Get a Hand-up on Helping Verbs in Spanish – Part 1 of 2 - Translation Skills Training

Get a Hand-up on Helping Verbs in Spanish – Part 1 of 2

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Get a Hand-up on Helping Verbs in Spanish – Part 1 of 2

This Tip for the Week is the first in a two-part series introducing readers to helping verbs in Spanish, more technically known as auxiliary or modal verbs.  It is an overview that may be useful to a variety of audiences.  For heritage speakers of Spanish, defined as those who grew up speaking Spanish but who may have little-to-no formal study of Spanish, this series may enable them to begin to dislodge fossilized errors, such as not knowing how stem-changing verbs are conjugated or because of imitating English verb phrase structures.  For language professionals, such as for Analytic Linguists and translators, this two-part series may provide useful explanations for them to offer to monolingual supervisors or clients who are either curious, confused or critical.  It may be useful to some English-speaking students of Spanish who make the mistake of conjugating two verbs in a row – so this introduction to the topic will show them how to avoid this error.  Finally, for teachers of Spanish, we offer these two Tips for the Week, hoping to add a fresh perspective that might help a student who is struggling.

Helping verbs introduce an infinitive verb – an unconjugated verb, such as hablar, comer or vivir.  When an infinitive follows a helping verb, it completes the idea introduced by the helping verb and is therefore called by a more descriptive name: complementary infinitive.  In fact, without the infinitive, the idea would be left in suspense.  Consider how frustrated you would you feel if you only heard someone say the following, without any context to justify their brevity (as answers to specific questions, these are normal and correct):

He can.

They should.

I want.

She hopes.

Your frustration is caused because the speaker has used only helping verbs but has not finished the thought. To end your frustration caused by incomplete information, you’d probably ask the speaker to complete his or her thoughts.  You would do this by turning each of the statements into questions – adding “what?” to each one of them to get the speaker to finish the utterances.  You might get answers like these:

He can swim.

They should win.

I want to drive.

She hopes to eat.

Notice that the first two examples do not use to with the verb (an oddity of English when using the helping verbs can and should), while the last two examples do use the full infinitive forms: to drive, to eat.

In this first part of our series, we focus on three very high frequency English helping verbs (want, should/ought and can), as in the following examples:

He wants to go to the store.

They should/ought to buy a house.

I can play the guitar well.

The Spanish equivalents of these auxiliary verbs are: querer, deber and poder. It is fortunate for English-speaking learners of Spanish that the complementary infinitive is placed after the helping verb and only the helping verb is conjugated.  What is different about English and Spanish in this construction is something that distinguishes their respective verb systems generally, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise: helping verbs, just as all verbs, are conjugated in all three persons, singular and plural.  Note: English only distinguishes the third-person singular in the present by adding an -s to the verb, and by a new form for each verb in the past, regardless of the person and number of the grammatical subject (he sits; I, you, he, she, we, they sat).

Of these three helping verbs, deber is a regular er verb.  This helping verb is used in Spanish when English would use should or ought, followed by an infinitive.  However, deber isn’t always a helping verb. Used alone, it means to owe. The forms of deber, in the present indicative tense are:

debo debemos
debes debéis
debe deben

The verb querer means to want, whether as a helping verb or not. This verb also can be used alone.  In a romantic situation, used without a complementary infinitive, it means to love!

The verb querer is irregular. The e of the verb stem (the main body of the verb, before theer ending), changes to the diphthong (two vowels pronounced as one syllable) i.e., except in the nosotros and vosotros forms.  When pronounced, the stress falls on this diphthong. When the conjugated forms of querer are arranged in a two-column grid, with the singular forms on the left and the plural forms on the right, and the first-, second- and third-person forms are in descending order, the resulting pattern of irregularity is said to resemble a shoe or boot, as do the patterns of many, many verbs in the present tense. They are nicknamed shoe verbs.  It is important to remember that the personal endings are not affected by the irregularity of the stem. The present indicative tense of querer is formed as follows:

quiero queremos
quieres queréis
quiere quieren

The helping verb poder means to be able (i.e., can).  Just as the verb querer, it is irregular and is also a shoe verb.  In this case, the o of the stem changes to the diphthong ue which is the stressed syllable.  Don’t forget that with all shoe verbs, nosotros and vosotros always fall “outside” the shoe and so the o is not changed to a diphthong:

puedo podemos
puedes podéis
puede pueden

Let’s translate our three English examples from above into Spanish:

He wants to go to the store.

Él quiere ir a la tienda.

They should/ought to buy a house.

Ellos deben comprar una casa nueva.

I can play the guitar well.

Yo puedo tocar la guitarra bien.

Notice how the complementary infinitives live up to their name by completing the helping verbs that introduced them and that they remain infinitives, that is, they are not conjugated.

In closing, note that the three helping verbs in this first of two installments about Spanish helping verbs deal with three frequent and important aspects of human life: (1) concepts of obligation: the human will, through the use of the verb querer; (2) the moral sense through the use of the verb deber and (3) our capacity, power, or ability to do things through the use of the verb poder.

The second installment will address other important helping verbs and how their complementary infinitives are introduced in slightly more complex ways. Stay tuned!

© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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