Lesson 2: Present and present perfect, demonstratives, adverbs, comparisons. (Thematic vocabulary: food)

Demonstratives

English has two pairs of “demonstrative” adjectives that describe objects by location relative to the speaker: this and these refer to objects near the speaker or metaphorically close at hand, while that and those refer to objects further away. (Uniquely among English adjectives, the demonstratives have different singular and plural forms.)

Spanish has three sets of demonstratives, all with irregular masculine singulars but otherwise following the standard -a/os/as pattern.

(A warning that esto, eso, and aquello are also Spanish words but are not straightforward masculines: rather, they are “neuters” that refer to abstract concepts or thoughts. More on this later.)

A few examples.

Regular present verbs

With few exceptions, Spanish verbs fall into three categories. Some books call them first, second, and third conjugation; we’ll call them as -ar verbs, -er verbs, and -ir verbs, after the ending of the infinitive form (which is accented without exception).

Like ser and estar, almost all Spanish verbs have six forms in the present: one for each of the three persons in both singular and plural. To conjugate a regular verb in the present, just replace the -ar, -er, or -ir ending of the infinitive with (respectively) the first, second, or third entry in this table.

Singular Plural
1st -o/o/o -amos/emos/imos
2nd -as/es/es -áis/éis/ís
3rd -a/e/e -an/en/en

Let’s take as examples cocinar “to eat”, correr “to run”, and escribir “to write”, all regular in the present. Their stems are cocin-, corr-, and escrib-.

Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
1st cocino cocinamos corro corremos escribo escribimos
2nd cocinas cocináis corres corréis escribes escribís
3rd cocina cocinan corre corren escribe escriben

(Some forms in the -ir paradigm break the neat symmetry of the -ar and -er forms; it may help to know that historical sound changes changed the vowels i and u in unaccented final syllables of all Spanish words to e and o.)

For instance:

Three important notes.

  1. English firmly distinguishes a habitual and a continuous present. For instance, I run is used only for recurring actions (e.g. “I run in the park every Sunday”); to say that you’re running right now, you have to say I am running. In Spanish, this distinction is less firm: yo corro can mean either “I run” or “I am running.” Spanish does have a construction that translates word-for-word as I am running, but it is used less than its English counterpart and can be replaced with the simple present while losing only nuance. More on this later.
  2. In the nosotros and vosotros forms, the accented syllable is in the ending. In the singular forms and the ellos form, the accented syllable is the last syllable of the stem. This pattern influences a large class of irregular verbs, to be met in the next chapter, in which the singular and ellos forms have changes in the stem as well as the ending.
  3. Though there are proper future tenses in Spanish, present verb forms can have future meaning if the context is clear, just like in English: e.g. Desayunamos en un momento “We’re eating breakfast in a moment.”

Direct and indirect objects of verbs

In English, some transitive verbs can take both a direct object (DO) and an indirect object (IO). The distinction is ultimately syntactic: if a verb has two objects, then the indirect object is the one that must come first. But the direct/indirect distinction does generally have semantic meaning: the direct object is the thing most directly affected or created by the action of the verb, while the indirect object is typically some sort of recipient.

Moreover, in English, every sentence with a DO and IO can be rewritten so that only the DO remains as the object of the verb, the IO becoming the object of the preposition to: I wrote a letter to her, Brady threw the football to Gronkowski, I showed my anime collection to my girlfriend.

Spanish also has verbs with both direct and indirect objects; verbs with indirect objects, moreover, are far more numerous than in English, and the indirect objects themselves can have far vaguer meanings. The syntax is as follows.

For instance:

With these preliminaries done, we can introduce one common adjectival derivative of verbs, and one with a precise English equivalent.

Past participle of verbs: formation and meaning

In English, the past participle of a verb is an adjective that typically denotes the state resulting from undergoing the action of a verb. For instance: breakbroken (“a broken window”), singsung (“a completely sung church service”); watchwatched (“a watched pot never boils”). (As the last example shows, for English regular verbs, the past passive participle is the same as the regular past tense.)

