My new book is out — and selling briskly!

Although the Routledge website and Amazon still say that my new book won’t ship until next month, the copy that my father pre-ordered arrived last week, and my own copies a few days ago. So those of you who have been looking forward to reading the book shouldn’t hesitate to place an order, or to request that your library do so. According to Amazon many readers have already taken the plunge:


I am very happy with the look of the book, including the cover. The crucial center illustration is hard to read in the screenshot above, though, so below please see a clearer version. The speech bubbles represent topics (e.g., acquisition), types of student activities and projects (e.g., WebQuest), and the overarching and organizing theme of essential questions.

The book is slender for its price, but of course half of the work on this project went into the 300+ accompanying PowerPoint slides which are available on the Routledge website. The slides are under copyright, and I do hope that anyone who finds them of value will show some respect for my time and effort by purchasing a copy of the book. Ahem.

What next? Besides teaching and blogging, I’ve had two book ideas on a far-back burner for some time. One is The Story of Spanish in 100 Words: a version, for Spanish, of David Crystal’s delightful book about English. I should be able to write that in my sleep, right? Another idea would be a major departure for me, though still language-related: a book about “grand-names,” meaning the names grandparents choose to be called — or their grandchildren choose to call them. This book would be timely as more and more Baby Boomers are becoming grandparents.

Or…I could decide to just spend a lot of time with my own grandchildren. Time will tell.

Teaching Spanish online

I am now two weeks into teaching my first online Spanish class at Fordham University. I took the spring semester off in 2020 to finish my second book, and then fall semester off because of COVID-19 caution: I didn’t want to commute by train, nor teach in a classroom. So my return to teaching after a year’s absence has coincided with having to learn a new way of doing my job.

My tech background has given me a big head start in this process. Before a dandy mid-life career crisis inspired me to return to my original love of Spanish, I worked for fifteen years as a computational linguistics researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Soliloquy (a start-up that stopped), and IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center. I wrote software for a variety of applications including speech recognition, language identification from document images, dialog analysis, and identification of classified documents. Because of this background, technology doesn’t intimidate me: I enjoy it and retain some decent skills. My heart goes out to instructors who are making the same transition with a more conventional, purely liberal arts background.

Two resources have been particularly helpful in this process: a video by SheriAnn Simpson, the founder of, and a tool, Google Jamboards.

Dr. Simpson makes a wonderful analogy in her video: teaching in a classroom versus online is like cooking in a kitchen versus a campground. In a kitchen you have all the ingredients and tools that you could possibly need, and can whip up complicated dishes. At a campground you have a smaller set of ingredients and tools, and so are bound for trouble if you try to duplicate in this new venue the same dishes you would attempt at home. Instead, you have to ask yourself, “What kind of dishes can I cook at a campground?” Ideally, you will identify some dishes, such as s’mores, that you could never cook as well at home.

Likewise, you shouldn’t try to duplicate online the same things you do in a classroom. Instead you need to find out what will work online — including techniques that don’t work in the live classroom.

I nodded along with Dr. Simpson when she made this analogy, and shared it with friends, family, and colleagues as I was getting ready to start teaching. But didn’t really sink in until my second online lesson, in which — wouldn’t you know? — I used too many kinds of materials and struck too fast a pace because I was trying to imitate my classroom methodology. Boy, Dr. Simpson sure was right.

In my more recent classes, which have gone better, to avoid overcrowding my lessons I have attempted to apply a second nugget of wisdom from Dr. Simpson’s video. She describes a process of “deconstructing” a syllabus, whereby you identify the main types of activities and assessments that take place during the semester, then choose a limited palette of tools and tasks to accomplish them online. I have been doing this at the level of the individual class, thinking about what I want the class to accomplish and identifying the simplest set of activities and tools that will get us there online.

Specifically (if memory serves), Dr. Simpson recommends not having students use more than two or three different types of software during the semester. Since our students are already using Blackboard (for course communication and some assignments), MyLab (the online component of our textbook), and Zoom, I have decided to keep things simple and only use one software tool during my classes. In January, as I ramped up to teach, I learned about a wide range of tools including Panopto, Screencastify, Peardeck, Edpuzzle, Charlala, Flipgrid, Goformative, Gimkit, Blooket, Nearpod, and Genius Scan. In the end I settled on Google’s Jamboard program because it is so versatile.

In my online classroom, Jamboard takes the place of three tools I use every day in my live classroom: PowerPoint, a whiteboard, and handouts.

