Top 10 Spanish Grammar Concepts Hardest to Master (with Exercises)
Learning a new language is never an easy task. Each language has its own particularities and Spanish is not the exception. From the subjunctive to reflexive verbs, Spanish grammar has its good share of tricky concepts.
While some new learners of the language may find one concept particularly difficult, others struggle with a completely different one. However, when I tried to pin down the top 10 Spanish grammar concepts hardest to master, I found out that most Spanish students mention the same ones.
Without further ado, here are the hardest Spanish grammar concepts to master, including tips on how to overcome them as well as exercises to reinforce them:
1. Gender-specific Nouns
In Spanish, nouns are gendered. Most times, gender is easy to spot as feminine nouns almost always end in -a and masculine nouns almost always end in -o. But for best results in noting the gender of the word, pay closer attention to the article!. If it’s a feminine noun it uses la, and masculine nouns use el:
la casa – the house
el perro – the dog
However, if it were that simple, nouns wouldn’t have made it to the list of hardest Spanish grammar concepts to master! Some nouns in Spanish are “exceptional,” think of them as “free spirit” nouns. They might end in -a, but their gender is masculine, such as:
el clima – the weather
el mapa – the map
Or nouns that end in -o, but their gender is feminine:
la radio – the radio
la mano – the hand
The Spanish grammar concept of gender-specific nouns is not that hard to understand. In fact, the English language has some examples of its own that can help you grasp the logic behind them: waiter/waitress, actor/actress. The difficult part is how to know whether that specific noun you are using is feminine or masculine.
How to Overcome Gendered Nouns
Practice in real-time, don’t memorize. You can try to memorize them all, but memorizing is not the best way to learn a language. However, when you speak, read, write, and listen in Spanish, you develop a natural understanding of the way the language works. Through regular practice in real-time settings (with a language partner or Spanish tutor), knowing the gender of nouns naturally develops into mastery.
Add the correct article for the following nouns:
- ______ auto – the car
- ______ cama – the bed
- ______ silla – the chair
- ______ sofá – the sofa
- ______ televisión – the TV
2. Ser and Estar
One of the hardest Spanish grammar concepts to grasp for learners of the language is the use of the verbs ser and estar. Both verbs translate as “to be” and native English speakers find it really hard to know when to use which.
How to Overcome Two Words for “to Be”
Use estar when describing temporary states like emotions, position, or physical condition:
Estoy feliz. – I’m happy.
…and use ser for permanent states such as name, nationality or profession:
Soy ingeniero – I’m an engineer.
Choose between using ser or estar in the following sentences:
- ________ embarazada. – I’m pregnant.
- ¿Quieres ________ mi novia? – Do you want to be my girlfriend?
- México ________ en Norteamérica. – Mexico is in North America.
- Pablo ________ argentino. – Carlos is Argentinian.
3. Irregular Verbs
A common moment of despair for most Spanish learners is when they’ve already mastered the many conjugations of regular verbs, and then discover the irregular verbs. With this kind of verbs, the usual conjugation rules don’t apply, and you need to learn the unique conjugation for each of these verbs.
How to Overcome Irregular Verbs
I know that I just said that memorizing stuff is not the best way to learn a new language, but in this case, there is no other way. You need to memorize the irregular verb conjugations and then practice them a lot.
Add the correct conjugation for the following irregular verbs:
decir – to say
oír – to hear
decir – to say
oír – to hear
4. El Subjuntivo
In Spanish, besides all the different tenses, there are three moods: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. The indicative is the “normal” one, the one you study at the beginning of your learning process. The imperative is used just to give orders or warnings. And then, there’s the subjunctive, which is a bit more complicated.
How to Overcome the Subjunctive
The challenge that the Spanish subjunctive presents is to know when to use it. My recommendation is to think of it as a way to express hope or desire. If you use the word ojalá that’s a good clue that you should use the subjunctive. These are not the only cases, but they will help you get more familiarized with it.
Fill in the blank using the subjunctive conjugation of the given verb:
- Ojalá _____________ (poder) venir a la fiesta. – Hopefully, you can come to the party.
- Me miró como si _____________ (estar) loco. – She looked at me as if I were crazy.
- Me ________________ (haber) gustado que me acompañaras. – I would have liked you to accompany me.
5. Reflexive Verbs
First, keep in mind that the reflexive verbs are just one of six different groups of pronominal verbs. Here you can find an in-depth explanation of pronominal verbs.
Now, a reflexive verb is always accompanied by a reflexive pronoun (hence the name) such as me, te, and se. Some verbs may change their meaning if used depending on if they are being used in their regular or reflexive form.
How to Overcome Reflexive Verbs
Use this type of verbs when the subject performs an action on itself.
Fill in the blank using the reflexive form of the given verb:
- Yo _____________ (bañarse) todas las mañanas. – I take a shower every morning.
