Archive for the ‘Grammar’ Category

Pastime: Using the Subjunctive in English

Friday, September 26th, 2008

I never knew the subjunctive existed or what it was until studying Spanish. And after learning the Spanish subjunctive mood, I learned that English still has vestiges of the subjunctive. Now, one of my favorite pastimes is to use the grammatically correct, but somewhat unusual subjunctive in English, especially declining to join the two clauses with “that” and chuckling within when my interlocutors give me a wary “literary” look.

The Importance of Punctuation

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Last night I was in a class where we learned about the importance of punctuation in Spanish. Consider this sentence:

Un señor tenía un perro y la madre del señor era también el padre del perro.

Here’s a literal translation:

A man had a dog and the mother of the man was also the father of the dog.

The exercise was for us to try and place a single semi-colon in the sentence to make it make sense. And we can’t have the mother of the man being the father of the dog at the same time.

So where would you put the semi-colon?

Take a second to go back and try to place the semi-colon before reading on.

I wasn’t able to come up with the answer right away, although perhaps for native Spanish speakers it’s more obvious. Here’s the answer:

Un señor tenía un perro y la madre; del señor era también el padre del perro.
A man had a dog and the mother (of the dog); of the man was also (the man also owned) the father of the dog.

The sentence doesn’t work so well in English, but works perfectly in Spanish.

Woman and her man

This exercise reminded me of a joke I heard where an English professor walks into the classroom and writes the following sentence on the board, and instructs the students to insert the proper punctuation.

Woman without her man is nothing.

The male students wrote:

“Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

and the female students responded with:

“Woman: without her, man is nothing.”

Eats, shoots and leaves

Which leads us right to the famous panda story.

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and starts shooting at the other patrons.

“Why did you do that?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it at the waiter.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says, walking out the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda– Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Which, of course, should have read “Eats shoots and leaves”.

Julia, Irene and Soledad

Then there was the poor guy who was in arrears because he had three lady friends– Julia, Irene and Soledad– and all three of them thought they were the love of his life. He penned a poem to let them know what he really thought.

Si obedecer es razón
digo que amo a Soledad
no a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene
no aspira mi amor a Irene
que no es poca su beldad

Of course each one of these three ladies interpreted the poem as she wished.

Julia thought he meant:

Si obedecer es razón
digo que ¿amo a Soledad?
no, ¡a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene!
no aspira mi amor a Irene,
¿qué? no, es poca su beldad.

Irene took it to mean:

Si obedecer es razón
digo que ¿amo a Soledad?
no, ¿a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene?
no, ¡aspira mi amor a Irene
que no es poca su beldad!

And of course Soledad read it as:

Si obedecer es razón
digo que amo a Soledad;
no a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene.
No aspira mi amor a Irene,
¿qué? no, es poca su beldad.

In reality, it was all a misunderstanding, since what he really meant was:

Si obedecer es razón
digo que ¿amo a Soledad?
no, ¿a Julia cuya bondad
persona alguna no tiene?
no, ¿aspira mi amor a Irene?
¿qué? no, ¡es poca su beldad!

An ambiguous will?

And if that wasn’t sad enough, let me finish with the will (testamento) that un señor dejó al morir:

“Dejo mis bienes a mi sobrino Juan no a mi hermano Luis tampoco jamás pagaráse la cuenta al sastre nunca de ningún modo para los jesuitas todo lo dicho es mi deseo.”

Now pretend you’re Juan, then Luis, then the tailor, then one of the jesuitas and try to punctuate this will. I’ll post the answers after a few days.

Is it Subject-Verb Agreement or Verb-Object Agreement?

Monday, October 29th, 2007

The following image and caption caught my attention.

Someone should work on their math
before they work on their grammar.
Is or Are?
Found on reddit.

If you didn’t already notice, the joke is that it doesn’t matter if you want to say is or are, the fact is that the answer is 14 not 13. That aside, what is the right answer? Just for the record, I’d go with is, without getting into a grammatical discussion of the subject.

Five plus five is/are ten.
Our greatest asset is/are our libraries.
The thing I least like about rainy days is/are the grey clouds.

What do you think?

In Spanish it’s another story. As far as I know, in these cases the verb agrees in number with the object, not the subject. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Cinco mas cinco son diez.
Nuestro mejor recurso son nuestras bibiotecas.
La cosa que menos me gusta de los días lluviosos son las nubes grises.

Descriptivism Vs. Prescriptivism

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

Descriptivism Vs. Prescriptivism

For a bit of background, see the Wikipedia articles on descriptive and prescriptive language policies.

