Category Archives: Verbs

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.

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.

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.

Perfect detective, imperfect subjunctive

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m obsessed with (i) the two forms of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive and (ii) Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” series of detective novels, set in Barcelona before and during the Franco era. This post combines these two passions.

While in Cádiz during my recent visit to Andalucía, I bought a copy of the tenth novel in the “Inspector Mascarell” series, Diez días de junio. (This was at the Librería Manuel de Falla, named after one of Cádiz’s best-known native sons.) I devoured it over the next few days — and, struck as always by Sierra i Fabra’s frequent combination of the -ra and -se subjunctives within sentences, decided to keep track of all such sentences. The following table lists the fifteen examples I found.

These fifteen sentences suggest three ways that an author (or speaker) can combine the two imperfect subjunctives:

  1. The formulaic hiciera lo que hiciese construction (example 3; also see this earlier blog post, and ex. 6 for a counterexample).
  2. A single subjunctive-triggering context followed by both an -ra and an -se subjunctive, such as para que (examples 1, 4, 5), puede que (ex. 8), or pedir que (ex. 9).
  3. Multiple subjunctive-triggering contexts followed by a mixture of -ra and -se subjunctives, such as:
    • quizá and esperar que (example 2)
    • querer que and para que (ex. 7)
    • pedir and para que (ex. 10, 15)
    • puede que, adjective clause, aunque (ex. 11) — 3 subjunctive contexts in a single sentence!
    • ordenar queen cuanto (ex. 12)
    • past tense si clause (ex. 13)
    • como siantes de que (ex. 14)

In sentences with one usage each of the -ra and -se forms, half the time the -ra subjunctive came first, and half the time the -se was first. In sentence #11 an -se subjunctive is sandwiched between two -ra forms, while in sentence #6 a single -se form is preceded by four -ra subjunctives and followed by a fifth.

The book also contains the intriguing sentence Le detuve en 1936 después de que un niño se SUICIDARA por su culpa. The use of suicidara here apparently violates the rule that después de que only triggers the subjunctive when talking about future events. After some investigating, I’ve come across three possible explanations for this usage.

  1. The use of the imperfect subjunctive to mention background information. This usage, often found in journalism, is discussed in Patricia Lunn’s “The Evaluative Function of the Spanish Subjunctive” (in Modality in Grammar and Discourse, eds. J. L. Bybee and S. Fleischman, John Benjamins, 1992, pp. 429-49). However, in this particular example the suicide is new news, not shared background.
  2. The use of the -ra imperfect subjunctive as a pluperfect indicative. The -ra subjunctive started as a Latin pluperfect indicative and was repurposed fairly recently, in the Golden Age. One still sees uses of the -ra subjunctive that hark back to its roots, as discussed in this Wordreference Forum thread.
  3. Analogy to antes de queThis explanation, also discussed in Patricia Lunn’s paper, makes a lot of sense! Since antes de que always triggers the subjunctive, it’s logical that después de que should, too.

Finally, I am intrigued by the apparent triggering function of lo más seguro es que (example #3). I suppose this is akin to a quizá(s).

Graphing the takeover of the -ra subjunctive

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m obsessed with the two different versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. This is the verb form that you see in sentences like Quería que Miguel estudiara más ‘I wanted Michael to study more’. This -ra form is more common in general, but it’s equally acceptable to use forms with -se, in this case estudiase. The -ra and –se imperfect subjunctives are both understood around the Spanish-speaking world; their relative frequency varies according to dialect.

This aspect of Spanish is interesting for two different reasons. First of all, it’s extraordinarily unusual for a language to have such “twin” forms in the heart of their grammar. I haven’t been able to find a single other example after searching the linguistics literature for over five years. Second, neither of these forms is a direct descendant of Latin’s own imperfect subjunctive. Rather, two other existing conjugations were “repurposed” as imperfect subjunctives: the -se version in Old Spanish, and the -ra form more recently, in the time of Cervantes.

