You use it to express that you like things—but chances are very slim that you’ll ever use gustar to say that you like gustar.
Heck, it’s just so darn tricky to figure out how to use it.
Will we English speakers ever get it right or are we doomed to forever receive confused looks and not-so-subtle whispers from the natives?
Out of all of the tricky concepts in the Spanish language, the verb gustar has been—without a doubt—one of the most challenging for me to master. Back in 2013 I taught at a Spanish language immersion camp in the woods of Minnesota where native Spanish speakers from all around the world came to teach. In an attempt to make small talk with a guy from Barcelona I said: “Me gustan los mosquitos,” and he immediately began to grin and exchange nudges and whispers with his Argentinean buddy.
What went wrong? The pesky little verb gustar, of course. What I had hoped to say was “mosquitos like me” referring to the fact that they’d been biting me like crazy, but what came out was “I like mosquitos” which isn’t exactly a normal way to start a conversation in any language.
So, what should I have said then? Well, first of all, I was trying to directly translate a very cultural phrase that isn’t used in Spanish. Second of all, I tried to use a normal sentence pattern for a very abnormal verb. The correct translation (if this phrase actually made any sense translated to begin with) would actually be “Les gusto a los mosquitos.”
Strange, huh? Because verbs like gustar defy the normal sentence pattern that we’ve spent our entire lives learning, they’re going to take more effort to dominate than the rest. But don’t worry! After years of struggling I’ve found a method for mastering these rebellious verbs.
How to Dominate Defiant Verbs Like Gustar
Prepare Your Mind for a Break in the Pattern
One of the biggest reasons why we fail over and over again with verbs like gustar is that we don’t mentally separate them from the rest. In order to remember that these kinds of verbs require a backwards sort of thinking, they absolutely must be studied separately.
Use this article to group together all of the verbs that don’t follow the familiar “subject + verb + object” formula and you’re already one step closer to dominating this difficult grammatical concept.
Another reason why these verbs aren’t learned correctly is simply because we don’t anticipate the fact that it’s very, very easy to make mistakes in conversation when using verbs like gustar. While some Spanish verbs may flow freely with little previous study, I can assure you that these rebellious suckers will not be so kind.
Your mind will need more time to correctly conjugate these verbs, and the only way to avoid an awkwardly long pause in conversation is to anticipate it before it ever happens. Practice forming sentences with these types of verbs—especially with gustar—on your own so that you can be mentally quick in conversation and you’ll be ahead of the game when the time comes to put them to use.
First Things First: Mastering Gustar
Let’s begin with the most commonly used and confused verb of them all: gustar. Here are the present tense conjugations of gustar with their indirect object pronouns:
(a mí) Me gusta — I like
(a ti) Te gusta — You like
(a él/ella/usted) Le gusta — He/She/You like(s)
(a nosotros) Nos gusta — We like
(a vosotros) Os gusta — You all like
(a ellos/ellas/ustedes) Les gusta — They like/You all like
Notice a pattern? The indirect object pronouns are what change based on who’s doing the liking, not the verbs. The verbs will change, but not based on the subject of the sentence like we’re used to.
It’s important to note that the Spanish “to like” should be thought of more as “to be pleasing” or “to please” in order to understand how it’s placed within the structure of a sentence in relation to the subject. Here’s an example:
Me gustan los libros. (I like books.)
The books please me.
The literal translation is like “me they please the books.”
The way that gustar is structured in Spanish just makes a lot more sense when you look at it in terms of “to be pleasing,” doesn’t it?
The confusion we English speakers have with the verb gustar lies in the fact that this Spanish verb completely defies the normal pattern that most verbs in both Spanish and English tend to follow.
Instead of following the form:
person who likes + verb + object liked
It follows this form:
indirect object pronoun representing the person who likes + verb + object liked
The big difference is that the verb gustar changes not based upon who is doing the liking, but rather what it is that’s being liked, in this case books. So the object liked becomes the subject. “Books” is what dictates what will happen to gustar, so therefore gustar takes on the third person plural because books is plural. You may have also noticed that in Spanish the article is necessary (los libros instead of just libros here).
If it’s of any comfort to know, we aren’t the only ones to butcher this verb. When Spanish speakers try to directly translate me gustan los libros into English they run into some serious issues as well. All of a sudden the humans aren’t the ones who like the books, but rather the books now like them! When a student once asked me “Do the books like you?” in English class, and as charming as that idea may sound—I do hope they like me!—the sentence structure wasn’t technically correct.
Liking People: Where Gustar Gets Tricky
Unfortunately, the hardest part is still ahead. We now know that gustar is dictated by the what of the sentence and not the who, and we know that if the what of the sentence is plural as was “books,” then the verb gustar must also be plural (gustan instead of gusta).
