When one rule trumps another

I just finished Jordi Sierra i Frabra’s Siete días de julio, his equally dynamite sequel to Cuatro días de enero, which I wrote about last month. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite book series in any language. I’m looking forward to reading Cinco días en octubre soon — right now it is out of stock at Amazon (a good sign for Spanish literature lovers).

On p. 87 of Siete días, one character asks another No tiene a nadie, ¿verdad? This sentence caught my eye because of its intriguing use of the “personal a“, the preposition used to mark direct objects that are (i) human and (ii) specific. To give a more typical example, the personal a is required in Visito a María because María is a specific person. It isn’t needed in Visito Madrid, because Madrid is a place, not a person, or in Necesito unos amigos nuevos, because the friends are not specified — in fact, they are unknown. A fuller explanation is here.

No tiene a nadie is an interesting use of the personal a because it lies at the intersection of two of this structure’s subtleties. On the one hand, tener is usually an exception to the personal a. One says, for example, Tengo dos amigos, in contrast to Veo a dos amigos, Visito a dos amigos, and so on. However, nadie requires the personal a, even though it doesn’t specify a person: one says No veo a nadieNo visitan a nadie, and so on, just as one says No veo a Miguel and No visitan a Ana.

In the case of No tiene a nadienadie trumps tiene. This seems to be the outcome in general, not just in Siete días de julio, at least as judged by numbers of Google hits. By this metric, No tiene a nadie outnumbers no tiene nadie five to one, and no tengo a nadie outnumbers no tengo nadie seven to one.

This reminded me strongly of dueling subtleties in the Spanish past tense. In general, the imperfect is used for repeated actions, and the preterite for time-bounded actions. For examples, one says Iba a la playa cada día  ‘I went to the beach every day’, but Fui a la playa ayer ‘I went to the beach yesterday’. When an action is repeated within a specified time frame, the preterite wins. For example, one would say Durante mis vacaciones fui a la playa cada día, or La semana pasada fui a la playa cada día.

Nadie trumps tener for the personal a. A specified time frame trumps repetition in the past tense. These rules of thumb are good to know.

5 thoughts on “When one rule trumps another

  1. JB

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I have heard the “tener a” construction used on Spanish language radio and game shows when they introduce guests. At first it struck me as strange, but it seems that it’s not uncommon in that context.

    Speaking of the “personal a”, when Harper Lee passed early this year I remember seeing a post about it on my Facebook feed from a Spanish language publication. It referenced her famous book, To Kill a Mockingbird, as “Matar un Ruisenor”. I thought surely the “personal a” was needed there since it’s a direct object and an animal. I searched around the net and found out that it’s translated both ways as the book title. I asked a native speaker about that variation, but she was unable to explain it.

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Thanks for your comment. It’s my understanding that personal a is used with animals only if they are pets, or anthropomorphized in some other way. So it would usually not occur in this context — and the fact that it does, makes me wonder whether the translator is trying to make the mockingbird’s death more tragic, or to strengthen the metaphorical connection between him and the various human characters in the book who are subjected to cruelty: mostly, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Yet another example of how wonderfully expressive Spanish grammar can be!

      1. JB

        Interesting. I didn’t know that about the qualities of animals required in the use of the “personal a”

  2. Pingback: Mirar with ‘a’ | Spanish Linguist

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