Google Books’ “Ngram Viewer” provides an easy way to see the newer -ra subjunctives overtaking the older -se forms. Google has digitized over 25 million books in English, Spanish, and other languages. Their free “Ngram Viewer” tool analyzes word frequencies in this corpus, making it easy to compare frequencies of two or more words over time.

In this post I’ve reproduced six graphs comparing -ra and -se subjunctive frequencies over the last two centuries. The first three graphs (one above, two below) show historical frequencies for the two forms of the imperfect subjunctive for the common irregulars tenerhaber, and poder. The remaining three graphs show frequencies for the three regular verbs often used to illustrate Spanish’s -ar-er, and -ir noun classes: hablarcomer, and vivir. In every case you can see the innovative -ar forms come from behind — or, less often, from parity — to overtake their -se twins. This happened earlier for the irregular verbs than the regulars; I don’t have a theory about why.

Keep in mind that written language is relatively conservative, so it’s safe to assume that -ar actually made its move somewhat earlier than shown in these graphs.



Sevilla toilet stall sparks linguistic debate

Reader Alice B. shared with me a decorous linguistic debate conducted on the wall of a toilet stall in Sevilla. The sign that sparked the debate, complete with its series of scribbled-on comments, is shown below. This article (in Spanish) discusses the debate at length, and includes various tweets that it inspired.

[post continues after graphic]

To summarize the debate:

  • The original sign, which translates roughly as ‘Please leave the toilet clean’, used the infinitive dejar ‘to leave’. This is equivalent to the frequent use of the English -ing form as a command (e.g. No smoking).
  • Someone changed the final -r to a -d to create the informal plural command form dejad.
  • Someone else then changed this to the formal plural command dejen.
  • Someone else suggested leaving off the final consonant of either command form to create the singular command deja (informal) or deje (formal).
  • Along the way, someone pointed out that infinitives are an acceptable alternative to command forms in contexts such as this one.

I love Spanish! Can you think of any aspect of English grammar that would inspire a similar series of emendations and comments?

Spanish beats English: subjunctive in adjective clauses edition

My teaching this semester has been heavy on the subjunctive, but one topic we haven’t covered is the use of the subjunctive to distinguish between actual and hypothetical characteristics in descriptions, or “adjective clauses.” The last time I taught this topic was during a chapter on housing, so there were lots of sentences like Vivo en un apartamento que tiene mucha luz ‘I live in an apartment that has a lot of light’ versus Quiero un apartamento que tenga mucha luz ‘I want an apartment that has a lot of light’. The indicative tiene is appropriate when talking about an actual light-filled apartment; the subjunctive tenga works for the hypothetical light-filled apartment.

The next time I teach this topic I plan to start with a memorably funny bit from the 1970s TV show Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman. It was a spin-off from Rhoda, which was itself a spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In this scene, Phyllis’s daughter Bess tries to break the news of her engagement to her mother, who fails to understand. I’ve paraphrased their dialogue, as well as I can remember it, in cartoon form below. [Please see note at end for a correction.]

If Bess and Phyllis had been speaking Spanish, there wouldn’t have been any confusion. Bess would have used the indicative, as shown in the speech bubble on the left, to indicate that Harold was her actual fiancé. Her mother’s misinterpretation corresponds to the version with the subjunctive shown on the right.


So this is definitely a case where Spanish is superior to English!

[Note: After posting this blog entry I did a Google search and discovered that (i) this is universally acknowledged as the funniest episode of Phyllis and (ii) I had misremembered the scene! The conversation was actually between Phyllis and a colleague, played by Richard Schaal, and it’s Phyllis who utters the ambiguous line (something like “Bess wants to marry a man whose parents are midgets”). In the intervening years my memory had transposed the characters and invented the name Harold! With apologies to the writers and crew, I’ll keep my cartoons the way they are to reflect my (defective but happy) memory.]

