Lessons for topic Grammar

M Before P and B

A basic Spanish spelling rule: whenever you hear a nasal sound (m or n) before a p or b, you have to write m. For example, the first time you hear the word sombrero (hat), you might not be sure if you heard an m or an n sound before the b, but the rule tells us it has to be spelled with an m.

Un sombrero. -Listones. Mire qué listones más bonitos para que se haga unos moños.
A hat.
-Ribbons. Look at what beautiful ribbons so that one can make some [hair] buns.
Caption 8: El Ausente - Acto 1 - Part 6

This rule must be applied without exception. When a word that ends in an n is combined with a word that begins with a p or b to form a compound word like cien+piesciempiés (centipede) the n becomes an m. Some other examples of this are en+pollo (chicken) → empollar (to sit on eggs, to hatch), en+bala
(bundle) embalar (to pack) and en+belesa (the belesa is a narcotic plant) → embelesar (to captivate).  

Vamos a empollar veinte criaturas.
Let's hatch twenty children.
Caption 15: Calle 13 - Tango del pecado

Take note, this rule doesn’t apply to v, despite the fact that native Spanish speakers often conflate it with b. In fact, in Spanish, it is also a rule that you should always write n before v.

La gente no me parecía... no me parecía el tipo de gente con el que yo me quería involucrar.
The people didn't seem to... they didn't seem to be the kind of people I wanted to get involved with.
Caption 56: Arturo Vega - Entrevista - Part 2

This rule is very useful when trying to figure out the proper way to spell certain Spanish words, especially considering that it is not uncommon to hear native speakers replace the m sound with an n sound. Listen to our Nicaraguan friend, Doña Coco:

Y hay mucho cristia'... este... católicos también.
And there's a lot of Christia'... I mean... Catholics also.
Caption 26: Doña Coco - Música

Does it not sound like she might be saying tanbién, with an n, instead of también (also) with an m?

If you keep an ear out you are just as likely to hear anbiente for ambiente (environment) and inportante in place of importante (important). But remember, always write an m (not an n) before a p or a b, and an n (not an m) before a v.
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Se me olvida, I forgot!

Se me ha olvidado quién soy yo
I have forgotten who I am
Caption 2: Cienfue - Medio Alcohólico Melancólico

As English speakers, we might be wondering why “I have forgotten,” in the caption above, isn’t using the first person (yo or "I") conjugation of haber, as in [yo] he olvidado... 

In fact, Cienfue could have sung precisely that, which would be the most “English-like” way of expressing his thought:

[yo] he olvidado quién soy yo
I have forgotten who I am

Another alternative would be the
pronominal (think “reflexive”) form, olvidarse:

[yo] me he olvidado de quién soy yo
I have forgotten who I am

Note that the pronominal option requires a “de” after olvidado. The reason for this is that olvidarse, like most pronominal verbs, does not take a direct object, while olvidar is “transitive”—meaning it does (and must) take a direct object. Native speakers often just “know” this instinctively.

Cienfue doesn’t opt for either of these, rather going with what, to English speakers, will be the most “foreign” (though commonplace in Spanish) construction, olvidársele. Olvidársele is what is known as the "impersonal" (or “terciopersonal,” third person) construction of olvidarse

In contrast to what we are accustomed to in English, the subject of the sentence is the thing forgotten, while the person doing the forgetting is expressed as an indirect object (signified by the le appended to olvidarse). Something "gets forgotten" (
passive voice) "by someone."

So, when Cienfue sings,

Se me ha olvidado quién soy yo

the subject of the sentence is “quién soy yo” (who I am) and the indirect object is “me” (me).

Cienfue is most literally saying:
“ ‘Who I am’ has been forgotten by me”

Most Spanish speakers, even if pressed, will find precious little (if any) difference in meaning amongst the three possible constructions. There are definitely regional as well as personal preferences.

It can also be argued that there are nuanced differences in emphasis. For example, the “impersonal” form places the least “blame” on the person doing the forgetting. This type of verb construction has even been called
sin culpa (without blame), and it’s not the first time we’ve encountered it

in our discussions.

