Spanish Lessons


—ote, —ota, and encajar: Too big to fit?

We learn many things in the sixth installment of actress Natalia Oreiro's biography. One is that she's not a Tom Cruise- or Winona Ryder-sized wee thing. She's tall -- for an actress. And that was actually a worry at first, her friend Rosa tells us. Here's a snippet of the interview:

Le dijeron… que era como muy grandote y no encajaba

They told her... that she was like too huge and would not fit

[Captions 9-10, Natalia Oreiro > Biografía > 6]


Rosa has a colorful way of speaking. The first of the two words we highlight above --grandote-- is formed from the adjective grande ("big, large") and the augmentative suffix -ote, which amplifies the meaning of grande, making our best translation "huge." Adding -ote or -ota "often adds a note of contempt to the idea of bigness," according to The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice (published by Passport Books).

Note that augmentative suffixes can be applied to pretty much any noun or adjective. Some augmented words merit their own dictionary entries, especially if they take on a special meaning, while others don't. For example, consulting a few sources, we found entries for:

ojotes (root word: ojos, "eyes"): "bulging eyes, goggle eyes"

palabrota (root word: palabra, "word"): "swear word, dirty word"

animalote (root word: animal, "animal"): "big animal; gross, ignorant person"

In Spanish, augmentative suffixes are not quite as popular as diminutive ones (-ito, -ita, -cito, -cita), but you will hear them peppering the language for emphasis. (For some more on diminutives, review our previous discussion of poquitito some weeks back. To learn more about suffixes in general, has a helpful list.)


Moving on to the second word we highlighted above: It's encajaba, from the verb encajar. It, too, is a compound word, formed from the prefix en- ("in") and root word caja ("box"). The verb encajar means "to fit." It can suggest a physical fit (e.g., pieces of a puzzle fitting together), or a more thematic one (e.g., a transfer student fitting in to his new school). Rosa is using the second sense of the word, when she describes the fears that her friend wouldn't fit in to the acting world in Buenos Aires.

For more on compound words in Spanish, see:'s Colorful Combinations.

Continue Reading

Por, Para: Forever complications

The title of this week's new music video is the common phrase Para Siempre, meaning "forever." Take a look at how the phrase is used in the lyrics:

Puedo esperar para siempre
"I can wait forever"

Puedo durar para siempre
"I can last forever"

Quiero vivir para siempre
"I want to live forever"

Tiene que ser para siempre
"It has to be forever"
[Captions 6, 8, 14 and 16, Zurdok > Para Siempre]


Para here means "for." Para + an expression of time will indicate a point in time for which something is intended--or, a deadline. In the examples above, our singer is intending something to go on forever. Here are two less poetic examples of para in action:

Tengo tarea para mañana.
"I have homework for tomorrow."

Tengo que terminar este informe para la semana que viene.
"I have to finish this report for next week."

But astute listeners will catch that there's another way to say "for" in Spanish, also used in this song. Look at this line of our featured song:

O por toda una eternidad
"Or for all eternity"

[Caption 4, Zurdok > Para Siempre]

You see, por + an expression of time usually indicates the duration of something. For example:

Él trabajó por tres horas
"He worked for three hours"


Por la semana que viene, vamos a tener clases en el edificio viejo porque acá hay una reunión.
"(Just) for next week, we are having classes in the old building because there is a meeting here."
The difference is subtle when we're talking about the intention "forever" (para siempre) vs. the duration "forever" (por siempre). It's no wonder por and para take a lot of practice to get right for non-native Spanish speakers. But here's a hint to help you along: The phrase 'para siempre' is much more common than 'por siempre' in romantic song lyrics and on Valentine's cards. And even native Spanish speakers debate the por / para divide, as on this webpage.


So, if you want to tell someone that "it has to be forever"--and you want to sound like a native Spanish speaker in the process-- remember this catchy tune to remind you to say "tiene que ser para siempre."

(Final note: We've touched on por and para before, specifically looking at what happens when each is paired with the infinitive of a verb.)





Continue Reading

Nomás: Not only or no more?

How might a new airport affect the families living off the farming land of Atenco, Mexico? Listen to the interviews in this documentary for some strongly held opinions.

In the introduction, a listener might think they're hearing double:

Y no nomás el estado de México...

"And not only the state of Mexico..."