So essentially we just have to remember the correct indirect object pronoun and then add the singular or plural form of the verb. No matter what the indirect object pronoun may be, there will only ever be two options to choose from: gusta or gustan. Simple enough, right?
But what happens when the object liked happens to not be an object, but instead a human being? Now we aren’t only working with the gusta and gustan forms. Gusto (first person singular), gustas (second person singular) and gustáis (third person plural) are also added to the list.
To give you an idea of how gustar functions when objects in a sentence are replaced by people I’ll create an imaginary scenario.
My best guy friend, Jaime, likes me but there’s this other guy—Enrique, let’s say—that I like but who happens to like my best friend Elena. What would this look like in Spanish if I confronted Enrique? Probably a little bit like a telenovela (soap opera)!
Me: A Jaime le gusto (Jaime likes me) pero a mí me gustas tú (but I like you) y Elena me ha dicho que a ti te gusta ella (and Elena has told me that you like her).
Enrique: A mí me gustáis las dos pero solo como amigas (I like both of you guys but only as friends).
The same rules still apply here. The conjugation of the verb gustar is still dictated by the object of affection—the loved and not the lover—but the problem that arises is that your mind will want to connect the verb endings with the subject. Le gusto, (he/she likes me) for example, has the -o ending which we naturally connect with the first person singular yo (I). It can therefore appear that here you are the one liking when in reality you’re the one being liked.
As I said before, the key to avoiding confusion is to create possible sentences that could arise in conversation and practice them ahead of time. Things can easily become muddled with these types of verbs, but not if you’re prepared. Now that you’ve got the basic concept down, the rest of the verbs should come pretty easily. Here I have a list of other pesky verbs that function just like gustar.
Herd all of these strange and deviant verbs into the same pen and study them apart from the rest!
14 Tricky Spanish Verbs That Are Conjugated Like the Verb Gustar
1. Encantar (to love something)
While this verb can be used to refer to the love of people, and means more to be delighted or charmed by someone in certain contexts, amar is more associated with the love of people while encantar tends to be used more in reference to things. You’ll rarely hear amar being used to talk about loving a non-human thing. For example:
A Daniel le encantó el partido. (Daniel loved the game.)
As with gustar, the conjugation of this verb is dictated by the thing being loved (direct object) and not by the subject of the sentence. The third person singular has been used in the past simple tense because partido (game) is singular.
The A Daniel that’s placed at the beginning of the sentence is used to either place emphasis on the subject (maybe you didn’t like the game but he really did) or to clarify who it was who loved the game if you’ve been speaking about more than one person (the article le could refer to anyone, male or female).
2. Costar (to cost)
The verb costar can be used in two different senses in Spanish. All the more reason to learn it well! The first possible usage has to do with money. Here’s an example:
Esas zapatillas le costaron a Sara cuarenta dólares. (Those tennis shoes cost Sara forty dollars.)
Here we’re looking at the third person plural in the simple past tense because zapatillas (tennis shoes) is plural.
The second usage of this verb refers to difficulty. For example:
Me cuesta subir la cuesta. (It’s difficult for me to go up the hill.)
The literal translation is: It costs me to go up the hill.
As you can see, the third person singular form, cuesta, can also be used as a noun to mean “hill.”
3. Molestar (to be a bother)
This false friend has been the cause of much confusion for many English speakers. The correct Spanish equivalent for “molest” is actually acosar.
La música de nuestro compañero de cuarto nos molesta muchísimo. (Our roommate’s music bothers us so much.)
Music here is singular and therefore molestar is also singular in this case.
4. Quedar (remain)
Quedar is one of those multi-use types of verbs that will annoy the heck out of you in the beginning. However, once you start to wrap your mind around all of the various uses it becomes indispensable in conversation. Here I’ve provided two popular uses of this verb in Spanish. In the first sentence, quedar is used to mean “to remain” and in the second it’s used to speak of meeting up with people.
Sólo me quedan tres asignaturas más y ya me gradúo. (I only have three more classes left before I graduate.)
The literal translation of this sentence reads like: “Only for me remain three classes more and already I graduate.”
Here the verb quedar is plural because it refers to the word asignaturas (classes).
Quedar can also be used mean “to meet.” For example, here in Spain it’s common to say:
¿A qué hora hemos quedado? (What time are we going to meet at?)
The literal translation of this sentence reads like: “At what time have we met?”
Oddly enough, this phrase uses the present perfect to refer to a future event. When translated directly to English it’s confusing since it sounds like something that has already happened.
