Slippery relative clauses

[See also this related post from last year.]

I happen to love the Spanish subjunctive. I love how expressive this mood can be. I love how the present and past subjunctives incorporate all the irregulars of the present and preterite indicative. And I love the two forms of the imperfect subjunctive.

IMHO the question of when to use the indicative versus the subjunctive is TONS easier than the question of when to use the preterite versus the imperfect. I tell my students that once they learn the rules, they will be okay.

Of course, my students don’t necessarily buy into my enthusiasm…But I keep trying. This year I’m experimenting with a new approach whereby I characterize indicative contexts generally as fuerte ‘strong’ and subjunctive contexts generally as débil ‘weak.’ This is actually a student-friendly version of the linguistic terminology of assertions versus non-assertions that I picked up when researching Question 87 of my book (“How can the subjunctive be used for actual events?”).

Of course I also teach my students specific uses of the subjunctive, often including the WEIRDO acronym. (Maybe one day I will try Lightspeed Spanish’s WOOPA acronym also or instead.) But I believe that it is helpful to give students an overall concept as well as the specific cases.

A PowerPoint I put together to teach the use of the indicative and subjunctive in relative (or “adjective”) clauses exemplifies this dual approach (see introductory slide below).  On the one hand, the real and hipotético descriptors reference the specific rule for relative clauses. On the other hand, the strong and weak guys hanging out next to the happy student who has a good Spanish teacher (explica), versus the sad student who’s still looking (explique), reference the fuerte and débil contexts. If you click on the image you will access the whole PowerPoint via Google Drive. (Normally I embed PowerPoints via SlideShare, but it isn’t working properly tonight.)

In class, I handed each pair of students a list of the eleven numbered sentences from the PowerPoint. (See below, where I’ve underlined the correct answers.) As I showed each slide, the student pairs tried to figure out whether the situation fit the indicative or the subjunctive. Then I called on one pair to report and explain their decision. The students really seemed to enjoy the activity, and mostly came up with the correct answers.

¿Indicativo (real) o subjuntivo (hipotético)?

  1. Estoy buscando a un profesor que enseña/enseñe portugués.
  2. Necesito un helado que se hace/haga sin azúcar
  3. ¿Conoces un restaurante que tiene/tenga comida barata?
  4. ¿Conoces a una chica de Egipto que vive/viva en mi colegio mayor?
  5. Quiero leer un libro que se llama/llame Tool of War.
  6. Necesito un helado que se vende/venda en mi vecindario
  7. Quiero trabajar con una persona que tiene/tenga mucha experiencia.
  8. Estoy buscando a un profesor que enseña/enseñe portugués.
  9. Estoy buscando un libro que me enseña/enseñe a reparar mi bicicleta.
  10. Quiero leer un libro que me explica/explique la gramática.
  11. Quiero trabajar con una persona que tiene/tenga mucha experiencia.

Single subject subjunctives

Last week, several students in my intermediate Spanish class crashed and burned on what looked to me like a routine homework assignment. The topic was the subjunctive in contexts of doubt and possibility, and the format was constructing sentences “Chinese menu” style, with one element from each column.

I wasn’t wild about this activity. I would have liked to have seen more variety of subjects instead of just yo…yo…yo. Also, the activity included only one unambiguous indicative context (creo que). At the same time, it reinforced a clunky simplification that our textbook makes in introducing this topic. While in real life quizá(s) and tal vez can be followed by either the indicative or the subjunctive — this is, indeed, one of my favorite demonstrations of the power of the subjunctive — the textbook presents them as always triggering the subjunctive. I’d rather postpone quizá(s) and tal vez until students are ready to handle, and even enjoy, this flexibility.

These misgivings aside, I was surprised by the fact that many of my best students kept the indicative (podré, me tomaré, encontraré, etc.) in all of their sentences. A class discussion revealed why: they were following the rule of thumb, drilled into them in high school classes, that the subjunctive is only found in sentences with a change of subject signaled by que.

I could see where my students were coming from. In teaching the subjunctive one naturally emphasizes the difference between sentences like (1) and (2) below:

  1. Quiero salir. ‘I want to leave.’
  2. Quiero que tú salgas. ‘I want you to leave.’

Whereas English uses the infinitive ‘to leave’ in both sentences, Spanish uses the infinitive only if the two clauses have the same subject. Sentences like the second one above, which has two different subjects (yo ‘I’ and tú  ‘you’) separated by que, require the subjunctive.

A rule of thumb, however, is different from an actual rule. Expressions of doubt require que and the subjunctive even when there is no change of subject: for example, Dudo que tenga un hijo el año que viene ‘I doubt I’ll have a kid next year’, to use one of the “Chinese menu” options. While the ‘rule of thumb’ suggests the use of the infinitive instead, the resulting sentence Dudo tener un hijo el año que viene sounds less natural than the subjunctive version.