[Caption 6 ¡Tierra, Sí! > Atenco > 1]


No nomás ("not only") is not to be confused with no, no más ("no, no more"). In Mexico and parts of Central America, nomás as a single word can mean solamente or sólo (in English: "only"). It's distinguished from the two words 'no más' by their context.

But note that
'no nomás' probably sounds a little odd to someone from Spain, who would say "No sólo el estado de México," instead. (Loyal readers may recall we
previously discussed why sólo takes an accent mark when it means "only.")

Continue Reading

Ya: That's it, enough already!

... y ya

"... and that's it"

[Caption 28, Patricia Martí > Perspectiva Política > 1


In Spanish, ya is an adverb that packs a lot of meanings. It most commonly means "already" and "now." In informal, everyday speech, it's best understood in the context. For example, in a busy café, a waiter might ask you and your friend:

¿Ya pidieron?

"Did you all order already?"

No, no tenemos la carta todavía

"No, we don't have the menu yet"

Ya se la traigo

"I'll bring it to you now"

Note that fellow adverb todavía means "yet" or "still" But getting back to ya, here are two phrases you're sure to come across often:

Ya es la hora = "It's time [already/now ]."

Ya está = "It's here [already/now]."

Our interview subject ends the interview with a shrug and a "y ya," which is her way of telling us "enough already," or "that's it."

Continue Reading

Anoche: Last Night

In the music video A Casa by Javier Garcia, take a look at two lines of the catchy refrain:

Anoche fue muy fuerte...
Last night was very tough...
[Captions 7, 19, 23, 27 Javier Garcia > A Casa]

La noche fue muy fuerte...
The night was very tough...
[Captions 11, 31, 41 Javier Garcia > A Casa]


Note that anoche means "last night." Some non-native Spanish speakers think they should say 'la noche pasada,' but that would be akin to saying "the day before today" when you mean simply "yesterday" in English. So listen closely to distinguish 'la noche' -meaning, more generically, "the night"- from 'anoche' -meaning "last night"- as in this week's featured song.

Here are some more useful Spanish terms for the past:

Ayer = "Yesterday"
Anteayer = "The day before yesterday"

You'll note ante means "before," and so anteayer is really just a contraction of "[the day] before yesterday." Following the logic, can you guess what anteanoche means? Yup, "the night before last." (Isn't it convenient to have one Spanish word when in English we require four?)

Moving from days to weeks and years, the rules change a little. You see, there's no single word that means "last week." Instead, you have to say: '
la semana pasada.' And to say "last year," use el año pasado. But there is a word that means "yesteryear": It's antaño. Like "yesteryear" in English, antaño in Spanish refers to "times past"--not necessarily last year.

Continue Reading

Llevar: Shades of time

Meanwhile, in New York City, we catch up with Skampida's Gustavo and David on camera. They tell us what they've been up to:

llevamos cuatro meses in New York City...

we've been in New York City for four months"

[Caption 5, Skampida > Gustavo y David]

llevamos ocho años tocando...

"we've been playing for eight years..."

[Caption 10, Skampida > Gustavo y David]


You probaby know that the verb llevar means "to carry." But it has many other shades of meaning, one of which indicates the passage of time. Here are a couple more examples of llevar in this context:


¿Cuánto tiempo llevas aquí?

"How long have you been here?"


Llevo seis horas esperando

"I've been waiting six hours"

Note that you could substitute "haber estado," as in "to have been," to arrive at approximately the same meaning as llevar.

Continue Reading

Solía: Used to

In the new music video posted this week, the diction is very clear, but the meaning...? Well, Mexican pop band Molotov tends towards the surreal in this song about turning into a Martian (marciano). Once you listen carefully, and realize the lyrics are as goofy as the dance moves on your screen, you'll learn some very useful Spanish vocab.


For starters, take a look at the third line of the song:

No es el cuerpo marrano que solía tener...
It's not the fat body I used to have...
[Caption 3, Molotov > Marciano]

Solía is from the verb soler, which means, in the present infinitive, "to usually do" or "to be accustomed to." But in the past tense -as in the caption above- it has a simpler English translation: "used to."

