What Does Conjugation Mean?

The dilemma. You want to learn a new language. You get excited. You go and buy some books or audio. You look at some program online. Then, bummer. You get discouraged. You come across some terminology that you don’t understand. You might be asking yourself, what does conjugation mean?

What does infinitive mean? What is a verb? What is a subject pronoun? There are lots of questions that will arise when you are first learning a language and I don’t want you to get discouraged by grammatical terminology.

In this post I am going to define these key terms in a way that can help you understand them. You don’t necessarily need to be an English major to learn Spanish, but the more you know about grammar the better. The good thing is, you will actually learn a lot about grammar by learning a second language, so if you don’t know a lot about grammar right now, that’s okay.

Of course, you will benefit from knowing more terms than the ones outlined in these posts. However, if you are new to learning Spanish, you need to know the terms in this post right away.

By Fero – Own work self-made, hecho por mi
Verbs

I’m going to start with the term ‘verb’ because you need to know what a verb is to understand an infinitive, and you need to know what an infinitive is to understand conjugation. A verb is an action word. Let’s jump to some examples. What do you notice in common about the following words?

Jump
Run
Climb
Eat
Play

Do you notice something in common? They are all actions that you carry out. In addition to being an action that you carry out, a verb can also serve as a way of linking a word (particularly called a noun) to a description (particularly called an adjective)

For example:

You ARE pretty.

In this example, ‘are’ is a verb. You is a noun, and the word ‘are’ links you to the descriptive word ‘pretty’ which is an adjective. Here is another example:

He IS tall.

In this example, ‘is’ is a verb. He is a noun, and the word ‘is’ links he to the descriptive word ‘tall’ which is an adjective. Remember, nouns are a person, place or thing. Adjectives are words that describe nouns. A verb is either an action carried out such as to run, jump, play, eat, or skip, or it can also be the linking connection between a noun and an adjective.

Infinitive

An infinitive is the general form of the verb. In English, the general form of the verb is displayed as having the word ‘to’ in front of the verb. This does not sound very clear in writing, so let’s look at examples:

to run
to jump
to play
to eat
to walk

These are infinitives, because they have the word ‘to’ in front of the verb.

For example:

I want to run to the park.
I want to jump all day.
I want to play the game.
I want to eat some salad.
I want to walk to the store.

So as you can see, this is how you use these infinitives in a sentence…

Now, before we get into conjugation, let’s learn what a subject pronoun is.

Subject Pronouns

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of an identified noun. What in the world does that mean?????

Let’s see some examples!

I
You
He, she, it
We
They

Mariela took me to the store.

Now, in this sentence there are a few nouns, but for the purpose of learning what a subject pronoun is, let’s focus on Mariela. Mariela is a noun. Why? Mariela is the name of a person. In English, when we refer to a female and we do not provide the name, we use the word “she.”

‘She’ is a subject pronoun.

She took me to the store.

Mariela took me to the store.
Who took you to the store?
She took me to the store.

‘She’ can replace Mariela depending on context.

Henry bought a dog.

Who bought a dog?

He bought a dog.

You eat fish.

Who eats fish?

You eat fish.

I love pizza.

Who loves pizza?

I love pizza.

Jan and Peter work hard.

Who works hard?

They work hard.

Jim and I are going out.

Who is going out?

We are going out.

Conjugation

So we learned above that verbs are action words or links from nouns to descriptions. Then, we learned that an infinitive is the general form of the verb where the word to comes before the verb. Then we learned that subject pronouns are I, you, he, she, we and they. Since subject pronouns are the pronouns that will be the subject of the sentence, subject pronouns work directly with verbs. In English, it does not make sense to say:

She ‘to jump’ on the bed.

Instead, we say:

She jumps on the bed.

Notice, we took off the word ‘to’ and we added an s. This is an example of verb conjugation in English. The verb has to agree with the subject of the sentence.

In English, it does not make sense to say:

I ‘to be’ smart.

Instead, we say:

I am smart.

Wait, you say! What does ‘to be’ have to do with ‘am’????

Well, in this case, we have a very irregular English verb. The infinitive here is ‘to be.’ But it is not correct to say:

I be tall or I be smart.

Instead, this is how you conjugate ‘to be:’

I am
You are
He is
She is
It is
We are
They are

Now, let’s conjugate a regular verb ‘to jump:’

I jump
You jump
He jumps
She jumps
It jumps
We jump
They jump

How about ‘to eat.’

I eat
You eat
He eats
She eats
It eats
We eat
They eat

So, as you can see, English for the most part is pretty simple, except for ‘to be.’ A non-native speaker would have to memorize the forms of ‘to be’ because they are vastly different than what is to be expected. It would be easier for a non-native speaker to remember the vast majority of English verbs like eat and jump because they only change on the third person, he, she and it.

Of course, once you navigate to past tense, eat becomes ate, and unfortunately, a lot of non-native speakers do not quite understand this. A lot of non-native English speakers use present tense English verbs despite when past tense is needed.

In Spanish, verbs change more than they do in English. So, for example, here is a translation of the verb, to eat:

comer – to eat

I eat
Yo como

You eat
Tú comes

He eats
Él come

She eats
Ella come

Note: In Spanish, there is no subject pronoun for it. So if I were saying ‘it eats’ I would simply name what it is, or if ‘it’ is already known, then I would leave off the word ‘it’ and just say ‘come’ for eats.

We eat
Nosotros or nosotras comemos

They eat
Ellos or ellas comen

You all eat
Ustedes comen

Comer is the infinitive.

I want to eat bread.
Yo quiero comer pan.

I hope that this article has helped you understand this terminology better as it will go a long way toward improving your understanding of Spanish language.

If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions, please feel free to leave a comment below. I respond very quickly and am happy to hear from you. You may also message me on my Facebook page.

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1 Comment

  1. It’s a very interesting post. To be honest, I didn’t know what an infinitive was until I started learning French. It just wasn’t the sort of thing they taught in English classes at that time – we were too busy being creative and appreciating great authors to bother with things like grammar. I think we were supposed to pick it up by osmosis.

    Later in life, I moved to Brazil – so I learned Portuguese of course. I think that if you learn a foreign language, you get a much deeper understanding of your native language.

    Spanish is next on my list!

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