What if you want to simply say “I forgot.”? (e.g. in response to Por qué no fuiste a trabajar? Why didn’t you go to work?)

Olvidé. INCORRECT (requires a direct object.)
Lo olvidé. (I forgot.) (direct object pronoun lo refers to “work”)
Me olvidé. (I forgot)
Se me olvidó. (I forgot.)

Let’s cap this off with a few more examples of each possible olvidar constructions: transitive (the most “English-like”, and perhaps least common), pronominal (looks like “reflexive”) and impersonal:

You forget that I am the boss?
¿Olvidas que yo soy el jefe?
¿Te olvidas de que yo soy el jefe?
¿Se te olvida que yo soy el jefe?

Maria forgot to pick up her cat.
Maria olvidó recoger su gato.
Maria se olvidó de recoger su gato.
A Maria se le olvidó recoger su gato.

Jorge forgot his money.
Jorge olvidó el dinero.
Jorge se olvidó del dinero.

[In some cases, like this one, the pronominal form alters the meaning slightly. “Jorge forgot about the money,” or even “Jorge kissed the money goodbye.”]

A Jorge se le olvidó el dinero.

Now is a good time to catch up on (or review) these related lessons:

Accidental Grammar
Caer Bien: To Like It
Gustar: To Like, to Please, to Taste
“Le” in Verbs Like Gusta

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When "s" sounds like "h"

Yabla Spanish viewer Donnie (dryanespanol) wrote and asked:

In "Fiesta en Miami," - Antonio pronounces the "h" when he says "hace." I have always been told this is a cardinal sin. Please explain.

That's a good question! Does the Canary Islander Antonio Polegre really pronounce the "h" in "hace"? Well, we took a listen and it SEEMS like he does! What is going on? 

One of the first things we notice is that, in caption 21, when Antonio says hice mis amigos ("I made my friends"), we do NOT hear any "h" sound in hice. So why would Antonio pronounce hice correctly but not hace? We also notice that he didn't pronounce the final s in mis nor in amigos -- a common enough practice in many regions, and, oddly enough, perhaps a telling clue.

Antonio uses hace four times in the video (twice in caption 27 and twice in caption 29), each time as part the two word combination nos hace; and each time it really does sound like he is pronouncing the "h" in hace.

We did a little research to see if perhaps "Canarian" Spanish makes an exception to the "never pronounce the 'h'" rule. We don't find such an exception, but we do find another characteristic of Canarian Spanish echoed in a number of places, such as wikipedia:

/s/ debuccalization. As is the case with many varieties of Spanish, /s/ debuccalized to [h] in coda position.

Obviously not written for the layman! A little more research tells us that "debuccalization" is a linguistics term that describes a sound being "reduced" to an "h sound" (e.g. the "h" in "high"), and that the "coda" position is the final position in a syllable, after the vowel. 

So, if Antonio is "debuccalizing" the final "s" in nos, which produces an "h sound," then perhaps what we are hearing is not the "h" in hace but rather the "debuccalized /s/" (i.e. "h sound") at the end of "nos"! Could it be?

Let's look at caption 29:

y al final yo considero que todo nos une, todo nos hace... todo nos hace ser humanos 
and, in the end, I consider that everything unites us, everything makes us... everything makes us human 
caption 29 - Fiesta en Miami - Antonio

It's not as strong, but we think we can also MAYBE hear an "h sound" in nos une, almost coming out as 'no [h]une," and if that's true it supports the debuccalization theory. 

Further, he does not pronounce the "h" in humanos (just as he doesn't the one in hice)-- so clearly it's not the case that he is in the habit of pronouncing every "h" that starts a Spanish word.

A Dominican friend of ours tells us that not only does Antonio's pronunciation of "nos hace" sound perfectly natural to him, but that he can think of many similar "debuccalization" examples in Dominican speech. In fact, he thought that Antonio's Spanish sounds more like that of the Caribbean than (what he considers) that of Spain. This makes sense, because linguists tells us that early Canarian settlers in the region had a great amount of influence in what we know now as "Caribbean Spanish." 

