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The Many Nuances of Spanish Subject Pronouns

In this lesson, we will talk about Spanish subject pronouns. Let’s first review what subject pronouns are and enumerate the subject pronouns in English.

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What is a subject pronoun in Spanish?

Since the definition of a subject pronoun is "a word that takes the place of a noun acting as the subject of a clause or sentence," we must first understand what a subject is.

 

Most simply stated, the subject of a sentence is what it's about, the noun that is being or doing something. Here are some examples of sentences with their subjects indicated beneath them: 

 

Samantha is studying Spanish.         

Subject:  Samantha 

    

The tango is a beautiful dance.        

Subject: Tango

 

Marina, Liam and I went to the movies.    

Subject: Marina, Liam and I

 

Edison is from the Dominican Republic.    

Subject: Edison

 

The chocolates taste amazing.

Subject: The chocolates

 

In order to avoid, for instance, repeating “the chocolates” over and over in a paragraph where we wish to thoroughly describe them, we could replace the subject, “the chocolates,” with the subject pronoun, “they.” Below, within the structures of the previous sentences, the subjects have been replaced with their equivalent subject pronouns:

    

She is studying Spanish.

 

It is a beautiful dance. 

 

We went to the movies.

 

He is from the Dominican Republic.

 

They taste amazing. 

 

Subject pronouns in English and Spanish

A complete list of the English subject pronouns is as follows: I, we, you, he, she, it, they. 

Now, let’s take a look at how the English subject pronouns correspond to their Spanish counterparts:

 

- First person (singular / plural): EN: I / we | SP: yo / nosotros, nosotras

- Second person (singular / plural): EN: you / you | SP: tú, usted, vos / vosotros, vosotras, ustedes

- Third person (singular / plural): EN: he, she, it / they | SP: él, ella / ellos, ellas

 

Looking at them side by side, you may notice that there are far more Spanish subject pronouns than English ones due to the many nuances they express when compared to their less specific English equivalents. Some differences you may notice between the English subject pronouns and the Spanish ones are as follows: 

 

1. The first person plural (“we” in English) in Spanish distinguishes between masculine and feminine in the sense that, if the “we” refers to a group of only males or a mixed group of males and females, nosotros is used, whereas if the group is all female, nosotras is employed. Since English does not make this distinction, nothing can be told about the gender of the group upon simply hearing a sentence beginning with “we.”

 

2. The second person singular (“you” in English) has three different Spanish translations: , usted, and vos. So, what’s the difference between them? Generally speaking, and vos are employed similarly to address people with whom one is more familiar —  a less formal “you”  — whereas usted is a more formal and respectful “you,” typically reserved for people we don’t know as well or, for example, for our elders.

 

Keep in mind that while is more commonly employed as the informal “you” in many Spanish-speaking countries, vos is typically used in other countries or regions. In contrast, the English subject pronoun “you” can be employed regardless of the relationship we have with the person we are addressing, their age, or the formality of the situation.

 

3. The second person plural also has several distinctions in Spanish not present in English. Whereas “you” is both singular and plural in English, Spanish requires a different subject pronoun to indicate that more than one person is being spoken to. Ustedes, vosotros and vosotras are the three second-person plural subject pronouns in Spanish, which take both gender and formality/familiarity into account.

 

In most Spanish-speaking countries, ustedes is the only second person plural subject pronoun utilized and can thus be used regardless of the formality of the situation or the gender of the people being addressed. Things are different in Spain, where usted would be used to address a single person in a more formal situation. Ustedes would then be its extension when addressing more than one person.

 

Speaking familiarly, with , the plural used in Spain would be vosotros and vosotras. These second person plural pronouns work the same way as the first person plural pronouns, nosotros and nosotras: ​​Vosotros ​is used to address more than one male or a mixed group, familiarly,​ while vosotras will refer to more than one female. 

 

4. The same kind of situation presents itself in the third person plural. The English “they” does not consider gender, but its Spanish equivalents ellos and ellas, do take gender into account, just as nosotros/nosotras and vosotros/vosotras do. Ellos is used for an all-male or mixed group, while ellas is used for more than one female. 

 

What about "it" in Spanish?

The English subject pronoun “it” generally replaces a subject that isn't a person or animal. Since there is no such subject pronoun in Spanish, how is the idea of “it” expressed? Let’s look at an example from a Yabla Spanish video: 

 

¿El favorito mío? Y el dulce de leche bombón. Es mi debilidad.

My favorite? "Dulce de leche bombon." It's my weakness.