Spanish also has past passive participles almost exactly equivalent to those of English, though they never coincide with the simple past. The regular formation, which has a couple dozen exceptions, is as follows.

Many verbs have irregular past participles; the only one in this chapter’s vocabulary is escribir, which has the irregular past participle escrito.

Past participles have a few different uses; the one that we’re concerned about is as an adjective. The past participle of transitive verbs almost always has a passive meaning: “in the state of having been verbed”. To specify the agent of a passive participle, use the preposition por, equivalent to “by” in English.

Intransitive verbs, meanwhile, have an active meaning for their past participle: “in the state of having verbed”. Adjectival use of these is somewhat less common but still seen frequently.

As the examples of fallen and vanished in the English translations above show, English past participles of intransitive verbs can also have an active meaning.

Important: In Spanish, if a verb has a direct object and an indirect object, then the past participle can only apply to the DO, not the IO. For instance, escribir takes the thing written as the DO and the person written to as the IO: Escribo una carta a la mujer “I’m writing the woman a letter.” The past participle escrita can refer to the thing written (for instance: la carta escrita a la mujer “the letter written to the woman”) but not to the person written to: *la mujer escrita una carta may seem to translate the English “the woman (who was) written a letter” but is ungrammatical Spanish. (The same stricture applies to full clauses or sentences in the passive voice, but we’ll get to those in a later lesson.)

Present perfect

Spanish, like English, has a few different past tenses—in facat, it makes more distinctions in the past than English does. The first past tense we’l learn is called the present perfect, or in Spanish presente del perfecto (in Latin, perfectus means “finished”). The present perfects in English and Spanish are equivalent for all practical purposes, and refer to an action that has been completed only very recently or whose immediate consequences are still present. Compare the following pairs of English sentences, the first of which is the past.

  1. He arrived (at some point in the past, and may have left)—He has arrived (recently, and is still here).
  2. She lived in Mexico for five years (but then left)—She has lived in Mexico for five years (and still does).
  3. I broke the window (at some point in the past)—I have broken the window (recently, and the window is still broken).
  4. My friend didn’t come to the party (which is now over)—My friend hasn’t come to the party (but the party is still going on, and he may still come).

The past perfect in Spanish is formed by combining a form of the irregular verb haber with the masculine singular past participle of the meaningful verb. (Unlike in some other Romance languages, in Spanish, the gender and number of the past participle never change to match the subject or object.)

Sing. Pl.
1st he hemos
2nd has habéis
3rd ha han

The infinitive equivalent uses the infinitive form haber plus the past participle. These expressions, like all infinitives, are grammatically masculine singular. These expressions can be rendered with the English “to have verbed” or “having verbed” (or to be more precise, “to exist in the state of having verbed”).

More uses of estar (and ser)

Estar is used:

Ser, by contrast, is used:

Some adjectives can be used both with ser and estar, with different meanings: ser reflects an inherent property, estar a more incidental one.

Hay “there is/are”

Hay is a special form of the verb haber, etymologically ha plus an adverb y descended from Latin ibi “there” (also cognate with the y in French il y a). Hay can be translated with the English “there is/are” and indicates simply that its object exists; it is always used without a subject. Unlike English “there is/are”, hay keeps the same form whether its object is singular or plural.

In all tenses but the present indicative, the equivalent to hay is simply the regular third-person singular of haber, without any special suffix. In particular, the present perfect (not especially common, but still found) is ha habido.

The infinitive equivalent, which we’ll meet in earnest next chapter, is also simply haber.

Pronouns as objects of prepositions

In English, pronouns placed after prepositions use object forms: e.g. with me (not *with I); to them (not *to they). In Spanish, by contrast, most pronouns use the same form as objects of prepositions as they do as sentence subjects. The exceptions are yo and , which use the forms and instead.

