13.1 The Neuter Article lo

Besides masculine and feminine, Spanish also has a neuter gender. You have already seen examples of this in the demonstrative pronouns, esto, eso and aquello, which refer to concepts, ideas, abstracts or nouns with no antecedent. While masculine nouns and pronouns often end in –o, the neuter gender always does.

The neuter definite article lo combines with the masculine singular form of the adjective to translate, for example, as “the good part,” “the bad thing,” etc.

Lo bueno es que ya no tienen que vivir en esa ciudad peligrosa. The good thing is that you no longer have to live in that dangerous city.
Lo malo es que no sabrás hablar el idioma. The bad part is that you won’t know how to speak the language.
Lo triste es que lo echo de menos tanto. The sad thing is that I miss him so much.
Los verbos fueron lo más difícil del examen. The verbs were the most difficult part of the exam.

Therefore, when you see lo followed by an adjective, add a word such as “thing,” “part,” or “aspect” to your translation.

Lo is also followed by past participles in the masculine singular form to translate as “what has been” + past participle:

Lo dicho es desafortunado. What has been said is unfortunate.
Lo perdido no se puede recuperar. What has been lost cannot be recovered.
Lo aprendido a menudo se olvida. What has been learned is often forgotten.

Lo also may be followed by any form of an adjective or adverb, plus que, to render the English “how” plus adjective or adverb:

No creerán lo bien que Asensio habla catalán. You (pl.)/They will not believe how well Asensio speaks Catalan.
Verás lo hermosas que son las playas puertorriqueñas. You will see how beautiful the Puerto Rican beaches are.

Before the verbs ser and estar, lo may appear as a predicate, seemingly a direct object (although these three verbs are intransitive and therefore do not admit, technically, direct objects). In these cases, lo is never translated literally and usually not at all.

-¿Están listos?

-Sí, lo estamos.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, we are.”

-¿Tu padre es ingeniero?

-Sí, lo es.

“Is your father an engineer?”

“Yes, he is (one).”

With haber, any form of the direct object pronoun may appear, but it is not usually translated, or, if so, not literally:

-¿Hay impuestos?
-Sí, los hay.
“Are there taxes?”

“Yes, there are (some).”

-¿Había suficiente tiempo?

-No. no lo había.

“Was there enough time?”

“No, there wasn’t.”

-¿Hay decisiones que tomar?

-Sí, las hay.

“Are there decisions to make?”

“Yes, there are (some).”

Lo appears in certain idioms, some of which you have seen in this text:

a lo mejor maybe, perhaps, at best
lo más pronto posible as soon as possible
a lo lejos in the distance
por lo visto apparently, evidently
lo de menos the least of it

Also remember that the meaning of lo que at the beginning of a sentence or when it joins two clauses is “what” or “that which,” while lo cual or lo que, preceded by a comma, mean “which”:

Lo que debes hacer es aprender la gramática. What you should do is (to) learn the grammar.
El gerente nos dijo lo que queríamos oír. The manager told us what we wanted to hear.
Hay que entregar los trabajos mañana, lo cual (lo que) no será fácil para todos. It’s necessary to hand in the term papers tomorrow, which will not be easy for everyone.

¡Ojo! Spanish has a little-used neuter subject pronoun in the third person, ello. It refers to an idea concept, abstract, or an unknown object and has no grammatical antecedent: Ello es que no hay posibilidad de ganar. (“The fact is that there’s no possibility of winning.”)

Somewhat more common is the prepositional object ello, which refers to the same as the subject pronoun elloNo quisieron hablar más de ello. (“They refused to talk more about it.”)

Vocabulario básico 

Verbo:

plantear- to pose (a question), to present

Sustantivos:

Cayo Hueso- Key West
la residencia (estudiantil)- (student) dormitory, residence

Adjetivo:

culto- well-educated, cultivated

Adverbio:

allá- there (far away)

Expresiones:

pasarlo bien/mal- to have a good/bad time
tener en cuenta- to take into account, bear in mind

Last revised on June 24, 2021.

13.2 Word Order

Word order in Spanish is much more flexible than in English. It is possible to find the subject at the end of a sentence for stylistic or emphatic reasons; likewise the direct object may be found at the beginning of a sentence. Verbs can occur at the beginning, middle or end of a sentence. As in English, there exists the same flexibility for the placement of prepositional phrases almost anywhere within the sentence.