  • Like a PowerPoint, a Jamboard can have multiple slides (called “frames”), and can combine text and images. It is less powerful than PowerPoint — for example, you can’t select and arrange multiple objects — but if I have trouble creating something in Jamboard I just make it in PowerPoint and then cut-and-paste it into the day’s Jamboard.

    During the teacher-led portions of my online Zoom classes I screenshare the day’s Jamboard with my students, and use the laser tool to point to different parts of the display. Since Zoom doesn’t let you do a screenshare during a breakout session, I also give my students access to the Jamboard via Google Drive’s sharing settings, so that they can each see the Jamboard on their own devices while in breakout rooms. This is a HUGE advantage.
  • During a live class I write on the whiteboard and often have my students write on it as well. I can do both in Jamboard, the latter by giving students edit access to the Jamboard through Google Drive’s sharing settings. Here is an example, from my most recent class, in which students came up with examples of adjectives with quantifiers. I set up this frame (aka slide) with adjectives as column headings, the vocabulary list on the left, and some examples (the ones labeled “Profe”). The students did the rest, using Jamboard’s sticky notes.

We then went into breakout rooms, during which pairs of students used mas.que, menos…que, and tan…como to compare the people described on this frame. They wrote their comparisons on the next frame (using Jamboard text boxes, not stickies) while I played omniscient teacher and pointed out problems. We then came back as a class and went over their examples.

  • Jamboard also takes the place of handouts. Any informational handout that I would normally distribute in class can be cut-and-pasted into the day’s Jamboard instead. Any handout that I would normally use as the basis for an activity has to be examined and possibly “deconstructed.” In particular, Jamboard doesn’t have tables, so I have to transform any “fill in a table” activity into an alternative format based on stickies or simple text boxes. This is a major nuisance, but Jamboard’s advantages still outweigh this disadvantage (and others).

With only four classes under my belt I still have a lot to learn!!! But I thought it might be helpful to share these first impressions.

How to type accent marks (etc.) in Spanish

This topic has nothing to do with linguistics, but “How do I type accent marks?” is such a frequent question that I figured it was worth a blog post. Also, I just revisited this topic when preparing a handout for my students.

For both Windows and Mac users I recommend a so-called “dead key” approach in which you press one key to set up an accent mark and a second key to actually type it. There are other techniques available for both platforms, but dead keys are the fastest.

On a Windows computer you first have to activate the “U.S. International keyboard” that is part of the Windows operating system, though most users are unaware of it. You only have to do this once. On a Windows 10 computer:

  1. Type “language” in the search bar at the bottom left of the screen.
  2. Click on “language settings” which should be the top item returned.
  3. Under “Preferred languages” click “English (United States).” Don’t be tempted to change the language to Spanish!
  4. You should now see “Options.” Click on this.
  5. On the Language options screen that comes up, click “Add a keyboard,” then scroll and select “United States-International.”

You will now be able to toggle between “ENG” and “ENG INTL” on the taskbar, just to the left of the time and date. (On an older computer the steps to activate the US International keyboard are slightly different, and you will toggle by clicking on a keyboard icon.) When in “ENG INTL” mode,

To typeDo this
an accented vowel like é or óPress the apostrophe key (‘), then the desired vowel
ü as in pingüino or guëroUse the shift key to type a double quote (“), then u
¿Press the right-alt key (might be labeled “AlgGr”), then the slash (/), which shares a key with ?
¡Press the right-alt key (might be labeled “AlgGr”), then 1, which shares a key with !
ñUse the shift key to type a tilde ~ (to the left of the number 1), then type n
apostrophe or double quoteType the punctuation mark, then hit the space bar to “release” it

On a Mac, according to my Internet research rather than personal experience, to type:

  • an accented vowel: press Option-e, then the vowel
  • ñ: press option-n, then n
  • ¿: press option-? (including shift key)
  • ¡: press option-1
  • ü: press option-u, then u

Gracias, Meg Cabot

The COVID-19 pandemic has really done a number on my brain. I’m not talking about the notorious, long-lasting “brain fog” reported by many survivors of the coronavirus. I haven’t caught the disease and, God willing, will stay healthy until I eventually acquire immunity via vaccination. Rather, I’m talking about a general lack of sharpness. After months of anxiety and cabin fever spiked with a soupçon of political angst, everything I like to do with my normally nimble brain has become a bit harder.

True, I managed to finish, proofread, and index my second book. Maybe that’s “enough to be going on with,” as the saying goes. I’ve also made some headway on my current research project, which concerns Spanish etymology, am gearing up to teach my first online class starting in a few weeks, and have resumed posting on this blog regularly after a substantial hiatus. Beyond Spanish, I’ve forced myself to stay on top of boring but necessary matters like insurance plans and household renovations. I’ve worked with my husband on various photographic projects; those of you who know me personally are aware that this is a vital part of my life and marriage. I’ve even learned how to shop for groceries online, a transition I’ve found surprisingly challenging, both practically and emotionally.

