Lesson 1: Plurals, articles, gender. (Thematic vocabulary: talking about people)

Note: for the sake of completeness, I’ve included a lot of points here that can’t be illustrated except with relatively advanced vocabulary not included in the first few chapter vocabulary lists. Don’t worry about memorizing this all (much less all the vocabulary in the example sentences); necessary points will be reinforced later as they come up.

Grammatical gender of nouns

In Spanish, every noun has one of two grammatical genders: either masculine or feminine. Nouns that refer to humans are what you’d expect (e.g. rey “king” is masculine and reina “queen” is feminine), but other noun genders are basically arbitary.

The gender of a noun determines two important things:

Some noun genders just have to be memorized, but most of them follow a few simple rules.

Plurals

Nouns and adjectives all have singular and plural forms. The basic pluralization rules are these:

Examples:

Two minor wrinkles that only apply to a handful of words and aren’t worth worrying about to begin with:

Articles

Spanish has two kinds of articles. The first is the indefinite, which is used in the same situations as English a or some. The indefinite article always comes before the noun it’s attached to, and it has to match the noun in gender and number, according to the following table:

Masc. Fem.
Sing. un una
Pl. unos unas

For instance:

The second kind of article is the definite article, which follows this format.

Masc. Fem.
Sing. el la
Pl. los las

The definite article is the equivalent of the English word theÑ el hombre y la mujer “the man and the woman”, los perros malos “the bad dogs”, La Habana Havana. But it is also used far more widely than in English: for instance, generic references to an entire class of objects require definite articles. Depending on context, for instance, los hombres can mean “the men” (as in one particular group of men), or “men” (or “humans”) in general. (You’ll get an intuition after a while, or check a reference grammar for the full details.

In a list of nouns joined by conjunctions, articles should generally be repeated for each noun, though in English they can be left out.

One final wrinkle: feminine nouns that begin with an accented a- or ha- take el and un instead of la and una as singular articles, provided the article comes immediately before the noun. They are feminine in all other aspects, including taking las in the plural and using feminine forms of most adjectives. If there’s a word between the article and the noun, then el reverts to la and (except in substandard speech) un reverts to una.

Gendered forms of adjectives

Like articles, adjectives can have different masculine and feminine forms for both singular and plural, and adjectives must match the nouns they modify in both gender and number. The masculine singular of any adjective is the form listed in dictionaries; other forms are derived from it by regular rules.

This second category includes a few adjectives with masculine and feminine in -a; don’t be thrown if you see these.

Some exceptions to the second point: here are some adjectives that take an added -a for the feminine form.

Masculine and feminine plurals of adjectives are formed from the respective singulars by the same rules as for nouns:

Important exception: Most numerals used as adjectives, including all the ones given in this section’s vocabulary except uno, are gender-invariant, including the numerals that end in -o. (Numerals 2 and up are obviously intrinsically plural and don’t have separate singular forms either.)

There are a few more weird exceptions that are not worth worrying about.

Important note: Adjective gender matches the grammatical gender of the accompanying noun, even if the noun refers to a human with a different actual gender. This is especially common with la persona “person”, which is always grammatically feminine even if it refers to males (there’s no such word as *el persono or similar).

Position of adjectives; short forms of adjectives

Adjectives generally come after the noun they modify. A lot of adjectives, though, can come before the noun—including, as we just saw, all numerals used as adjectives. Adjectives used before the noun always go after any article.

Bueno and malo can come after or before the noun. When they come immediately before a masculine singular noun, they become buen and mal. The other forms buena, buenos, buenas and so forth are the same before or after the noun.

Grande can come before or after the noun. If it comes before a singular noun (or , the singular form (both genders) is gran, not grande. Before the noun, it has the meaning of “great” or “important”. When put after the noun, it more often means “physically large”.

Adjectives that come before the adjective always follow any accompanying articles (as illustrated above), with one exception: todo, which precedes any articles. Todo can usually be translated “all” or, in the singular, “entire” or “whole.”

Multiple nouns with one adjective

The full rules are a bit complicated, but here’s a short version. For a series of nouns joined with y:

The rules for agreement with series of nouns joined with o “or” or ni … ni “neither … nor” are a bit more complicated and flexible, but it’s generally safe to use the same rules as with y.

Subject pronouns

First, a quick reminder of what is meant by grammatical person:

In English, pronouns change form depending on whether they’re used as subject or object: for instance, “I like them” versus “they like me.” This is true in Spanish as well. We’ll meet the Spanish object pronouns in a later chapter; the subject pronouns are the following:

Singular Plural
First person yo nosotros/nosotras
Second person vosotros/vosotras
Third person él/ella/usted ellos/ellas/ustedes

“Subject” means that these are used as the grammatical subject of the sentence: that is, the person or thing doing the action of the main verb. (In English, for instance, I, he, and we are subject pronouns, while me, him, and us are object pronouns.) Spanish, like English, has different pronoun forms for grammatical objects.

Explaining these in turn:

Verbs for “to be”: ser and estar

We’l close by providing a way to construct original complete, if simple, sentences. To do this, we’ll learn the Spanish translation for the verb “to be”—or rather, translations: there are two. Their infinitive forms (the rough equivalents for the form to be in English) are ser and estar. (We won’t use the infinitive forms in this chapter, but we will starting in the next.

