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A Guide to Stem-changing Verbs in Spanish

There are many common, everyday verbs that fall into the category of stem-changing verbs in Spanish. That’s why it’s important to understand what they are and how they work.

We’ve talked a lot about the different irregular verb conjugations in Spanish on this blog, as well as the regular verb conjugations. But there is a certain type of verb that we haven’t really addressed, and it’s somewhere between regular and irregular verbs. Stem-changing verbs in Spanish are conjugated differently from regular verbs, but unlike irregular verbs, they all follow the same pattern.

Please note: if you do not know the conjugations for regular verbs, this post will be confusing for you. First check out our guide to conjugations in Spanish, and then come back to continue.

So, what is a stem and how exactly do these verbs change?

A stem is the part of the verb that comes before the ending (which, in infinitive verbs, is always either ar, er, or ir). In regular conjugations, the stem doesn’t change, where in irregular conjugations, it can be completely different. In stem-changing verbs, the change is in the last vowel of the stem.

Stem-changing verbs in Spanish can also be thought of as 1, 2, 3, 6 verbs. This is because in the traditional conjugation tables, the conjugations that change are the first, second, third and sixth.

Let’s see that visualized.

Stem-changing verbs in Spanish: affected conjugations

1 yo I
2 you
3 usted, él, ella you (formal), he, she
4 nosotros we
5 vosotros plural you (informal)
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas plural you (formal), they

In other words, the affected conjugations are in singular, the first person (yo), the second person (tú) and second person formal (usted), the third person (él, ella), and in plural, the second person formal (ustedes), and the third person (ellos, ellas).

It might be easier to think of it as the ones that are not affected as there are fewer: just nosotros and vosotros. In case you were wondering about vos, it is also unaffected. These are conjugated just as they are when it’s a regular verb.

There are a few different ways that stem-changing verbs in Spanish can change. The key is in the vowels in the verb. Let’s see the different possibilities:

  • e -> ie (e.g: pensar)
  • e -> i (eg: conseguir)
  • o -> ue (eg: encontrar)
  • others (i -> ie, u -> ue)

Stem-changing verbs where the e in the stem changes to ie

In the Spanish stem-changing verbs where e conjugates into ie, the last e of the stem turns into ie in the present tense conjugations 1, 2, 3, and 6.

Examples:

1. Pensar | to think

Breakdown:

Pens – ar

Stem: pens

Stem change: e -> ie – pens -> piens

Pensar conjugation

1 yo pienso
2 piensas
3 usted, él, ella piensa
4 nosotros pensamos
5 vosotros pensáis
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas piensan

2. Preferir | to prefer

Stem change: prefer -> prefier

Note that the stem changes in the same way no matter whether the verb ends in ar, er, or ir.

Preferir conjugation

1 yo prefiero
2 prefieres
3 usted, él, ella prefiere
4 nosotros preferimos
5 vosotros preferís
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas prefieren

3. Entender | to understand

Stem change: entend -> entiend

Entender conjugation

1 yo entiendo
2 entiendes
3 usted, él, ella entiende
4 nosotros entendemos
5 vosotros entendéis
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas entienden

4. Empezar | to start

Stem change: empez -> empiez

Note that the change is always on the last syllable of the stem, no matter how many other vowels there are in the verb.

Empezar conjugation

1 yo empiezo
2 empiezas
3 usted, él, ella empieza
4 nosotros empezamos
5 vosotros empezáis
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas empiezan

Stem-changing verbs where the e in the stem changes to i

These are similar to the verbs above, except instead of ie, the vowel in the last syllable of the stem just changes to i in the first, second, third and sixth. This type of stem-changing verb tends to be ir-ending verbs only.

Examples:

1. Conseguir | to obtain

Breakdown:

Conseg – (u)ir

Note: the u before the i is there to show that the g in the word is pronounced as a hard g. So this is not considered part of the stem. Some would say that this makes conseguir irregular in the present first person, but since it is caused by a straightforward spelling rule, I wouldn’t consider it as such.

Stem: conseg

Stem change: e -> i – conseg -> consig

Conseguir conjugation

1 yo consigo
2 consigues
3 usted, él, ella consigue
4 nosotros conseguimos
5 vosotros coneguís
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas consiguen

2. Servir | to serve

Stem change: serv -> sirv

Servir conjugation

1 yo sirvo
2 sirves
3 usted, él, ella sirve
4 nosotros servimos
5 vosotros servís
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas sirven

Stem-changing verbs where the o in the stem changes to ue

Again, once you understand the rules, this is a pretty straightforward vowel change.

