¡Hola muchachos! Welcome. You’ve taken an important step towards grasping the Spanish language, because today we’ll be running you through the basic grammar rules for Latin American Spanish. As far as Spanish grammar goes, this is all you need to know before you set out on your Latin American Spanish language learning journey.
Here’s a list of topics we’ll cover today:
- Pronouns and present tense verb conjugation
- How to form questions
- How to form negative sentences
- Adjectives (position and gender agreement)
Pronouns and present tense verb conjugation
This section has the essential building blocks needed to build the foundation of your Latin American Spanish skills: the pronouns and present tense verb conjugation. First off, it’s very important to note that Spanish verbs are divided into 3 categories: verbs ending in -ar, verbs ending in -er, and verbs ending in –ir.
Let’s jump straight in with the conjugation of a verb in each one of the categories:
Verbs ending in -ar (cantar – to sing)
Yo canto (I sing)
Tu cantas (You sing)*
El/ella canta (He/she sings)
Nosotros cantamos (We sing)
Ustedes cantan (You sing)
Ellos/ellas cantan (They sing)
Verbs ending in -er (comer – to eat)
Yo como (I eat)
Tu comes (You eat)**
El/ella come (He/she eats)
Nosotros comemos (We eat)
Ustedes comen (You eat)
Ellos/ellas comen (They eat)
Verbs ending in -ir (abrir – to open)
Yo abro (I open)
Tu abres (You open)***
El/ella abre (He/she opens)
Nosotros abrimos (We open)
Ustedes abren (You open)
Ellos/ellas abren (They open)
There are several things to explain and expand on from the above list. Let’s start with the pronouns.
One of the big differences between Spanish from Spain and Latin American Spanish lies in the pronouns. You will see that we have omitted vosotros as a plural form of the second person, because though there might be small pockets where it is used locally, the vast majority of latinos will use ustedes for the second person plural pronoun. Saves you from learning an extra form of conjugation, since the form of ustedes is the same as third person plural (ellos/ellas).
True, but if you’re in Argentina and parts of many countries surrounding it (Uruguay, Paraguay, Eastern Bolivia) and many Central American countries including Costa Rica, you will have to learn an entirely different second person singular pronoun, because in those parts they use the pronoun vos instead of tú. The conjugation for vos is slightly different from the conjugation for tú. The main change is that an accent is placed on the last vowel, changing the emphasis of the verb completely. Below we’ve listed how you would conjugate the example verbs from above for vos.
* vos cantás (you sing)
** vos comés (you eat)
*** vos abrís (you open) (for verbs ending in -ir, vos is actually conjugated with –ís instead of –es)
Omitting the pronoun
Now for a gigantic difference between English and Spanish (and this one is not exclusive to Latin American Spanish): after you’ve learned the pronouns, get ready to actually start omitting them a lot of the time. We know that sounds contradictory and confusing, but it’s a reality. Let’s look at an example sentence:
- Yo vivo en Nueva York. (I live in New York.)
- Vivo en Nueva York. (I live in New York)
More often than not, Latin American Spanish speakers will omit the pronoun if they know it’s not going to create confusion. How do they know it won’t? It’s all about context. In the example above, since it is so ingrained into Spanish speakers’ grammatical DNA that the verb conjugation vivo is for first person, they really don’t need the word yo in front of it, unless you wanted to emphasize the fact to compare something.
- Él tiene 18 años pero yo recién tengo 12 años. (He’s 18 years old but I’m only 12 years old.)
This can be confusing in the beginning as you’re trying to remember the verb ending that goes with each pronoun, but it also potentially speeds up the process of memorizing the verb conjugation. Verbs in the third person, both singular and plural, can be especially frustrating, but the solution is simple. If you’re reading and aren’t sure where, go back and take time to analyze the context of the sentence and it’ll become clear who or what the verb is referring to. If you’re listening to someone speaking, you will have to ask the speaker or someone else that is listening if you can’t ask the speaker himself.
How to form questions
Another grammar rule which proves that Spanish grammar can be so much more friendly to learners than English grammar: forming questions in Spanish couldn’t be easier. And to top it off, you get to use that funky upside-down question mark! Let’s start by learning the question words:
- ¿Qué?= What?
