Category Archives: Vocabulary

To gloss or not to gloss: a follow-up

Last week I wrote about my policy of handing out vocabulary lists with the English glosses (translations) written in. (Our textbook does not provide glosses for the end-of-chapter vocabulary lists, only a master list at the end of the book.)

When my students filled out their course evaluations I asked them to let me know what they thought of this practice. My question presented both sides of the issue:

“I like to give you the English translations of the chapter vocabulary to save you time and point out possible pitfalls. But other teachers think that looking up the words yourself is an important step in learning. Which approach do you think is best for you?”

I was pleased to see that my students unanimously appreciated the glosses. Also, even though I forgot ask them to explain their choice, most did so on their own. Saving time was most often mentioned as a benefit. Since this is a most studious group, I wasn’t surprised that many of these students said this was time they could spend memorizing the words or doing other homework.

One student gave a more nuanced perspective on the time factor:

” I looked up all my vocab words myself last year in Spanish class and although it did help me to know them better in the beginning, having the extra time saved from not looking them up meant more time to study them and memorize them later.”

A second benefit often mentioned was accuracy: students said that the glosses kept them from “studying the wrong meanings,” as one student put it.

Given this response, I will definitely continue to provide glosses when I teach this class again.

Some specifics: Sixteen students were present that day, and all responded. Of the thirteen who explained their answer, nine mentioned time and five accuracy. (These add up to fourteen because one student gave both reasons.)

Vocabulary: to gloss or not to gloss?

Everybody knows that flossing is good for you. But what about glossing?

The Spanish textbook series we currently use at Fordham University is Pearson’s Gente. The beginning and intermediate books in the series provide glosses, or translations, for the vocabulary list at the end of each chapter. But the advanced textbook does not. There is a Spanish-English glossary at the end of the book that students can use to look up words.

The first time I taught this course, I was struck by how inefficient it was for each student to have to look up the words. Moreover, I found some mistakes, or at least weaknesses, in the glosses:

  • missing words
  • glosses that average college students wouldn’t necessarily understand (‘foment’, ‘infusion’)
  • glosses that are correct but not necessarily satisfactory, such as ‘commitment, engagement’ for compromiso (leaving out that it’s often a pre-marital engagement) or ‘offer’ for oferta, where the usual meaning involves a special price.
  • glosses that conflate differences, such as genialidad and genio both glossed as ‘genius’
  • no heads-up for false cognates such as compromiso, which doesn’t mean ‘compromise’

So this semester, at the beginning of each chapter I gave the students a screen shot of the vocabulary page on which I had written on my own glosses. I photocopied these onto yellow paper — a teaching trick I picked up somewhere along the way. Here’s an example: my original, hence not yellow. Note that I don’t generally gloss cognates. This drives home their ubiquity, and also makes false cognates stand out.

(post continues after graphic)

When I told a colleague about my approach, she was mildly horrified. She thought that it was important for students to look up the glosses themselves, and that this was their first step in learning vocabulary. I believe that while it’s beneficial to use a dictionary while reading, and that this is a special skill that we need to teach our students, looking up 100 words, in alphabetical order, in a simple glossary is fundamentally different. It’s mechanical, rather than intellectual, essentially a secretarial task of collating two lists.

What do you think?

In this follow-up post, I describe my students’ unanimously favorable assessment of the glosses.



Ya and todavía, logical at last

The Spanish words ya ‘already’ and todavía ‘still’ are straightforward enough, but their negatives also have specific meanings: todavía no means ‘not yet’ and ya no means ‘no longer.’ So this small corner of Spanish vocabulary is actually a bit tricky.

As a Spanish student I dealt with the problem via brute force, memorizing the four expressions and their translations. This worked for years but was always a bit unsatisfying. Then, a few years ago, a member of reddit’s /r/Spanish subreddit posted the following infographic, which changed the way i think about these words. The focus on ya as change and todavía as continuity unites the positive and negative meanings of both these adverbs. I am posting it here with his permission.

