1. SER

Because it's not the only verb which means to be. Here are some examples that have to be learned by example (¿?):

SER + nationality – soy australiana, ¿de dónde eres?, es de México

SER + profession – soy cantante, ¿eres profesor?, es artista

SER + name – soy Toni, es Susana

SER + character type – soy de miedo (I'm a scary person), es de miedo (she's a scary person)

SER + relationship – soy su hermana, eres mi amigo, es mi padre

SER + the time – es la una, son las dos y media

SER + possession – es mi calavera (skull), son míos, es de ella

SER + religious/political affiliation – soy budista, ¿eres católico?, es socialista

SER + event location – this one is anti-intuitive – la fiesta es en mi casa, la clase es en la escuela

SER + material – es de azúcar (it's made of sugar – the little skulls in #6 below)

¡Soy una sandía, no una calabaza! (I am a watermelon, not a pumpkin!). Photo Toni Edwards


Because it's another verb which means to be, so is in direct confusion with SER.

ESTAR + adverbestoy bien, ¿estás mal?, estamos muy mal

ESTAR + adjectiveel muerto está frío, ¿estás lista? (are you ready?), está aburrido/a (he/she's bored)

ESTAR + location – estoy aquí, ¿dónde estás?, está detrás de la mesa

ESTAR + progressive participleestoy escribiendo (I'm writing), ¿qué estás haciendo?, están hablando

ESTAR + mood – estoy alegre (I'm in a happy mood), está inquieto/a (he/she's a bit on edge) 

Note the scary millimetre of difference between using SER and ESTAR to describe someone. SER is used to describe character and ESTAR is used to describe how you're feeling at that moment in time, eg:

Soy una persona alegre, pero de momento no estoy feliz – I'm a happy kind of person but at the moment I'm not happy.

Here's a good one:

Es buena y ¡está buena! – She's a good person and she's good looking!


Because it's one of the first verbs we learn when starting out, and it's a tongue and mouth twister!

This one always seems to trip up beginners of Spanish as there are a lot of syllables in it and it contains the J (jota of death) in the middle. Here's how it goes. The letters in bold are the stressed syllables, ie: they sound louder (really important):

Trabajar To work
yo trabajo
él/ella/usted traba​ja
nosotros/as trabajamos
vosotros/as trabais
ellos/ellas/ustedes traba​jan

Pull yourself together, don't be scared! Photo Toni Edwards

Now let's try saying this – in very small steps.

  • first, practice the j sound – j, j, j. It's gutteral, like the Scottish word loch. If you find that hard, try it with a soft h sound, as in the word house. Perfectly legitimate.
  • then practice the sound of ajo – you know, this means garlic, so it's not a useless thing to do. Keep that in the back of your throat (and the vampires at bay).
  • now add the first part to complete the first person – yo trabajo. Be careful to have the stress fall on the ba.
  • recite the full set of conjugations out loud. Do it until you are bored (at least 5 times). Can you hear where the stress of each word falls?

I know it's stressful, but we're not talking about that sort of stress!

  • notice how the stressed ba is in the stem (trabaj) in the first 3 persons, but then it jumps out to the ending in the 1st and 2nd persons plural (nosotros/as and vosotros/as). It then jumps back into the stem in the 3rd person plural (ellos/ellas/ustedes).
  • this pattern (the first 3 and the last) is same pattern as that of nearly every single verb conjugation, regular and irregular (now that's scary).
  • regular verbs have this pronunciation pattern.
  • irregular verbs also have this pronunciation pattern, but they also have an irregularity which follows the same pattern (on the same conjugations). See the next scary verb on our list, an irregular verb!


Yo entiendo el día de muertos. Photo Toni Edwards

Because we need it when we don't understand (which is often) – and not only that, it is irregular and changes the vowel in the stem when we conjugate it!