When used as objects of prepositions (unlike as subjects of sentences), the pronouns él, ella, ellos, ellas can refer to inanimate objects. The choice of pronoun must match the grammatical gender and number of the antecedent: él and ella for singular masculine and feminine objects; ellos for masculine plural objects (or a sequence of objects including at least one masculine); and ellas for feminine plural objects (or a list of multiple objects that are all feminine).

The combinations con mí and con tí are replaced with conmigo and contigo.

(Finally, de is not used to indicate possession when the object is a pronoun; instead, we use special possessive adjectives that we’ll meet later—for instance, mis libros “my books”, not *los libros de mí (which would probably be taken to mean “books about me”).

Adverbs

In Spanish as in English, adverbs are words that can modify adjectives, verbs, or (sometimes) other adverbs. In English, adverbs include a vast number of derivatives from nouns via the suffix -ly, but also a number of other adverbs indicating time, place, or degree that do not end in -ly.

The Spanish category of adverbs is quite similar to the English: there is a large stock of adverbs derived from adjectives via the suffix -mente, as well as a number of other adverbs of time, place, and quantity or degree. Unlike adjectives, Spanish adverbs do not have gender or number inflections. Moreover, a small handful of adverbs, such as mucho and tanto, have different forms whether the modify verbs or adjectives—more on this later.

Regular derivation with -mente

Most adjectives can be turned into adjectives by adding the suffix -mente, equivalent to the English -ly (as in “quick”–“quickly”), to the feminine singular form of the adjective. This construction is possible with two classes of adjectives, which together comprise the vast majority:

  1. Adjectives with identical masculine and feminine forms; or
  2. Adjectives with masculine in -o and feminine in -a.

(So says one reference grammar, but on the other hand, forms such as conservadoramente are attested on the Internet.)

Written accent marks are retained, but the first syllable of -mente is also accented in speech.

Important: If there are multiple adverbs with -mente joined in a series with conjunctions, then the -mente gets dropped from all but the last.

Also important: Unlike with English adverbs in -ly, Spanish adverbs in -mente cannot modify each other. See below.

Periphrasis with de manera et sim.

Adjectives, including ones with adverbs in -mente, can also be made into adverbial phrases with a few periphrastic phrases, of which the most common are de (una) manera, de (un) modo, and de (una) forma. Gender agreement is required. These phrases have the same grammatical value as the adverbs in -mente and can go in the same positions. Here are some examples.

These periphrases are especially common as a substitute for piling adverbs on top of each other, which is ungrammatical if both adverbs have -mente.

Often, a prepositional phrase with a noun derived from the same root as an adverb can substitute for the adverbs itself: for instance, con mucha rapidez (la rapidez: velocity) rather than muy rápidamente. Unfortunately, there are no consistent rules for turning nouns into adjectives. One common phrase especially suited to food is con gusto “happily; with pleasure or enthusiasm.”

Demonstrative adverbs of location

These are the words that translate to English “here” or “there.” Spanish has not two but three.

The gradation corresponds with that of este/ese/aquel: so one would say este restaurante aquí “this restaurant here” but esa naranja ahí “that orange there” or aquel país allí “that country over yonder”.

There are two others that, at least in pedantic language, mean motion toward a place.

Actual usage doesn’t line up well with pedantic usage. Some regions use allá with static meaning as an even-more-remote version of allí rather than to mean motion toward a place, and acá and aquí are interchanged all the time. There are no special words for motion from, use de aquí “from here, hence” and similar instead.

For approximate locations, use the preposition por: por aquí “around here”, por ahí “somewhere over there”. Motion away is simply de aquí and similar.

Finally, location adverbs can serve as invariant adverbs when suffixed to a noun, typically combined either with the corresponding demonstrative adjective or with a definite article.

. He preparado la ensalada ahí. I made the salad there. - Estos vinos tintos aquí son muy caros. These red wines here are very expensive.