Captions 35-36, Buenos Aires Heladería Cumelen

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You can see that, although we would say “It’s my weakness” in English when referring to the yummy dulce de leche ice cream, “it’s” being a contraction of “it is,” in Spanish, the “it” is simply omitted, and the verb, “es” (the third person singular conjugation of ser, or “to be”) is sufficient.

 

Because of this, a common error for Spanish speakers learning English is to try to replicate this structure in English by saying or writing something like, “Is my weakness.” However, this is not grammatically sound and, although it is often acceptable to omit a subject pronoun in Spanish, the same is not so in English, where the “it” is indeed necessary. 

 

Let’s look at one more example:

 

Pero cuando llueve no hay otro remedio

But, when it rains, there isn't any other choice

Caption 86, 75 minutos Del campo a la mesa - Part 13

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Note that in English, since “it” in this example does not actually refer to anything concrete (does not replace a particular word), it is known as a “dummy” (or expletive or pleonastic) pronoun, which is still necessary to express this idea correctly. In contrast, in Spanish, the verb “llueve” (the third person singular conjugation of llover, or “to rain”) can simply be used without a pronoun to express the idea of “it.”

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Omitting the subject pronoun

Even in cases which don’t involve “it,” due to the more specific manner in which Spanish verbs are conjugated according to their subject pronouns, it is not always necessary to write out the subject pronoun:

 

Mientras leo el diario, respondo los correos electrónicos.

While I read the newspaper, I respond to emails.

Caption 9, GoSpanish La rutina diaria de Maru

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Although this could also be written as Mientras yo leo el diario, yo respondo los correos electrónicos, the first-person singular verb conjugations leo and respondo let us know that the subject pronoun is yo, and thus, it's not necessary to include it.

 

This is not the case in English, as the subject pronoun “I” is indeed necessary in order for the sentence to make sense (“While read the newspaper, respond to e-mails” would definitely not fly). One reason for this is that verb tenses in English tend to be much less specific to their subject pronouns. 

 

To reiterate this idea, let’s contrast the English present and past verb tenses with their Spanish equivalents:

 

ENGLISH (present / past):

I speak / spoke

You speak / spoke

He speaks / spoke

She speaks / spoke

It speaks / spoke

We speak / spoke

You speak / spoke

They speak / spoke

 

SPANISH (present / preterite):

Yo hablo / hablé

Tú hablas / hablaste

Vos hablás / hablaste 

Él, ella, usted habla / habló

Nosotros/as hablamos / hablamos

Vosotros/as habláis / hablasteis

Ellos/as, ustedes haban / hablaron

 

You may notice that the English present tense conjugations are limited to just “speak” (for “I,” “you,” “we” and “they”) and “speaks” (for “he,” “she” and “it”), while there is no variation whatsoever for the past tense, which regardless of the subject pronoun, is “spoke.”

 

In Spanish, on the other hand, we see a total of seven different conjugations in the present tense and six in the preterite, a revelation which may seem daunting to many English-speaking students of Spanish! And those are just two out of the fourteen Spanish verb tenses.

 

To conclude, let’s look at one last example:

 

Y, ¿va a pedirle a Lisa Bernal que sea su pareja en la fiesta?

And, are you going to ask Lisa Bernal to be your date at the party?

Caption 1, Los Años Maravillosos Capitulo 6 - Part 2

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Unlike the previous case in which the verb conjugations leo and respondo were specific to the Spanish subject pronoun, yo, this one is a bit more ambiguous, as the verb conjugation va (of the verb ir, or “to go”) could correspond to the Spanish subject pronouns él, ella, or usted. So, if this sentence were encountered in isolation, the possible translations could be as follows: 

   

- And, is he going to ask Lisa Bernal to be his date at the party?

- And, are you going to ask Lisa Bernal to be your date at the party?

- And, is she going to ask Lisa Bernal to be her date at the party?

- And, is it going to ask Lisa Bernal to be its date at the party?

 

Although the last option does not seem logically plausible, how do we know which one of the others is correct in the absence of a subject pronoun? Context. Often in print or video media or even in conversation, the subject is introduced in a previous sentence.

 

However, since this is the first sentence in this video, we are left to infer from the characters’ subsequent dialogue that the correct translation is, “And, are you going to ask Lisa Bernal to be your date at the party?” where Kevin’s friend, Fede, is addressing him as “usted” (as a side note, even close friends and family members often address one another as “usted” in certain parts of Colombia). 

 

Although many beginning Spanish students might feel overwhelmed by the multitude of Spanish subject pronouns and the task of having to conjugate verbs based upon them, we hope that this lesson has shed some light on some of the many fascinating differences between subject pronouns in English and Spanish. And don't forget to send us your comments and suggestions.