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This brings me to one of my favorite teaching anecdotes. Back in 2008, when teaching a lesson on these four adverbs, I thought that it would be fun to base an exercise on the previous year’s Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. I made a little table that showed who the candidates were at different stages at the primaries, and the students had to choose between ya and todavía to complete sentences like “En verano 2007, Hillary Clinton ________ no era candidata.” One of my students complained, “I didn’t know we had to know history for this class!” So cute…

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?



Different ways to ask about the weather

When I was a girl studying Spanish as a second language, I learned to use the question ¿Qué tiempo hace? to ask about the weather. It translates literally as ‘What weather is it making?’ and was, in fact, one of the first examples I every came across that showed how different languages can express the same concept it fundamentally different ways. It comes with a list of related phrases such as Hace calor ‘It’s hot’, Hace sol ‘It’s sunny’ (literally ‘It makes heat/sun’), and so on, though some other weather expressions, such as Está nublado ‘It’s cloudy’ and Está a x grados ‘It’s X degrees’, use verbs other than hacer ‘to make’.

These expressions went into my back pocket and I’ve been pulling them out for years, both when speaking Spanish myself and as a teacher.

So you can imagine my surprise to learn, via a recent discussion in /r/Spanish, that this terminology doesn’t fly in most of the New World. The discussion began with an American (US) speaker of Guatemalan heritage complaining that people don’t understand ¿Qué tiempo hace? when he visits Guatemala. Others chimed in with similar perspectives from Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Argentina. Alternative wordings from these areas are:

  • ¿Cómo está (hoy) el clima? (Mexico, Peru)
  • ¿Cómo está el tiempo? (Colombia)
  • Hay sol. (Argentina) Hay viento. (Peru)

It was especially impressive that this difference actually caused misunderstandings, with speakers in some countries interpreting any question about tiempo to be time-related.

I was amused to read one Peruvian’s perspective than “¿Qué tiempo hace? is an old construction to ask information about weather in my country. If I recall correctly it’s used in Spain, you could probably meet the term with old people most likely. Nowadays to avoid confusion Latin countries mostly use clima which translates exactly as weather. The current usage of this word makes newer generations oblivious of the former construction tho.”

So…am I old? Biased toward Spanish Spanish? Or out of touch? In any case, the next time I teach first-year Spanish I will be sure to use this topic as an opportunity to discuss dialectal differences.

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!

In a Spanish pickle

I learned a new word this morning: escabechina, meaning ‘slaughter’ or ‘massive damage’. It’s often used metaphorically in a school context, to refer to a test that everybody fails.

What caught my eye (ear?) about this word is that it is clearly derived from the culinary term escabeche, meaning either ‘marinade’ (a sauce for marinating something) or something that has been marinated or pickled. I think of an escabeche as a fish preparation but it can also be used to describe vegetable dishes. The word is Arabic in origin; I suppose that pickling was an important way to preserve foods in the desert prior to refrigeration. However, according to my favorite Spanish etymological dictionary, it didn’t come into Spanish directly, but via Catalan.

Escabeche de pescado

Escabeche de pescado

This word history rings a bell for me as a speaker of English, since we likewise use the word pickle to refer to a problematic situation (though not a disaster). The words sour and acidic also have negative connotations. Escabechina is thus following a well-trodden semantic pathway from an unpleasant taste to an unpleasant event: the opposite of sweet.

Waiting and hoping, i.e. esperar

In an earlier post I summarized some asymmetrical differences between Spanish and English: the many distinctions in meaning seen in Spanish but not English, such as ser vs. estar (both meaning ‘to be’), and some seen in English but not Spanish, such as his vs. her vs. their (Spanish su). A recent thread on r/Spanish brought to mind another asymmetry of the second type: the Spanish verb esperar, which can mean either wait (for) or hope:

  • Espero el autobús ‘We’re waiting for the bus.’
  • Espero que venga ‘I hope he comes.’

Comments in that thread pointed out an interesting difference between the two uses of esperar: when used without a direct object, esperar can only mean ‘to wait’. This means that, for example, Tienes que esperar cannot mean ‘You must hope.’ The only way to express this is via a work-around, such as Tienes que tener esperanza — literally, ‘You must have hope.’

I love it that after spending decades with Spanish I can still come across such fresh nuances of meaning and usage. This is, of course, a “glass half full” reaction — perhaps I should be frustrated that there is always more to learn. But for me, this richness is part of what makes languages interesting.