Examples:

1. Almorzar | to have lunch

Breakdown:

Almorz – ar

Stem: almorz

Stem change: o -> ue – almorz -> almuerz

Almorzar conjugation

1 yo almuerzo
2 almuerzas
3 usted, él, ella almuerza
4 nosotros almorzamos
5 vosotros almorzáis
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas almuerzan

2. Encontrar | to find

Stem change: econtr -> encuentr

Encontrar conjugation

1 yo encuentro
2 encuentras
3 usted, él, ella encuentra
4 nosotros encontramos
5 vosotros encontráis
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas encuentran

3. Mover | to move

Stem change: mov -> muev

Mover conjugation

1 yo muevo
2 muevas
3 usted, él, ella mueva
4 nosotros movemos
5 vosotros movéis
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas mueven

4. Dormir | to sleep

Stem change: dorm -> duerm

Dormir conjugation

1 yo duermo
2 duermes
3 usted, él, ella duerme
4 nosotros dormimos
5 vosotros dormís
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas duermen

Other possible stem-changing verbs in Spanish

The above mentioned three types of stem-changing verbs in Spanish are, without a doubt, the main stem-changing verbs. However, there are two other types which we also see, albeit there are much fewer of those. They are so uncommon, in fact, that it is easier to remember the one common verb that follows each conjugation than it is to remember the conjugation itself.

Example 1: jugar | to play (u->ue)

Breakdown:

Jug – ar

Stem: jug

Stem change: u -> ue – jug -> jueg

Jugar conjugation

1 yo juego
2 juegas
3 usted, él, ella juega
4 nosotros jugamos
5 vosotros jugáis
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas juegan

Example 2: adquirir | to acquire (i->ie)

Breakdown:

Adquir – ir

Stem: adquir

Stem change: i -> ie – adquir -> adquier

Adquirir conjugation

1 yo adquiero
2 adquieres
3 usted, él, ella adquiere
4 nosotros adquirimos
5 vosotros adquirís
6 ustedes, ellos, ellas adquieren

How can you tell if a Spanish verb is a stem-changing verb?

Unfortunately, there is no real way to know just by looking at a verb whether it is regular, stem-changing, or even irregular. This is one of those things that you just have to memorize. It might sound bad, but really this is something you will often just pick up in normal speech. For example, if you have heard of the verb pedir and you hear people saying pido and pides etc. all the time, you can confidently assume that pedir is an e->i stem-changing verb. As a Spanish learner, I can’t tell you the last time I had to think about whether a verb was stem-changing or irregular as all the differences have been acquired into my speech for a long time. So don’t think it’s not possible!

If, however, you want to find all the stem-changing verbs there are and attempt to memorize them, there is nothing wrong with that. However, there really are many stem-changing verbs in Spanish, so a complete list is hard to come by. The best I have found is here (you have to click into each category of cambio de raíz).

If you are learning by doing a course or using a textbook, whenever a new word is introduced, you should be told if it is stem-changing. The way this is communicated will vary from textbook to textbook, but in my text books they would just write the stem change next to the new infinitive verb. For example:

  • Arrepentirse (ie)
  • Recordar (ue)
  • Elegir (i)

Another way you can get to know the stem-changing verbs in Spanish faster is by looking at the root verb. Many Spanish verbs are prefixed forms of simpler verbs. For example, we’ve talked about pedir and now know it as a stem-changing verb. So seeing despedir, we can safely assume it is also a stem-changing verb of the same category. In this case, the two verbs have unrelated meanings, but that doesn’t matter.

Do Spanish stem-changing verbs change in other tenses and conjugations?

In this post, we have talked about how the stem-changing verbs in Spanish change in the present tense. Stem-changing verbs generally only change their stems in the present tense (including present indicative, present subjunctive, and present imperative, i.e. commands). However, that doesn’t make the other conjugations necessarily regular. Some good examples of verbs that are stem-changing in the present tense, while irregular in other tenses, are querer (ie), poder (ue), and tener (ie).

The only exception to the rule that stem-changing verbs change only in the present tense are the e -> i category of stem-changing verbs. In this case, the stem also changes:

  • in the gerund (e.g sirviendo)
  • in the past preterite third person – only singular and plural (e.g sirvió, sirvieron)
  • in the imperfect preterite – all 6 conjugations (e.g: sirviera, sirvieses). This conjugation and how it’s formed is explained in our post about all the Spanish tenses

So, you should now understand what stem-changing verbs in Spanish are. Practice using them in context with Clozemaster!

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