Entender To understand
yo entiendo
él/ella/usted entiende
nosotros/as entendemos
vosotros/as entenis
ellos/ellas/ustedes entienden

Do you notice the pattern of when the e is replaced by ie? It's the same pattern as the one we were working with above, in trabajar.

Do you notice the pronunciation pattern as being the same as that for trabajar? The stressed (louder) e is the one that is replaced by ie. Funny, that.

Only the 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons singular and the 3rd person plural have the e change to ie. And they are the exact conjugations where the stressed vowel(s) lie inside the stem.

Scary no more! This is a very reliable pattern of irregular verbs.

Now that you're coping with that, I must confess that I have opened a huge can of worms. Entender is just the tip of the iceberg. This conjugation style represents hundreds of verbs conjugated with this pattern, and I cringe to say maybe with varying vowel changes. Now I'm scaring myself!


Because it's back to front – hello? Yes, back to front. When we want to say I like skulls, in Spanish it needs to be expressed as to me, skulls are pleasing.

Let's take a deep breath, in the end it's not too bad. We'll start with a singular thing that I like. Blood

A mí me gusta la sangre – NOT: Yo gusto la sangre (muy mal).

Sangre is pleasing to me, so we have to see that la sangre is actually the subject of the sentence. What does a subject do? It conjugates the verb!


I continue. La sangre is 3rd person singular, so for the verb gustar, the conjugation is going to be gusta (gusto, gustas, gusta, etc).

So you could say that la sangre gusta – the blood pleases. Though we really do need to know who it pleases, and it happens to be me, mwaa haa haa.

Me gustan (mucho) las calaveras - I like skulls (a lot). Photo with permission Adzuki Lee Matcha

We can't stop there. We do need that little bit extra, which is a mí (to me) (we do need the to in Spanish, and I'm not letting on why, here).

Spanish also wants us to put in a pronoun, which is me – it means to me, also (don't ask). But most importantly, the me is the most important, and the a mí is less important.

Let's reconstruct it with our new knowledge: a mí (to me) me (to me) gusta (pleases) la sangre (blood). Wonderfully un-scary.

To be a real native speaker – me gusta la sangre (también me gusta la morcilla, blood pudding!).

As an extra freebie, just quickly, here's what you say when you like skulls. As they're plural, the conjugated verb is plural – gustan.

It's so easy I don't need to even write it, but I will: (a mí) me gustan las calaveras.

You may sleep now.


Hay aquí una calavera de azúcar (muy bonita). Photo Toni Edwards

Because it just doesn't make sense – it's not even, like, a verb!

This one is so scary that I feel that we can ignore big slabs of it. In fact, that is what actually happens, believe it or not.

Haber is only used in the 3rd person singular. Wo! It's true.

You may have come across hay with asking if something exists, or is somewhere (¿hay un esqueleto por aquí? Is there a skeleton around here?). Yep, you guessed it, it's the 3rd person singular, and pretty out there, if you ask me.

Of course that can be in the past (había, hubo), the future (habrá) and in a few other spaces to do with time and conditions and moods (let's ignore those right now).

But hay will do for now.

  • ¿hay una calavera? Sí hay una en el altar de muertos.
  • ¿hay mucha sangre? No, no hay mucha sangre.
  • ¿dónde hay un esqueleto? Hay uno en el armario (in the cupboard, of course).

Haber is not that scary, after all!

PS, I did lie a little there, in that haber does come fully conjugated (in its own crazy sort of way) for the purposes of behaving as an auxiliary verb with the past participle – too much information?

Just quickly, I have drunk a lot of blood is rendered yo he bebido mucha sangre. Here it is:

Haber (sort of) to have Past participle
yo he bebido (mucha sangre)
has bebido (mucha sangre)
él/ella/usted ha bebido (mucha sangre)
nosotros/as hemos bebido (mucha sangre)
vosotros/as habéis bebido (mucha sangre)
ellos/ellas/ustedes han bebido (mucha sangre)

Nothing in life is certain except death and verbs

Well, a variation on: Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes (Benjamin Franklin)

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