Writing Tip 1: Number and gender agreement

One of the simplest grammatical principles to explain but among the most difficult to consistently apply is that of the agreement of articles (words for a(n), the, some) and adjectives with the gender and number of the nouns they modify. Even advanced students make mistakes in this area.

Determining if a noun is singular or plural is not a problem; knowing whether the noun is masculine or feminine sometimes is. However, mistakes made in this area are more often the result of carelessness rather than uncertainty about gender.

To avoid mistakes, recognize the common endings of feminine nouns: -a, -ad, -ión. Most importantly, double check your work!!

Writing Tip 2: Forming questions

Because English uses helping (auxiliary) verbs to form questions with verbs other than be, students sometimes get confused when writing questions in Spanish. These two questions illustrate the use of the English helping verb do in questions.

Do you practice tennis? When does she study?

The first question, a "yes/no" question, is not a problem. Students realize that all they have to say is, ¿Practicas (tú) tenis? The other question, an "information" question (because the answer requires information, not a simple yes/no answer), is more problematic. Students sometimes try to translate the do/does into Spanish, a language that does not form questions using helping verbs.

The more difficult challenge is word order. When you are writing information questions, use this word order: Question word - Verb - Subject. The second English question, when does she study, should be translated ¿Cuándo estudia ella? not ¿Cuándo ella estudia?

Writing Tip 3: The simple present tense

The simple present tense (conjugations like hablo, hablas, etc.) seems 'simple'. However, because it doesn't correspond completely to the English simple present, things get complicated.

The most common problem is that students try to directly translate a sentence such as I'm studying with María tonight word for word. This particular sentence refers to a future activity and for that, Spanish often uses the simple present tense. A correct translation of this sentence is: Estudio con María esta noche, which literally says: I study with María tonight.

This translation sounds odd because we don't normally use the simple present for future action. But neither does Spanish use the literal equivalent of I'm studying to refer to anything except an action that is taking place at the moment. In Spanish you can say Estoy estudiando en este momento but not Estoy estudiando mañana.

If you want to ask a question such as Are you studying with María tonight?, don't translate word for word; just use the simple present, the equivalent of You study with María tonight? Estudias con María esta noche?

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The other structure that is commonly used for the future is the Spanish equivalent of the English expression I'm going to (eat), Voy a (comer). The text presents this structure in connection with the present tense of the verb ir (to go).

Writing Tip 4: ¿Ser or estar?

Our text provides good information on this topic, but here are a few thoughts.

An easy rule that will work for most (but not all!) cases is: Use estar for location and non-inherent qualities and ser for everything else. Study the information in the text to be sure you know all the ins and outs of this important topic.

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A tricky test item is: It _____ a nice day. Should you say Está un día bonito? After all, it's only nice today. Or should you say Es un día bonito? The answer: use ser. Use estar if you want to say It's nice today (Está bonito hoy) because you are describing how the day is, not what the day is (Today = a nice day.)

Writing Tip 5: Preposition en

Normally the preposition at is translated by the word en. If you want to say I work at Target, you say Trabajo en Target, NOT Trabajo a Target!

Writing Tip 6: Infinitives

The infinitives, verb forms that end in -r, are used a lot in Spanish. Sometimes their use corresponds to English; sometimes it doesn't.

Both English and Spanish often use the infinitive after conjugated verbs (ex. I need to practice / Necesito practicar). Occassionally, students conjugate both verbs (Necesito practico) which gives you the equivalent of I need I practice. The conjugation of the initial verb is all that's needed!

English uses the -ing form of verbs after prepositions; for example, He is tired of studying; Spanish uses infinitives after prepositions (Él está cansado de estudiar). Spanish often uses a construction of preposition plus infinitive in place of a preposition and a conjugated verb. Compare these sentences:

  1. I study after I eat supper / Estudio después de comer

  2. Before I practice tennis, I do exercises / Antes de practicar tenis, hago ejercicios.

When you write sentences like these, you will save yourself the trouble of conjugating a verb if you imitate the Spanish practice of using an infinitive after the preposition.

Spanish uses the infinitive form of verbs as nouns; English uses the -ing form. For example, My favorite pastime is reading / Mi pasatiempo favorito es leer.

Being aware of the varied uses of the infinitive in Spanish can make a big difference in your speaking and writing.

Writing Tip 7: Special verb phrases

The constructions tener que + infinitive and ir + a + infinitive are presented early in our text because they are SO common. Knowing these allows you to express a whole range of ideas because you can substitute infinitives at will. It should become automatic to say or write Tengo que (ir, estudiar, trabajar, etc.) or Voy a (dormir, leer, nadar, etc.). However, in written work students often omit the little words que and a in these expressions.

Students sometimes ask how to translate the que or the a. You can't really translate these expressions word for word; just take them as a whole and leave it at that.

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As you go through the course you will notice that the vocabulary lists sometimes include verbs that are followed by a preposition. An example is asistir (a). In this case, the preposition is included with the verb because you usually have to use it when you use the verb. When you use asistir in Spanish you are saying 'attend to'. For example, Asisto a la reunión literally says I attend to the meeting. (Compare: I go to the meeting.)