 
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, Usted and Vos

Let's talk about pronouns. In English, when we talk with someone we use the second person singular pronoun ‘you’. In Spanish, we have three different options for that same pronoun: usted and vos. Which one we use depends on things like the relation that we have with the person we are talking to or the place where we are. Generally speaking, we use usted when we want to talk in a more respectful way with someone:

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¿Usted qué... qué me recomienda, doctor?

What do you... what do you recommend to me, Doctor?

Caption 14, Los médicos explican - El tratamiento de las fracturas - Part 1

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However, if you are following the Colombian series Los Años Maravillosos, you have probably noticed that people usually use usted even when talking with family members or close friends. Why? That’s just how people speak in Bogota, Colombia:

¿Y a usted qué le pasa, mi hijito?

And what's going on with you, my little boy?

Caption 35, Los Años Maravillosos - Capítulo 1 - Part 4

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Regardless of its use, there is something quite unique about using usted:  we conjugate usted as we would conjugate él (he) or ella (she):

Él trabaja entre las nueve de la mañana

He works between nine in the morning

Caption 48, La casa - De Chus

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¿Dónde trabaja usted?

Where do you work?

Caption 9, 75 minutos - Gangas para ricos - Part 16

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As you can see in the captions above, the conjugation of the verb trabajar (to work) with él (he) and usted (you) is exactly the same (trabaja), something that doesn’t occur with  and vos:

Tú trabajas | You work
Vos trabajás | You work
Él/Ella/Usted Trabaja | He/She/You work


To wrap things up, we use usted as a second person singular pronoun. However, we conjugate it as a third person singular pronoun!
 
And don’t forget that this also occurs with the plural form ustedes (you all), which we conjugate as the third person plural pronoun ellos/ellas (they). Notice how ustedes and ellos share the same conjugation of the verb saber (to know) in the following captions:

Toda la vida he estado en el PAN, como ustedes saben, y he estado muy contento.

All my life I have been in PAN, as you know, and I have been very happy.

Caption 37, Felipe Calderón - Publicidad - Part 2

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Ellos saben de los sitios que son hábitat de reproducción,

They know about the places that are reproduction habitats,

Caption 31, Instinto de conservación - Parque Tayrona - Part 2

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That's it for now. If you want to learn more things about the use of usted and vos make sure to check out our series about Tuteo, Ustedeo y Voseo. And don’t forget to send us your feedback and suggestions.

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Phrases with Lo

The Spanish word lo can be used as a subject pronoun, an object pronoun or a definite article. We have several lessons on the topic, which you can read by clicking hereLo is a very useful word, and there're many common phrases that use this particle. Let's study some examples. 

The phrase por lo tanto means "as a result" or "therefore"

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Este puerro, no lo he limpiado previamente, por lo tanto, vamos a limpiarlo.

This leek, I haven't cleaned it previously, therefore, we are going to clean it.

Caption 55, Cómetelo - Crema de brócoli - Part 2

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The phrase por lo pronto means "for now" or "for the time being"
 

...y yo por lo pronto pienso avisarle a toda la familia.

...and I for the time being plan to let the whole family know.

Caption 18, Yago - 9 Recuperación - Part 11

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The phrase por lo visto means "apparently"
 

Por lo visto fue en una perfumería.

Apparently it was in a perfume shop.

Caption 42, Yago - 12 Fianza - Part 6

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The phrase por lo general is equivalent to the adverb generalmente. It means "generally"
 

Pero por lo general encontramos sistemas de alarmas.

But generally we find alarm systems.

Caption 11, Los Reporteros - Crecen los robos en tiendas - Part 3

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The phrase a lo largo de means "throughout"
 

al menos va cambiando a lo largo de las estaciones.

at least is changing throughout the seasons.

Caption 10, Clara explica - El tiempo - Part 1

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While a lo lejos means "at a distance" or "in the distance"

 

El cielo está nublado y a lo lejos tú Hablando de lo que te ha pasado.

The sky is cloudy and in the distance you Speaking of what has happened to you.

Captions 5-6, Christhian canta - Hombres G - Temblando

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In fact, you can add the phrase a lo to certain adjetives to talk about the way something is being done or someone is doing something. For example, a lo loco means "like crazy." 

 

Yo echo un poco de pintura ahí a lo loco

I put a bit of paint there like crazy [spontaneously]

Captions 92-93, Zoraida en Coro - El pintor Yepez

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Another common example is a lo tonto (like a dumb, in a dumb way, for nothing). 

