Tag Archives: Spanish pronouns

Leísmo and verb subject properties

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post comparing the contexts of leísta and non-leísta pronoun usage in Jordi Sierra’s Cuatro días en enero. At least in the first few chapters of this book, masculine human direct objects of physical verbs tended to be expressed with lo and los, and objects of other verbs (mostly verbs of cognition) with le and les. Here is the verb table from that post.Since then, I’ve dusted off my virtual pile of leísmo readings to check for anything written about the relationship between verb choice and leísmo. This literature search came up almost dry: research on the semantics and leísmo uniformly refers to the semantic properties of nouns rather than verbs. One property that comes up frequently in the literature is whether an direct object expresses discrete, or countable, items (like cars) or non-countable materials (like sugar). Another, discussed in a 1974 paper by Erica García and Ricardo Otheguy, is relative strength, or activity. García and Otheguy suggest that le is chosen when a verb’s direct object is “stronger”, or more active. For example, they give the example of María le llora ‘Mary complains to him’, whose object “him” (a living person) is more active than the corpse in María lo llora ‘Mary mourns him’. This reminded me of Jon Aske’s comment on my original post, that “leísmo is used to add a nuance to the sentence, primarily having to do with human objects that are highly involved in the action or that something is being done for them, as opposed to to them.”

However, García and Otheguy also relate the le/lo choice to the properties of subjects, suggesting that le is chosen when a verb’s subject is “weaker”, or less active. For example, they contrast:

  1. No hagas ruido, niño, que le molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because it annoys your father’
  2. No hagas ruido, niño, que lo molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because you’ll annoy your father’.

As is typical in gustar-type sentences, the subject of sentence #1 (“noise”) is not an active participant. In contrast, the subject in sentence #2 (the child himself) is only too active!

This distinction might help to explain the division between le and lo verbs in the table above. Someone who eludes, finds, kills or unites (verbs from the second column of the table) is surely a stronger, or more active, subject than someone who merely sees, asks, or needs (first column). This might be a fruitful topic for a Spanish linguistics dissertation, if anyone is looking…


Triple pronoun positions in Spanish

I recently ran into a sentence with one conjugated verb and two infinitives.


But seriously…it was a sentence like Quiero poder hablarlo ‘I want to be able to speak it’, where ‘it’ referred to, perhaps, the Spanish language. I don’t remember whether this sentence came up in a student’s paper or was just something I was working out in my head. At any rate, I was curious to find out how many possible positions there were for the lo pronoun in this sentence.

As all of you know if you’ve tangled with Spanish grammar, an object pronoun like lo can come either before a conjugated verb or after an infinitive. (These are the main two rules, though there are others.) So in a sentence with two verbs, of which the first is conjugated, the pronoun can either precede the first (Lo quiero hablar) or follow the second (Quiero hablarlo). Both are equally valid, and Spanish speakers freely alternate between them.

I wondered: in a sentence with one conjugated verb and two infinitives, are there three possible pronoun positions?

  1. Lo quiero poder hablar
  2. Quiero poderlo hablar
  3. Quiero poder hablarlo

I posed this question on two of my favorite forums, /r/Spanish and WordReference, and the answer was a resounding : all three positions are legitimate.

How cool is that?

The difference between knowing and knowing

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Este aporte no trata de la diferencia entre los verbos saberconocer, sino de la diferencia entre conocer un aspecto de un idioma abtracta versus íntimamente.

Quisiera empezar con un ejemplo de la experiencia personal de mi marido, cuyo idioma maternal era el francés belga. Entre otras diferencias dialectales, aprendió a usar palabras distintas por 70 (septante) y 90 (nonante) en vez del soixante-dix (60+10) y quatre-vingt-dix (4×20+10) del francés convencional. Cuando habla francés hoy, suele ser con francófonos franceses. Por eso usa los números convencionales: sabe que son lo normal. Pero me dice que cada vez resiste hacerlo. “No puedo creer que verdaderamente usen estos apaños complicados.”