No wonder Antonio feels right at home in Miami!

Spanish speakers in many regions are known for (in one way or another) reducing, softening, or "aspirating" their s's (or, as many frustrated learners would say, "dropping them" entirely). In fact, one of our resident experts, a guru of Spanish (though his students in Mexico City call him "professor"), told us that Antonio "is aspirating the s in nos, which could sound as if he were pronouncing the h in hace to someone who is not a native Spanish speaker." 

We came across a "Voices en Español" podcast which discusses the "aspirated s," as well as some other Spanish consonant sounds that are a challenge to English speakers. Have a listen!

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Apenas —hardly, just only, and about to happen

If you are at all familiar with the Spanish word apenas, the meaning that probably first comes to mind is "hardly" or "barely," as we find in the interview with Pablo Echarri:

...pasó apenas un año o una cosa así, y...
...hardly a year or so passed, and...
Caption 11, Biografía: Pablo Echarri - Part 1
Apenas can also mean "just," as in "only." You may have picked this up when watching Shakira's latest tantalizing video, "Loba."

La vida me ha dado un hambre voraz y tú apenas me das caramelos
Life has given me a voracious hunger and you just give me candy
Caption 10, Shakira: Loba

Our recent interview with illustrator Antonio Vargas brings us another use of apenas you might be less familiar with:

Este restaurante todavía no existe; apenas se va a hacer.
This restaurant doesn't exist yet; it is about to be built.
Caption 2, Antonio Vargas: Artista - Ilustración - Part 1

When placed before a future tense phrase, apenas often conveys the message that the action is just about to happen, or is on the verge of happening.

Arturo Vega, the famous Ramones' lighting and logo designer, uses apenas this same way when he predicts the rise in popularity of Latin American rock bands.
Yo creo que apenas va a empezar. 
I believe it's just about to start.
Caption 13, Arturo Vega: Entrevista - Part 5

Keep your eyes and ears open for still more interesting uses of apenas. We will, too, and bring them to you in future lessons.

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Le in "verbs like gustar"; Le in leísmo

Le encanta el poder y le atrapa la noche
She loves power and the night ensnares her

Caption 6, Chayanne—Lola

The Spanish verb encantar literally means "to enchant" or "to delight greatly," so when Chayanne sings "le encanta el poder," he means to say that "power enchants her" or "power delights her." In English we would simply say "she loves power." If this looks a lot like the way we use gustar (to please) when we want to say someone "likes" something, that's because encantar belongs to a family of verbs known as "verbs like gustar." These verbs always take an indirect object pronoun, usually to refer to the person who in the English version would be the subject, and in this example the "le" is the indirect object pronoun (her), referring to "Lola."

Atrapar/"to trap; to ensnare" is NOT a "verb like gustar," but Chayanne, in the interest of lyrical flow, seems to be doing his best to set it up like one. First, notice he is putting the subject la noche/"the night," after the verb atrapa/"ensnares" (a bit unusual, but not incorrect). Secondly, he is referring to Lola using the indirect object pronoun "le," but in this case it is really acting as a direct object pronoun. You can tell because it answers the question "what?" about the verb ("The night ensnares 'what?' It ensnares her") rather than the question "to whom?" or "for whom?" which would call for an indirect object pronoun.

Note that, unlike indirect object pronouns, the direct object pronouns in Spanish DO have gender distinctions, "lo" for him and "la" for her. Chayanne could have expressed the same sentiment by putting the subject before the verb and using the proper direct object pronoun, making it clearer for most Spanish learners:

La noche la atrapa.
The night ensnares her.

Strictly speaking, "le" is not to be used as a direct object at all, but Chayanne, like a great many of his fellow Spanish speakers, IS using "le" as a direct object. The phenomenon of using the indirect object pronoun "le" (or its plural "les") where you technically should have used a direct object pronoun is known as "leísmo," and its use varies by region. It is common enough that it is not always heard as "wrong" by a great many Spanish speakers, and there are even a few cases where "le" is seen, even by the strictest grammar mavens, as an acceptable alternate to the "proper" direct object pronouns.

