Category Archives: Verbs

The ‘se accidental’ and linguistic relativity

The concluding pages of Manual Vázquez Montalbán’s Los mares del Sur, which I finally finished this morning, include a remarkable example of the so-called se accidental construction, a hallmark of modern Spanish. Vázquez’s detective, Pepe Carvalho, has caught the murderer he’s been pursuing for more than two hundred pages. The murderer’s confession includes the following passage:

El chiquito al que usted rompió el brazo le dio una cuchillada. A mí de pronto se me escapó el brazo y le di otra.

This translates as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm got away from me and I knifed him, too.

or, more literally though less naturally, as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm escaped itself on me and I knifed him, too.

The se accidental construction combines a reflexive verb (se escapó) with an indirect object pronoun (me). Se me escapó is an excellent example of how Spanish speakers use this construction to deflect blame. The murderer didn’t raise his arm to attack the victim: it was the arm itself that sprang into action.

In most cases, though, the se accidental is used to describe genuine accidents. This usage is common enough to have become an Internet meme; some cute examples are shown below, along with their expressive and literal translations.


The se accidental is linguistically significant because it is has been shown to affect the way that Spanish speakers perceive events. As you can see in the meme examples, the construction shifts attention away from the person who is responsible for an accidental event. A clever study by Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky showed that Spanish speakers were therefore less likely than speakers of English to remember who caused an accident. Similar results have been found for speakers of Japanese, which has a similar structure.

The se accidental is thus a lovely example of “linguistic relativity”, the linguistic term for language differences that affect the way people think. Another common term for linguistic relativity is the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, after the two linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The latter is notorious in linguistic circles for having spawned the now thoroughly-debunked linguistic legend that Eskimo languages have an outsize number of words for snow.

Linguistic relativity recently went to Hollywood, playing a major role in the movie Arrival. In this film a linguist (Amy Adams) pairs with a physicist (Jeremy Renner) to decipher an alien language, and finds that this process drastically changes the way she understands the world. The se accidental isn’t quite as dramatic as Adams’ new-found ability to predict the future, but it’s certainly more realistic.

By the way, my husband and I got a special kick out of Arrival because I am a linguist (like Adams’s character) and he is a former Los Alamos physicist (like Renner’s). We actually know several other linguist/physicist couples. Perhaps linguists and physicists attract each other because both fields apply scientific thinking to everyday domains. This could be the subject of yet another research project!

Rules are made to be broken — “siempre” edition

Back in 2013 I wrote about the drawbacks of teaching students formulaic rules instead of general principles for certain aspects of Spanish grammar and vocabulary. The prime example I gave was the two versions of the Spanish past tense: the preterite, or simple past, and the imperfect. I teach my students the general principle that the preterite is used to narrate the bare bones of ‘what happened’ in a sequence of events, and that the imperfect adds color to this sequence. You can see this distinction in the following sentence, where I’ve underlined preterites and colored imperfects red. (In class we work through a fairy tale on a whiteboard, using different-colored markers.)

Llovía cuando entré, me senté, y le dije “Buenos días” a mi amiga, quién se llamaba Juanita y llevaba un vestido espléndido.

‘It was raining when I entered, sat down, and said “Good morning” to my friend, who was called Juanita and wore a splendid dress‘.

Nevertheless, certain rules are extremely useful in deciding which past tense to use. For example, mientras ‘while’ always triggers the imperfect, and the mention of a specific time or time interval, like a las tres or durante cinco días, usually triggers the preterite.

The adverb siempre ‘always’, like mientras, has long been on my mental list of reliable imperfect triggers, and it is one that I teach to my students. I was therefore surprised when a participant in Reddit’s /s/Spanish subreddit recently mentioned that siempre can occur with the preterite, too. In the spirit of “If you build it, they will come”, within 24 hours I’d come across several instances of this in the Spanish novel I’m currently reading, Alberto Fuguet’s Las películas de mi vida.

tempI’ve listed some examples below; the ones that are most striking to me combine a siempre preterite with an imperfect or two elsewhere in the same sentence.

  • Pero mi abuelo sintió siempre que hacía menos de lo que podía hacer. ‘But my grandfather always felt that he accomplished less than he was capable of.’
  • Mi abuelo siempre sintió que lo miraban en menos. ‘My grandfather always that they looked down on him.’
  • Siempre supe que eras brillante. ‘I always knew you were brilliant.’
  • Siempre me llamó la atención que [el aeropuerto] no tuviera un nombre. ‘It always struck me that the airport didn’t have a name.’
  • Los Zanetti y los Soler siempre fueron inmigrantes. ‘The Zanettis and Solers were always immigrants.’

One could probably write an article about the use of the two past tenses with siempre based on this novel alone. You could also broaden the field of inquiry to other authors, from around the Spanish-speaking world, as well as to actual speech — and then you’d have yourself a nice dissertation! But at a rough glance, Fuguet appears to be using the siempre preterites to give his overall assessment of how something was in the past, whether it was his grandfather’s feelings, a friend’s intelligence, an airport’s name, his families’ assimilation, and so on. This reminds me of a rule of thumb a Spanish teacher once shared: that fue (‘it was’ in preterite) is used to give an overall ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ assessment. The imperfects in these sentence would then serve to flesh out the factors behind these assessments.