A new online Spanish etymological dictionary

Today’s post is about a new online resource for the Spanish language lover: the Online Etymological Dictionary of Spanish, or OEDoS. A screen clip of the welcome screen is below. The website was inspired by Douglas Harper’s very useful online etymological dictionary of English. It went live in July, and has its own Facebook page. The primary resource consulted to create the entries has been Corominas’s Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua castellana. (This is the six-volume standard, whose shorter version is one of the “top 10 books” on my bookshelf.)


I contacted the OEDoS Team to find out more about their methodology. Via a friendly return email I learned that the dictionary began with the 2000 most frequently used words of Spanish, with others added because of etymological importance, user requests, and other reasons. My OEDoS contact’s (Patrick Welsh) explanation of how the OEDoS handles etymological disagreements was quite interesting:

As regards conflicting etymologies, we the OEDoS team recognize a dual responsibility of both accuracy and readability. We aim to capture disagreement between linguists whenever possible. In the interest of our time constraints and resources, this is not always possible. Sometimes this breeds disagreement on our side as well. For example, the etymology of hacer ( sparked significant disagreement on historical accentuation and lexical borrowing; this caused the publication of the entry to be delayed for some time. We note the incisive criticism of Penny and others in the 1980s toward Meyer-Leubke, as well as very recent scholarship on Latin’s reflexes in Romance. Ultimately, we decided Meyer-Leubke’s comments were strong enough to overcome our initial wariness. Brief mention of two modern publications were included in the entry as well. Sometimes the entry you see in the dictionary is a snapshot of disagreement: not only between historical linguists at their university desks but between us as well


I hope that you will all visit this website and spread the word about the project.

Trabajar por vs. trabajar para

My airplane reading for my flight home from Spain was the third book in Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” series, Cinco días de octubre. I love these books! The plots are gripping, the Spanish is lively, the links to modern Spanish history are illuminating, the Barcelona setting is vivid (Sierra’s events unfold on actual streets, parks, and whatnot), and Inspector Mascarell himself is a compelling character, from his brilliant investigative skills to his mental conversations with his dead wife.

Of course, I always have my eyes out for interesting linguistic tidbits, and I found one on p. 223 of the paperback edition. There, Mascarell reassures a nervous witness that although he is temporarily in the employ of the unscrupulous Benigno Sáez de Heredia, he isn’t Sáez’s ally. He does this by juxtaposing por and para with the verb trabajar:

Trabajo para él, accidentalmente, pero no por él, descuide.
‘I work for him, accidentally, but not for him, so relax.’

Por and para both translate as ‘for’ in English, and mastering the subtle differences between them is one of the less pleasant tasks in learning Spanish (see, for instance, the por/para handout on my Teaching page, and also this earlier post). The contrast between trabajar por and trabajar para is a standard part of this topic. However, Sierra does not exploit the contrast in the usual way.

Normally, trabajar para means ‘to work for (as an employee)’ and trabajar por means ‘to work for (as a substitute)’, as when a usual worker is sick. My por/para handout includes examples of both uses. However, in this case Sierra is using trabajar por to mean instead ‘to work for the sake of’, or ‘for the benefit of’. This is a perfectly reasonable use of por, but startling after focusing, for years (!!!), on the employee/substitute contrast.

Like other contrasts that exist in Spanish but not English, such as ser vs. estar ‘to be’ and the preterite vs. imperfect past tenses, the por/para contrast can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, the contrast is a genuine challenge for novice Spanish students, and even old hands: after decades of striving, I still occasionally find myself stumped as to which preposition to use. On the other hand, Sierra’s example here shows the expressive power of the por/para contrast. It accomplishes elegantly, with a single lexical choice, a difference that in English requires either dramatic emphasis on the second for (as I’ve tried to show via boldface), or a more drastic, and stiffer, rewording: perhaps ‘…but not on his behalf’. It’s always comforting to see such a useful payoff for a challenging aspect of the language.

[Other posts based on Sierra i Fabra’s books have concerned leísmo (here and here), the personal a, and the imperfect subjunctive.]