For many years, I had a strange mental block when it came to learning the rules for Spanish commands.
The mandato (command) form was one of those grammar topics we routinely learned throughout middle and high school, but every year I failed to internalize it. Too many boring rules and too many different conjugations—or so I thought—for a tense I rarely used in conversation.
All of that changed when I took a job as an English teacher in Spain. As it turns out, direct commands are very useful when dealing with a classroom of rowdy eight-year-olds!
Once I started using the mandato form, I realized that it isn’t really complicated at all. The great thing about the mandato form is you hardly have to learn any new conjugations. Most commands come from either the present simple indicative or present simple subjunctive forms.
If you’re already familiar with the present simple indicative and subjunctive, learning Spanish commands will be a breeze.
Your Ultimate Guide to Embracing Spanish Commands
There are two types of commands: affirmative (telling somebody what to do) and negative (telling somebody what not to do).
Affirmative Spanish Commands
We use affirmative tú commands to tell one person to do something. Tú commands are used in informal settings. I would use an affirmative tú command, for example, to tell one of my students to open a book (abre tu libro) or to pay attention (presta atención).
Tú commands use the él/ella/usted form of the present simple indicative. To quickly review, that form looks like this:
AR: tocar (to play) — toca
ER: comer (to eat) — come
IR: abrir (to open) — abre
So for affirmative tú commands, we’d have “Toca la guitarra” (Play the guitar), “Come las verduras” (Eat the vegetables) and “Abre la puerta” (Open the door).
There are only eight irregular tú commands. They are:
- hacer (to do/make) — haz
- decir (to say/tell) — di
- salir (to leave/go out) — sal
- poner (to put/place) — pon
- venir (to come) — ven
- ser (to be) — sé
- tener (to have) — ten
- ir (to go) — ve
Here are the affirmative tú commands for hablar, tener and decir, which we’ll revisit throughout this section to conjugate in every form: habla, ten and di.
Usted commands, like tú commands, are used to tell a person what to do. However, we use usted commands in more formal settings or to imply respect. For example, I use the tú form to talk to my friends, but I might use the usted form to talk to the director of the school where I work.
To make an usted command, use the él/ella/usted form of the present simple subjunctive. To review, it takes three steps to form the subjunctive:
- Conjugate the verb in the yo form. (Hablar becomes hablo, tener becomes tengo, decir becomes digo.)
- Remove the –o. (Habl-, teng-, dig-)
- Add the appropriate ending (yo, tú, él/ella/ud., nosotros, vosotros, ellos/ellas/uds.):
AR: -e, -es, -e, -emos -éis, -en
ER: -a, -as, -a, -amos, -áis, -an
IR: -a, -as, -a, -amos, -áis, -an
So we end up with the formal usted commands hable, tenga and diga.
Nosotros commands are used to suggest a group activity, similar to the English “Let’s…”
To make a nosotros command, use the nosotros subjunctive form. So, you could say “¡Comamos pizza!” (Let’s eat pizza!)
Continuing with our three examples, we have: hablemos, tengamos and digamos.
Used exclusively in Spain, the vosotros is the informal form of ustedes (see below). Naturally, because I work in Spain, I would use a vosotros command to address my whole class at the same time.
Vosotros commands might just be the easiest of all. Take the infinitive form, remove the -r, and add a -d. So, I could—and frequently do—tell my students to “dejad de hablar” (stop talking) or “haced vuestros deberes” (do your homework).
Here are our three in the vosotros form: hablad, tened and decid.
In Latin America, we use ustedes commands to address more than one person at the same time. In Spain, we use ustedes only in formal situations. If I were a teacher in Latin America, I would use ustedes to address my students. In Spain, I use vosotros, but I might use ustedes to talk to a group of superiors in a staff meeting.
After learning usted commands, ustedes commands are a breeze! We simply use the ustedes form of the subjunctive, adding the endings -en or -an instead of -e or -a.
So our commands from the usted section become hablen, tengan and digan.
Negative Spanish Commands
It is important to be able to tell people what to do, but it is equally important to be able to tell someone what not to do! For this, we use negative commands.
