Tag Archives: personal a

Mirar with ‘a’

I recently finished Las chicas de alambre, one of Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s top-selling novels. It is about a reporter’s investigation of a top model’s disappearance; the alambre ‘wire’ in the title is a reference to the model’s anorexia. This was my first Sierra i Fabra novel outside of the author’s Inspector Mascarell series, and actually read a lot like a detective novel. It was a good story though I prefer the Mascarell books.

The second person the reporter interviewed for his story was the photographer who took the model’s first photographs. His description of the session included a use of the verb mirar that truly threw me for a loop.

Mirar is one of those verbs that often puzzles English speakers learning Spanish because its English translation, ‘look at’, includes a preposition (at). My students always want to add an explicit (and incorrect) preposition, Spanish a ‘at’, to the verb, as in Juan mira a la pintura ‘Juan looks at at the painting’. Spanish has plenty of verbs of this sort, mostly involving perception or motion, simply because English, as a Germanic language, favors two-part verbs, whereas Spanish, as a Romance language, does not. Other examples are buscar ‘look for’, escuchar ‘listen to’, subir ‘go up’, and sacar ‘take out’. (It’s worth noting that a few Spanish verbs require prepositions whereas their English equivalents don’t — salir de ‘leave’ and entrar en ‘enter’ come to mind — but these are clearly outnumbered.)

Mirar is especially challenging because it is correctly followed by a when its object is a person, as in Pablo mira a Juan ‘Pablo looks at Juan.’ But the a in such sentences is an instance of the untranslatable “personal a” required before human objects — also seen in sentences such as Pablo visita a Juan or Pablo ayuda a Juan ‘Pablo visits/helps Juan’ — rather than a verbal complement (if that’s the right term).

The relevant sentence in Las chicas de alambre was nadie puede enseñarte a mirar a una cámara ‘nobody can teach you how to look at a camera’. Assuming that this wasn’t a typographical error, I wondered whether this could be a most intriguing use of the personal a. Could looking at a camera be like looking at a person, since a camera, like a person, has an eye?

To investigate this question I consulted one of my favorite resources, the website wordreference.com. Its listing for the verb mirar included the specific phrase mirar a la cámara but also other uses of mirar a without a human object:

  • mirar a ambos lados antes de cruzar ‘look both ways before crossing’
  • mirar a las musarañas ‘look at the bugs’, i.e. daydream
  • mirar a otro sitio ‘look away’
  • mirar al futuro ‘look to the future, think ahead’
  • mirar al vacio ‘stare off into space’

In all these cases, including mirar a la cámara, a clearly acts as ‘toward’ rather than just ‘to’, expressing the direction of one’s gaze.

In sum, the possible personal a interpretation turned out to be a red herring, but I ended up learning more than I expected about the use of this ubiquitous Spanish verb.

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.