Where I’ve most felt the loss of sharpness is in my reading. I’ve always been an avid reader; my late grandmother always described me as “going around with a book under my arm.” I have happy childhood memories of hours on end spent curled up on the couch with a book. During my junior year of high school I kept track of every book I read, knowing that Harvard’s college application would ask for such a list. This worked out to a mind-blowing average of one serious book and one light book per day, if memory serves (perhaps it doesn’t), excluding books I reread, and also excluding (out of embarrassment) all 24 of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels, of which I particularly recommend the original Tarzan of the Apes as well as Son of Tarzan and Jane and the Foreign Legion.

This reading mania was only possible because I didn’t have much of a social life, which is pretty sad in retrospect. On the other hand, the many books I read, especially those I enjoyed over and over again, became part of my mental lexicon and taught me how to write by osmosis.

As a child and teenager I read fiction exclusively, dividing my time between meaty 19th century novels, often in translation (e.g. War and Peace and The Count of Monte Cristo), and light 20th century fiction. As an adult I have increasingly read non-fiction, particularly history and biography. I still enjoy light modern fiction but have yet to develop a taste for more serious modern writers such as Paul Auster and John Updike. In recent years I have added light Spanish fiction to the mix as an enjoyable way to continue to build my vocabulary and fluency.

During the pandemic, however, I have found it extremely difficult to muster the focus needed to tackle non-fiction, Spanish, or even, for the most part, novels I haven’t read before. Instead I’ve primarily reread light fiction voraciously, as a kind of mental “comfort food.” This includes all the Jane Austen, Dick Francis, Stephen King, and C. S. Forester novels on my bookshelf, much of the Harry Potter series, some P.D. James, and All Creatures Great and Small, just in time for the new BBC series.

The few non-fiction books I’ve been able to complete, such as Barack Obama’s memoir, have concerned contemporary politics. The one Spanish novel I’ve read, the 11th in my beloved Inspector Mascarell series, took me ages to get into. The fiction I’ve read for the first time has also been light, such as Louise Penny detective novels.

Which brings me to Meg Cabot. Best known for her Princess Diaries series, Cabot is a prolific author who mostly writes for young adults. I harbor the idiosyncratic conviction that her epistolary novel Boy Meets Girl (written for adults) is a work of genius, and am also fond of All-American Girl, which gave me some insight into the artistic process. Of course I reread both of these early in the pandemic. So when my daughter-in-law told me that she used to be into Cabot’s Mediator series, about a teenager who can communicate with the dead, I checked all six Mediator books out of our local library (let’s hear it for curbside pickup!) and had myself a fun time. The first and third books were quite good, but my favorite has to be the sixth, Twilight, which features … drum roll … a paean to learning Spanish!

Specifically, in Twilight‘s climactic scene our heroine Suze has traveled back in time (another mediator ability) to meet “in the flesh” the hunky Jesse de Silva, who was murdered 150 years ago and has been haunting Suze’s bedroom since she moved to California. Suze is unable to understand a crucial conversation between Jesse and his would-be murderer, the nefarious Felix Diego, because — get this — she doesn’t speak Spanish! Suze’s fellow mediator and frenemy Paul translates for her, but first she muses, memorably:

Why? Why had I taken French and not Spanish?”

There were so many things I liked about this scene. First, it was very funny: for me at least, probably for other Spanish teachers, and hopefully for other readers as well. Second, it was exciting. Suze and Jesse’s relationship had been building over the past five novels, and its fate would depend on the showdown between Jesse and Diego. Third, it was educational. How many young adults today know about the Spanish period in California history? Finally, it showcased the utility of learning Spanish, albeit in a weird context. I hope that this scene inspired some Mediator fans to study the language, or to take their ongoing studies more seriously.

I don’t know whether Cabot speaks Spanish, but I do appreciate her speaking up for my favorite language. ¡Gracias, Meg!

Bad Spanish — NY hospitals edition

I was happy to receive an email today from my primary care physician’s practice — in English and Spanish! — letting me know that they expect to be administering COVID-19 vaccines. I’m too young and healthy to qualify right now, and the vaccines are in short supply. Nevertheless it was good to hear that when circumstances change I should be able to get my shots locally.

My satisfaction in receiving the email was diminished, though, by the poor quality of its Spanish. I’ve copied the relevant parts below, with errors highlighted and corrected afterward. Just to give you an idea of the scale of these problems, the email substituted ano ‘anus’ for año ‘year.’ This is a notorious elementary mistake!