These "acceptable" cases of leísmo usually involve the substitution of "le" for the masculine direct object "lo," but Chayanne is substituting "le" for the feminine direct object "la"—which, while not entirely unknown in colloquial Spanish, is usually not considered "acceptable" by those with learned opinions on such matters (such as the RAE).

Further reading:ísmo

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Calle 13 loves to mix English into their lyrics, which no doubt is pretty natural for them with all the exchange between their homeland of Puerto Rico and the predominately English speaking mainland United States. But Spanish natives often pronounce English words a bit differently than native speakers. Oddly enough, some of these differences can clue us into an interesting facet of the Spanish language. Listen to the way Hato Rey (aka "Residente") raps the English word "starter" in this line:

Préndete, sácale chispas al "starter".
Turn yourself on, get sparks from the starter.
Caption 6, Calle 13, Atrévete.

Do you notice he says something like "estarter"?

He also does similar when he sings:

Que tú eres callejera, "street fighter".
You're a woman of the streets, street fighter.
Caption 9, Calle 13, Atrévete.

He pronounces the English word "street" as "estreet."

Spanish speakers seem to have trouble saying some English words that start with "s," adding an "e" sound to the beginning? But why would it be? Especially when Hato seems to be able to say "sippy" without turning it into "esippy":

Mira, nena, ¿quieres un "sippy"?
Look, babe, would you like a sippy [a little sip]?
Caption 40, Calle 13, Atrévete.

If Hato has no trouble with "sippy," why does he say "estreet" and "estarter" instead of "street" and "starter?" Furthermore, there are plenty of Spanish words that start with an unadulterated "s" sound that we hear him pronounce clearly throughout the song: "sácale," "sudor," "salte," "sacúdete," "seria," and so on. He seems to have no problem with those.

You may have already started to notice a pattern! While many Spanish words start with the letter "s" and an accompanying "s" sound, they almost always follow this leading "s" with a vowel. It's when the first "s" in an English word is followed by consonant (s + consonant) that Spanish speakers feel compelled to precede an English word with an "e" sound. Why? Because almost no Spanish words
that start with an "s" are followed by a consonant. 

Spanish words that have an "s+consonant" near the beginning pretty much all start with an "e" as the first letter. Certainly you noticed that the language is "español" and not "spañol"? Or that the country from whence it all came is España (not Spaña)? Looking again to Calle 13 for clues, we hear:

Destápate, quítate el esmalte.
Show yourself, remove your nail polish.
Caption 3, Calle 13, Atrévete.

In the word "esmalte" (nail polish), there is an "s+consonant" near the beginning of the word, but, in line with norms of Spanish, it is preceded by an "e."

Modern life causes "stress" in English speakers but Spanish speakers experience "estrés." Why? It's because when this English word made its way into Spanish, it conformed to a typical Spanish pattern.  Likewise, when a shop that sells long bread rolls filled with meats and toppings opens up on Old San Juan, Residente and his buddies will no doubt be happy to grab "sandwiches" (or "saandweeches") at "Subway" (or "SOOBway"). The beginning "s" sounds in "subway" and in "sandwich" are no problem, because they are followed by vowels: "u" and "a", respectively --  a pattern Spanish speakers are well accustomed to. ¿Sí o no? -¡Supongo que sí!

Keep an ear open for Spanish words that begin with an "s" and with an "es." Does the theory fit? We hope so, or it will be an

Side note: On the other side of the coin, the "es + consonant" phenomenon runs so deep in Spanish-language phonetics, and so many English "s" words have a corresponding similar Spanish "es" word, that Spanish speakers learning English sometimes mistakenly that think that "es + consonant" is only a Spanish-language thing. This will lead them to say specially for especially, state for estate, and streme for extreme, thinking that the "e"s are a hangover from their Spanish pronunciation. You just have to remember Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, the Cuban immigrant musician and band leader who was always ready to admonish Lucille Ball's character with "Lucy! You've got some splainin' to do!