Hazlo bien. No lo hagas a lo tonto.
Do it right. Don't do it foolishly.

¿Para qué esforzarse a lo tonto?
Why go to all that trouble for nothing?

This phrase always uses the neutral singular form of the adjective. Even if you are talking to a girl or a group of people, you will always use the same. For example:

Lucía siempre se enamora a lo tonto del primer hombre que cruza su camino.
Lucia always falls in love inanely with the first man that crosses her path.

In Mexico, you will also hear the expression al ahí se va (literally, "in a there-it-goes way"). It means to do things without care, plan, or thinking. This is pronounced quite fast, by the way, almost as a single word. Translations vary: 

Completé el examen al ahí se va porque no estudié.
I completed the exam with mediocrity because I didn't study.

Tienen más hijos al ahí se va y sin planear en el futuro.
They have more kids without thinking and planning for the future.

Finally, there's the expression a la buena [voluntad] de dios (leaving it to God's goodwill). You may find it in phrases involving the idea of entrusting what you do to God, but it's more commonly used to express that something is done rather haphazardly, without care, skill, effort and or plan.

El aeropuerto se construyó a la buena de Dios.
The airport was built haphazardly.

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Is there a topic you'd like covered in our lessons? You can send your suggestions to newsletter@yabla.com.

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Those Tricky Reflexive Pronouns

Do you remember reflexive verbs? A verb is reflexive when the subject in a sentence performs an action on itself, in other words, when the subject and the object are the same. In Spanish reflexive verbs use reflexive pronouns (me, te,se, nos, etc.), which play the role of direct object in the sentence:
 

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Yo me veo en el espejo.
I look at myself in the mirror.
 
Since they involve a direct objectreflexive verbs are also transitive verbs (verbs that take a direct object). Many transitive verbs can be transformed into reflexive verbs. Peinar (to comb), for example, is a classic example of a transitive verb:

 

Yo peino a mi bebé

I comb my baby's hair

Caption 21, Lecciones con Carolina - Verbos reflexivos

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that can also be transformed into a reflexive verb, peinarse:

 

Yo me peino

I comb my hair [literally, "I comb myself"]

Caption 20, Lecciones con Carolina - Verbos reflexivos

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On the other hand, intransitive verbs are action verbs that, unlike transitive verbs, don't take a direct object receiving the action. Examples are llegar (to arrive), estornudar (to sneeze), morir (to die), caer (to fall), etc. Consequently, these verbs can't really be transformed into reflexive verbs. So why do we always hear Spanish speakers using reflexive pronouns with these verbs? For example:
 

Si me caigo, me vuelvo a parar

If I fall, I stand up again

Caption 8, Sondulo - Que te vaya mal

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Obviously, me caigo doesn't mean “I fall myself." It just means "I fall," because the verb caer[se] is part of a group of verbs that use reflexive pronouns but are not reflexive verbs. These verbs are called verbos pronominales, verbs that are typically conjugated using a reflexive pronoun that doesn't have any syntactic function. It's just the way these verbs are typically constructed! Another example is the verb morir (to die). Me muero doesn't mean "I die myself"; it just means "I die." The following example uses it as part of an idiomatic expression:
 

No hablemos más de comida que me muero de hambre.

Let's not talk about food since I'm starving hungry [literally, "I'm dying of hunger"].

Captions 40-41, Salvando el planeta Palabra - Llegada

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Now, while reflexive verbs like peinarse always need to be used with reflexive pronouns, verbs like caer (to fall) and matar (to kill) can be used either as pronominales (caerse and morirse), or as simple intransitive verbs (caermorir), that is, without the reflexive pronouns. Therefore, the following expressions are also correct (though maybe just a little less common in everyday speech):
 
Si caigo, me vuelvo a parar. 
If I fall, I stand up again.
 
No hablemos más de comida que muero de hambre.
Let's not talk about food since I'm starving [literally, "I'm dying of hunger"].
 
The really tricky aspect of reflexive pronouns is how to use them, either with verbos reflexivos like peinarse or verbos pronominales like caerse and morirse. Typically, you will use the pronoun before the verb, for example me caigo (I fall), te peinas (you comb your hair). But how do you use reflexive pronouns in a sentence that uses more than one verb, for example an auxiliary verb such as the verb ir (to go) combined with a verb in the infinitive?
 
