Situation Normal: All Fouled Up.
Intermediate Spanish learners are no strangers to the idea of SNAFU.
You’ve learned enough Spanish that you can get really involved in authentic Spanish materials.
But then everything falls apart.
You bump into some language you can’t understand and suddenly you’re totally lost.
Try as we might, it’s almost inevitable that there’ll be a SNAFU or two that slows us down during our quest to learn Spanish.
In general, these challenges spring from the fact that English doesn’t have an immediate equivalent to whatever troublesome concept you’re facing.
Here are 4 common pitfalls for intermediate Spanish learners, once they’ve advanced from the basics into deeper, darker Spanish territory.
4 Common SNAFUs for Intermediate Spanish Learners
1. Ser vs. Estar
English only has one form of the verb “to be,” but in Spanish two verbs are used depending on the meaning. It can be hard for native English speakers to separate the two concepts into distinct verbs, and to internalize when to use each.
The frustrating part about nailing ser vs. estar is that there always seem to be exceptions to the rules. But in general, we can say that ser is used with essential qualities, and estar is used with transient conditions.
For example: La mujer es triste would mean that the woman is a sad, depressive woman; it’s in her nature.
La mujer está triste, in turn, suggests that the woman is currently sad in the moment, due to circumstances.
Ser is used for:
- Physical characteristics
Él es alto. [He is tall.]
- Inherent characteristics
Somos simpáticos [We are kind.]
- Introducing yourself and others
Soy María. [I am María.]
Él es médico. [He’s a doctor.]
Soy de los Estados Unidos; Soy estadounidense. [I am from the United States; I am American.]
- The hour, day, and date
Son las 2; Hoy es miércoles; Hoy es 27 de febrero. [It is 2 o’ clock; Today is Wednesday; Today is the 27th of February.]
¿De quién es el bolígrafo? [To whom does this pen belong?]
- Location of events (intangible nouns)
La reunión es en la sala de abajo. [The meeting is in the room downstairs.]
Estar is used for:
- Emotional states that are apt to change
Estoy cansada. [I am tired.]
- Introducing the present progressive tense
Estoy comiendo; Estás leyendo [I am eating; You are reading]
- Geographic or physical location
¿Dónde está Juan? Está en el supermercado. [Where is Juan? He is in the supermarket.]
- Expressing a condition or state
¿Cómo está la pizza? Está muy rica. [How is the pizza? It’s delicious.]
Of course, it’s easy to list the rules, but it’s harder to internalize them. Like most things in life, practice makes perfect (or fluent, at least).
2. Preterite vs. Imperfect
Spanish has two tenses to express the past, whereas English only has one equivalent.
The preterite tense is used to describe completed actions with a definitive beginning and end. The imperfect is used to describe habitual actions, actions that have no definite end point and background information about the past.
It can be helpful to picture the stage of a play when trying to conceptualize the two tenses. The imperfect would be used to describe the backdrop and scenery. The preterite would be used to describe the actions of the characters as the play unfolds.
Here’s an example that uses both tenses:
Ayer alquien tocó el timbre mientras yo hablaba por teléfono. [Yesterday someone rang the doorbell while I was talking on the phone.]
In this sentence, the action at a definite moment in time was the ringing of the doorbell. The background information, for which we don’t have an exact defining time frame, was the talking on the phone. A helpful tip is to loosely translate the imperfect tense into English using “was,” such as the example above. The preterite cannot be translated as such.
The imperfect is also used most frequently with some “feeling” verbs, like querer or sentir, even if talking about an action in the past. For example, even when we mention ayer [yesterday], which is clearly over at the time of speech, Spanish still requires us to use the imperfect in sentences like ayer tenía mucha hambre [yesterday I was really hungry] or ayer quería ir al parque [yesterday I wanted to go to the park.]
Many learners get tripped up because they assume that any information with a definite end point must be in the preterite. For example, if I liked gummy worms in my childhood but now can’t stand them, logically there had to be an end point for that sugary affinity, and learners may mistakenly put the verb “gustar” [like] in the preterite instead of the imperfect.
With practice and much trial and error (and correction from patient teachers or native friends), intermediate learners do soon come to understand which verbs are most appropriate in which tenses, and which time frames dictate the use of the imperfect or the preterite.
Keep in mind that because of the nuances of language, sometimes both tenses can be used. More often than not, though, there’s one that fits better.
