How to Speak Spanish Lesson

Stem-Changing Verbs in the Present Tense

Spanish grammar is wonderfully logical; even the occasional exception to the rules follows a general pattern.  Case in point:  stem-changing (also known as radical-changing) verbs.


In order to understand this concept, it is first necessary to define “stem.”  The stem of the verb is the root, the part that, unlike the ending, does not change when the verb is conjugated.  It is the part of the infinitive that stays when the –ar, -er or –ir ending is changed.  In the verb hablar (to speak/talk), habl- is the stem:


yo hablo (I speak)                      nostros hablamos (we speak)

hablas (you speak)                 

él habla (he speaks)                   ellos hablan (they speak)



Hablar is a regular –ar verb, and so the stem does not change.  Watch what happens to the stem-changing –ar verb jugar (to play (a game, a sport)):


yo juego (I play)                              nosotros jugamos (we play)

juegas (you play)            

él juega (he plays)                            ellos juegan (they play)


Here’s another stem-changing –ar verb, cerrar (to close):


yo cierro (I close)                      nosotros cerramos (we close)

cierras (you close)                 

él cierra (he closes)                          ellos cierran (they close)



In the case of jugar, the u in the stem became ue in four of the conjugations (the yo, tú, él and ellos forms).  In the case of cerrar, the e became ie in the same four conjugations.  The third type of stem change is o to ue.  I’ll bet you can predict what happens to the stem-changing verb recordar (to remember/recall, or record):


yo recuerdo (I remember)               nosotros recordamos (we remember)

recuerdas (you remember)         

él recuerda (he remembers)          ellos recuerdan (they remember)


The tricky part about stem-changing verbs is that there are two parts of the verb to conjugate: the ending and the middle, or stem.  Fortunately, most stem-changing verbs are quite predictable; the –ar, -er and –ir endings remain the same as in any regular verb, and only the stem changes in all but the nosotros and vosotros forms.  (In Latin America, vosotros is not widely used, but you’ll still run into it in written language, including the Bible.)  There are, as we have seen, three main stem changes.  Here are some verbs that follow the patterns we’ve seen so far:


e to ie stem change


                                    cerrar                           to close

                                    comenzar                      to start, begin

                                    despertar                      to awaken

                                    defender                       to defend

                                    entender                       to understand

                                    empezar                       to start, begin

                                    mentir                           to lie

                                    negar                            to deny

                                    pensar                          to think

                                    perder                          to lose

                                    preferir                         to prefer

                                    querer                          to want

                                    **tener                         to have

                                    **venir             to come


**These two have irregular yo forms:  yo tengo, yo vengo.  The other forms follow the rules for the regular e to ie stem change.



o to ue stem change


                                    acordar                         to remember

                                    almorzar                       to have lunch

                                    contar                           to count, to tell

                                    costar                           to cost

                                    devolver                       to return, give back

                                    dormir                          to sleep

                                    encontrar                      to meet, find

                                    envolver                       to wrap, envelop

                                    morir                            to die

                                    mostrar                        to show

                                    mover                           to move

                                    poder                           to be able (to do something)

                                    probar                          to prove, to try

                                    recordar                       to remember

                                    volver                           to return, come back


            Let’s try it.  Fill in the blanks with the correct form of the verb in parentheses—then, translate the sentences to English.  Answers at the bottom:


1)      Yo ____________________ hambre.  ¿Tú ___________________ comer?  (tener, querer)


2)      Sí.  ¿Qué restaurante _____________________ tú? (preferir)


3)      Mi hermano _________________________ en Pollo Loco muchas veces.  (almorzar)


4)      Ah, sí, yo __________________________ que le gusta allí.  Está bien.  (recordar)


5)      Está bueno, y la comida no ______________________ mucho.   Pero primero vamos a la biblioteca.  (costar)


6)      ¿ ___________________________ (tú) un libro?  (devolver)


7)      Sí, ahora misma.  Después nosotros __________________________ a comer.  (empezar)


8)      ¡Antes que yo _________________________ de hambre!  (morir)




1)      tengo, quieres.  I’m hungry.  Do you want to eat?

2)      prefieres.  Yes.  What restaurant do you prefer?

3)      almuerza.  My brother often has lunch at Pollo Loco.

4)      recuerdo.  Oh yes, I remember that he likes it there.  Okay.

5)      cuesta.  It’s good, and the food doesn’t cost much.  But first let’s go to the library.

6)      Devuelves.  Are you returning a book?

7)      empezamos.  Yes, right now.  Then we can start to eat.

8)      muero.  Before I die of hunger!


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