Here's the trick: Soler in the present or past tense is always followed by another verb in the infinitive. Compare these two similar sentences:

En verano, suelo ir a la playa
"In summer, I usually go to the beach"
Or: "In summer, I tend to go to the beach"

Cuando era niño, solía ir a la playa (tense = past)
"When I was a boy, I used to go to the beach"



And what about in the future or in the conditional tenses? Well, soler doesn't have a future or a conditional tense. That puts the word in a category of verbs that are not fully conjugated, known as "defective verbs." Other examples of defective verbs in Spanish include llover--"to rain"--and amanecer--"to dawn." (Click here for more.)

Continue Reading

Acatar: A very obedient verb

No acato límites

[Caption 33, Babasónicos > Carísmatico]


The verb acatar means "to respect," "to observe," "to comply with" or "to defer to." For the lyrics quoted above, we translate: "I don't obey limits."

Here are some other examples of the verb in context:

Deben acatar la ley.

"They ought to follow the law."

El gobierno acata la decision final.

"The government respects the final decision."



Acatar is conjugated the same way as hablar. In other words, it follows the rules (acata las reglas) of a regular -ar verb.

Continue Reading

Pendejo: A kid or a insult

In this week's new videos, Argentine movie and TV star, Pablo Echarri, tells us about when he was a kid:

Y yo me recuerdo que de pendejo en la escuela...
"And I remember when I was a kid in school..."
[Caption 13, Entrevista > Pablo Echarri > 4]


A word of warning here: In Argentina and Uruguay, the word pendejo is a benign, if slangy, synonym for muchacho meaning "kid, youth or teen." But you couldn't use pendejo in the same way in Mexico or parts of Central America and get away with it. There, pendejo is a crude profanity that you should read about in Wikipedia's write-up under Spanish profanity or this etymology discussion (it's what George Bush likes to use to refer to New York Times reporters -- and, sin duda, they to him!).

Continue Reading

Otro: Another usual mistake

Otro is a simple word in Spanish that looks and sounds like its English equivalent, "other" or "another." But with this ease of recognition and use, many non-native speakers misuse otro by adding an article where it doesn't belong.

Here's a trick question. How do you say "another" in Spanish -as in "I'll have another (beer)."?

Answer: "Me tomaría otra (cerveza)."


Note that it's NOT: una otra or un otro. That's wrong. It would be like saying "an another" in English.

In the sixth installment of the short documentary Con Ánimo de Lucro, we encounter a short clip from Nicaraguan TV: policía capturó a dos sujetos...

uno porque supuestamente se acababa a robar una moto...

y otro porque se metió a una casa...

"...the police captured two individuals...

one because he had allegedly just stolen a motorcycle...

and the other because he broke into a house... "

[Captions 13-15, Con Ánimo de Lucro > cortometraje > 6]

Note that once again, otro in Spanish doesn't require the pronoun it does in English.

The time to use a definite pronoun before otro is to distinguish between "another" and "the other"-- if the distinction needs to be made. For example:

Otro día =  "Another day"

But: El otro día = "The other day"


So, if you add a pronoun before otro(a), make sure it's a definite prounoun (i.e., el or la) and not an indefinite one (i.e., un or una).

Continue Reading

A finales de: Beginnings, middles, and ends

...terminamos nuestro trabajo de grado en abril, a finales de abril

[Captions 15-6, Patricia Marti > Estudios Médicos > 1]


With all Patricia's talk of school requirements, you could be forgiven for initially thinking 'a finales de abril' referred to her final exams. But the phrase actually means "at the end of April" or "around the end of April." And so, the quote cited above is translated as: "....we'll finish our thesis in April, at the end of April."

f Patricia's project were to be delayed, she might say:

...terminamos nuestro trabajo de grado a principios de mayo

or even:

...terminamos nuestro trabajo de grado a mediados de mayo

As you probably guessed, those two phrases above mean "around the beginning of May" and "around the middle of May" respectively.



If she wanted to be even more vague, Patricia could also use the common phrase a mediados de año which means "around the middle of year." As an adjective, mediado(a) means "half-full" or "half-empty," depending on how you look at it.

Continue Reading

Tener que ver con: What's sight got to do with it?

[A]plicarle la palabra 'solidario' a las finanzas tiene que ver con que todo el mundo puede acceder a ese elemento de intermediación que es el dinero para poder hacer lo que en verdad importa, ¿no?

Applying the word 'solidarity' to finance has to do with everyone being able to access that element of intermediation, that is money, to be able to do what's really important, no?