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The Imperfect Tense: Setting the Scene

Let's stop by the kitchen of the Di Carlo mansion, setting of preparations for the big gala in Muñeca Brava. The maids are very excited. They want to get a detailed description of how Mili looked as she made her Cinderella-like debut. Notice that Socorrito uses the imperfect tense of both ver (to look) and bajar (to go down, to lower, to descend) when she asks:




Contame, contame, ¿cómo se la veía cuando bajaba de la escalera?
Tell me, tell me, how did she look as she was walking down the staircase?
Caption 1, Muñeca Brava - Episodio 41 (La Fiesta) - Part 2

If you've ever heard anything at all about the imperfect tense, it's that it applies to past actions that are not completed or that are ongoing. We see that quite clearly above in the case of bajaba; Mili "was walking down," an action that was ongoing at the time. However, another rule of the imperfect, one less bandied about, also comes into play here: the imperfect is employed when describing two or more simultaneous past actions. Socorrito wants to know how Mili "looked" (using the imperfect veíaas (at the same point in time) she was going down the stairs. 

With her usual enthusiasm, Mariposa definitely puts them in the moment when she answers:

Socorrito, ¡no sabe lo que era! Parecía una princesa.
Socorrito, you can't imagine! She looked like a princess.
Caption 2, Muñeca Brava - Episodio 41 (La Fiesta) - Part 2

 There is yet another well-documented use of the imperfect that we can cite here: its use to "set the scene" or provide background information, especially at the beginning of a larger story. She uses the imperfect era (from ser, to be) when she says ¡no sabe lo que era! which literally translates to "you don't know how it was!" And she employs parecía (she looked like), which is an imperfect conjugation of parecer (to appear as/to look like/to seem like). Mariposa is setting the stage for the fairy tale taking place in the ballroom, and doing so in much the same way one would recite an actual fairy tale (which is no surprise if you remember that Muñeca Brava is a retelling of the Cinderella story).

The start of your average ghost tale or mystery story makes a good illustration of using the imperfect to paint a background picture:

Era una noche oscura y tormentosa, llovía y unos pájaros cantaban a lo lejos.
It was a dark and stormy night. It was raining and a few birds were singing from a distance.

[Note that in Spanish one can also use the past continuous tense, for example estaba lloviendo (it was raining) or estaban cantando (they were singing)—but it would not likely be used by native speakers when setting a scene or providing a backdrop. We'll look at the past continuous, aka past progressive, in a different lesson.]

More well-known to the average student of Spanish is the use of the imperfect to refer to a habitual or repeated action in the past. We saw an example of this in an earlier episode of Muñeca Brava when Milena says to Louise:


Sí, antes nos veíamos siempre.
Yes, we always used to see each other.
Caption 58, Muñeca Brava - La Apuesta - Part 11

 And David Bisbal tells us about what used to (regularly) happen to him and his band while touring.

Y muchas veces la gente se confundía.
And several times people would get confused.
Caption 32, David Bisbal - Making of Premonición Live - Part 5

The other simple past tense in Spanish (called "simple" because its conjugations are only one word long) is known as preterite and is used for past actions that are completed and non-habitual. We find an example in a recent music video from The Krayolas:

Cuando yo la vi por primera vez me enamoré en un dos por tres.
When I saw her for the first time I fell in love with her instantly.
Captions 1-2, The Krayolas - Little Fox


The singer uses the preterite vi (saw) instead of the imperfect veía (was seeing/used to see) because he is talking about a specific, completed instance of laying eyes on someone.

Read more interesting things about the imperfect on the 123TeachMe site and be sure to visit Spaleon to master the imperfect conjugation of all verbs.

