Tag Archives: verbs

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…


Latin versus Spanish verb tenses

Believe it or not, after my last post about the subjunctive I had resolved to take a long break from writing about verbs. But as part of my research I just performed the following summary analysis, which I found so useful that I couldn’t resist sharing it.

The series of tables below summarizes the fate of the many Latin tenses in Spanish. What’s most interesting is that although Latin had a rich verb system, and Spanish does too, there’s very little direct overlap. The present indicative and subjunctive, and the two simple past tenses (imperfect and perfect), are the only four tenses to survive more or less “as is” in Spanish, though the perfect became a more general past tense (the pretérito). Two Latin pluperfect tenses were adapted as the two versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, and two others as the now-defunct future subjunctive (thereby hangs a future blog post). Seven other tenses were lost.

Latin tensesWhile losing 9 Latin tenses in total, Spanish added ALL the perfect tenses (haber + past participle), and also the future and conditional, which are likewise based on haber.

Now I promise to stay away from verbs for a while.

The sadistic Spanish subjunctive

I can remember the exact moment when Spanish utterly and permanently captivated me. I was fifteen years old and in my fourth year as a Spanish student. Our class had wrapped up the basic tenses and the present subjunctive, and was ready to launch into the imperfect subjunctive. Our teacher explained to us that this tense was based on the pretérito and incorporated all of its irregulars.

This struck me as laugh-out-loud funny. We had already learned that the present subjunctive inherited all the idiosyncrasies of the normal present tense, including the ones that only show up in the yo form (the -zco and -go types). But the preterit is even thornier. It seemed bizarre beyond belief that the subjunctive should adopt the most problematic elements of both these tenses.

As a student, it amused me to imagine that a twisted “Spanish committee” (perhaps a branch of the Spanish Inquisition?) had designed the subjunctive. (My little PowerPoint below depicts this scenario.) As a teacher, I now like to tell my students that the present subjunctive is God’s way of getting them to review the irregular verbs that they’d studied weeks, months, or even years ago. I figure that teaching at a Jesuit university authorizes me to invoke God in the classroom.

In fact, the many irregulars of the subjunctive are neither a cosmic joke, an evil machination, nor an act of God. They’re simply a coincidence. The present and imperfect subjunctive happened to follow the same evolutionary paths as several distinct categories of irregular verbs in the present and pretérito indicative.

Consider the examples of irregular verbs shown in the table below, color-coded for your convenience.

irregular subjunctive

The “boot” verbs, in yellow, are irregular in the present tense because of a language-wide process that changed stressed /o/ to /ue/ and stressed /e/ to /ie/. The corresponding present subjunctives have the same vowels and the same stress pattern, and therefore the same irregularity.

The -ir “sole” verbs, in blue, are irregular in the present and the pretérito because of another general process: the raising of /e/ to /i/ and /o/ to /u/ before /j/ (the sound of English y). All Latin -ire present subjunctive endings, and the “sole” (3rd person) endings of the imperfect subjunctive, contained (or still contain) /j/, triggering the vowel change.

The -zco and -go irregulars of the present tense, in green, evolved because the o ending of the yo form insulated it from changes that affected the other present tense forms and the infinitive. The subjunctive endings for these verbs begin with a, which had the same insulating property.

Finally, the drastic stem-changing pretéritos, in magenta, descend from Latin’s “strong perfect” past tense forms. The imperfect subjunctive is based on Latin’s pluperfect tense, which had the same irregularities.

This leaves “only” the six additional irregulars of the present tense subjunctive. Their diverse origins are summarized below.

6 irregular present subjunctives

As always, if you want to learn more, the best source is Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language. But beware — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Enfatizando los verbos

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

Este verano he escrito mucho sobre los verbos españoles: sobre el presente (aquí, aquí, aquí, aquí, y aquí), el subjuntivo, y el pretérito. Este énfasis ha sido en parte porque actualmente estoy investigando los verbos por un libro que estoy escribiendo sobre el español (todavía busco una editorial, si tienes una conexión…). Pero más fundamentalmente ha sido por la importancia que tienen los verbos dentro del español.