¿año o ano?

Estimado/a Paciente,

En ColumbiaDoctors, Weill Cornell Medicine, y NewYork-Presbyterian, estamos vacunando pacientes del COVID-19, que tienen 65 anos o mas y que viven or trabajan en el estado de Nueva York.  El estado de Nueva York recientemente a mandado que la vacuna del COVID-19 este disponible para personas elegible de esta edad.

El estado de Nueva York también anunció que los pacientes inmunosuprimidos son elegibles, pero estamos esperando obtener mas informacion sobre quién califica en este grupo. 

Aquellos pacientes que son elegibles, pueden programar una cita para vacunas a través del Connect portal de paciente a medida de que las citas estén disponibles. No llame al hospital ni a la clinica de su médico para programar una cita para la vacuna.

  • Paciente: should be paciente (lower-case)
  • The “Oxford comma” (between Medicine and y) is not used in Spanish.
  • pacientes: missing personal a beforehand (vacunando a pacientes)
  • The comma after COVID-19 is incorrect in either English or Spanish because it introduces a restrictive clause.
  • anos: should be años (see illustration), i.e. ‘years,’ not ‘anuses.’
  • mas: should be más (with accent). This error occurs twice. Mas (without an accent) means ‘but,’ not ‘more.’
  • or: should be o
  • a mandado: should be ha mandado
  • este: should be esté (with accent). Este (without an accent) means ‘this,’ not ‘be.’
  • eligible: should be plural (eligibles), to agree with personas
  • informacion: missing accent mark (información)
  • califica: not 100% sure, but I expect this should be califique (subjunctive) since they don’t yet know who qualifies
  • another useless comma between eligibles and pueden
  • Connect portal de paciente: wrong word order. Should be portal de paciente Connect, although I can’t cite a rule here (gut reaction).
  • clinica: should be clínica (with accent)

It boggles my mind that in twenty-first century New York these three large medical groups (ColumbiaDoctors, Weill Cornell Medicine, and NewYork-Presbyterian) can’t find an educated Spanish speaker to proofread their emails. The many accent mark errors, and the confusion of ha and a, suggest that they relied instead on a “heritage” speaker who lacked formal training in written Spanish.

I would be happy to volunteer my own time if contacted.

En la chimenea (without a paddle)

I’m proud of my Spanish. I’ve spoken this beautiful language for decades, taught it for more than fifteen years, and have even written two books about it. Nevertheless, from time to time I am forcibly reminded that I am not a native Spanish speaker and will never attain total proficiency.

Today was one of those days. I emailed a Spanish friend to ask how he and his family were doing in Madrid’s unexpected snowy weather. He answered, in part,

Todos bien aquí. Mucho frío y mucha familia en la chimenea!!! 

Madrid nevada

The en la chimenea bit threw me for a total loop. His family was “in the chimney?” Surely this was an idiom. Pursuing this hypothesis, I read on WordReference’s Collins Dictionary tab that chimenea can be informal slang for ‘head’ (like noggin in English), and that the expression estar mal de la chimenea means ‘to be wrong in the head.’ So I concluded that mucha familia en la chimenea probably meant that many members of my friend’s family were going nuts. In English we’d call this cabin fever.

Thanks to WordReference’s Spanish-English vocabulary forum, where I posted to confirm my hypothesis, I soon found out that I was dead wrong. My friend wasn’t speaking metaphorically, but rather simply stating that many family members were gathered around the fireplace! My botched interpretation was the result of two differences in word usage between English and Spanish within that short sentence:

  • Chimenea translates not just as ‘chimney,’ but also as ‘fireplace’ or ‘hearth.’
  • En can be translated as either ‘in,’ ‘on,’ or ‘at,’ according to context. I knew this! In fact, this broad range of meanings is an unusual feature of Spanish, and so a major theme of Question 43 in my first book (“Why are Spanish prepositions unpredictable?”) as well as a prime example in the first chapter of my second book (“How is Spanish different from other languages?”). But my misinterpretation of chimenea as ‘chimney’ made it impossible for me to see en as meaning ‘at’ (‘at the chimney???’) even though this was, in fact, the correct interpretation of the preposition in the present case. (Around the fireplace is a more idiomatic translation.)

I stand corrected…and humbled.

Stepping back a bit, episodes like this serve an important purpose: they help to keep me a more empathetic teacher. My mistakes may be less frequent than my students’, and may involve more subtle aspects of vocabulary and grammar, but essentially we are all in the same boat, trying to navigate the tricky waters of a second language. There are always unexpected rocks both behind and ahead.