Irregular irregulars

Note: this post is intended for Spanish verb fiends only! Others read at your peril!

The Spanish verb system is riddled with irregular verbs, but at least they fall into discernible patterns. For example, verbs that end in -ir and have a stem change in the present tense are also irregular in the preterite, imperfect subjunctive, and gerund. These fall into three groups:

  • o/ue/u
    * Example: dormir ‘to sleep’, duermo ‘I sleep’, durmió ‘he slept’, durmiendo ‘sleeping’
  • e/ie/i
    * Example: sentir ‘to feel’, siento ‘I feel’, sintió ‘he felt’, sintiendo ‘feeling’
  • e/i/i
    * Example: servir ‘to serve’, sirvo ‘I serve’, sirvió ‘he served’, sirviendo ‘serving’

The silver lining to this cloud of complexity is that it is, at least, predictable. As implied above, there are no exceptions to this pattern, i.e. -ir verbs with a stem change in the present tense that are regular in the preterite and the gerund.

Or are there?

To my horror, and great interest, I learned just today of two exceptions: cernir ‘to sift’ and hendir ‘to slit open’. Despite their present-tense stem changes (ciernohiendo, and so on) they are regular in the preterite (cernió, cernieronhendió, hendieron), imperfect subjunctive (cerniera, hendiera, etc.), and gerund (cerniendo, hendiendo). You can see the full conjugations here and here.

Discernir and concernir share the same irregularity as cernir, as you might expect. (This is why I made sure to use the English cognate discernible at the beginning of this post. 😉 )

Not surprisingly, the Real Academia’s Diccionario panhispánico de dudas contains warnings against forms such as hindióhindieron, and cirniendo.

Fortunately, there is a logical explanation for these irregular irregulars: cernir and hendir are variants of the -er verbs cerner and hender, from Latin cernĕre and findĕre. In other words, they are innovative -ir verbs that still think they are -er‘s with respect to this irregular pattern. If I can attempt a wacky analogy, they’re akin to someone who dyed their hair but red still lacks the freckles that a natural redhead would have.

Just for fun, I used the Google ngram viewer to trace the history of cerner, cernir, hender, and hendir. None of these verbs is very common, but the -ir variants have definitely caught up to the older -er forms over the last two hundred years or so, and, in fact, have managed to surpass them.

(Post continues after graphic.)

If you look at a shorter time period, you can clearly see hender nose-diving to fall just behind hendir. It’s pretty cool.


Hubiera, pudiera, tuviera

Can one be obsessed with a verb tense?

My particular flame is the imperfect subjunctive. I’ve already written eleven blog posts that at least mention it, mostly because of its grammatical interest.

But the imperfect subjunctive can also be poetic. I practically started jumping up and down when I read the following passage, full of regrets, toward the end of Sofía Segovia’s Huracán. I’ve colored the imperfect subjunctives in red.

Si no le hubiera disparado, si no lo hubiera conocido, si sólo lo hubiera herido, si no hubiera cargado la 30-30, si pudiera seguir con mis amigos. Si hubiera, si pudiera, si tuviera, si hubiera. Si hubiera.

‘If I hadn’t shot him, if I hadn’t met him, if I had only wounded him, if I hadn’t loaded the 30-30, if I could continue with my friends. If I had, if I could, If I kept, if I had. If I had.

Isn’t that a beautiful bit of Spanish? Doesn’t it crush the English version? Doesn’t it sing?

This is definitely one to clip out and keep to impress your friends.

By the way, the beginning of this paragraph is clearly in the third person singular, as seen by the verb forms pudonegó, and reclamó (see screen clip below). So another great aspect of the writing here is the jarring transition from the external description of what the character is doing, to the interior view of his thoughts. We don’t realize this has happened until we get through the first series of imperfect subjunctives (since hubiera and pudiera can be either first or third person) and hit mis amigos in the next-to-last line. Very interesting choice by the author, ¿no?