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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

¿Cómo es? vs. ¿Cómo está?

One of the first questions that I get in my Spanish 101 class is,
“What is the difference between '¿cómo es? and ¿cómo está?' because both sound the same to me."

The confusion between these two questions comes from the fact that “to be” means both ser and estar in Spanish--there other verbs that may also mean "to be," but ser and estar are the most common. Cómo has its problems too. According to the dictionary and the glossaries of any text book, “¿cómo?” means “how?” but sometimes its best translation is “what?” The translations are as follows:

¿Cómo es? What is it like? / What is she or he like? / What are you(uested = formal)?

¿Cómo está? How is it (animal) doing? / How are you (usted = formal) doing? / How is she or he doing? / /she right now? How is he/she/etc. Doing?]

¿Cómo + ser? =
¿Cómo soy yo / eres tú / sos vos (Argentina and Uruguay) / es usted / es ella / es él / somos nosotros or nosotras / sois vosotras or vosotros / son ustedes / son ellos or ellas?

The answer must be a description of inherent characteristics, in other words, description of physical characteristics, the way the person or animal behaves, etc. You may refer to generalizations about the subject, or something that will not change easily. Here are a few answers that fit this question.

Soy inteligente. [Note that a complete sentence should include the subject, “Yo soy inteligente”.]
Ella es bonita y elegante.
Él es guapo y bien vestido. (very well dressed)
Usted es millonaria, trabajadora y cómica.
Nosotras somos religiosas, rebeldes, románticas.
Vosotros sois tranquilos y dormilones (sleep a lot).
Ustedes son famosas y ridículas.
Ellos son locos e interesantes. [Note: “e” is used instead of “y” because we cannot repeat the “i” (y) sound]

¿Cómo está? Needs an answer about well-being and emotional state, even first impressions about the subject--for example: está horrible, está muy bonito, está muy gorda. Here are a few examples:

Estoy feliz.
Está muy bien.
Mi madre está alegre.
Mi gato está dormido.
Mi hermano y yo estamos muy cansados.
¿Estáis listas?
Ellas están nerviosas.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Is it "el internet" or "la internet"? Internet with or without capital "i"?

I recently had a long Facebook wall-to-wall dialogue about this issue. A friend wrote on their status that it is “la internet,” not “el internet.” My argument was that the gender of “internet” (or Internet) depends on the region you live.

This is one of those words similar to computer--el ordenador in Spain, la computadora in Mexico, and el computador in Colombia. According to the Real Academia Española de la Lengua (, “internet” is an ambiguous noun, which means that it can be either feminine or masculine. It can also be written with capital "I" because it is a place or space, just like a country or a city.

Why the confusion?
There not that many words in Spanish that end with "t." Cassette passed into Spanish as "casete" but a very common pronunciation is "caset." Casete is also a noun that can be either feminine or masculine, but in most countries is masculine. By association, “internet” is masculine. Or feminine if “casete” is feminine for you. By the way, “la casete” refers to the cassette player more than the cassette itself.

Speakers who grew up using "la red" (the net) because it is the translation of the English "net," then "internet" logically became "la internet."
Also, "internet" sounds a lot like "carné" (“carnet”) and "bidé" (bidet) which are originally French words and function as masculine nouns in Spanish. This may be another reason why "internet" is masculine for so many native speakers.

New words, specially the ones related to technology, have traveled very fast from English to other languages in the last two decades. Each region adopts the version or translation that it feels more comfortable with. Do not feel bad if somebody tells you, “se dice el internet” instead of la internet and vice versa. You can always point to the RAE. Of course, the RAE doesn't dictate exactly how a region should use a new word, on the contrary, the RAE can include in its official dictionary all the different ways a word is used.

Go ahead, have fun in la or el internet, or Internet.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why does buscar need "qu" in the preterite tense?

Buscar (to look for)
Comunicar (to communicate)
Explicar (to explain)
Pescar (to fish)

RULE: In the preterite tense, the spelling of first person singular (yo) of verbs that end with --car change from "--cé" to "--qué."

Thus, we have: yo busqué, comuniqué, expliqué y pesqué.

In general, the sound /ke/ is spelled "que." Remember the following:

c + a = /ka/
c + e = /se/ qu + e = /ke/
c + i = /si/ qu + i = /ki/
c + o = /ko/
c + u = /ku/

Therefore, this change is due to the general spelling in Spanish. If you want to remember this rule, use the following trick: Cecilia.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Preguntolandia: hola

I teach Spanish at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia in the United States. I have studied Spanish for about 7 years and a half in Mexico and in the US.