Voy a caer
I'm going to fall
 
Juan va a morir
Juan is going to die
 
Well, the rule is simple. You either use the reflexive pronoun right before the auxiliary verb:
 
Me voy a caer 
I'm going to fall
 
Juan se va a morir
Juan is going to die
 
Or you use it after the verb in infinitive as a suffix:
 
Voy a caerme
I'm going to fall
 
Juan va a morirse
Juan is going to die
 
And the same rule applies to reflexive verbs like peinarse:
 
Ella se va a peinar = Ella va a peinarse
She is going to comb her hair
 
In fact, this rule applies to all pronouns, even pronouns that are not reflexive (that are used to substitute the direct object in any given sentence), like lo, la, los, las, and te:
 
Como sandía / La como
I eat watermelon / I eat it
 
Voy a comer sandía
I'm going to eat watermelon
 
Voy a comerla = La voy a comer
I'm going to eat it
 

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Coincidentally, comer (as well as other "ingestion verbs") is an excellent example of a verb that is transitive in nature but that is also used as a pronominal verb with reflexive pronouns. For example, it’s also correct to say voy a comérmela (I’m going to eat it).

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Cualquier, Cualquiera, and Cualesquiera

In one of Yabla's videos, Spanish veterinarian, Jesús López, uses two interesting and very similar words:

 

Cualquiera puede traer cualquier animal.

Anyone can bring any animal.

Caption 8, Centro de Recuperación de la Fauna Salvaje - Veterinario Jesús López

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The Spanish words, cualquiera (anyone) and cualquier (any), may look very much alike, but their functions happen to be very different. While cualquiera is an indefinite pronoun, cualquier is an indefinite adjective.

For that reason, whenever the adjective, cualquier, is used, it must be accompanied by a noun, e.g. cualquier animal (any animal). Let's take a look at these examples:

 

En cualquier caso, los datos de España no son nada alentadores.

In any case, the data from Spain is not encouraging at all.

Captions 27-28, 3R - Campaña de reciclaje

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Mira los niños, juegan con globos de cualquier color

Look at the kids, they play with balloons of any color

Caption 9, Café Tacuba - Mediodía

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¿Puede venir cualquier persona aquí? -Sí.

Can any person come here? -Yes.

Caption 5, 75 minutos - Gangas para ricos

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On the other hand, the pronoun, cualquiera (anyone), should not be used to accompany a noun, but rather to substitute it, as cualquiera means "anyone." For example, you can use the pronoun, cualquiera, to substitute the phrase, cualquier persona, in the previous example:

¿Puede venir cualquiera aquí? -Sí.
Can anyone come here? -Yes.

Here is another example containing the pronoun, cualquiera:
 

No cualquiera podía ser caballero. O sea...

Not just anyone could be a knight. I mean...

Caption 17, Antonio Vargas - Artista - ilustración

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Now, to further complicate the matter, Spanish has a common plural form for both the adjective, cualquier, and the pronoun, cualquiera, which is cualesquiera. Although the use of this plural form for both the adjective and the pronoun is uncommon in everyday speech, let's go ahead and transform the previous examples into their plural forms as an excercise. You will note that their English translations are identical to their singular equivalents. 

For the adjective, cualquier:

¿Pueden venir cualesquiera personas aquí? -Sí.*
Can any person come here? -Yes.

For the pronoun, cualquiera:

No cualesquiera podían ser caballeros.
Not just anyone could be a knight.

* As a side note, a shorter version for the adjective, cualesquier, also exists, but this is even less common and can generally only be found in old literature.

Finally, and very interestingly, there is one instance in which the word, cualquiera (and its plural, cualesquiera), can be used as a qualitative adjective meaning "insignificant" or "irrelevant." When used in this manner, the adjective always comes after the noun rather than before it. This use is equivalent to the English expression "any old" or "just any."  Let's see an example. 
 

Sólo espera, que hoy no será un día cualquiera

Just wait, because today won't be any old day

Caption 49, Cuarto poder - Aquí no se está jugando

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This adjective is most commonly used in negative phrases:

Este no es un perro cualquiera; es el perro de mi padre. / This is not just any dog. It's my father's dog.
No era un tipo cualquiera; era el jefe de la tribu. / He wasn't just any guy. He was the tribe's chief.

By extension, however unfairly, the expressions, un cualquiera and una cualquiera, can mean "a nobody" and "a prostitute" (or low class or sexually promiscous woman), respectively. You can find an example in our Argentinian telenovela, Muñeca Brava:

 

Pero a mí no me va a ofender porque yo no soy una cualquiera.

But you're not going to disrespect me because I am not a floozy.

Captions 83-84, Muñeca Brava - 43 La reunión

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This is the end of the lesson. Thank you for reading, and don't forget to send us you comments and suggestions.

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