Present Tense Conjugations in Spanish: Common Mistakes to Avoid
You are learning Spanish and you feel like you are actually making progress, but then come those pesky present tense conjugations that bring you back down to Earth. But, it doesn’t have to be that way! Yes, some Spanish conjugations are a bit tricky, but they are not the problem; the problem is in the way you think about them.
Stop Thinking in English
Maybe the most difficult part about learning a new language is to stop thinking in your native language. Your brain is used to a certain kind of logical structure upon which it builds phrases and expresses ideas; in fact, it continues to use that knowledge wherever it goes, even if where it goes is to a completely different language.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Brains are amazing supercomputers that analyze, organize, and filter lots and lots of information. Without some little tricks, life would be overwhelming. Actually, this kind of stuff happens on the internet all the time, when websites and apps collect data from our devices in order to optimize how they respond to our commands and requirements.
Remember all those annoying questions about cookies when you get to a new website while surfing the web? Well, those cookies are little tricks from the websites to identify and recognize your computer faster the next time you visit them. They use these pieces of information to make sense of the world around them. Just like your brain does!
However, the cookies saved in your brain—which are often really useful to make sense of the world around you—become obstacles when learning a new language. That’s because grammar structure changes from one language to another, and the logic needed for one, may won’t work for the other.
Same thing happens when you stop using Google Chrome and start surfing the web on Mac Os Safari. Your computer’s information collected by websites stop working, as the structure of the new navigator is different, and it follows a different set of rules.
So, forget about what you know about the present tense in English and get ready for the strange world of the present tense conjugations in Spanish!
The Present Tense(s)
When you talk about “what is true at the moment, what happens regularly, and what is happening now,” you use the verb forms known as present tenses.
The first thing that you need to know about these verb forms is that the Spanish language has three different versions of them:
- simple present
- continuous present
- perfect present
Variations in the Present Tense Conjugations
Also, the present tense in Spanish can be used to express past, present, and future, and its conjugations vary depending on the spelling and stem-vowel of the verbs. And let’s not forget the moods: indicative (most common), subjunctive (weirdest), and imperative (quite unique).
No wonder the present tense conjugations create so many headaches for new learners of the language.
However, this is not rocket science and, as with everything else in Spanish, there is a logic underneath it. All you need to do is understand it.
Present Tense Conjugation Patterns
The purpose of this article is not to explain the structure of the present tense, but to analyze some of the most common mistakes when using it. For now, let’s just say that we use the indicative when talking about facts and objective things, and the subjunctive when talking about desires, possibilities and subjective things in general.
For a deep explanation of how the present tense works and about conjugation patterns in the indicative mood, read our article about the Present Tense Verbs in Spanish. For a better understanding of how the present tense conjugations in the subjunctive mood work, our three-part series on the subjunctive is an excellent resource.
Now, without further ado, let’s discuss some of the most common mistakes when using present tense conjugations in Spanish.
1. Using infinitive instead of the imperative mood
The imperative mood is different from the indicative and subjunctive moods, as it doesn’t use tenses. That’s because you only use the imperative when giving an order, a warning or threat, and maybe if you are begging for something (¡ayúdame por favor!, “help me, please!”). And when you do any of that, you are referring to the exact moment when you issue the order or command.
Another particularity of the imperative mood is that it only works in the second person, which makes perfect sense as you can’t give an order to yourself or to him or her. Maybe you can give an order to someone to give an order to someone else, but you don’t do it yourself. And when he does it, he’ll do it in the second person too, as in: lava los platos (wash the dishes).
Correct and incorrect uses of the imperative
Let’s see a couple of mistakes of present tense conjugations when using the imperative mood:
Incorrect: Call me when you get home – Llamarme cuando llegues a casa.
Correct: Call me when you get home – Llámame cuando llegues a casa.
And a famous example:
Incorrect: Draw me a lamb – Dibujarme un cordero.
Correct: Draw me a lamb – Dibújame un cordero.
To avoid this common mistake just remember to never use a verb in infinitive (llamar, dibujar), when using the imperative mood, and make sure to always conjugate in the second person (tú, usted, ustedes).
2. Using la gente (the people) as a plural noun
This is a very common mistake, because it is actually counterintuitive. La gente (the people) means a lot of persons, which by definition should be a plural noun. However, in Spanish, the noun gente is a singular one, so it should always be used with a singular verb.
|English||Incorrect Spanish||Correct Spanish|
|People are amazing in Mexico!||¡La gente son increíbles en México!||¡La gente es increíble en México!|
|The people decide.||La gente deciden.||La gente decide.|
It’s easy to avoid this mistake, just remember that even when gente does refer to many people, it works as a singular noun and you need to conjugate your verb as a singular one.
3. Not Using Me Gusta (I like) as a Reflexive Verb
This verb is tricky because it’s what is called in Spanish a reflexive verb. We use these verbs when the subject in the sentence performs an action on itself. This type of verbs always comes with an added reflexive pronoun (me, te, se, nos).
To complicate matters more, the verb gustar (to like) doesn’t focus on the subject, but on the object where the action takes place. So it’s a very particular kind of reflexive verb.
Let’s compare the structure of a phrase with a regular verb with one using me gusta:
I play football – Yo juego fútbol.
If we were to use the same structure, the following phrase would be:
I like football – Yo gusto el fútbol. (Incorrect).
But, the right way to say it is:
I like football – Me gusta el fútbol. (Correct).
Did you notice how not only the structure of the phrase changes, but also the conjugation of the verb?
Conjugate for the Object, Not the Subject
The correct conjugation of the verb gustar in the first person of the present tense is gusto (yo gusto, tú gustas, él gusta, nosotros gustamos, ustedes gustan, ellos gustan).
However, for the sake of simplicity, this verb phrase doesn’t work that way. Let’s see why, using the simplest phrase possible:
I like it. – Me gusto. (Incorrect).
I like it. – Me gusta. (Correct).
In the first version, you would be saying that you like yourself: Me gusto (“I like myself”). In the correct version, saying Me gusta means that you like something yet undefined (or defined by the previous context).
To avoid this mistake just remember that saying me gusto means that you like yourself. Forget about your list of conjugations and use me gusta to express that you like something or someone.
Me gusta María. – I like María.
Me gusta la música. – I like music.
4. Not Using the First Person Variation of Caber (to fit)
The verb caber, which means to fit, has a very weird conjugation in the first person of the present tense of indicative: yo quepo.
The conjugation has no logical connection to the infinitive form of the verb (caber) or to any of the other conjugations (tú cabes, él cabe, nosotros cabemos, ustedes caben, ellos caben).
You’ll need to go to the subjunctive mood to find similar conjugations. But you already know that the subjunctive mood is a very weird one, so it’s very common among Spanish learners to hear that instead of saying:
Yo quepo ahí – I fit there. (Correct).
People would say:
Yo cabo ahí – I fit there. (Incorrect).
Although it may seem more logical according to the rest of verbs and conjugations to use yo cabo, it is simply incorrect.
To avoid this mistake, just remember that cabo in Spanish means cape, like Cape Town (Ciudad del Cabo), and no conjugation of the verb caber in any mood, tense, or person will ever be cabo.
These are just some of the most common present tense conjugations mistakes in Spanish. If you want to learn some others and how to avoid them book a free class with us and never again say cabo, unless you are referring to a Mexican resort town in the desert (Cabo San Lucas)!
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