My students’ difficulty on this topic reflects the overall danger of relying on rules of thumb, including mnemonics, in teaching and learning. I’ve seen the same problem crop up in students’ reluctance to use the preterite to talk about weather (e.g. Ayer llovió ‘It rained yesterday), because somewhere along the line they learned to always use the imperfect. For more on this general pedagogical topic, please see this post from 2013.

Finally, I must include a shout-out to this discussion, which I found helpful in answering my students’ questions about this topic, and which more or less inspired this post.

Stressing about “porque”

I thought there was nothing left for me to learn about Spanish stress, a topic that encompasses both pronunciation — which syllable in a word is given the greatest acoustic prominence — and writing — the use of accent marks to indicate irregular stress (inter alia). After all, I wrote my dissertation about how children learn the relevant pronunciation rules, then spun off two papers on this topic (here and here). More recently I devoted one question in my book to spoken stress, and one to accent marks. And accent marks are always a favorite topic for me to teach, both to students and to native speakers, who are uniformly delighted to learn how systematic this part of Spanish orthography is. My top recommendation for an online summary, with some nifty exercises, is here.

So it was surprising when a conversation with a student made me question, in a small way, my understanding of this topic. I had been going over the stress rules with this student, including the basic rule that words that end in a vowel are stressed on the next-to-last syllable. (Think HEcho, partiCIpa, todopodeROso, and desafortunadaMENte.) She then asked if porque ‘because’ was an exception to this rule.

This question threw me for a loop. Porque is related both to the interrogative ¿por qué? ‘why?’ and the noun porqué, which also means ‘why’, as in el porqué de una decisión ‘the why of a decision’. These two words/phrases both stress the qué, and the student assumed that porque did as well. When I said porque out loud, at first I thought I stressed the que. But the more I repeated the word, the less certain I became of my own stress placement — a kind of Heisenberg effect.

Fortunately, we live in a time that is rich in language resources. I was able to pull up wordreference’s listing for porque, which includes recordings of Mexican, Spanish, and Argentinian pronunciations. These pronunciations are divided: the Mexican pronunciation stresses the que, but the other two clearly stress the por. I then checked on Forvo, a crowd-sourced pronunciation dictionary. Again, the Mexican pronunciations stress the que, and the others — from Spain, the DR, and Argentina — stress the por. However, some examples provided of porque in context — for example, this one, recorded by a speaker from Spain — are more Mexican-style.

So the correct answer to my student’s question seems to be that in general, porque follows the rules of Spanish stress, but not in Mexico, and not always in Spain, either.

In which the blogger hears from her favorite author!

Jordi Sierra i Fabra

A few months ago I wrote to Jordi Sierra i Fabra, the Spanish author who writes the marvelous “Inspector Mascarell” series of detective novels set in Franco-era Barcelona. I have long been intrigued, or even obsessed, by Sierra i Fabra’s use of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, and wanted to know if he was manipulating this grammatical feature deliberately. My letter included the table from my most recent post on this subject in which I listed all the sentences I’d found in his recent novel Diez días de junio that combine the two versions of the imperfect subjunctive, such as Puede que ella le amara pero él no y sólo la utilizase.

I didn’t expect to hear back from Sr. Sierra i Fabra; he is one of Spain’s most popular writers and appears to be frantically busy. According to his Wikipedia page, he has published 57 novels, 20 books on the history of rock and roll, 38 biographies of rock and roll musicians, 3 books of poetry, and 115 children’s books. He also runs a foundation to support young writers, with offices in Barcelona and Medellín, and has won 14 literary and cultural prizes.

Nevertheless, Sierra i Fabra took the time to send me a very sweet reply, and didn’t seem to resent that some crazy linguist in New York was obsessed with his verbs. The gist of his answer was that not only had he not manipulated the imperfect subjunctive deliberately, but also, he had no idea what it was. He explained that he left school when he was sixteen and had never studied Spanish grammar. Again, he was very kind, writing:

Celebro que me leas. Es un honor. Y celebro haberte causado esas dudas y esas preguntas sin pretenderlo. La vida tiene estas sorpresas.

Sierra i Fabra also wrote that he would like to meet me in person if he comes to New York. (He was undoubtedly just being polite.) Another recent novel of hisEl gran sueño, is based in New York — like María Dueñas’s latest novel, Las hijas del capitán (meh), it’s about 19th century Spanish immigrants — so perhaps he will come here for some publicity?

