Category Archives: Verbs

The -se imperfect subjunctive is alive and kicking

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

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

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

When one rule trumps another

I just finished Jordi Sierra i Frabra’s Siete días de julio, his equally dynamite sequel to Cuatro días de enero, which I wrote about last month. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite book series in any language. I’m looking forward to reading Cinco días en octubre soon — right now it is out of stock at Amazon (a good sign for Spanish literature lovers).

On p. 87 of Siete días, one character asks another No tiene a nadie, ¿verdad? This sentence caught my eye because of its intriguing use of the “personal a“, the preposition used to mark direct objects that are (i) human and (ii) specific. To give a more typical example, the personal a is required in Visito a María because María is a specific person. It isn’t needed in Visito Madrid, because Madrid is a place, not a person, or in Necesito unos amigos nuevos, because the friends are not specified — in fact, they are unknown. A fuller explanation is here.

No tiene a nadie is an interesting use of the personal a because it lies at the intersection of two of this structure’s subtleties. On the one hand, tener is usually an exception to the personal a. One says, for example, Tengo dos amigos, in contrast to Veo a dos amigos, Visito a dos amigos, and so on. However, nadie requires the personal a, even though it doesn’t specify a person: one says No veo a nadieNo visitan a nadie, and so on, just as one says No veo a Miguel and No visitan a Ana.

In the case of No tiene a nadienadie trumps tiene. This seems to be the outcome in general, not just in Siete días de julio, at least as judged by numbers of Google hits. By this metric, No tiene a nadie outnumbers no tiene nadie five to one, and no tengo a nadie outnumbers no tengo nadie seven to one.

This reminded me strongly of dueling subtleties in the Spanish past tense. In general, the imperfect is used for repeated actions, and the preterite for time-bounded actions. For examples, one says Iba a la playa cada día  ‘I went to the beach every day’, but Fui a la playa ayer ‘I went to the beach yesterday’. When an action is repeated within a specified time frame, the preterite wins. For example, one would say Durante mis vacaciones fui a la playa cada día, or La semana pasada fui a la playa cada día.

Nadie trumps tener for the personal a. A specified time frame trumps repetition in the past tense. These rules of thumb are good to know.

Using the two imperfect subjunctives

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

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

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

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

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

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

The top 10 Spanish verb mysteries unraveled

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

The top 10 reasons why Spanish is special

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


Click the bidirectional diagonal arrow to view in fullscreen mode.

Linguistic gems from recent reading

Ages ago I discovered the joys of reading Spanish novels for fun. It helps to keep up my fluency and build my vocabulary, while adding bits of cultural knowledge. Of course, I always keep my linguistics hat on in case I find anything particularly interesting. This post describes two such findings.

The first is from La carta esférica, a novel about a sailor who joins a mysterious woman on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship carrying a priceless cargo of Jesuit emeralds. It’s by one of my favorite Spanish authors, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, best known for the Capitán Alatriste series. Besides its pleasantly page-turning plot, this novel features the best example I’ve ever seen of the stylistic exploitation of the two different versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. Here, the narrator alternates between -ra and -se subjunctives as he waits for the mysterious lady of the emeralds to stop him from walking out. This alternation adds an extra back-and-forth rhythm to the parallel structure of the successive que clauses.

Todo el rato, hasta que cerró [la puerta] detrás de sí, estuvo esperando que fuese hasta él y lo agarrara por el brazo, que lo obligase a mirarla a los ojos, que contara cualquier cosa para retenerlo.

“The whole time, until the door closed behind him, he hoped that she would go to him, take him by the arm, make him look her in the eye, and say anything to keep him there.

Right now I’m reading Magali García Ramis’s memoir of growing up in Puerto Rico, Felices Días Tío Sergio. I first learned about García Ramis when she was inducted into the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española (basically, the Puerto Rican branch of the Real Academia Española). In a previous post I described her inaugural lecture, on the Puerto Rican /r/. I bought a copy of Felices Días back then but only recently got around to reading it. It is absolutely delightful, written in simple Spanish that would make it a good first novel for a student to read.

The passage that caught my linguistic eye has to do with another cardinal aspect of Puerto Rican pronunciation, the aspiration of final -s. Here the protagonist, a young girl, is asking her mother to make cat-shaped cookies for the funeral in absentia of their lost cat, Daruel. It’s an interesting passage from a sociolinguistic perspective because it shows the two speakers’ awareness that this is a stigmatized feature. In the first line, Ramis uses the letter j to show the aspirated /h/ pronunciation of the /s/ of los.

— ¿Ah Mami? ¿Ah, nos laj haces? [Mom, will you make them for us?]
– Nos lassss hacesss – corrigió Mami [Will you make them for us? – Mom corrected]
– Bueno, nosss lass hacesss ¿Sí? [OK, will you make them for us?]

