes /(él) tiene /(nosotros) tenemos /(vosotros) tenéis /(ellos) tienen

2. o changes to ue

For verbs in this group, the o in the last syllable of the stem changes to ue. Check out an example of this in the conjugation table for the verb aprobar (to approve).

Present simple (Presente de indicativo) – aprobar (to approve) 

(yo) apruebo

(tú) apruebas

(él) aprueba

(nosotros) aprobamos

(vosotros) aprobáis 

(ellos) aprueban

Have a look at some examples

SPANISH ENGLISH SPANISH ENGLISH
revolver to mix/shake rogar to beg
soler to be accustomed to sonar to sound
soñar to dream torcer to twist
demostrar to demonstrate/prove devolver to return
disolver to dissolve doler to hurt
almorzar to have lunch aprobar to approve
colgar to hang (up) mover to move
contar to count demoler to demolish
costar to cost encontrar to find
dormir to sleep llover to rain
envolver to wrap mostrar to show
morder to bite promover to promote
probar to taste, to prove remover to remove
recordar to remember volar to fly
morir to die poder to be able to
resolver to resolve retorcer to twist
cocer to boil/bake conmover to move

3. e changes to i

This time the e changes to i in the last syllable of the stem. An example of this can be found in the conjugation table for the verb corregir (to correct).

Present simple (Presente de indicativo) – corregir (to correct) 

(yo) corrijo

(tú) corriges

(él) corrige

(nosotros) corregimos

(vosotros) corregís

(ellos) corrigen

Watch out for the personal pronoun yo form. For verbs such us conseguir, seguir, reir, elegir o decir, the change is very different:

Decir: (yo) digo

Elegir: (yo) elijo

Conseguir: (yo) consigo

Seguir: (yo) sigo

Reír: Me río (don’t say yo río) (yes! Like river in Spanish, but nothing to do with the verb reír (to laugh). If you still don’t understand the verb reír, check out the conjugation table for the verb below?

Present simple (Presente de indicativo) – reír (to laugh) 

(yo) río

(tú) ríes

(él) ríe

(nosotros) reímos

(vosotros) reís

(ellos) ríen

Common verbs where e changes to i:

SPANISH ENGLISH SPANISH ENGLISH
reírse to laugh servir to serve
perseguir to follow corregir to correct
conseguir to get decir to say/tell
sonreírse to smile medir to measure
seguir to follow repetir to repeat

And now, this is for Spanish super-star learners! Practice makes perfect, so keep up with the good work:

4. i changes to ie

In this group, there are only two most common verbs: inquirir (to inquire) adquirir (to acquire). For these two verbs below, check out the conjugation table.

Present simple (Presente de indicativo) – adquirir (to acquire) 

(yo) adquiero

(tú) adquieres

(él) adquiere

(nosotros) adquirimos

(vosotros) adquirís

(ellos) adquieren

Present simple (Presente de indicativo) – inquirir (to inquire) 

(yo) inquiero

(tú) inquieres

(él) inquiere

(nosotros) inquirimos

(vosotros) inquirís

(ellos) inquieren

Inquirir is a very formal verb in Spanish, similar to preguntar (to ask for). Inquirir means in Spanish:  indagar, averiguar o examinar cuidadosamente algo (inquire, find out, or carefully examine something).

Examples: 

 «Dugarte inquirió: “¿Está muerto?”» (UPietri Oficio [Ven. 1976])

«Algún vecino le inquirió sobre el mal olor que salía de su vivienda» (País [Esp.] 1.8.89)

«Uno de los asistentes inquirió por las medidas que está tomando España» (País [Esp.] 2.6.84).

5. u changes to ue

Fortunately for your relief, we are going to highlight two very common verbs:  jugar (to play) and oler (to smell).

Present simple (Presente de indicativo) – jugar (to play) 

(yo) juego

(tú) juegas

(él) juega

(nosotros) jugamos

(vosotros) jugáis

(ellos) juegan

Be aware of oler (to smell). The letter h is also added to the present tense forms of this verb that undergo a stem change.

Present simple (Presente de indicativo) – oler (to smell) 

(yo) huelo

(tú) hueles

(él) huele

(ns) olemos

(vs) oléis

(ellos) huelen

Written by Hugo Moreno

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