All negative commands use subjunctive conjugations, so this section will be fairly straightforward.
Use the word “no” + the tú subjunctive. For example, “No vayas al parque” (Don’t go to the park).
Luckily, usted commands are conjugated exactly the same whether they are affirmative or negative. The only necessary change is to add the word “no.” For example, “No salga” (Don’t leave).
Negative nosotros commands use the subjunctive as well. For example, you might suggest to a group of friends, “No vayamos al cine” (Let’s not go to the movie theater).
Negative vosotros commands use the subjunctive. As a reminder, you must put the verbs in the yo form, remove the –o, and add the endings –áis or –éis. For example, “No compréis pan” (Don’t buy bread).
Just like with usted, ustedes negative commands are the same as their affirmative counterparts. For example, “No coman eso” (Don’t eat that).
Spanish Commands: Affirmative and Negative
To summarize what we’ve covered so far, here are a few verbs conjugated in the command form:
When I went to Argentina for my college semester abroad, I was shocked to learn about the existence of a new verb form nobody had ever told me about: el voseo. Used as a substitute for the informal second person (tú), the vos form is essential in several Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
If you’re groaning at the thought of learning to conjugate verbs in yet another form, worry not; the vos form is very regular. In fact, I find it easier than the tú form.
To make affirmative vos commands, simply remove the -r at the end of an infinitive and put an accent mark over the final vowel. That’s it! Here are some examples:
- Tomar: Tomá
- Comer: Comé
- Venir: Vení
Ir (to go) is the only irregular verb in the vos form. Since ir doesn’t work in the aforementioned pattern, Spanish speakers don’t use it in the mandato form. Instead, they substitute the synonym andar (conjugated: andá).
Since the tú form and the vos form are conjugated the same in the subjunctive, the negative commands for vos are exactly the same as they are for tú.
Reflexive Verb Commands in Spanish
Reflexive verbs are used for actions that someone does to him or herself. Some reflexive verbs are intuitive, such as peinarse (to brush one’s hair) or lavarse (to wash oneself). Others make less sense to English speakers, like the reflexive verb reírse (to laugh) or casarse (to get married). In this case, you just have to memorize which verbs are reflexive.
In the infinitive form, reflexive verbs end in the pronoun “se.” When conjugated, they are accompanied by a reflexive pronoun depending on the subject. The reflexive pronouns are:
To make a command out of a reflexive verb, conjugate the verb as normal and then stick the reflexive pronoun (me, te, se, os, nos) on the end of the word.
For example, to tell someone to wash their hands (lavarse las manos), you would say “¡Lávate las manos!”
Spanish Commands with Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns
A direct object directly receives the action of the verb, and an indirect object indirectly receives the action of the verb.
Consider the sentence, “Give the book to Lisa.” The book is the direct object, and Lisa is the indirect object.
In English, we can use pronouns to take the place of indirect and direct objects, shortening the sentence to “Give it to her.”
Spanish also has direct and indirect object pronouns to take the place of nouns. The direct object pronouns are:
lo, la (him, her, it, you-formal)
los, las (them, you-plural-formal)
The indirect object pronouns are:
le (him, her, it, you-formal)
les (them, you-plural-formal)
Similar to reflexive pronouns, indirect and direct object pronouns are stuck onto the ending of commands.
For example, we could use a direct pronoun to shorten “saca la basura” (take out the trash) to “sácala.”
We would use an indirect object pronoun in a command like “enséñame” (teach/show me).
Some commands call for both an indirect and a direct object pronoun, such as “dímelo” (tell it to me). In this case, the indirect object always comes before the direct object. To remember the order of Spanish pronouns, use the acronym RID: Reflexive, indirect, direct.
There is one tricky rule: for stylistic reasons, the indirect pronouns le and les cannot appear next to the direct pronouns lo and la. Instead, swap out the indirect pronoun for se. For example, “give the book to her,” which would be shortened to dálelo, is actually dáselo.