5. Sobrar (to be left over)
Knowing the verb sobrar will automatically add several more Spanish words to your vocabulary. If you know that sobrar means “to be left over” then you can easily deduce that las sobras is the word for “leftovers.” In Spanish schools, the word sobresaliente is used to refer to an outstanding grade (one that goes above and beyond what is necessary to pass). Here’s an example of a common usage of the verb sobrar as it relates to being “left over.”
Nos ha sobrado mucha comida de la fiesta que hicimos el otro día. (There is a lot of food left over from the party that we had the other day.)
Note that instead of han sobrado (which would be the plural version of the present perfect) we have chosen ha which is singular in reference to comida (food).
Also note that in Spanish they don’t use the verb “to have” when speaking of throwing a party like we do in English. Instead they use the verb hacer which means “to do or to make.”
In more slang terms, sobrar can be used to say that something is unnecessary. For example, if someone makes a rude or out of place remark in a group someone might say something like this:
Ese comentario sobra. (That remark is unnecessary.)
6. Importar (to be important to)
This verb, like many Spanish verbs, has a couple different meanings including “to import” and “to be of interest.” However, the most common usage in Spanish is “to be important to.”
Antes la familia le importaba mucho pero ahora sólo le importan los amigos. (His family used to be important to him but now only his friends are.)
In this sentence where we move from the past imperfect to the simple present, the verb importar changes from singular to plural to accommodate first la familia which is singular and then los amigos which is plural.
7. Aburrir (to bore)
Besides the common meaning of “to bore,” this verb can also be used to mean “to tire,” “to annoy” or “to irritate.” In its reflexive form (aburrirse) the meaning changes to mean “to become bored” in a general sense. Here’s an example of the non-reflexive usage of this verb:
El béisbol me aburre mucho. (Baseball really bores me.)
The third person singular is used here to refer to the singular noun béisbol. Remember that in cases like this in Spanish the article must be added before the noun (el béisbol) unlike in English where we simply say “baseball.” We saw the same thing back with the gustar example where me gustan los libros was used rather than just libros.
8. Preocupar (to worry)
Besides the common meaning of “to worry,” this verb can also be used to mean “to interest,” “to concern” or “to care about.” Like many of the verbs in this list, this one also has a reflexive form (preocuparse) which means “to become worried.” Here’s an example of the non-reflexive usage of this verb:
Me preocupas mucho. (You really worry me.)
Unlike the examples I’ve given you up to this point, here the subject (me) is speaking directly to another person (you) and therefore preocupar has taken on the second person form of preocupas rather than preocupa or preocupan.
9. Faltar (to be lacking something)
Along with the definition of “to be lacking something,” faltar can also be used to refer to attendance. Faltar al trabajo, for example, means “to miss work.” However, the most common usage of this word is in reference to lack. Here’s an example of this usage:
Me faltan dos jugadores en el equipo. (I lack two players in the team.)
10. Atraer (to attract)
In its reflexive form, atraerse, refers to the equal attraction between two things. So if we wanted to say that María and Pedro were attracted to each other we would say:
María y Pedro se atraen.
But, alas, attraction is not always reciprocated and that’s where the non-reflexive form comes in. Here’s an example of its usage:
Hugo no le atrae mucho a Marina. (Marina is not very attracted to Hugo.)
The literal translation of this is: Hugo doesn’t attract a lot to Marina
Hugo is singular so here we use atrae instead of atraen. Notice that the clarification/emphasis addition of a Marina is placed at the end rather than at the beginning of the sentence this time but still functions in the exact same way. We also could have formatted the sentence as:
A Marina no le atrae mucho Hugo. (Marina is not very attracted to Hugo.)
Another colloquial sort of way to express this sentiment is to use the phrase llamar la atención.
Hugo no le llama mucho la atención a Marina. (Hugo doesn’t really catch her eye/spark her interest.)
The literal translation of this is: Hugo doesn’t her call a lot the attention.
11. Convenir (to be in someone’s interest)
The verb convenir probably makes you think of two things in English: convene and convenient. In this case, the word “convenient” is kind of helpful in remembering the definition of this Spanish verb. If something is convenient for you then it’s probably in your interest (thought not always!). Here’s an example of how this verb is used in Spanish:
Los cambios en el horario no me convienen nada. (The changes in the schedule are not in my interest at all.)
Here los cambios (the changes) is plural and therefore we use convienen rather than conviene.
If you use conviene when recommending something to another person it can sometimes come off as a little strong because there is a slight connotation of obligation within the verb. For example, if you wanted to politely tell a friend that it might be really good for their health to lose a little weight you would probably opt for:
te vendría bien adelgazar
te conviene adelgazar
While they have very similar meanings, the first option is more of a casual suggestion while the second one sounds a bit forceful.