What do you think?

Why ser and ir are so irregular

The purpose of this post is to share two of my favorite slides from the PowerPoint I prepared for my recent talk at the NECTFL conference. The slides summarize the history of the two most irregular Spanish verbs, ser ‘to be’ and ir ‘to go’. It turns out that each of these verbs is a historical merger of three distinct verbs. Ser merged the Latin verbs sedere ‘to sit’ and esse ‘to be’, which itself combined Proto-Indo-European verbs meaning ‘to be’ and ‘to become’. Ir merged the Latin verbs ire ‘to go’, vadere ‘to go, walk’ (a cognate of English ‘to wade’), and esse ‘to be’. As you can see from the slides, each root is responsible for a subset of each verb’s modern forms.


The history of “ser” (‘to be’). The asterisks indicate reconstructed (hypothesized) Proto-Indo-European roots.


The history of “ir” (‘to go’). My favorite detail here is that the singular command ‘ve’ and the plural command ‘id’ come from different Latin roots.

This type of historical process, in which one verb does a “hostile takeover” of part of another verb’s conjugation, is common enough to have its own name: suppletion. You can see suppletion in the English verb ‘to go’, whose past tense form went comes from the semantically related verb ‘to wend’. The various cases of suppletion in the histories of ser and ir are likewise plausible:

  • for sedereesse: ‘to sit’ is connected to ‘to be’ because it expresses location
  • for *hes*buh: ‘be’ and ‘become’ are obviously related
  • for irevadere: ‘walking’ is a kind of ‘going’
  • for ireesse: if you ‘are’ somewhere, it follows that you ‘went’ there. For example, you can say “I’ve never been to Barcelona” instead of “I’ve never gone to Barcelona”.

I will have to save these charts for the second edition of my book!

Cervantes on the beach

I’ve just returned home from a glorious visit to the Caribbean. My husband and I resolved to do nothing but relax during our stay, and for the most part we managed to honor this commitment. However, my passion for Spanish linguistics is irrepressible! Even while lazing on the beach, I couldn’t resist taking note of several linguistically interesting passages in one of the Spanish books I tossed into my suitcase: a collection of three Novelas ejemplares by Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote.

Cervantes published these novelas — actually, short stories — in 1613, between the two volumes of Don Quijote. El licenciado Vidriera, the first story I read, takes place in the academic and courtly communities of Salamanca and Valladolid. La gitanilla focuses on an itinerant gypsy tribe, while Rinconete y Cortadillo describes the initiation of two teenage boys into a gang of street criminals in Seville. The three stories thus offer diverse perspectives on the people and places of Golden Age Spain. 

I will be writing several blog entries about the Novelas ejemplares in the upcoming days. Here are the topics I’ll cover; I’ll add links to the individual entries as I write them:

  • the use of the noun color with feminine gender;
  • sentences that, while lacking the explicit Spanish words for ‘former’ and ‘latter’ (aquel and este), follow the Spanish convention of putting ‘latter’ before ‘former’;
  • camarada, a nice example of a noun ending in -a that can be either masculine or feminine;
  • an explicit reference to the dialectal phenomenon of ceceo;
  • two examples of gustar used in a ‘forwards’ rather than its normal ‘backwards’ fashion;
  • a case study in how to learn a new word (the innocent-sounding piedeamigo);
  • the antiquated word hestoria;
  • exciting (to me) examples of the future subjunctive “in the wild”.



Mirar with ‘a’

I recently finished Las chicas de alambre, one of Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s top-selling novels. It is about a reporter’s investigation of a top model’s disappearance; the alambre ‘wire’ in the title is a reference to the model’s anorexia. This was my first Sierra i Fabra novel outside of the author’s Inspector Mascarell series, and actually read a lot like a detective novel. It was a good story though I prefer the Mascarell books.

The second person the reporter interviewed for his story was the photographer who took the model’s first photographs. His description of the session included a use of the verb mirar that truly threw me for a loop.

Mirar is one of those verbs that often puzzles English speakers learning Spanish because its English translation, ‘look at’, includes a preposition (at). My students always want to add an explicit (and incorrect) preposition, Spanish a ‘at’, to the verb, as in Juan mira a la pintura ‘Juan looks at at the painting’. Spanish has plenty of verbs of this sort, mostly involving perception or motion, simply because English, as a Germanic language, favors two-part verbs, whereas Spanish, as a Romance language, does not. Other examples are buscar ‘look for’, escuchar ‘listen to’, subir ‘go up’, and sacar ‘take out’. (It’s worth noting that a few Spanish verbs require prepositions whereas their English equivalents don’t — salir de ‘leave’ and entrar en ‘enter’ come to mind — but these are clearly outnumbered.)