Such a thrill…and, to me, it’s fascinating from a linguistic perspective that a pattern can be so frequent and yet not deliberate. I suppose we all have such ticks in our own writing, and that sometimes a weird outsider is the most equipped to catch them.

Punky Spanish spelling

When I was researching Spanish text messaging for Question #55 in my book, I was intrigued by the frequent substitution of the letter k for qu and c. This pattern is especially curious because the letter k isn’t native to Spanish. It normally appears only in borrowings such as kilómetro.

A friendly redditor explained this texting phenomenon as follows:

Not sure about other countries, but in Spain, substituting the “k” traditionally conveyed certain social/cultural/political leanings. It goes back to the early post-Franco years and was initially a punk way to hack the language (see Kaka de Luxe, Rock Radikal Vasco, etc.). Basque also has had an influence.

That’s a lot of power for a simple letter of the alphabet.

Given this background, I was excited to see many uses of k in business names and graffiti when I was in Spain in May. Here are some pictures, with my captions as color commentary.

Here the “cool” spelling of “katedral” contrasts with the normal spelling of “cafetería”.

In this graffiti calling for a street protest, the “k” of “kalle” is a natural fit with the gender-neutral “x” of “todxs”.

The accent mark is missing, too.

Here the street-smart “k” is coupled with another deliberate misspelling, of “z” for “c”. The full conventional spelling would be “rinconcito”.

OK, this graffiti has nothing to do with “k”. But I couldn’t resist including it because it was so striking to see a pro-Franco slogan in the year 2018, a full 43 years after the dictator’s death. Note also that the the tilde in “España” is present.

Finally, a Kindle

I don’t know why it took me so long, but I finally bought a Kindle. I have been meaning to do this for ages, every since I read this blog post about how easy it is to read a foreign language book on a Kindle. The device comes pre-loaded with a Spanish-English dictionary, so all you have to do is tap on a word and its translation comes up like magic.

My new Kindle in its cute cover

I was also impressed with how easy it was for my friend Sue to “pack” two weeks’ worth of books on her Kindle when we went to Spain together.

The last straw was when my friend Laura raved about her Kindle, and how she likes to check electronic books out of the library. Our local library recently closed for renovations, and I’ve been fuming about the inconvenience of going to the temporary location, which is on the other side of town instead of a few minutes’ walk away. I’m spoiled! So the idea of being able to download a book instead of scheduling a visit had immediate appeal.

I ordered a Kindle Paperwhite ($119) — this is the version that works with the dictionary — and also a cute cover ($13.99) so I can stick the device in my (tiny) handbag and not worry about scratching it. It arrived today and I am already off to the races! I downloaded a random Spanish-language book from Amazon that is included in my Prime membership: Dormir sin lágrimas, a book about getting your baby to sleep through the night. (Thank God I don’t need to actually read it.) Clicked on a random word, and the definition popped up, as promised.

I’m looking forward to lots of good times ahead.


Sustituir versus substitute

This post has a political context, but it is really about Spanish. I promise.


The big story in New York’s congressional primaries last night was the surprise 57-43 victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Joe Crowley, the 10-term congressman representing the heavily Hispanic 14th district. I don’t live in this district, and wasn’t following the race, but was excited about Ocasio-Cortez’s victory for two reasons.

First, as the daughter of a female politician I am always thrilled to see a woman enter the political arena — and succeed. Second, I love the prominence that Ocasio-Cortez gave to Spanish in her campaign. Her campaign website is fully bilingual — in fact, the first time I visited it, the landing page came up in Spanish — and her slogan (you’ll see it on her website) incorporates the uniquely Spanish ¡. Also, the Spanish on the website is excellent. I only noticed one mistake — and couldn’t resist emailing the campaign about it (see below). Hence this blog post’s assignment to the “Bad Spanish” category as well as to “Verbs.”

My email to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign

While writing this email I was reminded that the Spanish verb sustituir is fundamentally different from its English equivalent, to substitute. In English the direct object of the verb is the substitute item, e.g. I always substitute skim milk for cream. In Spanish the direct object is the item being replaced, e.g. Siempre sustituyo la crema por leche desnatada. In effect, sustituir is best translated as ‘to replace’ rather that ‘to substitute’, as shown here and here.

This is why in my email I described the error on the website as a correct form (coincidió) being replaced by (sustituido por) an incorrect form (coincido) rather than the other way around, i.e., the erroneous form taking the place of the correct form.

I will probably have to stop and think about this every time I attempt to use the verb in the future, as with the verb restar.

¡Hispania review!