When verbs disagree

This morning I had an unexpected cross-linguistic learning experience.

When not obsessing about Spanish, one of my other passions is learning and chanting weekly portions of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) for a local Jewish prayer group. My Hebrew is nowhere near as good as my Spanish; I read Biblical Hebrew with language skills acquired in a one-year college course on Modern Hebrew in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, for my own pride and interest I always strive to understand the vocabulary and grammar of every portion I read.

This morning, as I was studying a passage from the book of Exodus for later this month, I was struck by a sentence that began

Vayomer Moshe v’Aharon… ‘Said Moses and Aaron…’

Verb-first word order was common in Biblical Hebrew, but I was surprised to see the singular verb vayomer accompanying the plural subject Moshe v’Aharon. The Spanish equivalent would be *Les dijo Moisés y Aaron (instead of dijeron).

To better understand this phenomenon I asked about the sentence on, including the comparison with Spanish. A participant soon informed me that singular verbs with plural subjects are common in verb-first Biblical Hebrew sentences, and that in Standard Arabic (also a Semitic language) this is not just common, but actually mandatory. This “redditor” pointed out, somewhat snarkily, that “well Hebrew is not Spanish.”

As I thought about this response it occurred to me that Hebrew and Spanish aren’t as different in this regard as I had assumed. There are two common cases in which Spanish uses a singular verb with a plural subject. Can you think of what they are?


The first case involves the first gustar ‘to please,’ which Spanish uses (in a ‘backwards’ fashion) to mean ‘to like.’ If you like two or more activities, such as singing and dancing, you express this with singular gusta instead of plural gustan, which is used if you like two or more things:

  • Me gusta bailar y cantar.
  • Me gustan Star Wars, Harry Potter, y La casa de papel.

The second case is the existential hay, which means either singular ‘there is’ or plural ‘there are’ (depending on context), and its equivalents in other tenses. Some examples:

PresentHay una prueba mañana.
‘There is a quiz tomorrow.’
Hay muchas pruebas en esta clase.
‘There are many quizzes in this class.’
PastHubo un terremoto.
‘There was an earthquake.’
Había tres estudiantes en la clase.
‘There were 3 students in the class.’
FutureHabrá un baile en el zócalo.
‘There will be a dance in the square.’
Habrá nuevas elecciones en 2022.
‘There will be new elections in 2022.’

The literal bottom line, then, is that principled exceptions to verb agreement are another coincidental similarity between Spanish and Hebrew.

My favorite Quora answer turns 100

Back in 2017, looking for ways to build my “platform,” I started answering questions about Spanish on Quora. Since then I have answered almost five hundred questions and accumulated over a hundred followers. Mostly I have had fun; really, anything that resembles teaching and gives me the opportunity to share my knowledge appeals to me.

In terms of platform-building there is no doubt that Quora has spread my writing; my answers have accumulated over 330,000 views and over 1250 upvotes.

I wrote my favorite Quora answer in 2018 in response to the question “Should I learn French or Spanish? I don’t care which language is more spoken. My reasons for learning a language encapsulate things like grammar, culture, history, arts, etc.

Yesterday this answer received its 100th upvote. This makes me very happy because it was from the heart. I’ve copied it below, or you can read it on Quora here.


I feel passionate about this question because over the years, as a student and then teacher of Spanish, I’ve encountered so many prejudicial, knee-jerk, anti-Spanish attitudes. There was the high school classmate who told me that she chose French over Spanish because “only dirty people speak Spanish.”( She said this with a straight face and I believe she meant it.) There was my French-speaking (Swiss) cousin-in-law who was surprised when I told her that I considered Spanish art and literature to be on a par with, or superior than, their French counterparts. There was another French-speaking relative who thought it was funny that ¿Por qué?, the title of my book about Spanish, sounded, to him, like Porky. And then, of course, there is Donald Trump. While I haven’t heard him say anything good about French, he has been notoriously hostile to the Hispanic community, both abroad and in the United States.

I’d like to talk about a few of the topics that you mentioned in your question. In terms of culture, the outstanding thing about Spanish is that “Spanish culture” is more than Spanish — it is pan-Hispanic! While you “don’t care which language is more spoken”, the fact that Spanish is an official language in twenty-one countries, and is also widely spoken elsewhere (e.g. in the USA and Belize), means that the Spanish-speaking world is blessed with an enormous pool of potential talent. Thus great painters have come not only from Spain (think Velázquez) but also Mexico (Kahlo), Colombia (Botero), and the Hispanic community in the United States (Basquiat, whose mother was Puerto Rican). Nobel Prizes in literature have been won by writers from Spain, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Chile, and Colombia.