Regardless of the word order in Spanish, the essential meaning does not change except, occasionally, for subtle shifts in emphasis. Study the following, which are all renditions of the English, “The Aztecs practiced these sacrifices before the arrival of the Spaniards.”

  1. Los aztecas practicaban estos sacrificios antes de la llegada de los españoles.
  2. Estos sacrificios los practicaban los aztecas antes de la llegada de los españoles.
  3. Practicaban los aztecas estos sacrificios antes de la llegada de los españoles.
  4. Antes de la llegada de los españoles practicaban los aztecas estos sacrificios.
  5. Antes de la llegada de los españoles los aztecas practicaban estos sacrificios.
  6. Antes de la llegada de los españoles estos sacrificios los practicaban los aztecas.*

*In Spanish, whenever a direct object precedes the subject and verb (e.g., sacrificios in numbers 2 and 6), a redundant direct object pronoun (los in the same two sentences) must be placed before the verb and is not translated.

Keep in mind that normal word order is often changed in the following cases:

  • The subject usually follows the verb, and sometimes its noun objects, when the subject has lengthy modifiers:
Cruzan esta región cincuenta y dos ríos que descienden de los Andes y forman oasis en sus valles. Fifty-two rivers, which descend the Andes and form oases in its valleys, cross this region.
  • Words desired to emphasize are often placed at the beginning of the sentence:
A mi padre le pareció justa la opinión del comité, pero a mi hermano no. To my father the committee’s opinion seemed fair, but not to my brother.
  • In adverbial clauses at the beginning of a sentence, the subject often follows the verb:
Cuando vengan los médicos, necesitaremos su ayuda. When the doctors come, we will need your help.

Vocabulario básico 

Verbos:

arrebatar- to carry away, to snatch, to seize
ejercer- to exercise (influence; profession)
regir(i)- to rule

Sustantivos:

el desarrollo- development
la fuente- source, fountain

Last revised on June 24, 2021.

13.3 Indirect Commands

Indirect commands in Spanish are formed by que plus the present subjunctive. “Let,” “have,” “may” or “I hope” are the words normally used to translate such commands into English.

Que llegues seguro. May you arrive safely. (I hope you arrive…)
Que me digan la verdad ahora. Have (Let) them tell me the truth now.
Que lo escriba la profesora. Let (Have) the teacher write it.
¡Que lo hagan ellos! Let (Have) them do it!
¡Que se lo diga yo! Let me tell it to them!

Frequently you find the order of subject and the verb, if the former is expressed, inverted after the que (as in the last three examples.)

The above construction does not occur in the first person plural. (See section 14.2.)

Before the que there is always something understood such as “I hope” or “I want.” Although it may seem to appear that way, the subjunctives in indirect commands are technically not in main clauses.

Occasional indirect commands occur without the que in fixed phrases.

¡Viva Colombia! Long live Colombia!
Alabado sea Dios. (May) God be praised.

 

Last revised on June 24, 2021.

13.4 The Imperfect Subjunctive

The imperfect ([simple] past) subjunctive in Spanish is formed from the third person plural of the preterite tense (caminaron, comieron, hicieron, etc.), cutting off the –aron or –ieron, and adding one of two different sets of endings. The endings are the same for regular and irregular verbs, though technically no verb is irregular in this tense, as all verbs form this tense in the same manner, whether using an irregular or regular stem.

caminar comer hacer
yo caminara comiera hiciera
caminaras comieras hicieras
él, Ella, Ud. caminara comiera hiciera
Nosotros camináramos comiéramos hiciéramos
Vosotros caminarais comierais hicierais
ellos, ellas, Uds. caminaran comieran hicieran

Or:

caminar comer hacer
yo caminase comiese hiciese
caminases comieses hicieses
él, Ella, Ud. caminase comiese hiciese
Nosotros caminásemos comiésemos hiciésemos
Vosotros caminaseis comieseis hicieseis
ellos, ellas, Uds. caminasen comiesen hiciesen

The endings in –ase and -iese are more prevalent in Spain, but both forms of the imperfect subjunctive are heard and written in both Spain and Latin America. If you have learned the preterite well, especially that or irregular verbs, the imperfect subjunctive should be easy to recognize.