Hispania, the official journal of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, has published a review of ¿Por qué? in their June (2018) edition. It is a most complimentary review, with adjectives including “delightful,” “engrossing,” “meticulously researched,” “a joy to read,” “concise,” “brisk,” and “accessible though erudite.” The only thing that would have made me happier is if it had included the magical phrase “Every Spanish teacher should buy this book.” But you can’t have everything!

You can download a copy of the review here. It starts on the second page of the PDF.

Bad Spanish: American tragedy edition

If you’ve been following the news, you know that the Trump administration has adopted a callous policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border, in an attempt to deter immigration. Nearly two thousand children have been separated from their parents over the last six weeks. The children are being held in detention centers or sent to foster homes. This raises the question of how parents can locate their missing children.

Yesterday I had a look at the bilingual flyer “Next Step for Families”, which the Department of Homeland Security is handing out to guide families through this process. To my horror, the Spanish portion of the flyer is full of mistakes such as:

  • not using the correct de possessive (“Departamento de Seguridad Nacional de los Estados Unidos (DHS) Oficina de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza (CBP)” instead of “la Oficina de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza del Departamento de Seguridad Nacional de los Estados Unidos (DHS)”
  • entrar a instead of entrar en
  • missing de and plural s in Dentro las próxima 48 horas
  • admixture of informal  forms within this formal document that otherwise uses ustedvasinfórmaletienes
  • atreves de mandando u email should be a través de mandar un email
  • failure to use military time: 8am a 8pm should be de las 8:00 a las 20:00.

These errors add insult to injury to Spanish-speaking parents. They speak to the carelessness and thoughtlessness with which this policy has been conceived and implemented.

I apologize for bringing politics into my blog, but I care about Spanish-speaking people, not just their language, and also about my own country’s soul.

Enjoying Andalusian Spanish

Since my travel companion during my recent trip to Andalucía doesn’t speak Spanish, I inevitably spoke mostly English while there. (I’m making up for this by speaking tons of Spanish while grading AP tests in Cincinnati.) Nevertheless, I had as many Spanish conversations with strangers as I possibly could, and also kept my ears open to expose myself, as much as possible, to Andalusian Spanish.

I’ve long been academically familiar with Andalusian Spanish, of course, meaning that I knew about its features from reading about them. And I knew that most of these features are shared with Latin American Spanish because, as demonstrated by Peter Boyd-Bowman, the Spaniards who immigrated to Latin America during the colonial period were disproportionately Andalusian. However, it was exciting to hear this kind of Spanish spoken around me in its home territory.

The Andalusian feature that means the most to me personally is the tendency to weaken or drop -s sounds at the ends of words and syllables. “Personally”, because my first linguistic research, as a Harvard undergraduate, was on this same phenomenon in Puerto Rican Spanish, and its possible consequences for subject pronoun usage in Puerto Rican Spanish. This research eventually led to an article published in Language, the prestigious flagship publication of the Linguistic Society of America, which as you can imagine was a healthy way to start my career. So every mimo (instead of mismo), gracia (instead of gracias), and so on sounded like a friendly blast from my past. 

One hazard of dropping your s‘s frequently is that you can forget which words actually have them, and start to make mistakes in your spelling. A case in point is this poem, by María de los Ángeles Martínez González. which we saw set into a wall along a street in Cádiz. The words escuches and madres were cast in ceramic without their final s‘s, which you can see in this online version of the poem. This linguistic point aside, the poem is heart-breaking.

Another common Andalusian feature is the weakening and deletion of the d sound between two vowels. This is actually a downstream version of the historical process of “lenition” that, centuries ago, turned Latin t‘s into Spanish d‘s, and likewise Latin k and p sounds into Spanish g‘s and b‘s (vita > vida, focum > fuegolupus > lobo).

While on the same stroll through Cádiz I did a double-take when I saw what looked like another dialect-influenced spelling mistake on a historical marker memorializing a famous flamenco artist who was both a singer and a dancer: in standard Spanish, both a cantador and a bailador. Here, these two words were spelled without their dcantaor and bailaor. After seeing the same spellings elsewhere I learned that they are, in fact, the legitimate terms for a flamenco singer and dancer. You can see the corresponding Real Academia dictionary entries here and here. So in this case lenition has gone legit.

Two final accentual anecdotes. First, struck by the non-Andalusian accent of one tchotchke seller I was chatting with in Granada, I asked if she was from out of town. She explained that she deliberately neutralized her accent when talking with non-Andalusians. Would you believe there’s a linguistic term for this? It’s called “linguistic accommodation”. Second, when I overheard a family group speaking in what I first thought was Italian and then realized was Spanish, I correctly inferred that they were from Argentina. Spanishlinguist scores! Actually, Argentinian Spanish is a softball dialect to identify…but still fun, especially when you hear it so far afield.