Hablo, en parte y como siempre, del punto de vista pedagógico. A veces me parece que paso la mayoría del tiempo en la clase ayudándoles a mis estudiantes a comprender, aprender de memoria, y practicar nuestros varios tiempos verbales. Pero este énfasis recibe apoyo cuantitativo de nuestros textos. Por ejemplo, en mi libro de gramática favorito (The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice), más de la mitad del libro trata sobre los verbos. En Amazon se venden al menos 36 libros específicamente sobre los verbos españoles, incluso libros especializados como The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close y Spanish Past-Tense Verbs Up Close(Tengo que confesar que no sé si esto es igual o más de lo típico en libros sobre otros idiomas.)

A veces todos nosotros nos sentimos aplastados por los verbos.

A veces todos todos nos sentimos aplastados por los verbos.

De todas formas, los verbos les importan a nuestros libros, a nuestras clases, a nuestros estudiantes, a nuestro idioma. Por eso deben importarles también a nuestras comunicaciones sobre el español, como este blog, y puedes anticipar más aportes de mi parte en el futuro.


This summer I’ve written tons about Spanish verbs: the present (herehereherehere, y here), the subjunctive, and the preterit. This emphasis has partly been because I’ve been researching verbs for a book I’m writing about Spanish (I’m still looking for a publisher, if you have a connection…). But more fundamentally, it’s been because of the importance of verbs within Spanish.

I’m partly speaking, as always, from a pedagogical point of view. Sometimes it seems like I spend most of my classroom time helping students to understand, memorize, and practice our many verb tenses. But books about Spanish certainly provide quantitative support to this emphasis. For example, more than half the pages of my favorite grammar book (The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice) are devoted to verbs. Amazon sells at least 36 books specifically about Spanish verbs, including specialized books like The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close and Spanish Past-Tense Verbs Up Close(I confess that I don’t know how this compares to grammar books for other languages.)

At any rate, verbs matter to our books, our classes, our students, our language. Therefore, they should matter also in our communications about Spanish, like this blog, and you can expect to see more here in the future.

Those wacky -ir verbs

In a previous post I described the origin of the three main categories of Spanish “boot” verbs, shown below:

Boot verbsThe first two types of vowel change, from e ie and from o ue, affect -ar-er, and -ir verbs. The third type, with a vowel change from e iaffects only ir verbs. I also described how a fourth change for -ir verbs, from o u , was sidetracked, with the relevant verbs switching over entirely to u (e.g. mullir, from Latin mollire).

At the time I overlooked a simple yet dramatic truth: the “boot” pattern has taken over all possible -ir verbs! This amounts to a significant difference between -ir verbs and -ar/-er verbs. When you learn a new -ar or -er verb that might be a boot verb (say, the hypothetical verbs felar and foler), you need to check a dictionary to see how the verb works. Is it regular, in which case the present tense forms are (yo) felo and (yo) folo, or boot (fielo, fuelo)? For a hypothetical -ir verb like felir, this question is moot: it’s a boot verb for sure. The only remaining issue is which type it is, i.e. fielo or filo.

[Note that the total change of o u in -ir verbs means that one will never encounter a new verb like folir; it would have changed to fulir.]

To verify this generalization, have a look at the comprehensive list of -ir verbs at intro2spanish.com (a website with which I am not affiliated; I just admire their verb lists). With a single bizarre exception (abolir, see below), every verb on the list whose final stem vowel is e or o is a “boot” verb.

FYI abolir (click for conjugation) belongs to yet another weird category: it’s a so-called “defective verb”, which means that its only allowed forms are those whose verb ending begins with i. For the present tense, this means that the verb only exists in the nosotros and vosotros forms, which are both outside the “boot”.

This generalization about -ir boot verbs is hardly earth-shaking. In fact, if you’re not a Spanish grammar lover, you’re probably asleep by now (but then how can you still be reading???). To me, though, it is somehow aesthetically pleasing. These -ir boot verbs are weird in general — consider their gerunds (dUrmiendo, sugIriendo) and preterits (dUrmió, sugIrió). Shouldn’t their present tense be special, too?

Twice the subjunctive, twice the fun

This post is a little denser on grammar than usual, so I’ve inset helpful expositions in red.

