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Formation: Stem Changing Verbs (Present Indicative)

What is a “stem changing verb”?

By now you’re comfortable with the fact that verbs change their endings depending upon the person and number subject of the verb. (if you want to review those endings, see here.)

In a stem changing verb, not only the ending of the verb changes, but in some cases, the root, or stem, of the verb will change as well under certain circumstances. There are four (4) types of stem changing verbs in the present indicative:

  • e ➜ ie
  • o ➜ ue
  • e ➜ i (only -ir verbs fall into this category)
  • u ➜ ue (there’s only one verb like this! jugar)

So what this means is, is that sometimes, with particular verbs, one of e’s, o’s, or in the rare case of jugar, the u of the stem (the part of the verb left over when you remove the -ar, -er, -ir of the infinitive), will change into an ie, a ue, or an i.

Some people call these “irregular” verbs, but in fact, they’re quite regular—they just follow another of the many patterns of verbs in Spanish. When the stem vowel changes and where it changes is very regular and follows a perfectly regular pattern.

Another name for this type of verb that you might have heard is boot verb. Personally, I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful way of referring to these types of verbs, but if it’s helpful for you, then go for it—call them boot verbs.

Here are some examples of what we’re talking about:

e ➜ ie stem changes

entender – to understand

Person Singular Plural
1st entiendo entendemos
2nd entiendes entendéis
3rd entiende entienden

o ➜ ue stem changes

poder –to be able

Person Singular Plural
1st puedo podemos
2nd puedes podéis
3rd puede pueden

e ➜ i stem changes

pedir – to ask for

Person Singular Plural
1st pido pedimos
2nd pides pedís
3rd pide piden

There are LOTS of verbs like these. Typically, when we introduce a new verb, if it’s a stem changing verb, we’ll introduce it something like this:

  • enterrar (e ➜ ie) – to bury
  • encender (e ➜ ie) – to ignite
  • volver (o ➜ ue) – to return
  • medir (e ➜ i) – to measure

You’ll know now what to do with these verbs when you conjugate them in the present indicative (and the present subjunctive, but that’s for another day).

How do I learn these?

The best way to learn these, in my opinion, is to simply say them out loud a dozen times or so. It’s also enormously helpful to write them out 6-8 times. This is true of learning any vocabulary or verb forms. Say them out loud and write them repeatedly. Just like doing drills in a sport, repetition is the way to get something into your head and into muscle memory!

Why do stem changing verbs change where they do?

Some teachers would say, “just because” and leave it that. But in fact there’s a reason. First, do you notice where the three examples above change? They change in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular forms, as well as they 3rd person plural.

Do you notice anything about those four forms that is different from the nosotros and vosotros forms of the 1st and 2nd person plural? In the form entiendo, where does the stress fall? How about entiendes? Entiende? Entienden? The stress on those forms falls on the stem of the verb, specifically on the vowel that undergoes a transformation.

In entendemos and entendéis, the stress on the form falls in the suffix of the verb and not on the stem. The same is true for all types of stem changing verbs. The vowel of the stem changes when it’s under stress! It doesn’t change if it’s not under stress. (kind of like humans, no?)

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2016-03-03 – © Baldo Partners: Hector Cantú & Carlos Castellanos; Universal UClick

OK, why change? And why those verbs?

Have you ever noticed that native Vermonters don’t actually pronounce the “t” in the name of the state? In fact, native Vermonters don’t ever pronounce a “t” after the nasal consonant “n”. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s just the local accent. Now imagine if Vermont should somehow become a global economic and military power for the next 900-1000 years. At some point during those 900+ years, the Vermont accent would become the one everyone wanted to emulate. To do business, you’d need to be able to communicate with Vermon’ers everywhere—not just in the Green Moun’ins. After 900 years, the language of Vermon’ would become the norm, the standard.

Something similar happened with the Latin which was spoken in the northern central part of Iberia near present day Burgos. The people there had a particular way of pronouncing the vulgar Latin spoken there some 900+ years ago. This part of the Iberian peninsula became known as Castilla, named after the large number of castles built there. Castilla became enormously powerful and eventually controlled more and more of the Iberian peninsula, and to do business with Castilla, it was beneficial to speak “Castilian”, or castellano as that language became known. Later, it was the Spanish under Castilian control who orchestrated the “exploration” of the Americas, spreading their language (and diseases, and religion, etc.) to the two new continents. That unique way of pronouncing a stressed vowel in some verbs became the norm for millions of people world wide!