Category Archives: Verbs

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.

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!

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.]