The Top 5 Mistakes English Speakers Make When Speaking Spanish

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

We are all susceptible to transferring what we know of our native language to the language we’re studying. I’ve compiled what I consider the top 5 mistakes that an English speaker can make when studying/speaking Spanish as part of a group writing project. Two of these errors are in vocabulary and three in grammar. If you don’t agree or if you think I’ve overlooked an important error, please do let me know.

5. Using preguntar por as to ask for.

Newish students often make this mistake, but I’ve caught more advanced students doing this. The thing is they teach you that to ask is preguntar, so you the gullible student extrapolate that and if you want to ask for a glass of milk, you use preguntar por. If you want to ask about a person, such as if they’re at home, or how they’re doing, you can use preguntar por or preguntar de. If you want to ask for something you need to use pedir. ¿Te pido una cosa? Ya no confundas los verbos pedir y preguntar 🙂

4. Using the verb realizar to mean to realize.

Realizar is another problem verb, because there’s a look-alike word in English: realize. Realizar can mean to accomplish, acheive, attain, bring to fruition, carry out, fulfill, make, materialize, and even to pull off; and only means to realize as in the sentence: “He is about to realize his lifelong goal of buying a house”. If you realize something, as in you become aware of it, then use the phrase darse cuenta. “I realized she’s in my Spanish class”. “Me di cuenta que está en mi curso de español”.

3. Mixing up the gender of Spanish nouns.

Grammatical gender is troublesome for those of us who come from languages where it doesn’t exist. But there are lots of clues that will help us to know which Spanish words are “la” words and which ones are “el” words. The first thing I recommend is stop thinking of the words as male or female- that will take you the wrong place. Simply realize (date cuenta [see above]) that there are 2 words for the. Some nouns take one of them, and the rest take the other one. After that, go to any grammar book and study the list of word endings that will help you identify the gender of the noun. For example, feminine “la” words often end in -a, -dad, -ción, -tad, and -sión. Many masculine words end in -o. Of course, there are many words that don’t follow these rules, but even most of those exceptions follow rules of their own as well.

2. Not conjugating the verbs in all the right places.

English only has a few conjugations for its verbs. For a regular verb in the present tense, there is only one change: you add an -s or -es for the third person singular form (he, she, it). All the other forms (I, you, we and they) use the verb in the same form as the infinitive. This is most definitely not the case in Spanish. And that really causes problems. Let’s take the verb “scratch” as an example.

to scratch rasgar
I scratch (yo) rasgo
you scratch (tú) rasgas [singular, informal]
(vosotros) rasgáis [plural, informal, peninsular Spanish]
(usted) rasga [singular, formal]
(ustedes) rasgan [plural, formal]
he/she/it scratches (el/ella) rasga
we scratch (nosotros) rasgamos
they scratch (ellos/ellas) rasgan

So, as is obvious, Spanish is more complicated in this area, and that was only the present tense. There are another dozen or so tenses after you learn that one. But you need to make an effort to master these verb conjugations if you want to take your Spanish to the next level.

And the number one mistake English speakers make in Spanish is:

1. Not using the subjunctive.

The subjunctive is often a subject left for the last chapter of the textbook, almost in a bid that the students will be too busy anticipating spring break to look into it. But the subjunctive is a verb form– a mood to be exact– that Spanish and the other languages derived from Latin use extensively. I don’t think WordPress could hold a post long enough to give the subject complete treatment, so I’ll just give you a couple of examples.

I don’t want him to go with us.
I wish you‘d come home before it gets dark.
When I have kids, I’m going to teach them Spanish.
Hopefully she‘ll make it to the meeting on time.

I’ve bolded the relevant words in the English. The first sentence uses to go— the infinitive. The second uses a contracted form of would come— the conditional. The third uses I have— the normal present tense. And the fourth uses will make— the future. Now let’s see the Spanish. They all use the subjunctive.

No quiero que vaya con nosotros.
Quisiera que llegaras a casa antes de que se oscurezca.
Cuando tenga hijos, les voy a enseñar español.
Ojalá y llegue a tiempo a la reunión.

Now before you get all droopy-eyed about the subjunctive, I want to say that even though I’ve studied Spanish for upwards of 12 years, I still don’t get it right all the time. Most of the time yes, but all of the time no.

In writing about these top 5 mistakes, my purpose in not to discourage you. By calling attention to these things, you can be more careful and give these things more importance in your studies. Slowly but surely, you’ll become a more and more native-like speaker.