When you are reading Spanish you may happen across conjugated verbs that have a preposition (often a) inserted between the conjugated form and the infinitive that follows. You may wonder why, because it doesn't seem to make sense if you translate the a as to. This question is one that is taken up at intermediate level, but briefly one can say that the preposition a is used when the action of the first verb lead to the action of the second. The verb empezar, for example, is commonly followed by a. ( Empiezo a entender / I'm starting to understand.)

Writing Tip 8: Reflexive object pronouns

In both English and Spanish verbs can be used reflexively; that is, the subject, or doer of the action, and the object, or receiver of the action, are one and the same. The English sentence "I see myself in the mirror" is an example of this. English has a whole series of reflexive pronouns: myself, yourself, ourselves, etc. In this regard Spanish is easier. There are only five reflexive pronouns: me, te, nos, os, and se.

Spanish, however, considers many more actions to be reflexive than does English. Where English may say, "I sit down," Spanish says, "I seat myself." Often English actions that we do to ourselves include a preposition type word with the verb; for example, get up, lie down, wash up, etc. In Spanish all of these actions are reflexive. Furthermore, when a reflexive construction is used Spanish uses a definite article before the corresponding part of the body or piece of clothing. Therefore, when you want to say "I put on my shirt" what you actually say in Spanish is "I put (on) myself the shirt." There is no reason to say 'my shirt' since you are putting it on yourself.

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Remember that verbs that are used reflexively can also be used non-reflexively. Compare Me llamo Juan, I call myself Juan, and Llamo a Juan, I call Juan. In the second example you use llamo not me llamo because the doer of the action (yo) and the receiver of the action (Juan) are not the same.

Writing Tip 9: Object pronoun placement

There are two positions for object pronouns: (1) directly before the conjugated verb, and (2) attached to an infinitive or present participle. Our text presents direct object pronouns and reflexive pronouns first and indirect object pronouns later. It doesn't matter which object pronoun you use; these placement rules apply to all.

If you click on the script of this week's tip you will find examples of correct and incorrect object pronoun placement.

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Correct: Lo veo manaña. I'll see him tomorrow.

Correct: Lo voy a ver manaña. I'm going to see him tomorrow.

Correct: Voy a verlo manaña. I'm going to see him tomorrow.

Incorrect: Lo voy a verlo manaña. The pronoun is used twice.

Incorrect: Voy a lo ver manaña. The pronoun is placed in the middle of the verb phrase.

Correct: Los estoy lavando. I'm washing them, (referring to los platos).

Correct: Estoy lavándolos. I'm washing them.

Incorrect: Estoy los lavando. The pronoun is placed in the middle of the verb phrase.

Writing Tip 10: Direct and indirect objects

Do you get confused about which is which? Most students do. It may be helpful to recognize that indirect objects do not occur nearly as frequently in a language as direct objects. This is because an indirect object is the person to whom or for whom something is done. Only certain actions are normally done to or for someone. For example, the verb eat is not usually used with an indirect object. You 'eat something' but you don't normally 'eat something for somebody.' Our text practices the use of indirect object pronouns with the verbs decir and dar. This is because these verbs are normally used with indirect objects. You say something to someone; you give something to someone. The something you say or give is the direct object; who you say or give it to is the indirect object.

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Indirect objects aren't likely to occur in sentences that don't already have a direct object. An exception is a sentence like "She wrote her mother." In that sentence we understand that her mother is the indirect object, not the direct object. If her mother were the direct object, the mother herself would be written on. The unstated direct object is letter and it is written to her mother.

Writing Tip 11: Gustar

It's not uncommon for students to write or say Me gusto. Since the verb gustar means 'to be pleasing to, me gusto means I am pleasing to myself. What students intend to say is 'I like.' With gustar and verbs like gustar you'll need to keep in mind that something pleases you, or doesn't please you--not that you like something or don't like something. It's just backwards from what you are used to! In fact, in Spanish the actual word order is often backwards as well. The subject, the thing that pleases you, is usually placed after the verb, so that when you conjugate the verb you have to think ahead to whether the subject that follows is singular or plural. 'I like bananas' is Me gustan las bananasgustan not gusta because the subject bananas is plural.

Something else to remember: Whomever the subject is pleasing to is the indirect object in the sentence. If you say María likes pizza, you must say A María le gusta la pizza. Don't forget the personal a before María! Without the personal a, María will appear to be the subject of the sentence. You don't want to sound like you're saying that María pleases the pizza!

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If you want to say that you love something, in the sense of I love chocolate, use the verb encantar, not amar or querer. Those verbs are used to refer to the love that one person has for another.

Writing Tip 12: Spelling considerations

As you study preterit conjugations, note the spelling changes for verbs that end in -car and -gar. If you have listened to or read the pronunciation tips on the letters c and g, you will recall that the vowel that follows these letters determines whether they are pronounced as hard or soft. The yo conjugation of these verbs involves attaching an accented e to the verb stem. Students don't have a problem orally conjugating these verbs; they do have a problem spelling them. Without changing the c-e to q-u-e and the g-e to g-u-e, these conjugations come out sounding as, for example, buscé instead of busqué and llegé instead of llegué. This is because the e following the final c or g of the stem changes the pronunciation of the final c or g to a soft pronunciation.

For more information on hard and soft c or g see Pronunciation Tips 6 and 7.