Como si fuese: Learning to use the subjunctive

No hables como si fuese una persona
[Caption 17, Provócame > Pilot > 5]

If you're a native English speaker, you're likely to translate the phrase above as "Don't speak as if he were a person." Without much thinking about it, most native English speakers choose the subjuntive "were," and not the indicative "was." Ana, similarly, instinctively uses fuese (the subjunctive form) and not era (the indicative) when she tells Mariano "Don't speak as if he were a person". (She is referring to a horse that goes by the name Chocolate.) The subjunctive, as most of us have heard but often fail to fully grasp, is used to express doubt or uncertainty, or to describe situations that are unlikely. Since it is quite "unlikely" that the horse in question is a person, and Ana, sin duda, "doubts" that he is one, she goes with the subjunctive, fuese.

This were/was distinction is one of the few and dwindling instances whereby English speakers retain a subjunctive form (were) that differs from the indicative (was). Other than "to be," most English verbs have melded both the indicative past and the subjunctive past into a single "universal" past tense that encompasses both. For this reason it's often said, somewhat erroneously, that subjunctive tenses "don't exist" anymore in English, and is why English speakers find Spanish's distinct subjunctive tenses difficult to acquire. The more we, as learners, immerse ourselves in authentic spoken Spanish, the faster we too can begin to acquire a native-like "instinct" for the subjunctive and its use.

If you want to bend your brain around the topic further, here are some sites where you can do so:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive
http://www.lingolex.com/swom/wom-subj.htm

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Sacarse: To get a grade and other uses

yo me saqué un nueve
[Caption 16, Disputas > La Extraña Dama > 3]

You'll note that sacarse una nota is a common expression meaning "getting a grade" in school. Hence in part 3 of Disputas, La Extraña Dama, we hear Gloria's son proclaim yo me saqué un nueve, "I got a nine." A few other interesting uses of sacarse are:

Sacarse un premio.
"To win a prize."

Sacarse un peso de encima.
"To get rid of a burden."

Sacarse la garra.
"To taunt/insult, To "rag on" someone." [Mexico]

Sacarse la careta.
Literally: "To rid yourself of the mask; to stop pretending, to be yourself."


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Al + Infinitive

nos confundimos al hablar sin escuchar
[Caption 25, La Gusana Ciega > Giroscopio]

In Giroscopio, La Gusana Ciega frontman Daniel Gutiérrez sings nos confundimos al hablar sin escuchar, which we have translated as "we confuse ourselves by speaking without listening." This brings our attention to the use of al + infinitive. Here al is not the contraction of a + el but rather an indicator of action in progress. The English equivalent is often created by using the preposition "by", "when", or "upon" + the "ing" form of the verb.

Al + infinitive can alternately be translated to English using "when + simple present". For example, in this case, we could have just as well translated al hablar as "when we speak," which would give us: "we confuse ourselves when we speak without listening."

Some other examples of (al+infinitive):

Nos equivocamos al actuar sin pensar.
"We make mistakes by acting without thinking."

Nos ensuciamos al jugar.
"We get dirty when we play."

Te lastimas al correr sin estirarte.
"You hurt yourself by running without stretching."

Se lastiman al pelear.
"They hurt themselves when they fight."

Me mojo al lavar.
"I get wet when I wash."

Se lastiman al jugar sin zapatos.
"They hurt themselves by playing without shoes."

Most native English speakers would find the phrase simpler to follow if Daniel had avoided the al + infinitive construction and instead sung Nos confundimos cuando hablamos sin escuchar or Nos confundimos hablando sin eschuchar, both more parallel to typical English construction. Each of these possibilities is grammatically correct, but they convey a slightly different meaning than that which is attained by the lyric's use of al hablar. Both hablando (speaking) and cuando hablamos (when we speak), would convey the sense that He is referring to some specific instance or instances of "talking without listening," whereas the use of al hablar makes the overall statement sound more like a truism, a principle of life, the type of thing you might read at the end of a fable or as the moral of the story.

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Carmín: A color and a lipstick

y te has pintado la sonrisa de carmín
[Caption 32, Disputas>La Extraña Dama>2]

You'll note that Perales also sings "Y te has pintado la sonrisa de carmín". In this case carmín refers to lipstick, so the phrase translates as "And you have painted a lipstick smile". Carmín can also refer to the color crimson (aka carmine), and sometimes to a type of wild rose. Lipstick, aside from carmín de labios, is also known as lápiz de labios. Bear it in mind next time you find some on the collar, yours or otherwise.

(Did you know that collar, in Spanish, is the same word as for neck: cuello?)

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