Position of adverbs

Position of adverbs is somewhat flexible, but here are general rules for sentences in the usual subject–verb–object order. For adverbs modifying adverbs or other adjectives:

For modifying verbs, it’s a bit more complicated. Don’t feel compelled to memorize all this.

Positions of adjectives of quantity

Adjectives that describe a quantity go before the noun that they modify. This includes all numerals, as mentioned in the last lesson, as well as words such as bastante, demasiado, mucho, and tanto when used adverbally.

Infinitives

The infinitive form of a verb is used to refer to an action in the abstract, without reference to a particular subject or a time. The most common use of infinitives is as the object of other verbs—more on that next chapter. But an infinitive phrase can also be used in most of the places that noun phrases can be used: as a subject of a sentence in its own right, or as the object of a preposition. Infinitive phrases are grammatically masculine singular in most contexts (more or less—they can also be referred to by “neuter” pronouns; more on this later). In particular. Adverb positions are the same as with finite verb forms.

(Note how the idiomatic translations of the Spanish infinitive into English can use either “to verb” or “verbing.”)

The standard translations of English phrases on the model of “easy to make” or “impossible to eat”, in which an infinitive shows the scope of reference of a preceding adjective, use the pronoun de. These phrases are especially common for adjectives that describe the ease with which something can be made, including fácil “easy”, difícil “difficult”, sencillo “simple”, and imposible “impossible”.

To specify a person as the subject of an infinitive in this construction, use the preposition para (equivalent in this instance to English for).

Finally, one common idiom is to create an adverbial phrase by preceding an infinitive phrase with the preposition sin, meaming without.

A few of these phrases can also be used adjectivally. One especially common one is with verbs that mean “to stop” or “to finish” (for instance terminar).

Adjectives with adverbial and pronominal use: bastante, demasiado, más, menos, mucho, tanto

A few common words from the vocabulary have a wide range of usages with differences that can seem subtle: furthermore, the words’ patterns of usage line up with each other well enough that it makes sense to explain them in parallel. The words we’ll look at are:

Substantive use

First, all these words can be used “substantively”: with invariant forms as standalone pronouns referring to quantities of some abstract, unspecified substance. These are masculine singular and can take qualifying adjectives—always afterward, regardless of usual placement.

(Recall from the previous chapter that todo also has this usage: todo bueno “everything good”.)

Adjectival use

These words can also be used as before-the-noun adjectives. In this case, they change form for gender and number when morphologically possible. (Bastante changes for number but not gender, and más and menos are invariant.)

Adverbial use

Finally, these words can also be used as adjectives—modifying verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. The words bastante, demasiado, más, menos, and poco are invariant in this context.

Mucho and tanto take the shortened forms muy and tan when they come before the word that they modify—that is, when they modify adjectives or adverbs. (Like all adverbs of manner, they go after verbs that they modify.) Here are some examples.

The special shortened forms also apply to adverb-like or adjective-like prepositional phrases: Ella es muy de California. She’s very Californian.

Comparisons

Regular comparative syntax with más que and menos que

Though the words más and menos can be used standalone (as illustrated in the previous section), they are most often used in the comparative constructions más … que and menos … que, equivalent to the English more … than and less … than. These constructions can be used in most of the same circumstances as their English equivalents. A full description of all uses of this construction would be complicated and require a digression into relative clauses and phrases: there are cases in which English constructions cannot be rendered into Spanish word-for-word. But for now, here are some of the most common cases.

Comparison of two nouns with regard to an adjective. In such constructions, the adjective goes after más or menos and must agree with the first of the two comparanda.

Comparison of two subjects, objects, or prepositional phrases attached to the same verb with regard to an adverb. With adverbial paraphrases such as de forma …, or prepositional phrases such as con gusto, the más or menos goes before the constituent adjective or noun. - Corro más rápidamente que tú (corres). I run faster than you. - Caminamos al restaurante más frecuentemente que al supermercado. We walk to the restaurant more often than to the restaurant. - Tú cocinas de forma más conservadora que nosotros. You cook more conservatively than we do. - Comemos verduras con menos gusto que pasteles. We eat vegetables with less pleasure than cakes.