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"mandar + infinitivo" vs. "mandar a + infinitivo"

Dime, por favor, quién me mandó quererte.
Tell me, please, who told me to love you.
[caption 1, Romeo y Julieta - Episode 59 - part 5]

Romeo wants to know who in the world asked him to love Julieta: Dime, por favor, quién me mandó quererte.  "Tell me, please, who told me to love you." It's a rhetorical question. Nobody asked him to love her, so why should he?

Perhaps you are familiar with the verb mandar, meaning "to send." Many Spanish learners (and even many native speakers) are likely to be tempted to translate quién me mandó quererte as "who sent me to love you." But there is another meaning of mandar, which is "to order" or "to tell" (someone to do something), and this is the meaning that Spanish grammarians inform us comes into play when the construction is mandar + infinitive.

A Pedro lo mandé traer un litro de leche.
I told Pedro to bring a liter of milk.

If Romeo had wanted to say "Tell me who sent me to love you," he would have had to put an a before the infinitive, Dime quién me mandó a quererte. The construction mandar a + infinitive means "to send" (someone to do something).

A Pedro lo mandé a traer un litro de leche.
I sent Pedro to bring [back] a liter of milk.

Since the meanings are so close, it is only natural that in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world people use mandar and mandar + a indistinctly. In other words, they no longer differentiate between the two. Something similar is happening with deber and deber + de, remember? But it is a good idea to learn the rule while understanding that it doesn't always hold up. Like many other things having to do with rules and life!

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Deber / Deber De + Infinitive

When it’s over, it’s over. It’s like in Aleks Syntek’s song Intocable (“Untouchable”), where the poor guy was dumped and ends up consoling himself by singing

Debo salir adelante
I must move on
[Aleks Syntek - Intocable - Caption 6]

In Spanish, when we want to express an obligation or a responsibility, we use the verb deber, properly conjugated of course, followed by the infinitive of the verb denoting the action that we must carry out.

Debo hacer mi tarea.
I must do my homework.

Debiste haberme avisado.
"You should have warned me." Or “You should have told me in advance.”

"Deber + infinitive" tends to imply a sense of *internal* obligation, whereas "tener que + infinitive," which is extremely common and very close in meaning, tends to convey a sense of *external* obligation.

Emilio debe levantar su ropa sucia.
Emilio should pick up his dirty clothes. (For his own good and that of the household.)
Emilio tiene que levantar su ropa sucia.
Emilio must/has to pick up his dirty clothes. (Or his mother will ground him.)

So any time you want to express a sense of responsibility or obligation, especially one that stems of an internal sense of duty, just conjugate the verb deber and then add the infinitive of the action verb.

Sé que no será fácil pero debo confesarle la verdad.

I know it won't be easy but I must confess the truth.

But hold on there for a minute! A little later in the song, Syntek changes the syntax around considerably by singing:

Debes confundida estar.
You confused must be.
[Aleks Syntek - Intocable - Caption 13]

Actually two things are happening simultaneously, so you should be patient and bear with us! (¡Debes ser paciente y aguantarnos!)

First of all, the syntax. Normally, one would say, sing or write:

Debes estar confundida.
You must be confused.

He turned the sentence on its head so this line Debes confundida estar would rhyme with

Terminar por terminar

To break up for the sake of breaking up

The second thing here is a finer point of Spanish grammar. When one wants to give the listener or reader the idea of probability, one also uses the verb deber, but before the infinitive, one should also include the preposition de. Technically, this is what Aleks Syntek should have sung:

Confundida debes de estar.
You must be [probably are] confused.

Denisse Guerrero makes the opposite error (adding "de" where she should have left it out) when she sings "Lo siento, niño, debo de partir" (I'm sorry, boy, I must leave) in line 27 of the Belanova video "Niño."

Lo siento, niño, debo de partir
I'm sorry, boy, I must leave
[Belanova - Niño - Caption 27]

Strictly speaking, she should have simply sung "debo partir" (I must leave).

But we are not out to pick on pop stars*! Many native speakers, both in Spain and Latin America, are not consciously aware of this difference and tend to sweep it under the rug, which is unfortunate because there is a huge difference between responsibility or obligation, and probability.