I love the exaggeration of the multiple ssss and the way the daughter extends them to nos, which she seems to have pronounced correctly from the start.

The most frequent Spanish verbs are irregular

It may seem perverse that the first verbs presented in most Spanish textbooks, typically ser and tener, are irregular. In fact, ser is undoubtedly the most irregular verb in the language. Why not start with nice, friendly regular verbs like hablarcomer, and vivir, and deal with the irregulars later?

The answer, of course, is that the most frequent, can’t-live-without-’em Spanish verbs are irregular. This is not a coincidence. Over time, the natural tendency in language evolution is to reduce irregularity by imposing a language’s normal patterns on previously exceptional forms, a process called analogy. That’s how English ended up with regular past tenses like helped in place of the Middle English form holp. Only the most frequently used words are able to resist analogy and maintain their irregularity.

(Analogy can also go in the opposite direction, causing previously tame verbs to ‘go rogue’, but we’ll sidestep this inconvenient fact for simplicity’s sake.)

Actual verb frequency data are impressive. The table below shows the regular and irregular verbs among the 100 most frequent Spanish words, as cataloged in Mark Davies’s A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish: Core Vocabulary for Learners. The dozen most frequent verbs are all irregular. The most frequent regular verb (llegar ‘to arrive’) appears more than halfway down the list, and irregulars remain common throughout.

Reg irreg verbs in top 100

I’ve counted llegar and creer as regular verbs, by the way, because their spelling complications (like the u in llegué and the y in creyó) are completely predictable given the rules of Spanish pronunciation and spelling.

Because Spanish splits ‘to be’ into ser and estar, and ‘to have’ into haber and tener, the English versions of these verbs are of higher frequency. According to Mark Davies and Dee Gardner’s A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English: Word Sketches, Collocates and Thematic Lists, ‘to be’ is #2 in English, and ‘to have’ #8. Another comparative goodie concerns subject pronouns. As you might expect, since Spanish usually relies on conjugation alone to say who did something, its subject pronouns are further down the frequency list than are those of English. See the comparison below.

subject pronoun frequency span eng


Overall, it’s surprising how much information one can glean from these lists. Muchas gracias, Prof. Davies.

Spanish verb pairs that differ only in conjugation class

While researching the origin of the three conjugation classes of Spanish — ar, er, and ir — I recently turned to the lovely folks at the Spanish-English vocabulary forum to help me think of pairs of Spanish verbs that differ only in their conjugation class. The only two I had thought of were sentar/sentir and crear/creer.

These pairs are a nice reminder that the conjugation classes, by themselves, are void of meaning. Please see my original post (link above) for an example of a language (Hebrew) where the same verb root can appear in more than one conjugation class, with each class adding a predictable nuance to the verb root’s core meaning.

Here is my full list, which I will continue to edit as I learn of more. Note that there are no triplets on the list, and that all the pairs contrast -ar with either -er or -ir. This may be a coincidence, but the fact that -er and -ir verbs have almost identical conjugations (the only difference is in the nosotros and vosotros present indicative) would make triplets or an -er/-ir contrast hard to learn and to maintain.

Please let me know if can think of any more.

  • asentar/asentir
  • crear/creer
  • fundar/fundir
  • mentar/mentir
  • molar/moler
  • morar/morir
  • parar/parir
  • podar/poder
  • rendar/rendir (render is also in the RAE, but only as an antiquated form of rendir).
  • salar/salir
  • sentar/sentir
  • solar/soler
  • sumar/sumir
  • tejar/tejer
  • vivar/vivir

Categories or cases for Spanish grammar

My time and thoughts have mostly been in my classroom over the last few weeks, so this post is more teacher-y than usual. But it does, I hope, contain some interesting observations about some core grammatical issues in Spanish.

As I noted in an earlier post, Spanish teachers have to explain many differences that exist in Spanish but not in English. These vary in difficulty for the native English speaker. Simple vocabulary differences such as tocar versus jugar, which both mean “to play” (an instrument versus a sport), are the easiest. Other vocabulary differences are more complicated: for example, how por and para divvy up the various meanings of English “for”, or ser and estar the meanings of “to be”. Harder still are grammatical differences that English lacks either mostly (e.g. subjunctive versus indicative moods) or entirely (e.g. the pretérito and imperfecto aspects of the past tense).

When teaching these more challenging differences, I’m often torn between explaining them in terms of categories or cases. The former approach seeks overarching principles that distinguish the Spanish forms. The latter metaphorically throws up its hands and instead details the specific sub-uses of each form. As a linguist I much prefer the former since categorical differences often relate to core semantic concepts. In practice I always provide both frameworks and emphasize one or the other, depending on the topic at hand.

