Grammar & Vocabulary


Metallica, sin Jason Newsted. / Saad Faruque, CC BY

Students often get confused with these three verbs, as they can all be translated as to leave. Before we analyze the different uses, let’s review their conjugation for the presente, pretérito perfecto, and pretérito imperfecto tenses:

Presente P. Perfecto P. Imperfecto
Me voy Me fui Me iba
Te vas Te fuiste Te ibas
Se va Se fue Se iba
Nos vamos Nos fuimos Nos íbamos
(Os vais) (Os fuisteis) (Os ibais)
Se van Se fueron Se iban
Presente P. Perfecto P. Imperfecto
Salgo Salí Salía
Sales Saliste Salías
Sale Salió Salía
Salimos Salimos Salíamos
(Salís) (Salisteis) (Salíais)
Salen Salieron Salían
Presente P. Perfecto P. Imperfecto
Dejo Dejé Dejaba
Dejas Dejaste Dejabas
Deja Dejó Dejaba
Dejamos Dejamos Dejábamos
(Dejáis) (Dejasteis) (Dejabais)
Dejan Dejaron Dejaban

So what’s the difference? Well, let’s analyze them one by one:

Irse: It’s the most common one, and it will work well in pretty much every context. If we use it with a place (as in I left Boston) we have to use the preposition de, as in leaving “from” a place: Me fui de Boston.

Salir: Although salir can mean to depart in some contexts (el tren salió a las 5), it usually means to exit or to go out, so we should try to use it only when we mean “leaving a delimited space” (salió del edificio, salgo de mi casa, salen a la calle).

Dejar: We should also be careful when using this verb, as it always requires a grammatical object (i.e. we can’t use it for saying something like Mary left; when using this verb, we always have to leave a place, a thing, or a person: Mary dejó la ciudad, Mary dejó el carro en el aparcamiento, Mary dejó a su novio). It has strong transitivity, and the meaning is similar to the verb to abandon, but a little less “dramatic.”

So, summarizing, unless we mean “exiting a place” or “leaving something or someone,” we should try to use verb irse in most contexts.

Practice – Translate the following sentences into Spanish (more than one verb can work well in some of the examples)

1. James left.
2. They left the party at 8pm.
3. What time do you usually leave your house in the morning?
4. I left you a key under the doormat.
5. Jason Newsted left Metallica in 2001.
6. She left at 9am.
7. Leave me alone!
8. We won’t be able to leave until 2pm.

(See the correct answers along with some comments below)


Correct answers and comments for Practice – Translate the following sentences into Spanish

1. James se fue. (James salió would also be correct, but it would imply that he walked out of some delimited space into an “outside” area.)
2. Ellos se fueron de la fiesta a las 8 de la tarde. (In this case using salir would be a little strange; we could use it, however, if we said something like salieron del restaurante donde se celebraba la fiesta. Dejar could work, although it would be a little less natural: Ellos dejaron la fiesta a las 8 de la tarde would almost mean something like “they abandoned the party at 8pm”)
3. ¿A qué hora te vas de tu casa por la mañana? (Salir and dejar could technically work as well: a qué hora sales de tu casa would mean “what time do you walk out from your house into the street”, and a qué hora dejas tu casa would almost mean “what time do you abandon your house”, which kind of makes logical sense, but sounds a little weird.
4. Te dejé una llave debajo del felpudo. (The other two verbs would not work in this example).
5. Jason Newsted dejó Metallica en 2001. (Same as #4).
6. Ella se fue a las 9 de la mañana. (At this point we think you should know that salir could be used in this example, but it would imply “depart from or exit a delimited space.”)
7. ¡Déjame solo! (Strong transitivity! Leave me alone!)
8. No vamos a poder irnos hasta las 2 de la tarde. / No nos vamos a poder ir hasta las 2 de la tarde. No vamos a poder salir hasta las 2 de la tarde.

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