I’m well-equipped to talk about Spanish grammar compared to French because I speak both languages and have, in fact, occasionally taught French even though Spanish is my “day job.” In my opinion Spanish grammar is more intellectually interesting than French. While the two languages share certain complexities compared to English, such as noun gender and multiple past tenses, Spanish has a more complex verb system — including, crucially, an actively used past tense subjunctive, whereas French only uses the present subjunctive — complications in its use of object pronouns, and the ser/estar contrast (both mean ‘to be’), which French lacks. It’s my impression that a lot of students sign up for Spanish because they think it’s easier than French but are sorely disappointed once they get past the early stages, in which the relatively straightforward spelling and pronunciation of Spanish do make Spanish somewhat simpler.

Finally, Spanish history rocks! It is essentially a series of conquests — the successive Roman, Germanic, Arabic, and Christian (re)conquests of Spain, followed by the Spanish conquests in the New World. Each of these has their own details and fascination, from Roman ruins to Arabic vocabulary to the fate of the indigenous peoples in the New World. (Did you know that even today, thirty million people in the Americas speak an indigenous language as their first language?)

So, if you are looking for a beautiful language spoken with pride, featuring a rich and varied culture, great books to read, and an intellectual linguistic challenge, you can’t go wrong with Spanish.

An imperfect novel

This post is about the eleventh and most recent book in Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” series, Algunos días de noviembre, which I finished reading last night. I called this post “An imperfect novel” for two reasons. First, the book contains a fascinating use of the Spanish imperfect tense, which I’ll get to later. But also the novel itself, while enjoyable, struck me as imperfect because it added little to Sierra i Fabra’s serial depiction of life under a dictatorship.

The plots of the previous novels in this series have blurred together for me, but my impression is that they have all related to broad political themes. This is most obvious in the first novels, which take place just before and after Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. Out of the later novels I remember one that involved an attempt to assassinate Franco, one that featured Civil War graves (or was it missing soldiers?), one about Communists, and so on.

In contrast, the plot of Algunos días de noviembre concerns a theatrical agent who receives threatening letters, and a murder that then ensues in his circle. I kept waiting for something to happen that would tie in this plot with Sierra i Fabra’s major themes. The mystery itself was enjoyable, and I ended up pushing on to the last chapter to find out what happened, but it never made sense that Mascarell, and not some other detective, would be pursuing this investigation.

Beyond this (for me) major problem, Algunos días has all the familiar and pleasurable plot elements of a Mascarell novel, which to this habitual reader feel as comfortable as slipping on a favorite pair of shoes: Mascarell’s traversal of Barcelona, his family (no spoilers!), his dislike of chatty cab drivers, his skill in interviewing suspects and other persons of interest, and his dogged pursual of the truth at any cost. You do learn something about the theatrical and cinematic scene in Barcelona in the early 1950s, thanks to Sierra i Fabra’s research in newspaper archives as described in an afterword.

One of these days I am going to reread these books while consulting a map of Barcelona. The novels have a strong sense of place but I am mostly reading them ‘blind’ beyond major landmarks such as Diagonal, a major street in the city, and the Tibidabo hill.

The Spanish in Algunos días also strikes familiar notes. I’ve previously written about Sierra i Fabra’s ample leísmo and his use of both the -ra and -se imperfect subjunctives, sometimes juxtaposed in a single sentence. The book includes two or three instances each of the verb restar and the noun horma, both old favorites of mine. Beyond these details, I got a kick out of following the often elliptical Spanish in the book’s many casual conversations between Mascarell and his partner David Fortuny, such as the following:

Mascarell: Venga, vamos.
Fortuny: Pero déjeme a mí, ¿eh?
Mascarell: Toda suya.
Mascarell: ¿El arma?
Fortuny: Ni rastro.
Fortuny: Caray, usted impresiona, ¿eh? Sin decir que es policía, la gente se lo suelta todo.
Mascarell: Quien tuvo, retuvo.
Fortuny: Una chapuza.
Mascarell: Más bien sí.
Fortuny: Pero contando con lo aislado que está esto y que nadie sabe mucho de Romagosa…
Mascarell: Lo lógico es imaginar que nadie daría con el cadáver en días, semanas, incluso meses.
Fortuny: Mascarell, ¿por qué habla en plural? “Lo mataron”, “lo arrastraron”, “le quitaron”…
Mascarell: Deformación profesional. No me haga caso.

Reading exchanges like these is like watching a Spanish movie, but without the challenge of understanding rapid speech!