The American comedian W.C. Fields famously quipped that if first prize was a week in Philadelphia, second prize was two weeks. I suppose that most Spanish students feel the same way about the subjunctive. If first prize is the present subjunctive, second prize is the imperfect subjunctive. Third prize, then, must be the present subjunctive plus TWO imperfect subjunctives: the ones with -ra and the ones with -se.

(If you’re rusty on the imperfect subjunctive, a decent review is here.)

For a linguist, however, the many subjunctives of Spanish are pure candy. For one thing, it’s delightfully contrarian that neither imperfect subjunctive is directly related to the original Latin version. Instead, these two tenses (or moods, more precisely) arose from two Latin pluperfect conjugations: the pluperfect subjunctive (for -se) and the pluperfect indicative (for ra).

“Pluperfect” simply means a tense that is used to talk about actions completed before some past point in time. The Modern Spanish equivalents use compound structures, as in Si hubiera comido… “If I had eaten…” (pluperfect subjunctive) and Había comido “I had eaten” (pluperfect indicative).

The following table shows the original Latin conjugations and their outcome in Spanish.

imperfect subjunctive

Even more interesting is the mere fact that the two conjugations co-exist in modern Spanish. Although not as common as the -ra subjunctive, the -se subjunctive is certainly current, especially in the written language, and is understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world. This is remarkable because in grammar, a difference in form normally implies a difference in meaning. Comí, comía, and he comido are all different kinds of past tenses; voy a comer and comeré refer to  imminent vs. distant future events The Spanish imperfect subjunctive is thus a striking exception. In fact, it’s the only case I’m familiar with in any language where two parallel constructions co-exist in the core of the grammar. (If you know of any others, please share them!)

Essentially, what we are seeing here is a snapshot of a slowly moving change in the language. The -se subjunctive came first; Ralph Penny dates it to Old Spanish, roughly 1000 to 1400 CE. Its evolution was relatively simple, involving only a shift in time (from pluperfect to normal past tense) along with shortened verb endings as a result of normal sound change. The -ra subjunctive took longer to evolve because it also involved a switch from indicative to subjunctive: that is, from actuality to possibility. Penny dates its emergence to the Golden Age (1500 to 1700), and its overtaking the -se subjunctive to “more recent times”.

In the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, then, the language’s past and future co-exist peacefully in the present. Although this is an unusual situation in grammar, it’s one that we’re used to in vocabulary, which changes much faster. A contemporary American English speaker, for example, understands the outdated swell and nifty, the timeless cool, and possibly the trendy swag and dope. The Spanish parallels would depend on dialect, but just consider the exuberant redundancy of maravillosofantásticoestupendofabulosoexcelentefenomenaltremendo, and buenísimo. The co-existence of the two Spanish subjunctives is therefore simultaneously exotic and familiar.

Spanish ver veered

Ver es creer (“Seeing is believing”).

In Old Spanish — the Spanish of El Cid, spoken into the 1400s — ver and creer had more in common than this refrán. The Old Spanish version of ver was veer, and its conjugation was identical to that of creer (and likewise leer).

veer creer leer

The three verbs were similar because they had similar Latin roots: viderecredere, and legere. In all three cases, the middle consonant (d or g) dropped out, creating a double ee in all but the yo form. (The change of i to e in videre was normal, see this earlier post.)

Although I didn’t bother to include it in the table above, poseer, from Latin possidēre, fits the same pattern.

Veer became an irregular verb when its history diverged from creer and leer. As Old Spanish gave way to the modern language, the double ee of veer simplified to a single e. (The expected yo form from this point onward was vo). Later, the edes ending for vosotros changed to eis for all -er verbs. These two changes together gave rise to the modern conjugations:

veer creer leer modernVer‘s history is both unique and familiar. Unique, because it created the only verb with this specific irregularity. (I’m not counting prever, which is of course based on ver.) Familiar, because as with the much more frequent -zco and -go verbs, the more conservative yo form, ironically, became irregular as a side-effect of changes that affected other forms of the verb, including the infinitive. Veo itself would have remained just as regular as creo and leo if the other verb forms hadn’t changed.

So, dear reader: Viste. Leíste. ¿Creíste?

Irregular yo in Spanish — NOT!