Polite Spanish “Commands”
Conjugating verbs in the mandato form is a good way to express to someone that you want them to do something (or not do something). But in some social situations, using a command may feel a little too direct or aggressive.
For these situations, there are other, gentler ways to ask someone to do something. Here are a few:
Use the Conditional Tense
Generally, the conditional tense is used to express uncertainty about an action in the future. See, for example, the verb compraría (would buy) in the phrase “Si tuviera un millón de dólares, te compraría una casa” (If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you a house.)
Generally you form the verb by adding the following endings to an infinitive:
Yo –ía Nosotros -íamos
Tú –ías Vosotros -íais
Él/ella/usted –ía Ustedes -ían
In addition to expressing future uncertainty, the conditional tense can serve as a polite way to make requests in Spanish. For example, instead of saying “Déjame tu libro” (lend me your book), you could say, “¿Me dejarías tu libro?” which would translate to “Would you lend me your book?”
Use the Verb “Poder” Plus an Infinitive
Poder (to be able to) is one of the most useful verbs for a Spanish speaker to have in their arsenal. It is a stem-changing verb, meaning that in the present simple tense it’s conjugated like this:
Yo puedo Nosotros podemos
Tú puedes Vosotros podéis
Él/ella/usted puede Ustedes pueden
In a question, puedes means “Can you.” So instead of saying “saca la basura” (take out the trash), you can ask, “¿Puedes sacar la basura?” (Can you take out the trash?)
Use the Present Simple, but Inflect Like a Question
This one might not be in any grammar books, but I hear Spanish speakers doing it all the time. Instead of saying “Pásame la sal” (pass the salt) for example, you could say, “¿Me pasas la sal?” This is a colloquial way to ask for something without using the occasionally harsh-sounding mandato form.
Common Spanish Expressions Using Commands
Hazme el favor de…
This phrase is like the Spanish equivalent of the English phrase “Do me a favor and…” Like the English, it could be a polite phrase, but with the right tone, it can also sound quite aggressive. Take, for example, the phrase “Hazme el favor de callarte la boca” (Do me a favor and shut your mouth!)
¡No me digas!
This exclamation translates directly to “Don’t tell me!” but its meaning is something closer to “You don’t say!” or “I can’t believe it!” Use this expression accompanied with wide eyes and a hand on the forehead to express shock or disbelief.
Déjame en paz.
“Leave me in peace,” or, more simply put, “Leave me alone.”
Vete al infierno.
In this phrase, “vete” is the command form of the reflexive verb “irse” (to leave). Perhaps you can infer, then, that “Vete al infierno” means go to h-e-double hockey sticks!
The literal translation is “Pass it well,” but this phrase simply means “Have a good time.” To mix things up, you can vary the adverb depending on how excited you are for the person you’re talking to: pásalo genial, pásalo increíble, pásalo fenomenal…
When speaking to more than one person, use the ustedes form (pásenlo bien) or the vosotros form (pasadlo bien) depending on where in the world you are.
This phrase plus an infinitive verb is a colloquial way to tell someone to get started on something. For example, “Ponte a trabajar” would more or less translate to “Get to work!”
I hear this command at least ten times daily here in Spain. Literally “Tell me,” it actually has a variety of uses. People answer the phone with “dime,” waiters and bartenders say “dime” to ask for your order, and many different types of workers will use “dime” as shorthand for “How can I help you?” or “What do you need?”
No te preocupes.
This phrase simply means, “Don’t worry!”
A command in the “vos” form, this phrase is ubiquitous in Argentine Spanish. It is used to express mild surprise or interest, similar to the English phrase “how about that.” It can also be shortened to simply “Mirá.”
Even if you aren’t a schoolteacher, I still highly recommend learning the mandato form. Commands are useful for Spanish learners at all levels and can be used in a variety of social situations, not just when dealing with unruly students!
Plus, practicing the mandato form forces you to brush up on your present simple indicative and subjunctive conjugations. This is great practice for beginners. So, get studying (¡Ponte a estudiar!) and you’ll have Spanish commands down pat in no time at all.