Category Archives: Verbs

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?

Why can’t I wrap my brain around the verb “restar”?

Regular readers of this blog know that I am constantly reading Spanish-language fiction — usually of the popular variety — both for pleasure and to continue improving my Spanish. I generally read without a dictionary, using context and cognates to deal with unfamiliar words, just as I advise my students to do. If I am really stuck, or just curious, or have seen a word a few times and want to “officially” learn it, I’ll look it up, usually in

It’s extremely rare that after using context, cognates, and a dictionary I still find it hard to understand how a word is used. The verb restar is one of those cases.

I first ran into restar when rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve already written about on this blog seven times. In describing the awkward gait of a disabled man, Sierra i Fabra writes that

Haberse movido así durante toda su vida o parte de ella no le restaba dificultad, a pesar de que él parecía hacerlo fácil.

I easily understood the first part of the sentence (‘Having moved like this during all or part of his life’), and the last (‘even though he seemed to make it easy’ — or, more idiomatically, ‘even though he made it look easy’). The hard part was no le restaba dificultadRestaba is obviously a form of the verb restar, and this is clearly a cognate of the French verb rester, which means ‘to remain’.  But that meaning didn’t make any sense: ‘Having moved like this during all or part of his life didn’t remain him difficulty’?????

My brain kept trying to rewrite the noun dificultad ‘difficulty’ as difícil ‘difficult’. The phrase le restaba difícil ‘remained difficult to him’ made sense in isolation, but didn’t work in this context.

Restar clearly called for a dictionary lookup. informed me that it means not just ‘remain’ but also ‘diminish’. The second meaning got the job done: the sentence meant ‘Having moved like this during his life didn’t diminish its difficulty, even though he made it look easy’.

This use of restar turns out to be a robust pattern; you can find examples of it with other following nouns on, a website I’ve been using a lot recently to find examples of Spanish words and phrases in context. Here’s a screenshot:

Restar also appears in Sofía Segovia’s Huracán, which I recently blogged about here. In this passage, Lorna notices that the only part of her awful husband’s back to escape a painful sunburn is where she had attempted to apply sunscreen herself:

Toda la espalda menos — y eso a Lorna le pareció tan gracioso que le restó seriedad al problema —  la marca blanca y nítida de dos manos, que contra la ampolla se veían hendidas.

His whole back, except for — and this struck Lorna as so funny that it reduced the seriousness of the problem — was the sharp white shape of her two hands, which seemed to cut through the blister.

It took some effort, and even a return visit to, to understand this second example. Likewise, even though I now completely understand the restaba dificultad sentence, I still can’t read it smoothly, but always have to stop and think through its use of the verb.

I can think of several reasons why it’s so hard for me to wrap my brain around this verb:

  • Restar is tricky since it combines two contrary meanings, ‘remain’ (which is positive) and ‘diminish’ (negative).
  • The French verb rester, which only means ‘to remain’, is interfering with the second meaning of the Spanish verb.
  • Abstract nouns like seriedaddificultad are normally preceded by the definite article (el or la), but they aren’t in this context, which sounds odd.
  • Finally, the sentence in which I first encountered the verb is a doozy. I still don’t completely understand it. If the man ‘makes it look easy’, or ‘makes it easy’, then why does someone watching him observe that the dificultad has not diminished?



Linguistic gems from recent reading (2017 edition)

The title of this post is a shout-out to one I wrote back in 2014. That “linguistic gems” post described a nice stylistic use of the imperfect subjunctive in the Spanish novel La carta esférica, and a reminiscence about the trilled r from the Puerto Rican novel Felices días tío Sergio.

Today’s gems come from the Spanish-language novel that I’m currently reading, Sofía Segovia Huracán. It was this Mexican author’s first novel; she revised and republished it last year after the great success of her second novel, El murmullo de las abejas. I’m 50 pages into Huracán and completely hooked.

So far, Huracán is the picaresque tale of a Mexican boy who is given away (regalado) to a farmer because his family can’t afford to keep him. He eventually runs away and makes his living as a petty thief. I’m waiting for him to figure out how to redeem his life — and, of course, I’m waiting for the actual hurricane of the title.

In the meantime, I’m especially enjoying two aspects of the author’s Spanish. First, Segovia often puts into written form her characters’ “improper” Spanish, as shown in the selection below:

¡Ya nos mandastes al demonio! ‘You sent us to the devil!’
¿Adónde vamos? ‘Where are we going?
Nosotros agarramos pa Tabasco. Tú lo matastes, tú te vas pa otro lado. ‘We’re heading for Tabasco. You killed him, you go the other way.’

The preterite past tense forms mandastes and matastes here have a final -s added to the standard forms mataste and mandaste. This is a very natural extension of the final -s that ‘you’ forms have in all other verb tenses, such as matas ‘you kill’, mandarás ‘you will sent’, and mandabas ‘you used to send’. I’ve read about this phenomenon but have never seen it in print. Pa as a shortened version of para ‘for’ that is common in colloquial Spanish in several countries, including Mexico. I’ve seen it written elsewhere as pa’. 

The other aspect of Segovia’s Spanish that I particularly enjoy is her deliberate and even playful exploitation of some of the grammatical contrasts that are a Spanish instructor’s bread and butter. In this sentence, about the protagonist’s time in a street gang, Segovia plays with gender:

Aniceto no estaba acostumbrado a tanta orden y tanto orden. ‘Aniceto wasn’t used to so many orders and so much organization.’ (“command and control’?)

Orden is one of a set of Spanish words whose meaning changes with its gender; some other examples are el capital ‘money’ and la capital‘, el cura ‘priest’ and la cura ‘cure’, and el coma ‘coma’ and la coma ‘comma’. You will find a longer list here.

Also on the subject of the street gang, Segovia plays with the por/para contrast:

Si no era [el jefe] él quien hacía cumplir su ley, era el resto del grupo el que lo hacía por él y para él. ‘If the gang leader didn’t make Aniceto obey, the rest of the gang would do it in his place and for his benefit.’

The Spanish version is much more elegant, ¿no?

I’m looking forward to unearthing more gems as I make my way through Huracán!