12. Parecer (to appear to be)
Aside from its usage as a verb, parecer can also be used as a noun to mean “opinion.” Cambiar de parecer and the more commonly used cambiar de opinión both mean to change your mind or have a change of heart. Here’s an example of what this Spanish word looks like when functioning as a verb:
Me parece muy buena gente. (They seem to be/appear to be really good people)
Since gente (people) is singular, the verb parecer changes to parece here.
13. Doler (o:ue) (to be painful)
It’s important to note that the verb doler becomes irregular (o changes to ue) in many conjugations in the simple present:
In the following example, however, the verb stays regular:
Después de andar tanto por la calle me dolían los pies. (After walking around so much on the street my feet were hurting me.)
Here we use the imperfect past tense and the third person plural to refer to pies (feet).
14. Picar (to itch)
Picar is yet another Spanish verb with a wide variety of meanings. Let’s start with an example of one of its most common uses:
Nos pican mucho las picaduras que tenemos en las piernas. (The bug bites we have on our legs really itch.)
Since picaduras (bug bites) is plural we’ve used the third person plural conjugation pican here.
As you can see, the pica in picaduras comes from the verb picar. The verb picar can also be used as the verb “to bite.” For example:
Siempre me pican mucho los mosquitos. (Mosquitos always bite me a lot.)
So, in the end, both the verbs “to itch” and “to bite” are represented by the Spanish verb picar. Not only that, but this verb is also used to mean “to bite” in the sense of spiciness. For example:
La salsa pica mucho. (The salsa is really spicy.)
But wait, there’s more! Picar is also slang for the phrase “to pick on” but is always used in a pretty lighthearted sense. For example, a child might use this word to complain to their mother when a sibling is teasing them:
Máma, me está picando Sandra. Me dice que no sé cantar. (Mom, Sandra is picking on me. She says I don’t know how to sing.)
5 Important Phrases That Use These Tricky Verbs
Now that we’ve learned some of the most commonly used verbs that follow the same pattern as gustar, I’ll leave you with some extremely popular Spanish phrases whose verbs also follow the same pattern.
1. Volver loco (drive crazy, drive mad)
You’ve probably heard this phrase before in a reggaeton song.
Me vuelves loco (You drive me crazy)
Here’s an example of the usage of this phrase in its reflexive form:
Andrés se ha vuelto loco (Andrés has gone crazy)
2. Caer bien/mal (to give a good/bad impression to someone)
Both caer fatal and caer gordo can be used to mean that someone has given you a really bad impression or you really don’t like them.
Ese tío me ha caído gordo. (That guy has given me a really bad impression/I really don’t like that guy.)
Literal translation: That uncle me has fallen fat.
3. Quedar bien/mal (to suit/to not suit)
This phrase is usually used in reference to style and fashion in general. For example:
Ese vestido te queda fenomenal. (That dress suits you really well/looks amazing on you.)
4. Dar asco (to be loathsome)
Take the Spanish verb dar then add a noun: this is a common formula for a huge portion of Spanish phrases. Dar asco is just one of many. For example, dar calabazas (give pumpkins) is a colloquial phrase used in Spanish to mean “to reject.”
The phrase dar caña is normally used as a command meaning “to get a move on” or “to hurry up.” While both these phrases are quite slang in nature, dar asco is an extremely common, everyday sort of Spanish phrase. Here’s a usage example:
Las arañas me dan asco. Spiders disgust me.
Literal translation: The spiders me give disgust.
Another phrase that can also be used in this sense (but is not limited to it) is dar cosa. For example:
Las arañas me dan cosa. Spiders give me the creeps.
Literal translation: The spiders me give thing.
Here’s another example with the phrase dar cosa that doesn’t have quite the same connotation:
Me da cosa abrir el regalo porque el papel es tan bonito. (I feel funny about opening the gift because the wrapping paper is so beautiful.)
5. Hacer falta (to be needed/necessary)
The phrase no hace falta is a very common one here in Spain and is used to mean “it’s not necessary.” When we want to say that something is necessary, this is how the phrase functions in Spanish:
En esta casa hace falta aire acondicionado. (This house needs air conditioning.)
If you haven’t already started compiling your list of defiant verbs then this is the time to do so!
Remember that gustar is the most commonly used and confused verb of them all so focus on mastering it first.
From there the rest is what the Spanish would call pan comido—a piece of cake!
Constance Chase is a writer and English teacher living in Madrid, Spain with her Spanish husband, Javier.
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