Comparison of two subjects or objects of the same verb, without an adverb. In this case, the comparison is of some abstract notion of quantity, frequency, or intensity. It’s common to put the words más que or menos que together in this construction to avoid splits between a verb and the object or prepositional phrase following.

Comparison of two adjectives, adverbs, or prepositional phrases modifying the same word.

Comparisons of the quantities of two nouns. This one has some hazards. - It’s safe to compare the quantities of two nouns that are both the subject or object of the same verb, or object of the same preposition. - En la sopa hay más pan que carne. There’s more bread than meat in the soup. - Más hombres que mujeres trabajan como cocineros. More men than women work as chefs. - Comparing two subjects of the same verb with regard to the quantity of the verb’s object is also fine. - Comemos menos verduras que ellos. We eat fewer vegetables than they do. - Él bebe más cerveza que un equipo universitario de fútbol americano. He drinks more beer than a college football team. - Not allowed, however, is comparisons of the objects of different verbs. For example, a phrase such as we buy more food than we eat can’t be rendered into Spanish (except, perhaps, in quite casual styles) as *Compramos más comida que comemos. The translation requires the alternative más de construction used to compare explicit quantities and a relative clause: compramos más comida de la que comemos. We’ll discuss these constructions more when we revisit comparisons in a later lesson.

If the object of the comparison is clear, the que part can be left out, just like in English.

Constructions such as the English “a more adjective noun than” can be rendered basically word-for-word, with allowance for the difference between Spanish and English adjective placement.

Special comparative forms: mejor/peor and mayor/menor

For comparisons involving bueno or bien, use mejor “better” instead of más bien or* más bueno/buena, and mejores* instead of más buenos/buenas.

The substitute for más malo/mal or menos bueno/bien is peor “worse”, which has the plural peores when it must replace menos buenos/buenas.

Mayor and menor, when referring to inanimate objects, are commonly used to mean “larger” and “smaller” rather than más/menos grande or the like. Their use is less consistent than that of mejor/peor: you will see commonly see más grande as well.

When referring to humans, mayor and menor mean “older” and “younger” (as a substitute for más viejo or más joven), and comparisons of size should use más grande, más pequeño, and so forth. Mayor can also mean “greater, grander” in reference both to objects and to humans, as in the before-the-noun use of grande.

Mayor and menor are also extremely common as standalone adjectives: el hermano menor de Juan “Juan’s younger brother”.

Equality with tan(to) … como

For equality (English “as … as” or “as much as”), use tan(to) … como. The form of tan(to) in this structure follows that of standalone use: tan when preceding an adverb or adjective, tanto as an invariant adverb when modifying a verb or prepositional phrase, and tanto with gender and number changes when applying to nouns.

Examples with adverb or adjective comparisons:

Examples with other comparisons. Tanto changes for gender and number when it functions as an adjective (which usually means it immediately precedes a noun, or possibly another before-noun adjective such as bueno). Otherwise, tanto is the invariant form.

Finally, invariant tanto … como preceding two noun phrases, without gender and number changes for tanto, can mean “both … and” or “as well as”. If such a construction is used as a verb subject, then the verb and any predicate adjectives take the same plural form as if the elements of the subject were joined by y.

Comparatives as standalone adjectives

By putting a standalone más or menos before an adjective, one can form the equivalent of the English comparative or superlative adjective in -er and -est (or the paraphrases with more/most and less/least). By itself, this construction is ambiguous between English forms in -er (used with a comparison between two things) and -est (used with a comparison among three or more things). The position of the adjective relative to the noun is not affected (i.e. most adjectives stay after the noun).