[Spoiler alert!!]

For me, however, the most intriguing bit of Spanish in the novel was the following sentence, which means ‘Concepción Busquets hired them to solve the case and died a few hours later,’ and appears just after Mascarell and Fortuny learn about Busquets’s murder.

Concepción Busquets les encargaba resolver el caso y moría a las pocas horas.

It struck me as bizarre that the verbs encargaba and moría are in the imperfect past tense, which Spanish normally uses to describe ongoing events or to provide background information. Moría, for example, would usually be translated as ‘was dying’ or, in another context, ‘used to die.’ I would expect this sentence to be written instead in the preterite past tense, which is normally used for sequences of events, i.e.

Concepción Busquets les encargó resolver el caso y murió a las pocas horas.

or perhaps

Concepción Busquets les había encargado resolver el caso y murió a las pocas horas.

thus combining the pluperfect había encargado ‘had hired’ with murió ‘died’.

I consulted a variety of sources to solve this riddle, and was amazed to find out how many tertiary uses the imperfect has. The Real Academia Española’s authoritative Nueva gramática de la lengua española describes several less-common uses of the imperfect, none of which accounts for the Concepción Busquets example:

  • the imperfecto onírico o de figuración, which describe dreams (I knew about this, but it doesn’t apply here);
  • the imperfecto de cortesía, which describes present actions politely (doesn’t apply here);
  • the imperfecto citativo, which tactfully distances the speaker from a presumed fact he or she mentions (doesn’t apply here);
  • the imperfecto prospectivo, which talks about things that were going to happen (doesn’t apply here);
  • the imperfecto de hechos frustrados, like the former use but applied to events that didn’t actually happen (doesn’t apply here);
  • instead of the conditional in the “then” part of an “if…then” sentence (doesn’t apply here).
  • The Gramática‘s example of the imperfecto de interpretación narrativa, which describes an action that follows another, is eerily similar to the example at hand: Apretujó mi mano con su mano sudorosa y a los dos días moría ‘She grasped my hand with her sweaty hand and died two days later.’ However, this explanation would leave encargaba unaccounted for.

I had better luck with Ronald Batchelor and Christopher Pountain’s Using Spanish, which points out that “the imperfect is often used in journalistic [officialese] in place of the Preterite.” This could apply in the case at hand, since Mascarell is stepping back and summing up the state of the case. However, my favorite interpretation comes from a native speaker on who thought the imperfect in this context expressed irony. That’s a perfect fit, but I wish I could cite a published work rather than a miscellaneous redditor.

So, all in all, a difficult sentence. I welcome additional theories.

As a final note, Sierra i Fabra’s afterword includes his chronology in writing this 313-page book. He outlined it in five days and wrote it in eighteen. ¡Caramba!

The joys of proofreading

As I mentioned in my previous post, recently I have been immersed in correcting the proofs of my new book and creating an index for it. A few days ago I finished proofreading and emailed back the corrected proofs. The index is basically done but I want to hold onto it a little longer just in case I think of some improvements.

It occurred to me that some aspects of the proofreading process might be interesting to my readers. Those of you who have published a book yourself may find some points in common. Otherwise, you might be surprised at how many different types of problems can crop up along the road to publication. Leaving aside gory details having to do entirely with formatting, such as subsections accidentally being promoted to sections and vice versa, I made a total of 166 corrections to the proofs.

Proofreading is the fifth stage in book production. In my particular case,

  1. I submitted my original manuscript in Microsoft Word, with one file per chapter.
  2. The publisher’s copy editing team edited each file, making comments using Word’s tracking functionality.
  3. I reviewed the edits; my job was to accept, reject, or comment on each one.
  4. Taking into account this review, the publisher produced a typeset version of the entire book in a single PDF file.
  5. I read the proofs and entered my comments in the PDF, using Adobe’s commenting functionality. (I also made a complete printout to work from, but found that the online version was easier to study closely. However, I used it when creating the index.)
  6. I will supply said index.
  7. The publisher will correct the proofs based on step #5 and add the index.
  8. Publication!

Of my 166 corrections, only four of were “do or die.” That is, I can’t imagine the book being published with these errors uncorrected. The first two were essentially “slips of the tongue” on my part — one in English and one in Spanish — that led to nonsensical text. I’m horrified that I made these goofs in the first place, and surprised that they made it as far as the proofs. (As my late sister used to say, “There’s a reason why they included the word mistake in the dictionary.”) The third was a doozy of a typesetting error, and the fourth was a genuine content error. Chances are nobody but me would ever had noticed it, but I had to make it right as a matter of academic integrity.