- Ella _______________ (llamarse) María. – She is called Maria.
- _______________ (equivocarse) conmigo. – You are wrong about me.
- Tú ________________ (cepillarse) los dientes. – You brush your teeth.
- me baño
- se llama
- te equivocas
- te cepillas
You use prepositions to connect different parts of a sentence such as nouns and pronouns. In Spanish, you have 23 prepositions to work with and then you also can use prepositional phrases. The concept of prepositions is not that hard to understand, the problem is to master their use and, once again, that only comes with practice.
How to Overcome Prepositions
Little by little. Start with three of the most common Spanish prepositions, let’s say: a, de, and en. Use them in every possible context and, when you have mastered them, add three more. Then three more, and then just keep adding them until you master the 23 Spanish prepositions.
Fill in the blank using the right preposition in the following sentences:
- ¿__________ dónde vas? – Where are you going?
- Este libro es __________ Mario. – This is Mario’s book.
- Nos vemos __________ la escuela. – See you at the school.
- Yo siempre salgo __________ paraguas. – I always go out with an umbrella.
- ¿__________ quién es ese paquete? – Who is that package for?
7. Past Tense: Pretérito or Imperfecto
In Spanish, you use the preterite tense to describe actions that were completed in the past. On the other hand, you use the imperfect to describe actions that repeat or that are ongoing. Using the preterite can be tricky sometimes, especially with irregular verbs. However, the big problem is not really the conjugations, but learning when to use which of the past tenses.
How to Overcome the Past Tense
Here it’s important to learn the different endings (which are not difficult), but the clue is to think of the preterite as a more definitive past, something that can’t be changed.
Fill in the blank using the right past tense in the following sentences:
- María te __________ (enviar) un correo electrónico. – María sent you an email.
- Anoche en la fiesta __________ (estar) un poco cansado. – Last night, at the party I was a little tired.
- Nosotros no _________ (saber) que ya habías llegado a México. – We didn’t know that you had arrived in Mexico.
- Mi hija __________ (nacer) el 12 de marzo. – My daughter was born on March 12.
- Cuando estaba en la universidad, todos los días __________ (comer) en la cafetería. – When I was in college, I ate everyday in the cafeteria.
8. Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns
These pronouns are the words you use in order to replace the direct and indirect objects in a sentence. For an in-depth explanation of this concept, you may want to read this. For now, believe me, that this is one of the Spanish grammar concepts with which students struggle the most.
Direct Object Pronouns
Indirect Object Pronouns
How to Overcome Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns
The only way to master the direct and indirect object pronouns is to memorize them and try to use them in as many situations as possible. Practice, once again.
Fill in the blank using the right object pronoun in the following sentences:
- Ella _____ dio el boleto al niño. – She gave the ticket to the kid.
- Julio _____ llevará al aeropuerto. – Julio is taking you to the airport.
- Mi mamá se _____ comió. – My mom ate it.
- Manuel y Lucía _____ dijeron que es un buen restaurant. – Manuel y Lucía told us that it’s a good restaurant.
- Tú _____ lo vas a pagar. – You are going to pay me.
9. Verb Gustar
The verb gustar is translated as “to like,” however the way it works in a sentence is completely different than in English. Hence, the difficulty for native English speakers. Actually, in this verb you apply what you’ve learned about reflexive verbs and indirect object pronouns.
How to Overcome the Verb Gustar
The key is to understand that when you want to say something as simple as “I like to listen to music,” you don’t use the verb gustar but the reflexive verb me gusta, as in me gusta escuchar música.
Fill in the blank using the correct form of the verb gustar in the following sentences:
- A ella __________ bailar. – She likes to dance.
- __________ los tacos al pastor. – I like tacos “al pastor” (filled with pineapple and strips of roasted pork).
- ¿Qué camisa __________ más? – Which shirt do you like the most?
- le gusta
- Me gustan
- te gusta
10. Llevar vs Traer
Both verbs can be translated as “to bring,” but llevar is more like “to take away” while traer means something like “to bring here.” The destination decides which verb to use.
How to Overcome Llevar vs Traer?
If the destination is “there,” use llevar; if the destination is “here,” use traer.
Fill in the blank using the correct verb between llevar and traer in the following sentences:
- La maestra lo __________ a la dirección. – The teacher took him to the principal’s office.
- Me lo __________ mi papá de Argentina. – My dad brought it to me from Argentina.
- ¿Quién te __________ de la escuela? – Who brought you from school?
- Mañana su hija lo __________ al hospital. – Tomorrow her daughter will take him to the hospital.
Now that you know which are the hardest Spanish grammar concepts to master, start practicing them live so that you can master them faster! Sign up for a free class with one of our native Spanish-speaking teachers to get started today.
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