The English verb “be” changes form based on its subject: I am, we/you/they are, he/she/it is. (Regular verbs have a more restricted set of changes; e.g. I/we/you/they like but he likes.) In Spanish, verbs have different present forms for each of the three persons in both singular and plural. Most Spanish verbs follow one of three regular patterns that we will encounter next chapter, but ser and estar are irregular.

Forms and usage of ser

The forms of ser are the following.

Sing. Pl.
1st soy somos
2nd eres sois
3rd es son

Ser is generally used to describe intrinsic, inherent, or long-lasting characteristics. For humans, for instance, ser can be used to express:

Some intentionally repetitive sentences to illustrate both verb forms and gender and number concordance of adjectives. Note that adjectives linked to a pronoun or noun by ser have to agree in gender and number!

Estar, meanwhile, is used for more transitory or incidental states such as emotions, as well as the location of objects.

Sing. Pl.
1st estoy estamos
2nd estás estáis
3rd está están

(Remember: estoy has an accent on the second syllable, like all words ending in -y with no writen accent mark.)

We’ll provide fewer sample sentences this time.

Optionality of subject pronouns

Unlike English, Spanish is a “pro-drop” language: subject pronouns that can be inferred from context or verb forms are typically left out except to provide special emphasis or contrast. The first- and second-person pronouns yo, , nosotros/as, and vosotros/as, for example, can always be inferred from the verb endings (except for the gender marking on the plural forms).

Even third-person subject pronouns can be left out if the subject of a verb can be clearly inferred from the context.

Ser with identity and discrepant grammatical persons or numbers

One of the common uses of ser is to express that two phrases refer to the same object.

If ser equates a third-person singular and a third-person plural phrase, then it takes the form son, regardless of the order of the phrases.

English, by contrast, chooses “is” or “are” to match whatever comes first: “the problem is the bosses” versus “the bosses are the problem.”

If ser equates a first- or second-person pronoun with an apparently third-person phrase, then the first- or second-person phrase “wins out”, again regardless of the order in which the phrases appear.

English usage in this last example would be the boss is me or (for pedants) the boss is I. (Though we haven’t learned Spanish object pronouns yet, note that in El jefe soy yo, we keep the subject form yo even in colloquial styles.)

Indefinite articles after ser

The indefinite article after a form of ser is optional if the noun that follows doesn’t have attached adjectives. Omitting the article is near-universal for certain classes of nouns, especially professions, and common for words that indicate sex. Otherwise, omitting the article is more common in literary than in colloquial styles.

If there are adjectives attached, then the use of the article is typical:

Phonetic changes of o and y

The conjunction o changes to u when it precedes a word that begins with o or ho- (remember, h is silent).

The conjunction y, likewise, changes to e before a word that starts with i- or hi- (except if hi- is followed by a vowel).

Basic negation

The basic way to negate a verb or adjective is to put no before it.

Basic questions

Yes-or-no questions

The basic formal way to ask yes-or-no questions is with an inverted verb-subject-object word order. Put the verb at the beginning of the sentence, followed by the subject, followed by all other parts of the sentence. Interrogative accompanied by an interrogative intonation similar to that of English (raising the pitch of the voice slightly at the end of the sentence). Questions in Spanish, famously, have question marks at both ends, the first one turned upside down.

Subject pronouns can also be dropped in questions, making the only difference between Eres profesor and ¿Eres profesor? the intonation.

You can also suffix a “tag question” to a declarative statement to make it a yes-or-no leading question indicating that you expect agreement, just like English “… right?” or “am I wrong?”. The easiest one to use ¿no?

Questions with interrogative words; the greeting ¿cómo estás?

Spanish also has a number of words that translate English interrogative words such as who, where, what, and so on. Most interrogative words in Spanish can also be used as relative pronouns (as can their English equivalents: compare the interrogative use of “who” in Who is she? versus the relative pronoun use in She’s the woman who stole your boyfriend); we’ll learn how to use relative pronouns in a later lesson. In Spanish, the interrogative uses of these words are written with redundant accent marks. The standard word order for Spanish questions is interrogative word + verb + subject (if explicitly given) + rest of sentence.

We’ll learn interrogative words gradually over the next several chapters. For now, we’ll learn one of the most common ones: cómo, a close equivalent of the English “how”. Of course, our knowledge of verbs is limited now, but cómo combined with estar forms one of the most common Spanish greetings:

To answer these questions, you could use any adjective. But important: bueno and malo, in any gender or number, are not used with estar. Use instead the forms bien and mal, which do not change for gender or number. (Bien and mal are technically adverbs and their use here is just an idiom; we’ll meet adverbs in general next chapter.)

With ser, on the other hand, cómo can ask about more inherent or essential states, such as someone’s appearance, personality, and so forth. This time, bueno and malo are used instead of bien and mal.

Vocabulary

Times of day:

Greetings to illustrate gender alternation.

Subject pronouns:

Basic words for people:

A few animal names:

A few nationalities and ethnicities:

And a small collection of adjectives:

A few emotions and other temporary states, used with estar:

Miscellany:

Important conjunctions and some other words:

And the first few numbers:

Reminder: Besides un(a), the numbers listed here do not change forms for gender.

Side notes

In the “side notes” sections, you’ll find finer points of grammar and usage that may be worth keeping in mind if you try to read real texts, but that are not important enough to be worth mastering straight off.