¡Ojo! The accent mark on the second and third persons singular as well as on the third person plural form of all regular –ar verbs is the only distinguishing feature between the future tense and the imperfect subjunctive:

  • caminarás (future), caminaras (imperfect subjunctive)
  • caminará (future), caminara (imperfect subjunctive)
  • caminarán (future), caminaran (imperfect subjunctive)

The following verbs, like hacer, have irregular preterites, which are the basis for the imperfect subjunctive, listed below in the first person singular (identical in form to the third person singular):

andar anduviera, anduviese
caber cupiera, cupiese
dar diera, diese
decir dijera, dijese
estar estuviera, estuviese
haber hubiera, hubiese
hacer hiciera, hiciese
ir fuera, fuese*
poder pudiera, pudiese
poner pusiera, pusiese
querer quisiera, quisiese
saber supiera, supiese
ser fuera, fuese*
tener tuviera, tuviese
traducir tradujera, tradujese
traer trajera, trajese
venir viniera, viniese

*Note again that, as the preterite forms of ir and ser are identical, so are the forms of the imperfect subjunctive. Context clarifies which is the verb in question.

The imperfect subjunctive is used in the same cases in which the present subjunctive appears, with the difference that the action of the subordinate (subjunctive) clause is normally in the past. The verb in the main clause is usually also in a past tense (preterite, imperfect, or conditional).

Quería que lo trajeras. I wanted you to bring it.
Era buena idea que Débora viniera. It was a good idea for Deborah to come.
Sería preferible que él no dijese eso. It would be preferable that he not say that.
Esperaban que pudiera asistir. They hoped I could attend.

As the present subjunctive at times may be translated as “may” + main verb, the imperfect subjunctive may at times be translated as “might” (technically, the past tense of “may”) + main verb:

Esperaba que lo hiciese. I hoped she might do it.

The above example could also be translated as “I hoped she would do it.” Both are equally correct, although the first translation emphasizes doubt. As with the present subjunctive, note in the above examples that there is no pattern for translating all imperfect subjunctives.

With three verbs, querer, poder and deber, one may find the imperfect subjunctive in the main clause to render a polite or “softening” effect. This is especially common with the verb querer:

¿Quisiera ayudarme? Would you please help me?
Debieras hacerlo. You really ought to do it.
¿Pudieras traerlo? Could you please bring it?

Although the above is the norm, other combinations of verb tenses are encountered. For example, a present tense verb in the main clause may be followed by a past subjunctive.

Esperan que tuviéramos éxito. They hope we were successful.

Inversely, a present subjunctive may appear after a main verb in a past tense or the conditional when the action of the subordinate clause clearly refers to a present or future moment.

Nos gustaría que vengas ahora. We would like you to come now.

The imperfect (or past perfect [see section 15.1.]) subjunctive is also found in a pseudo-main clause (i.e., when the main clause is not present, but rather understood, leaving what was the original subordinate clause now as the only one) to indicate a contrary-to-fact situation, an unlikely action or a regret, depending on the tense employed:

¡Ojalá cantara como ella! If only (He wished) he could sing like her.*

Quién + imperfect or past perfect subjunctive also refers to the wishes of the speaker, expressing improbability or regret:

¡Quién pudiera viajar a Nueva Zelanda! If only I could travel to New Zealand!
¡Quién lo hubiéramos ganado! ** If only we had won it!

*The present subjunctive, as you have seen, may also follow ojalá, and indicates a desire that still may be carried out: Ojalá nos digan los resultados hoy. (“I hope they tell us the results today.”)

** See Past Perfect (Pluperfect) Subjunctive, section 15.1.

Vocabulario básico 

Verbos:

aparecer- to appear, to show up
disculpar(se)- to excuse, pardon (oneself)

Sustantivos:

el ajedrez- chess
la anchura- width
el/la biólogo- biologist
el comienzo- beginning
la desigualdad- inequality
la igualdad- equality
la juventud- youth, childhood
la meta- goal
el prejuicio- prejudice

Adjetivo:

plano- flat

Expresión:

abrirse paso- to make one’s way

Last revised on June 25, 2021.