ErrorWhat happened?
“Most Latin Americans use the two singular pronouns and usted and the plural pronoun vosotros.”I meant ustedes, not vosotros.
La “a personal”, una estructura que evita mencionar la persona que causó un accidente, también afecta el pensamiento.I meant “se accidental,” not “a personal.”
“Real Academia feminine”The copy editor changed my original Española to Español, which I requested they change back to the feminine form Española. Guess I shouldn’t have used the word “feminine.”
“Of the sixty-three other languages Dahl surveyed, only Kikuyu, a Bantu language of Africa with seven major TMA categories, surpassed Spanish.”Having reread my original source, I now see that Catalan also has more major past tenses than Spanish, as shown below, though Spanish is still an outlier. Fortunately I was able to fix this easily, by adding the 2 words “Catalan and.”
Catalan and Spanish both have imperfect, simple past, present perfect, acabar de immediate past, progressive, and pluperfect. But Catalan also uses the verb anar ‘to go’ to make a periphrastic past tense (instead of a future). Based on Osten Dahl (1985), Tense and aspect systems, pp. 170-71.

A few dozen corrections had to do with typesetting conventions for talking about language. These corrections fixed errors that for the most part, were not present in my original manuscript, but were introduced during copy editing and typesetting.

  • Italics were a real nuisance. In linguistics, as in normal typesetting, we use italics to indicate words that are being talked about rather than being used for their own meaning, whether in another language, as in “My favorite Spanish word is disfrutar” (which happens to be true), or in the text’s own language, as in “My favorite English word is salmon” (I just made that up). If a block of text is itself in italics, a word referred to should be in plain roman, as in “The many descendants of Latin ille.” I corrected 29 cases of italics that should have been roman or vice versa, mostly in the book’s headings and subheadings.
  • It’s a linguistic convention to indicate suffixes with a hyphen (e.g. -zco verbs) and likewise to enclose meanings between single quotes (e.g. Latin ille ‘that’), not double quotes. After step #3 above (copy editing) I caught many missing hyphens, and instances of double quotes instead of singles, but a handful remained. In general these errors were not present in the manuscript, but were introduced during copy editing or typesetting.

I made a few dozen corrections to the Spanish in the book. These fell into five categories:

  1. The Oxford comma, as in the second comma in I like vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Spanish doesn’t use the Oxford comma, but I’m addicted to it, so this is a hard error for me to avoid. I removed several such commas in step #3 but found twenty (!!) more to remove in the proofs. I hope this has cured me from making the same mistake in the future.
  2. Accent marks. I’m glad to say I did a decent job catching my own accent mark mistakes earlier in the publishing process, but I found two more in the proofs: the missing accents on rincón and one instance of yeísmo. All the other occurrences of yeísmo or yeísta in the book had their proper accents, so I don’t know how I missed this one.
  3. Punctuation. For some strange reason, punctuation such as commas and periods precedes quotation marks in English, as in “I love you,” he said. Spanish is more sensible, putting such punctuation after the speech being quoted, as in “Te amo”, me dijo. I found and corrected one or two instances of English-style punctuation in the page proofs. (My fault.)
  4. Hyphenation. Routledge hyphenated the book as part of the typesetting process. Since Spanish syllabification is one topic I explored in the book, I was amused to find four Spanish words that were incorrectly hyphenated. Obviously Routledge’s software wasn’t programmed for Spanish syllables. The problematic hyphenations were:
    1. pensam-iento (the syllables are
    2. pert-enecer (the syllables are
    3. ust-edes (the syllables are us.te.des)
    4. nu-era (the syllables are nue.ra)
  5. Other mistakes. My Spanish will never be perfect! I caught some missing prepositions, as in el uso DE los signos invertidos and diferenciaban ENTRE sujetos, and a couple of gender errors.

My English is better than my Spanish, but that didn’t stop me from making some mistakes in my own language, such as dropping the the in during the activity, or forgetting the closing comma in an appositive clause (“The teacher first identifies an interesting text, such as a recent article in the Catalan edition of El País ( [missing comma here] and reads the first few paragraphs”). Some errors were introduced during typesetting, such as dropping another the in the book’s introduction (“for (the) Chapter 4 in-class activity”). I hope I found (and fixed) all of these.

I tried to clear up inconsistencies, from the spelling of descendants to the capitalization of WebQuest to the uniform use of English terms for places (Cadiz, not Cádiz; Basque Country, not País Vasco) and languages (Mozarabic, not mozárabe).

Finally, I made about two dozen “corrections” that were really improvements, both in punctuation and in wording.