[captions 29-30, De consumidor a persona> cortometraje > Part 6]


There are some complicated thoughts being expressed in this short film about the social consequences of consumerism. The number of verbs in the above quote alone could make a head spin. But here we want to home in on just two of those verbs, joined together in a common phrase: tener que ver.

In Spanish, tiene que ver con means, basically, "has to do with" or "got to do with" in English. But, of course, ver means "to see" and not "to do" (that's hacer). That's just the way it is.

¿Y eso qué tiene que ver?

"What's that got to do with it?" [Or, more simply:] "So what?"

No tiene nada que ver

"It's got nothing to do with it"

One of the points that comes across loud and clear in this short film is that a lot of social issues have to do with $money$ (el dinero). Eso es la verdad. ("That's the truth.")

Continue Reading

Solo: Only alone

Solo and sólo... Are you still confused about when to write this word with or without a graphic accent? If you still don't know how to go about it, we have some good news for you: the word solo doesn't need an accent... ever! Although the rule has already been in place for quite a few years, there are many people who are not aware it.


The old rule: sólo vs. solo

Before the Real Academia Española (RAE) decided that the word solo didn't need a graphic accent, the old rule used to work like this:


Sólo is an adverb meaning "only," "solely" or "just" — the same as solamente. In fact, sólo and solamente can be used interchangeably. A speaker (or singer) can decide which sounds better in any given sentence.

On the other hand, solo without an accent mark is an adjective meaning "alone," "on one's own" or "sole." Solo describes a lone man or a masculine object--for example, un café solo is "a black coffee". For a woman, the adjective is sola. "¿Estás sola?" (are you alone?) is a simple, direct pick-up line.


Today's rule: just one solo for "only" and "alone"

Whether you are using solo as an adjective or as an adverb, the word solo doesn't need the graphic accent. 


Solo as an adjective meaning "alone":

muy raro que un agente, solo... solo, le caiga a un carro con placas diplomáticas.

really weird that an agent, alone... alone, drops on a car with diplomatic plates.

Captions 33-34, Confidencial: El rey de la estafa Capítulo 3 - Part 2

 Play Caption


Solo as an adverb meaning "only":

Solo yo sé lo que sufrí

Only I know what I suffered

Caption 2, Alejandra Guzmán Porque no estás aquí

 Play Caption


That's it for this lesson. Keep in mind this "update" and don’t forget to send us your feedback and suggestions.

Continue Reading

Cómo No: Of Course (It's a piece of cake!)

Dicen que no se puede cambiar. Pues, ¡cómo no! si se llevan la tajada más grande del pastel.

[captions 3-4, Andrés Manuel López Obrador > Publicidad de TV > Part 2]



The setup line here, Dicen que no se puede cambiar, translates to:

"They say that things can't change."

Then we have the simple phrase
¡cómo no!, which is translated as "of course!" Taking it word by word, cómo (with an accent over the first ó) means "how," and no means "no" or "not." But "how not!" is not quite as straightforward as the simple "of course!" in our translation. Context can be most helpful here. So, ask just about any soccer (fútbol) fan if they'll be watching the World Cup finals on Sunday and the reply in Spanish is the same: ¡Cómo no! / ("Of course!")

Next comes,
si se llevan la tajada más grande del pastel, or "if they take the biggest piece of the cake." Note that the phrase la tajada más grande del pastel can also be phrased el trozo más grande de la tarta.

You see, both pastel and tarta mean "cake." At the same time, both trozo and tajada mean "slice" or "piece." And your choices don't end there: Another way to say "a piece" or "a bit" is un pedazo, but that's not necessarily culinary. It's often used in the sense of "to fall to pieces" (caerse a pedazos). Meanwhile, una porción is commonly "a portion" but it can also mean "a slice" as in, una porción de pizza.



Got all that? Don't worry if you don't find it's "a piece of cake," which, incidentally, is expressed in Spanish as no está chupado or, no es pan comido.