Check out these two sentences, which mean two different things:

Aleks Syntek debió de entender la diferencia.
Aleks Syntek probably understood the difference. (That is the most likely scenario.)

Aleks Syntek debió entender la diferencia.

Aleks Syntek should have understood the difference. (Because it was his obligation or responsibility.)

See what we mean? Let’s chalk it up to the poor girl’s unfortunate decision to leave him, when debió quedarse con él (“she should have stayed with him”). But there’s no accounting for taste.

*At least one pop diva wasn't daydreaming during her grammar lessons. Natalia Oreiro, as eloquent as she is lovely, correctly uses "deber de + infinitive" when she says:

Más que sentirme mal yo, imaginate como se deben de sentir ellos.
More than feeling badly myself, imagine how they must (probably) feel.
[Natalia Oreiro - Biografía 8/12 - Caption 27]

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¿Qué "quien" lleva tilde?

Let's drop in on our two lovely tourists, Juliana and Paola, enjoying their summer holiday in Spain:
Eh... y bueno, ahora estamos con Karla con quien iremos a caminar  y a pasear un rato...
Eh... and well, now we're with Karla, with whom we're going to stroll and walk around for a while....
caption 16: Sevilla, España > Porteñas

Quien (who/whom) does not take an accent (a tilde) over the e when it is acting in its role of relative pronoun, as is the case here. Relative pronouns "relate" to a nearby noun or pronoun. In this case, quien relates to "Karla," "with whom" the girls are going to go for a stroll.
Fui ayer a la feria con tu prima, quien me dijo que está en embarazo.
Yesterday I went to the fair with your cousin, who told me that she's pregnant.

Once again, quien is clearly acting as a relative pronoun, referring to "your cousin,"
and so is written with no accent over the e.

So what about cases where the sentence contains no noun or pronoun to which quien refers?

Quite often, this is a sign that an accent is needed. The most common case is when quién takes on the role of "interrogative pronoun," which, as the name implies, involves a question, as when the powerful and beautiful Julieta Venegas ponders:
¿Quién nos dice que la vida nos dará el tiempo necesario?
Who says (that) life will give us the necessary time?
caption 3: Julieta Venegas > El Presente

And quién  is utilized in indirect questions as well, as Juliana, back in Sevilla, demonstrates for us:

No sé quién irá a ver este video...
I don't know who will watch this video...
caption 11: Sevilla, España > Porteñas

 How would we treat quién if Julia were to have made her statement positive?

Yo sé quién irá a ver este video...
I know who will watch this video...

As it turns out, an accent is still required, even though most English speakers would not consider this an indirect question. You might look at this as a case where an indirect question is present, but it is being answered. The highly respected María Moliner dictionary calls this type of usage aclaratoria (explanatory). Note that there is still no noun or pronoun present to which quién is referring, so it is not behaving as a relative pronoun.

Like other interrogative pronouns, quién also retains the tilde when used in exclamatory way. (You will notice that these "quién" exclamations don't translate to English literally.)

¡Quién pudiera tener tus ojos!
If I only had your eyes!

¡Quién te escuchara todas las bobadas que estás diciendo!
If only the rest of the world could hear all the stupid things you are saying!

So, are there cases where quien doesn't relate to a nearby noun or pronoun, but still doesn't take an accent? Yes, when the "who" refers to some non-specific person, and so is taking on the role of "indefinite pronoun."

Quien mucho habla, no tiene nada que decir.
The person/a person who speaks a lot has nothing to say.


In this same vein, the phrase como quien means "like a person who" or "like someone who," sometimes best translated into English with "as if he/she [were someone he/she is not]":

Él contestó el interrogatorio como quien nunca hubiera conocido a la víctima.
He answered the interrogation like someone who [as if he (was someone who)] never had met the victim.

And, in another "indefinite" role, quien can also be used in place of nadie que (nobody that / nobody who) in phrases like this one:

No hay quien me detenga.
There is not anybody who can stop me. / There is nobody who can stop me.
[In English we can't have the double negative]

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