Category Archives: Verbs

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 problem. 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 acknowledge 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?

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!

Mandatos (commands) summary chart

An upcoming review session with a student who is struggling with Spanish commands inspired me to make this chart. Some notes:

  • I used boldface for the subjunctive box and the lines leading into it in order to emphasize that in most cases, the command form is just the subjunctive.
  • I left out two details:
    • dropping the final s on affirmative nosotros commands before nos (e.g. quedémonos ‘let’s stay’) or se (e.g. enseñémosela ‘let’s teach them it’);
    • the irregular affirmative vosotros command idos (for ir).
  • The accent marks usually needed when a pronoun is added simply follow the regular rules for Spanish. That’s why you see one on háblame ‘talk to me’ (same stress pattern as e.g. teléfono) but not on dime ‘tell me’ (same stress pattern as cine).
  • The irregular affirmative  commands are listed in the order of the mnemonic “Vin Diesel has ten weapons, eh?”

A subtle case of the subjunctive

Today I’ll start by sharing a gorgeous example of the subjunctive/indicative contrast that I recently noticed in one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero. Then I’ll circle around and explain what makes it so gorgeous.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú [Patro], por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you [Patro], for what you know or might say.

A bit of background: I like to tell my students that the subjunctive/indicative distinction is easier to master than the the preterite/imperfect distinction. The contexts, or triggers, that require the subjunctive are usually clear-cut, whereas there’s often a lot of subjectivity in deciding whether a given past tense context triggers the preterite or the imperfect. For example, Ojalá ‘God willing’ always triggers the subjunctive, whereas ayer ‘yesterday’ can be followed by either the preterite or the imperfect, depending on how the speaker perceives what happened yesterday.

For this reason, I’m intrigued by subjunctive/indicative contexts that allow more flexibility. Certain triggers are famously ambiguous. For example, tal vez and quizás, both meaning ‘maybe’, can be followed by either the subjunctive or the indicative, depending on whether you are pessimistic or optimistic:

  • Tal vez venga ‘He might come, but probably won’t’ (subjunctive)
  • Tal vez viene‘ He might come, and probably will’ (indicative)

Most Spanish grammar guides (e.g. here) cover in depth a second flexible context: so-called “adjective clauses”, or relative clauses that describe (give more information about) a noun, i.e. a person, place, or thing. A subjunctive In an adjective clause indicates that the clause describes a hypothetical person, place, or thing while an indicative indicates that the noun is real. Consider, for example, the sentence pair below, which I remember from tenth grade (!!), and which distinguishes between a hypothetical and an actual secretary:

  • Busco una secretaria que sepa escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for a (hypothetical) secretary who can type’ (subjunctive)
  • Busco una secretaria que sabe escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for an (actual, specific) secretary who can type’ (indicative)

Not all flexible relative clauses are adjective clauses. This brings us back to the example I started this post with, in which the relative clause functions as a noun.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú, por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you, for what you know or might say.

I love this example because it contains both an indicative and a subjunctive within a single relative clause! This combination subtly mirrors the progression of the speaker’s thoughts: from the murderer’s certain motive for killing Patro — what she knew — to the murderer’s hypothetical motive — what Patro might say. As with the venga/viene and sepa/sabe examples, the subjunctive and indicative forms of the verb provide a compact and elegant way to achieve this distinction.

Frankly, having looked through my collection of grammar books and websites, I’m not sure what category the puedas subjunctive falls into. The noun clauses with the subjunctive presented in grammars typically follow classic WEIRDO triggers like Espero queEs triste que, Ojalá que, and Dudo que. Nevertheless, the puedas example strikes me as splendid Spanish. Any ideas?

Spanish linguist’s guide to verb conjugations

I just wrote out some thoughts on Spanish verb conjugations in order to answer a question on Reddit, and thought they might be of more general interest.

The question was how to learn Spanish verb conjugations. I recommended, as always, for verb practice. But I also summarized the different conjugations, lumping them into eight groups from a learner’s perspective.

In this effort I wasn’t careful to distinguish tense, aspect, and mood; life is too short. And of course, the longer-term challenge is knowing WHEN to use each conjugation.

  1. The present tense takes a lot of practice because (i) it is usually the first tense you study, (ii) -ar, -er, and -ir verbs have distinct endings, and (iii) there are a lot of irregulars.
  2. The imperfect is super-easy because (i) -er and -ir verbs have the same endings and (ii) there are only three irregulars.
  3. The preterite, like the present, has tons of irregulars, but at least -er and -ir verbs have the same endings. I have a nice summary on my Teaching page (look for “Todo el pretérito”).
  4. The two subjunctive (present and past) conjugations are similar to the normal (“indicative”) present and the preterite for historical reasons, so once you have learned these it’s mostly a matter of getting used to a somewhat different set of endings. It helps that -er and -ir verbs have the same endings in the present subjunctive, and that -ar, -er, and -ir verbs ALL follow the same conjugation pattern in the past (“imperfect”) subjunctive (starting with the ellos/ellas/ustedes form of the preterite). However, the present subjunctive does have six irregulars of its own. And the imperfect actually has two possible sets of endings (-ra and -se), though learners can just stick with the -ra set.
  5. The future and conditional are a piece of cake because you aren’t really conjugating, you’re just sticking endings (the same for -ar, -er, and -ir verbs) onto the infinitive. Although there are a bunch of irregulars, they all evolved to simplify pronunciation, so they feel good in your mouth.
  6. The perfect tenses with haber (like he comido) all use the same participle (the -ado/-ido thing), so once you (i) memorize a few irregular participles (like escrito) and (ii) know how to conjugate haber in the tense of your choosing, you are set.
  7. Same for the various progressive tenses (like estoy comiendo and estaba bailando), except that here you probably already know how to conjugate estar, so all you need to learn is the present participle (the -ando/-iendo thing), which again has a few irregulars (like durmiendo and leyendo) which are predictable once you get the hang of them.
  8. Commands build on what you already know. Mostly you use the subjunctive. The only exception is affirmative informal commands, both singular () and plural (vosotros). For historical reasons, affirmative  commands resemble the él/ella/usted form of the present tense, plus 8 irregulars, while affirmative vosotros commands simply change the -r of the infinitive for a -d, e.g. hablad ‘Speak, you guys’. A complication with commands is that object pronouns go before negative commands (No lo hagas) but glom onto the end of affirmative commands, often requiring an accent mark to maintain the normal stress position (Cómelo).


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!