3. Por vs. Para
Spanish has two ways to represent “for” whereas English has just one. The differences in usage are again very nuanced, and these trip up many learners even in the later stages of fluency.
Para is the term most closely translatable to English’s “for.”
Estas galletas son para la enfermera. [These cookies are for the nurse.]
Very frequently, para is also used to introduce a subordinate clause, where in English we would use the to-infinitive.
Estoy aquí para llevarte a la escuela. [I’m here to bring you to school.]
Para can also indicate destination.
Me voy para España. [I’m heading off to Spain.]
Por has a vast number of meanings. Its English equivalents include, but aren’t limited to: for, via, by means of, through, times, on behalf, in favor of, and along.
Some common uses and meanings:
- Saying thanks
Gracias por la comida. [Thanks for the food.]
Te doy diez dólares por esta camiseta. [I’ll give you ten dollars for this shirt.]
Tres por dos son seis. [Three times two is six.]
- Crossing through places
Tenemos que pasar por el túnel para llegar al otro lado. [We must cross through the tunnel to get to the other side.]
- Length of time
Viví en México por tres años. [I lived in Mexico for three years.]
Miro la televisión una hora por día. [I watch television one hour a day.]
- In favor of
Voy a votar por el candidato nuevo. [I’m going to vote for the new candidate.]
- Means of communication or transportation
Andar por bicicleta [go by bike]; hablar por teléfono [Talk on the phone.]
Yo te dejé por llamarme fea. [I broke up with you because you called me ugly.]
- Passive constructions
El edificio fue construido por el arquitecto Ximenez. [The building was constructed by the architect Ximenez.]
Por also appears in many idiomatic expressions, such as por eso [because of that…] or por allí [around there].
4. The Subjunctive
The subjunctive is a grammatical mood, rather than a tense, that’s employed when expressing uncertainty, subjectivity or things contrary to fact.
Unlike tenses, which describe the time frames of actions, moods reflect how a speaker feels about the action.
You can loosely think of the subjunctive mood as abstract and opinionated, and think of the indicative mood (the mood you’ve studied up until now, and the main mood we have in English) as concrete and factual.
The subjunctive mood barely exists in English anymore, so it’s difficult to provide examples, making the concept of the subjunctive all the more abstract to grasp. However, it’s an extremely common form in Spanish, so it’s important to learn how and when to use it.
When there’s some doubt about what’s being said, we use the subjunctive.
Dudo que él sepa hablar muy bien en español. [I doubt he knows how to speak Spanish very well.]
No estoy segura de que ella venga. [I’m not sure she’s coming.]
When the sentence in question employs verbs or phrases like want, hope, it’s important, it’s good, it’s bad—all subjective in the eyes of the speaker—Spanish requires the subjunctive form.
Quiero que mis padres me dejen en paz. [I want my parents to leave me alone.]
Es importante que estudies. [It’s important that you study.]
- Contrary to fact
When we describe things that aren’t true, we use the subjunctive.
No es que ella se comporte mal, solo que no me cae demasiado bien. [It’s not that she behaves badly, it’s just that I don’t like her all that much.]
In this case, it’s not true that she behaves badly. If it were, we’d use the indicative mood.
It’s important to remember that the subjunctive is employed only when the subject of the sentence is different from the person performing the other verb.
For example, “I want you to come eat dinner,” would take the subjunctive, but “I want to eat dinner” would take the infinitive, as it does in English.
Quiero que vengas a cenar. [Subjunctive]
Quiero cenar. [Infinitive]
The subjunctive is also used in a slew of other cases, each one more complicated than the next.
It’s used in some idiomatic expressions, like o sea [or rather].
It’s used to describe someone or something that we’re not sure exists, such as buscamos una chica que tenga pelo largo, [We’re looking for a girl with long hair]. If we don’t have in mind exactly who the girl is, but rather are looking for any girl who fits the bill, then we must use the subjunctive because there’s some level of uncertainty as to whether or not we’ll find her.
The subjunctive also appears after certain phrases of time, such as antes de que, después de que, hasta que, mientras que…[before, after, until, while…]
Luckily for learners, the subjunctive is almost always introduced by the coordinating conjunction que. It’s like a flashing light: If you see que, proceed with caution, because there’s a chance you may need to throw in the subjunctive.
These four constructions are some of the most confusing in Spanish, but luckily, with enough time and practice, even the seemingly impossible becomes possible!
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