To specify the range over which a superlative is valid, use the preposition de, including in contexts where English uses “in”:

The special comparatives mejor, peor, mayor, and menor can be used as standalone adjectives. Mejor and peor go before the noun, just like bien and mal. Mayor and menor typically go after the noun, though mayor can go before the noun when it means más grande in the sense of “greater” rather than “older” or “larger”.

If this construction is used with grande before the noun, then grande does not shorten to gran. (Más grande in this context is far more common than menos grande.)

Comparative and superlative adjectives can can be used “predicatively” (that is, on one side of ser or estar, not immediately adjacent to a noun). In this usage, they need a definite article.

Comparisons of quantity with más/menos de

For comparisons to a quantity given numerically, use más/menos de instead of que.

Definite articles

Partitive versus generic statements

In Spanish, you generally have to use the definite article when making a generic statement of a whole class of objects.

There is a bit of ambiguity here that doesn’t exist in English, though: Las naranjas son sabrosas could also be translated, depending on context, as “The oranges are tasty”—as in a particular group of oranges is tasty. Ditto for El sal añade sabor a todos los platos: el sal could mean a particular batch or type of salt, and todos los platos could mean a specific assortment of dishes.

The definite article is not used in “partitive” constructions, which refer to some undefined quantity of objects of a certain type. Most verbs referring to particular (If you know French, partitive constructions are the ones that require the use of du, de la, and des before a noun.)

Even in general statements, finally, the article is often omitted after some prepositions, especially de. Omission of the article is universal when de is used to denote the constituent materials of something.

It’s also habitually omitted after verbs indicating consumption such as comer and beber, even when referring to a general habit.

Language and geographic names

Language names are always masculine (usually the masculine singular of the adjective for a nationality or ethnic group), are not written with uppercase, and typically need the definite article.

There are inconsistent exceptions (one reference grammar notes that “usage is capricious”).

Country, state, and city names typically do not take the definite article, except for a handful that are grammatically plural.

An exception is when country or city names are modified by an adjective or another phrase.

A few cities and nations also have an article as an intrinsic part of their name, usually capitalized: El Salvador “El Salvador”; de La Habana a La Paz “from Havana to La Paz [capital of Bolivia]”.

Closing usage notes

Interrogatives of quantity: Cuánto and Que tan?

The interrogative cuánto is used to ask for quantities of nouns. It inflects for gender and number.

Note from the last example that in Spanish, prepositions at ends of sentences are absolutely forbidden, even in the most casual style: *¿Cuántos restaurantes has comido en? is impossible. If an interrogative word is the object of a preposition, then the entire prepositional phrase involved must be brought to the front of the sentence.

For asking the degree of a following adjective, use Qué tan, which asks for the degree of a following adjective or adverb.

Note from this last example that in interrogative sentences, the subject (if explicitly given) typically comes after the verb—which itself is the second grammatical constituent in the sentence, coming after the opening interrogative phrase. We’ll cover interrogative word order at greater length in the next lesson.

The preposition de

The preposition de can usually be translated “of” or “from”. The sequence de el is almost always contracted to del. It has a wide range of meanings besides those already mentioned:

The only time de el does not contract to del is when el is part of a proper noun.

The preposition a

The preposition a is usually translated “at” or “to”, and occurs in a lot of fixed expressions after a verb, especially before an infinitive. (We’ll start encountering these expressions in the next chapter.) The sequence a el is always contracted to al, except (as with del) when el forms part of a proper name. (Del and al are the only two contractions in Spanish.)

(un) poco (de)

The word poco means a little bit. There are some subtleties with its usage in addition to the ones that we have already addressed.

Vocabulary

Adverbs and adjectives:

Prepositions etc.:

Interrogatives:

la comida food:

Adjectives for food:

Adverbs of location and motion toward:

Miscellaneous nouns:

Verbs with regular presents in -ar:

Verbs with regular presents in -er:

Verbs with regular presents in -ir:

Irregular verbs:

A few other useful phrases:

A few country (and other) names:

Side notes