Because my high school friend Peter was on the yearbook committee, he managed to have his picture published upside-down (that’s NOT him in the picture below), with the senior quote “Maybe, just maybe, everyone else is wrong”.

"Maybe, just maybe, everyone else is wrong"

“Maybe, just maybe, everyone else is wrong” 

In our family, Peter’s quote has become an anti-trend mini-meme. No Facebook account? Don’t think Seth MacFarlane is funny? Every other “car” in the parking lot is an SUV? Maybe, just maybe…

Believe it or not, I thought of Peter immediately when I looked into the origin of the two biggest Spanish verb groups with irregular yo forms in the present tense: the so-called -zco and -go verbs. (This is particularly ironic because Peter didn’t even take Spanish.) It turns out that from a historical perspective, the yo forms are actually the most REGULAR — that is, most faithful to the original Latin. In a nutshell, their -o ending insulated them from sound changes that affected /k/ before /e/ and /i/; i.e. before front vowels.

So in this case, everyone else IS wrong, or at least linguistically radical.

For -zco verbs like florecer, from Latin florescere, the relevant change was the simplification of /sk/ to /s/ (in Andalucian and Latin American Spanish) or /Θ/ (in Castilian Spanish) before /e/ or /i/. [Note: this is a drastic abbreviation of a process that involved several intermediate steps; see Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language or another good history of Spanish for details.] So the infinitive changed from florescere to florecer, the  form from floresces to floreces, and so on. Only florezco kept the /k/ cluster of the original Latin.

For -go verbs like hacer, from Latin facere, the relevant change was the fronting and softening of /k/ to /s/ or /θ/ before front vowels. So the infinitive changed from facere (with a /k/ sound) to hacer, the  form to haces, and so on. Only haco remained in the present tense as a reflection of the original Latin /k/. Later, a separate change voiced the /k/ to /g/, giving us modern hago. (This /g/ is still a lot closer to /k/ than is /s/ or /θ/.) A similar sequence of events impacted Latin dicere as it evolved into decir, giving us the (yo) digo form.

All the sound changes mentioned above were general, occurring throughout Spanish vocabulary. For example, the /sk/ simplification gave us pez (from Latin pesce), /k/ fronting gave us cielo (from Latin caelu), and /k/ voicing gave us lugar (from Latin locale). The change of /f/ to /h/ in hacer (from facere) is also seen in words like hijo (from Latin filius).

As I described in an earlier post, analogy untidies the results of sweeping sound changes like these. This was certainly the case with the -zco and -go verbs. The verb lucir and related verbs like deslucir adopted the -zco pattern, as did several verbs ending in -ducir, such as producir, even though none of these had an /sk/ cluster in Latin. Likewise, the -go pattern spread to other common verbs including venir, tener, and salir, though at the same time, some verbs originally in the -go group became regular (cocer is one). After these back-and-forths, modern Spanish ended up with almost 100 –zco verbs, and around 10 –go verbs. You can check my Teaching page for a full list of the -zco verbs.

The other irregular yo types — ver, the -oy verbs, and the two -e verbs (haber and saber) –are another story entirely; maybe I’ll post about them later.

[Update: I have now posted about ver.]

It’s raining (Spanish irregular) verbs – Hallelujah!

If you’re a language fanatic, like me, perhaps you lie awake at night counting irregular verbs:

I’m not that far gone, but I am curious about these pesky beasts. A specific question I’ve had about irregular verbs in Spanish concerns the present tense in particular. Every textbook lists “some common verbs” of the main types, mainly “boot” verbs and -zco, but I’ve never seen an exact count, or an exhaustive list.

I think I’ve now come close thanks to the intro2spanish website (with which I am not affiliated). Below is a summary table of the number of verbs listed there from the various irregular categories, broken down by category and by conjugation class (-ar, -er, -ir). I haven’t included the miscellaneous irregulars like veo, nor the small -go class, because these are covered in every textbook.

-ar -er -ir TOTAL
e > ie 44 21 35 100
o > ue 47 22 2 (dormir, morir) 71
u > ue 1 (jugar) *** *** 1
e > i *** *** 42 42
-zco *** 90 *** 90

You can download a complete listing of the irregulars here: irregular verb list. If you can think of any others, please let me know so I can update the list and the table.