- ¿Cuándo?= When?
- ¿Dónde?= Where?
- ¿Quién?= Who?
- ¿Cómo?= How?
- ¿Por qué?= Why?
- ¿Cuánto?= How much?
In essence, to turn an affirmative sentence into a question in speaking, all you have to do is change the intonation,* moving the emphasis onto the last word.
- Tenemos que limpiar. (since this is an affirmative sentence, both tenemos and limpiar pretty much have the same level of emphasis, which we illustrated by underlining the words. Also, the intonation is fairly level across the sentence.)
- ¿Tenemos que limpiar? (the intonation of questions rises and peaks at the end of limpiar.)
* In more formal literature or social settings—and probably more in Spain than Latin America—you will hear people flip the subject and the verb for questions. Example: Usted canta bien. (You sing well) becomes ¿Canta usted bien? (Do you sing well?).
Here’s another one of those easy Spanish grammar tricks to turn something into a question: add “…no?” at the end! This is the Spanish equivalent for question tags in English, or adding the word “…, right?” used at the end of a question to elicit the approval of the listener.
- La casa es bonita. (The house is pretty)
- La casa es bonita, ¿no? (The house is pretty, isn’t it?)
The intonation for the word no is also higher than the rest of the sentence, just like in English.
How to form negative sentences
More good grammar news from us: forming negative sentences is also a piece of cake! Just place the word no in between the subject and the verb and you’re done!
- La niña juega con los juguetes. (The girl plays with the toys.)
- La niña no juega con los juguetes. (The girl doesn’t play with the toys.)
If you’re omitting the pronoun, the placement of the word no is not affected, it will still be place in front of the verb.
- Vivimos en Chile. (We live in Chile.)
- No vivimos en Chile. (We don’t live in Chile.)
Something very particular about Spanish is that double negatives are not incorrect! So you can put no and ningún in the same sentence without it effectively becoming positive.
- No tienen ningún problema con la música fuerte. (They/you have no problem with the loud music.)
- Ya no queda ninguna planta en mi jardín. (There are no plants left in my garden.)
Now that you’re feeling really confident, let’s knuckle down and get into a grammar point that requires a bit more work and concentration: grammatical gender of nouns.
All nouns are classed as either feminine or masculine, and it’s very important to learn the gender of all nouns in Spanish in order to be able to use the right article (la/las for feminine and el/los for masculine) and adjective endings. But don’t worry, it’s really not an insurmountable task, we’ll start with a list of noun endings that help you a great deal in identifying or remember the gender of a noun.
Words ending in -o, -ma, -z or -l
- El carro, el plato, el problema, el fantasma (the car, the plate, the problema, the ghost)
- El maíz, el lápiz, el nivel, el final (the corn, the pencil, the level, the end)
Words ending in -a, -ión, or –ad
- La taza, la pregunta, la organización, la información (the cup, the question, the organization, the information)
- La comunidad, la enfermedad (the community, the illness)
Some common exceptions to the rules above are: el día, la radio, el planeta, la moto, la foto.
Some nouns actually have a feminine and masculine version, which are often animals, family members, professions and demonyms.
- Oso/osa (male bear, female bear)
- Nieto/nieta (grandson, granddaughter)
- Mexicano/mexicana (male Mexican, female Mexican)
- Profesor/profesora (male teacher, female teacher)
One last grammar concept that’s not too complicated but is easy to forget: placement and gender agreement of adjectives.
Since all nouns have a gender, most adjectives have to “agree” with this gender, meaning they end in -o/os for masculine nouns, and in -a/as for feminine nouns. In addition, the adjective is usually placed after the verb, not before.
- Los cocineros preparan una cena deliciosa. (The cooks prepare a delicious dinner.)
- ¡Necesitas zapatos nuevos! (You need new shoes!)
Now, there are adjectives that end in -e, and these don’t change to -a or -o, but you do have to change it to -es for plural nouns.
- Una persona inteligente / Dos personas inteligentes. (One intelligent person / Two intelligent people.)
Amigos lindos, we’ve come to the end of the article. These Spanish grammar tricks and examples will definitely serve as a great foundation and can form part of your daily language learning routine, please keep building on it! ¡Hasta pronto muchachos!