Encontré un fenómeno parecido recientemente cuando estaba preparando un examen para mis clases de español. Como siempre, había incluido una pregunta usando tú y tus amigos para obtener una respuesta usando nosotros. La pregunta específica era algo como ¿Qué van a hacer tú y tus amigos este fin de semana? Una colega española que leyó el examen se quedó horrorizada. Insistió en que la pregunta era gramaticalmente incorrecta porque combinaba la habla informal ( and tus) y formal (van).

De hecho, solo el español de España mantiene el contraste entre las formas plurales formales e informales. Mi colega, por ejemplo, usa vosotros y sus formales verbales (como vais) cuando habla con amigos, y ustedes (con van) cuando habla con superiores y desconocidos. Pero en Latinoamérica (y Andalucía), se usa ustedes en contextos formales e informales. En este dialecto mi pregunta es correcta.

Para mí, lo interesante de la reacción de mi colega es que por supuesto sabía intelectualmente que “no se usa vosotros en Latinoamérica”. Pero cuando encaró un uso específico, como mi marido con los números “franceses franceses”, su reacción era rechazarlo. Sabe, pero no cree.

Esta diferencia entre conocer y conocer (o saber y saber, o saber y creer) también tiene un gran impacto en el aprendizaje de un idioma extranjero. Cualquier estudiante de español principiante o intermedio se declararía de acuerdo con reglas básicas como “los adjetivos tienen que estar en concordancia con los sustantivos” o “los verbos tienen que estar en concordancia con sus sujetos”. Pero siguen violando estas reglas sin embargo en su español oral y escrito. Por la mayor parte, en mi opinión, es porque no han alcanzado el segundo nivel del conocimiento. Al fondo no han aceptado que el español pueda ser tan diferente del inglés, ni que estas violaciones verdaderamente resulten en español incomprensible. Solo el tiempo y la práctica los van a convencer.


This post isn’t about saber and conocer, the two Spanish verbs that mean “to know”. Rather, it’s about the difference between knowing an aspect of language abstractly versus personally.

Let me illustrate this first with an example from my husband’s experience as a native speaker of Belgian French (no frites jokes, s’il vous plaît). Among other dialectal differences, Belgian French uses distinct vocabulary words for 70 (septante) and 90 (nonante) instead of standard French soixante-dix (60+10) and quatre-vingt-dix (4×20+10). When he speaks French today, it is normally with French speakers from France, and he uses the standard numbers because he knows this is expected. Yet he tells me that every time, he resists doing so. “I can’t believe they actually use those complicated work-arounds.”

I ran into a similar phenomenon recently when preparing a Spanish test. As usual, I had included a question about “you and your friends” (tú y tus amigos) in order to trigger a “we” (nosotros) answer. (The exact question was something like ¿Qué van a hacer tú y tus amigos este fin de semana?) A Spanish colleague who looked over the test insisted that the question was grammatically incorrect because it combined informal address ( and tus) and the formal plural verb form van.

In fact, only peninsular Spanish, as exemplified in the Spanish of Madrid, maintains a contrast between informal and formal address in the plural. Thus my colleague uses vosotros when addressing friends, and ustedes when addressing superiors and strangers. The same goes for the associated verb forms, such as informal vais versus formal van. But in Latin America, as well as Andalusia (southern Spain), ustedes and its verb forms are used in both formal and informal contexts. In this dialect, my usage was perfectly correct.

What interested me about this exchange is that my colleague certainly knew that “Latin Americans don’t use vosotros“. Yet when it came to a specific application of this knowledge, her reaction was rejection, or even revulsion, just as when my husband has to force himself to use the “French French” numbers. She knows, but she doesn’t believe.

This difference between knowing and knowing also strongly affects second language learning. Any beginning or intermediate Spanish student will agree that “adjectives have to agree with nouns”, “verbs have to agree with their subjects”, and so on. They can probably list examples of correct agreement. Yet they continue to violate the rules in their spontaneous spoken and written Spanish. This is largely, I believe, because they haven’t progressed to the second level of knowing. In their heart of hearts they haven’t truly accepted that Spanish can be so different from English, and that violating these rules genuinely results in incomprehensible language.  Only time and practice will drive the reality home.