Continue Reading

Buena Lid: Fair Fight

The votes are in and the official count is over. But the presidential election in Mexico may still be less than finished. The more left-leaning of the top two candidates, López Obrador lost by a hair (according to Mexico's election authority), but he's not admitting defeat and demands a painstaking recount. In this video footage, shot before the ballot counting began, the candidate says confidently:

Vamos a ganar de manera limpia, pacífica, en buena lid....
[Captions 24-6 , Andrés Manuel López Obrador > Campaigning]

Make a vocabulary note that lid in Spanish means "fight" or "combat." Meanwhile, "en buena lid" is a common expression (in some parts) that means "in a fair fight" or, more figuratively, "fair and square." So the phrase above gives us:
"We are going to win in a clean way, peacefully, in a fair fight..."

The expression does not necessarily mean "a good fight," in the sense of it being close or fun to watch, but the election in Mexico has turned into just that.



Continue Reading

Lograr: Achieve success

...tengo la satisfacción de que logramos cambiar la opinión...

[Caption 30, Felipe Calderón > Publicidad > Part 3]


Did you have the feeling that former energy minister and presidential rival Felipe Calderón has accomplished a lot by watching this video? It might be the repetition of the verb lograr that left that impression. In this week's clip from Calderón's publicity campaign, there are six--or is that seven?--appearances of the verb lograr--which means "to achieve," "to obtain" or "to succeed in."

In the quote sited above, we translate: "I've got the satisfaction that we succeeded in changing opinion...'

Here's another one:

Nos va a sacar adelante si logramos canalizarla bien

[Caption 75, Felipe Calderón > Publicidad > Part 3]


We'll know soon if Calderón succeeds in overcoming his biggest challenge yet.

Continue Reading

Tocar: The turn's turn.

Ahora nos toca a nosotros
[Captions 12 , Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador > Publicidad]


The campaign ads running on Mexican TV reflect the candidates' different styles. In one ad supporting Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, a group of Mexicans say in unison: Ahora nos toca a nosotros ("Now it's our turn")

The verb tocar means many things in Spanish. "To touch" and "to achieve by chance/fortune" are two definitions we discussed
a few weeks ago. But here the verb has a different meaning. Tocar a alguien can mean "it's somebody's turn" or "it's up to somebody." So, me toca means "it's my turn" and nos toca means "it's our turn." And, for added emphasis and clarity, nos toca a nosotros also means "it's our turn".

 Here's another example that's always appropriate for an election:

A ti te toca decidir
"It's up to you to decide"



The fact is: There are many more uses of the verb tocar than there are candidates in this hotly contested campaign. The authoritative dictionary from the Real Academia Española contains more than 30 entries for tocar. It's one of the few words that can fit any political purpose.

Continue Reading

Valer la Pena and Probar: Trying to be worthwhile


Vale la pena explicar que... hemos tratado lo más posible de no dañar la ecología.

[Caption 1, Javier Marin > Artesano Venezolano > Part 2]



Venezuelan artisan Javier Marin tells us right away that he and his fellow jewelry makers are not damaging sea creatures when they make their pretty shell necklaces to sell on the beach. In this video clip, Javier's opening sentence begins: Vale la pena explicar que... A literal translation might begin: "It's worth the trouble to explain that..." Or, more simply: "It's worth explaining that..." 


Vale la pena recordar la frase "vale la pena"

It's worthwhile remembering the phrase "vale la pena"


Later in the same sentence, we translate: "... we have tried to do everything possible not to damage the ecology." The verb tratar can mean "to treat" or "to try [to do something]" / [de hacer algo]). But note that there's another way to say "to try" in Spanish: probar. Here's how to differentiate the two:


Probar usually means "to try" in the sense of "to taste" or "to test." To try on clothing in a store, you use the reflexive probarse [probarse la ropa en una tienda]. 


Ay, no sé cómo detener esta máquina, voy a probar con el botón azul.

"Oh, I don´t know how to stop this machine, I´ll to try pressing the blue button."


Tratar [de] is usually used more in the sense of "to intend to" or "to attempt to." For example:


Tratamos de explicar el sentido de la palabra.

"We tried to explain the sense of the word."


Es bastante testarudo pero igual voy a tratar de convencerlo.

"He is quite stubborn but still I'll try to persuade him."


Of course, tratar means "to treat" too:


Cada vez que vamos a visitarlos nos tratan como reyes/ nos tratan de maravillas.

"Every time we go to visit them, they treat us as royalty/ wonderfully."



 And tratar [con] "to deal [with]". For example:


No quiero ni tratar con esa clase de gente.

"I don't even want to deal with those people."


Continue Reading