Monthly Archives: January 2021

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.’
  • 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 www.reddit.com/r/Hebrew, 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?

[Pause]

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:

TenseSingularPlural
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.