I ran head-first into this issue the first time I taught the Spanish past tense. The usual sequence in an American classroom is to teach the pretérito first, then the imperfecto, then how to use them in conjunction. For the final stage I followed the practice of a more experienced colleague and taught the students the SIMBA CHEATED mnemonic. SIMBA stands for some basic uses of the pretérito: Single actions, Interruptions, Main events, Beginnings and endings, and Arrivals or departures. CHEATED does the same for the imperfecto: describing someone or something’s Characteristics, Health, Emotion, or Age, telling Time, describing Endless activities, and giving a Date.

The net result: my students didn’t see the forest for the trees. In other words, they learned the specific cases covered by SIMBA CHEATED but failed to generalize to the overall difference between the two aspects: that the pretérito relates events, i.e. “what happened”, while the imperfecto describes the past, providing backgrounds and details.

This failure was a loss at an intellectual level, for this aspectual distinction is a perfect example of how different languages encode the world in different ways. At a practical level, the mnemonic slowed students down, since they tended to run through the entire mental checklist before using a past tense. It also proved useless when we moved on to subtler distinctions in the past tense. For example, while conocer retains its core meaning of “to know someone” in the imperfecto, in the pretérito it means “to meet” someone. This makes perfect sense — if one focuses on the overarching use of the pretérito to relate events.

I therefore now try to emphasize the broad categories of “event” and “description” as much as possible when teaching the past tense. While I do provide a reference sheet (see my teaching page) that shows some specific applications of these categories, I stay away from mnemonics and always aim to extract the basic principles from the examples that come up in class.

My approach to the indicative/subjunctive distinction still focuses mostly on categories, but veers slightly in the direction of cases (again see my teaching page). I focus on the overarching use of the indicative for reality and the subjunctive for uncertainty since this covers most uses of the two moods. However, in this case I do teach an acronym: the famous WEIRDO (Wish/Want, Emotions, Impersonal expressions, Require/Recommend, Doubt/Deny, and Ojalá). This is partly because some of the uses it covers trump the reality/uncertainty difference (e.g. emotional contexts like Me alegro de que Pablo esté aquí, where Pablo actually is here), but mostly as a handy way to remind students to practice a variety of subjunctive contexts in their written work.

My approach to por and para (teaching page again), in contrast, focuses almost entirely on cases. These two words correspond to so many different meanings of English “for” that I find it most helpful to emphasize individual uses, such as para for destinations and por for duration. However, since at a very high level para often implies directionality and por, apportionment, I also suggest the graphical metaphors of an arrow for para (X > Y) and a ratio line for por (X/Y). While I don’t expect the average student to find these useful in practice, he or she should at least be aware that the division of “for” into por and para isn’t random. There’s a method to the Spanish madness!



Summer summary for

While I’m not much of a “beach person” — I don’t like the heat! — the last few weeks I’ve been craving a beach day. It really wouldn’t feel like summer without going at least once. So on Saturday, a girlfriend and I visited lovely, peaceful Hammonasset State Park in Madison, CT. It hit the spot.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, CT

Just before leaving for the beach I received the long-anticipated “”Welcome to the fall semester” email from the Spanish language coordinators at Fordham University (this is where I teach). All of a sudden the first day of classes (Wednesday!) feels real. I’m sure my future students are going through the same mental process. I will be teaching two sections of second-semester Spanish, and getting to know a new textbook, Gente.

These end-of-the-season events have inspired me to review the summer’s activity on I’ve published 27 posts since the beginning of June, roughly 3 a week. My main focus (9 posts) has been on verbs, which are, or course, a Big Deal in Spanish. These include:

Five posts have concerned vocabulary: Spanish slang, Spanish last names (women’s issues and patronymics)  special vocabulary for disabilities, and new Spanish vocabulary from the economic crisis.

Five other posts have concerned the process of learning. Topics included mismatches between Spanish and English vocabulary (verging into grammar), the pedagogical value of reading popular fiction (including a terrific reading list), what I forgot when I didn’t speak Spanish for a few years, and the philosophy that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.”

Four posts address Spanish spelling: accent marks, phonetic spelling (or not), x vs j, and x vs. cc.

Three posts address contemporary language issues: the minority languages of Spain, the high degree of metalinguistic awareness of normal Spanish speakers, and the political [in?]correctness of the language name Spanish.

This leaves two miscellaneous posts, on voseo and the surprising history of the word yand“.

Four of the above posts were part of Spanish Friday: here, here, here, and here.

During the summer the blog has been enriched by comments from readers from around the world. I really appreciate this and encourage you to keep writing. Please feel free to suggest new topics you’d like this blog to address, or enhancements — I’ve added an RSS feed but still haven’t invested any time in Twitter or Facebook. I much prefer to “just write”, but if any bells and whistles would make a difference I will invest the time. I just added a snazzy new background (made with Wordle) and hope it renders well on your screen.

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It’s been a great summer, and I’m looking forward to continuing into the new academic year.