Sometimes my students ask me questions that are a little difficult to explain in one or two sentences. I imagine that a lot of students of Spanish have the same questions, that's why I decided to publish some of the answers I usually give to my students. These answers may not follow the traditional grammar explanations, but rather try to explain an easy or crazy way to learn a concept.

Lulú De Panbehchi

What is the impersonal "SE"?

Impersonal “SE” = se impersonal. Se vende casa. Se venden casas. Se habla español. (think signs and ads)
When you read the phrases “newspapers sold here,” “help needed,” “Spanish spoken here,” and “house for sale,” can you tell who or what the subject is? There is no specific subject in these phrases, but rather an impersonal one. This is actually a passive structure. Here are a few more sentences:
  1. Banks open at 10:00 a.m.
  2. They eat paella in Spain.
  3. They drink sake in Japan, tequila in Mexico, and vodka in Russia.
  4. Football is played in the US and Canada.
  5. Soccer is played in Latin America.
  6. Who opens the banks?, the buildings themselves? Who eats paella? Who drinks sake, tequila, or vodka? Who plays
  7. football or soccer?

The subject again is an impersonal one. Whatever is open, eaten, drunk, played, sold, etc. is a subject that opens, eats, drinks, plays, sells, etc. by itself or themselves. We use the SE IMPERSONAL, which is a type of REFLEXIVO with these phrases. One of the most used structure is:

verb + whatever is open, eaten, drunk, etc. In most cases, we don’t need to use articles or demonstrative pronouns (el, la, un, una, esta, este, etc.).

Here are the translations for all the phrases I mentioned in this part.
1. Newspapers sold here. = Se venden periódicos aquí.
2. Help needed. = Se necesita ayuda.
3. Spanish is spoken here. = Se habla español aquí.
4. House for sale. = Se vende casa.
5. Banks open at 10:00 a.m. = Se abren los bancos a las 10:00 a.m. or Los bancos se abren a las 10:00 a.m.
6. They eat paella in Spain. = Se come paella en España.
7. They drink sake in Japan, tequila in Mexico, and vodka in Russia. = Se bebe sake en Japón, tequila en México y vodka en Rusia.
8. Football is played in the US and Canada. = Se juega fútbol en los Estados Unidos y Canadá.
9. Soccer is played in Latin America. = Se juega fútbol [or futbol] en América Latina. / El fútbol se juega en A. L.

Two more: We sell stamps. /or / Stamps sold here . = Se venden estampillas.
Programmers wanted. = Se solicitan programadores.

Why is the verb in the plural form in the first question listed above?
The English phrase needs a participle—sold—but the Spanish structure needs the reflexive, which in this case is as passive as the participle. Since the verb needs to be conjugated, it takes form of the objects involved:
Los periódicos se venden
Se venden los periódicos

A trick to understand this structure better: imagine that since there is nobody in particular to sell the newspapers, the newspapers sell themselves.
If you add where the newspapers are sold, that information does not change the verb because usually we add a preposition or an adverb.
Se venden periódicos en la farmacia.
Los periódicos se venden aquí.

Of course, in English, “WE” is used sometimes as an impersonal subject. In Spanish too, but that's another story.

Some signs use “SE” instead of commands:
No smoking. /or/ Smoking prohibited here. = No se fuma. / Se prohibe fumar

Can you guess what the following phrases mean in English?
1. Se prohibe dar de comer a los animales.
2. Se venden gatos.
3. Se hablan dos lenguas en Canadá.
4. Los juguetes se hacen en China.
5. El juramento a la bandera se dice en las escuelas públicas todos los días.
6. “Juguete” se dice “toy” en inglés.
7. La letra “h” no se pronuncia en español.
8. Se prohibe tirar basura aquí.
9. En Texas, el chile se hace sin frijoles (beans).
10. Un sándwich de jamón se prepara con pan, jamón y mayonesa.
11. ¿Cómo se dice “juramento a la bandera” en inglés?
12. En la universidad se usan mucho los hornos de microondas.
13. En Starbucks se vende café.
14. En 7-11 se venden café, cigarrillos, revistas y dulces.
15.En la librería se venden libros. /or/ Se venden libros en la librería.