Here are some interesting patterns in the data:

  • Jugar is clearly anomalous. It derives from Latin iocāri, and should have come into Spanish as just another o > ue verb, jogar. The infinitive’s change from jogar to jugar is a mystery to Spanish historical linguists. My favorite explanation is Tom Lathrop’s purely speculative one: that the infinitive jogar might have become jugar out of “self-defense” as speakers avoided saying something so similar to joder (“to f*ck”). You can read a longer explanation in this article (in Spanish) or on p. 160 of Lathrop’s The Evolution of Spanish:

  • I had no idea there were that many -zco verbs, or that -ir verbs outnumbered -er verbs within the e > ie type. Todos los días se aprende algo.
  • If you were surprised that all e>i verbs are -ir, then you should (re)read my previous post about boot verbs. The e>i change was triggered by the /j/ sound, which only occurred in Vulgar Latin -ir verb endings. (To be picky, it actually occurred in -er endings too, but was lost in these before it had the chance to do much damage.)
  • It’s awesome that only two -ir verbs have the o > ue pattern. As explained in my previous post, the other -ir verbs that started to go down this road switched to a u instead, which spread around the whole conjugation. That’s where we get (inter alia) mullir and subir.

Sleep well!

Spanish boot verbs, sound change, and analogy

Lately I’ve been looking into the origins of the Spanish irregular verbs oh-so-affectionately called “boot” verbs. They are more properly called “stem-changing verbs” because their final stem vowel changes from e to ie (e.g. negar/niego), from o to ue (e.g. poder/puedo), or from e to i (e.g. medir/mido). It’s exciting to discover that this verb class is a perfect example of the two classic forces in language change: sound change and analogy. As any basic linguistics textbook will tell you, sound change affects all words with a given sound, and analogy then messes things up.

Two sound changes are responsible for the “boot” verbs: the change of Latin short  /ĕ/ and /ŏ/ to the diphthongs (vowel sequences) /ie/ and /ue/ in stressed syllables, and the raising of /e/ to /i/ before the sound /j/, which is pronounced like English y. The first change is more common because it affected -ar-er, and -ir verbs. It’s the change behind the form of much Spanish vocabulary, including such common words as fiesta and puerta, from Latin festa and porta (see this previous post). And because it’s confined to stressed syllables, it’s the source of the classic “boot” pattern, where the diphthong occurs in the singular and the 3rd person plural (pUEdo, pUEdes, pUEde, pUEden) but not in the nosotros and vosotros forms, where stress falls on the verb ending (podEmos, podÉIs).

Analogy messed up this tidy result by turning some regular verbs into boot verbs and some boot verbs into regulars. The former is akin to the emergence of dove as an alternative to dived, by analogy to drove and other irregular “strong” English verbs. The most common verb that “went boot” is pensar, which shouldn’t have a stem change because its /e/ comes from a Latin long vowel. Some examples of former boot verbs that are now regular are prestar (formerly priesto, priestas, etc.) and diezmar (the original infinitive was dezmar).

The raising of /e/ to /i/ before /j/ only happened in a few verb forms, but analogy took it the rest of the way. The /j/ that triggered this change occurred in Latin -īre verb endings; this is why all Spanish verbs in this boot class are -ir verbs. For example, the – ending of Latin mētiō “I measure” came to be pronounced /jo/ in Vulgar Latin, triggering the change of /met/ to /mit/. This vowel change then spread, by analogy, throughout the full “boot”, and the /j/ was eventually lost(The /t/ also turned into a /d/, obviously.)

Spanish was actually supposed to have four types of boot verbs, because /j/ affected /o/ as well as /e/, raising it to /u/ in a number of -ir verbs. However, in these cases analogy truly ran rampant and /u/ completely took over the verb, changing Latin mollire, for example, to Spanish mullir “to hoe”. No modern forms of this verb reflect the original /o/. The same thing happened to subir. Its Latin source was sŭbīre; without the /j/ the short /ŭ/ of the stem would have turned into an /o/, i.e. sobir.

For more, see pp. 156-161 In the 1991 edition of Ralph Penny’s marvelous A History of the Spanish Language (unfortunately, not the edition pictured below, which has eliminated some detail.)

I wrote again about boot verbs a few days later, in this post.