Mirar is especially challenging because it is correctly followed by a when its object is a person, as in Pablo mira a Juan ‘Pablo looks at Juan.’ But the a in such sentences is an instance of the untranslatable “personal a” required before human objects — also seen in sentences such as Pablo visita a Juan or Pablo ayuda a Juan ‘Pablo visits/helps Juan’ — rather than a verbal complement (if that’s the right term).

The relevant sentence in Las chicas de alambre was nadie puede enseñarte a mirar a una cámara ‘nobody can teach you how to look at a camera’. Assuming that this wasn’t a typographical error, I wondered whether this could be a most intriguing use of the personal a. Could looking at a camera be like looking at a person, since a camera, like a person, has an eye?

To investigate this question I consulted one of my favorite resources, the website Its listing for the verb mirar included the specific phrase mirar a la cámara but also other uses of mirar a without a human object:

  • mirar a ambos lados antes de cruzar ‘look both ways before crossing’
  • mirar a las musarañas ‘look at the bugs’, i.e. daydream
  • mirar a otro sitio ‘look away’
  • mirar al futuro ‘look to the future, think ahead’
  • mirar al vacio ‘stare off into space’

In all these cases, including mirar a la cámara, a clearly acts as ‘toward’ rather than just ‘to’, expressing the direction of one’s gaze.

In sum, the possible personal a interpretation turned out to be a red herring, but I ended up learning more than I expected about the use of this ubiquitous Spanish verb.

The -se imperfect subjunctive is alive and kicking

My friend Sue and I didn’t visit any language-related destinations today, making it an exception in our linguistic tour of northern Spain. I’d like to take advantage of this “day off” to share with you some uses of the -se imperfect subjunctive that I unexpectedly observed yesterday.

The -se imperfect subjunctive is one of my favorite phenomena in Spanish: not only does the language have both present and past tense subjunctives, but also, the past tense subjunctive has two different forms. This is an unusual and possibly unique type of grammatical redundancy.

Of the two past subjunctives, the version that ends in -ra is much more common than the one that ends in -se. One sees the -se subjunctive in literature, but I’d never heard anyone use it in conversation, or seen it in any casually written text. (It does shows up in literature.) I was thrilled, then, to run into the -se subjunctive twice yesterday. First, our tour guide at the Monasterio de Suso used it once or twice in his explanations. Later, during our lunch stop in Zaragoza, I spotted it on a poster for an anti-aging treatment. This text on the poster asks ¿Qué edad tendrías si no supieses la que tienes? ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’; I’ve underlined the subjunctive. The newer, and more frequently used, form would be subjunctiveSeeing the subjunctive in action, after spending so much time researching and writing about it, was a real thrill. Plus, I love the poster — and I’m glad to say that Dra. Montserrat Salvador López, whose services it advertises, is listed as one of Spain’s Top Doctors!

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.

Using the two imperfect subjunctives

I always keep an eye out for nice examples of Spanish prose that exploit the two versions of the imperfect subjunctive. (Previous posts on this topic are here and here.) I came across one recently in Cuatro días de enero, a police procedural by Jordi Sierra I Fabra set in Barcelona just before Franco’s forces take the city on January 26, 1939. Early in the novel the protagonist, a world-weary police detective, and his wife, who is dying from cancer (probably a metaphor for the death of the city), are talking about the state of the war. The author describes the detective’s feelings:

  • A veces se sentía atrapado, hiciera lo que hiciese, dijera lo que dijese.

This sounds much better, to my ears, than the English equivalent: Sometimes he felt trapped, no matter what he did or said.

I knew that fuera lo que fuese is a standard saying (‘be that as it may’) but was curious about hiciera lo que hiciese and dijera lo que dijese. A Google search turned up several more examples of these two verb pairs used together, and some that added a third:

  • Aquella desesperación cada noche ante la inminencia de lo que iba a ocurrir, aquella fatalidad ante el hecho de que hiciera lo que hiciese, dijera lo que dijese, o callara lo que callase (Cuentos desde mi rincón)
  • …la férrea y negativa postura de la señorita en cuestión de no querer acostarse con él, pasara lo que pasase, dijera lo que dijese e hiciera lo que hiciese (La codorniz de Enrique Herreros)

I love the sound of these verb pairs, and I guess these authors do, too.

The top 10 Spanish verb mysteries unraveled

The wait is over — here is my “listicle” (slide presentation) that unravels the top 10 mysteries of Spanish verbs. Why is hay always singular? Why are there so many more irregulars in the preterite past tense than the imperfect? Why do positive and negative commands have different pronoun rules? The answers lie in the history of Spanish.

The top 10 reasons why Spanish is special

Today’s post is the first of several I plan to make in the next few weeks to summarize the broad linguistic themes that emerged as I wrote my book. It is a follow-up on a post I did some months ago, “What makes Spanish unique”. This post is somewhat more general, and, I hope, more fun because it’s a slideshow.


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