13.5 Contrary-to-Fact Sentences

The imperfect subjunctive is regularly used in “if” clauses that combine with a main clause that takes a verb in the conditional tense to form contrary-to-fact sentences. These are sentences in which the stated action is clearly untrue or it is unlikely to occur.

Si me mudara allá, me moriría del calor. If I moved (were to move) there, I’d die from the heat.
Si yo fuera tú, trataría de aprobar el examen ya. If I were you, I’d try to pass the exam now.

The order of the clauses may be switched with no change in meaning:

Debido a la humedad, abandonaríamos la costa si fuera verano. Due to the humidity we would leave the coast if it were summer.

After the expression como si (“as if”), which inherently denotes a contrary-to-fact situation or state, the imperfect subjunctive (or past perfect subjunctive [see section 15.1.]) must be used:

Se comporta como si fuese (fuera) príncipe. He acts (behaves) as if he were a prince.
Habla como si supiera (supiese) todo, pero sabe bastante poco. She speaks as if she knew everything, but she knows fairly little.

Vocabulario básico 

Verbos:

abarcar- to encompass, to span, to include
bostezar- to yawn
delatar- to denounce, to inform on
desenterrar (ie)- to exhume, to disinter
desistir- to give up, to desist
disparar- to shoot
matar- to kill

Sustantivos:

el escaño- seat (elected office)
el/la mozo/-a- boy/girl; waiter/waitress; servant
la pena de muerte- death penalty, capital punishment
el pleito- lawsuit

Expresiones:

darse por vencido- to give up
ir a parar- to end up (in a place)
matar a tiros- to shoot to death

Last revised on June 25, 2021.

13.6 Mandar and Hacer in Causative Constructions

The verbs mandar and hacer are used with an infinitive or a subjunctive clause to express the notion of having something done, or having someone do something. Mandar, in one of its common meanings (“to order”), is the somewhat stronger of the two verbs, but they are otherwise translated synonymously when used in this construction. Whenever you see either verb followed by an infinitive, be aware that the meaning is likely causative (called such as one is causing something to happen.)

Using both verbs as well as both an infinitive and a subjunctive clause, here are the most common possible ways in which to translate the sentence “They had (made [ordered]) Armando (to) come”:

Mandaron venir a Armando. Hicieron venir a Armando.
Mandaron que Armando viniera (viniese). Hicieron que Armando viniera (viniese).

Study these further examples:

Les hice pintar las paredes de las sala. I had them paint the living room walls.
Haremos que Regina venga mañana. We’ll have Regina come tomorrow.
Mandó podar los arbustos. She had the bushes pruned.

Vocabulario básico

Verbos:

esforzarse (ue) (en)- to make an effort (to)
obstinarse (en)- to persist (in)
podar- to prune, to cut
suspender- to fail (academically) (false friend)

Sustantivos:

el arbusto- shrub
la cerradura- lock (as in cerrar, “to close”)

Last revised on June 25, 2021.

13.7 The Negative Meaning of sin and poco

Although sin and poco are not negatives per se, these words routinely subvert positive meaning. Poco, used before an adjective, causes it to mean the opposite, with the translation of “(very) little + adjective” or with the prefix “un-” or “in-.” Sin + infinitive usually translates as an adjective preceded by one of the same two prefixes.

Ese asunto ha sido muy poco estudiado. That matter has been studied very little (very little studied).
La lluvia es muy poco frecuente en el Desierto Atacama en Chile. Rain is very infrequent in the Atacama Desert in Chile.
La cuestión de construir el puente está todavía sin resolver. The issue of building the bridge is still unresolved.
¿Es verdad que las obras completas de Clarice Lispector* quedan sin coleccionar? Is it true that Clarice Lispector’s complete works remain uncollected?

*Brazilian novelist and short story writer (1920-1977).

When poco is preceded by un, it translates as “a little” and the negative meaning is absent.

Este puente es un poco estrecho. This bridge is a little narrow.

Vocabulario básico 

Sustantivo:

el tomo- volume, tome

Adjetivos:

angosto- narrow
estrecho- narrow

Preposición:

tras- after

Expresiones:

puede ser- it may be, maybe
que yo sepa- as far as I know

Last revised on June 25, 2021.