Which comes first?


Which Comes First?

The Chicken or The Egg?

The Adjective or the Noun in Spanish?

One of the earliest rules you learn in Spanish is that adjectives go after the noun.  If you’re more advanced in your study, you know that this one, like many Spanish “rules”, is often broken.  Most of them will come after the noun, but there are also exceptions.  Some different types of adjectives and an indication of where they go…before or after.

Colors – After

Nationality, membership or classification – After      El restaurante mexicano

Adjectives modified by an adverb or phrase – After

La clase muy interesante, la casa llena de muebles

Multiple adjectives – When they’re of similar importance in description – After     La maleta grande y pesada

Adjectives of appreciation – Before, when you want to emphasize.    Es un buen escritor. (meaning he’s really good)

Reinforcing adjectives: Before, adjectives that “go with” the accompanying noun often are placed before the noun. It gives them a more emotional meaning.  El horrible bruto, la alta montaña, la blanca nieve

Adjectives of quantity or possession – Before.  Muchos libros, pocos libros, su casa

Meaning-changing adjectives: Before or After (but the meaning changes) Tengo un viejo amigo.(I have a longtime friend)  Tengo un amigo viejo. (I have a friend who is old (in age)

Some other common ones include: antiguo: el antiguo libro, the old book; la silla antigua, the valuable old chair  grande: un gran hombre, a great man; un hombre grande, a big man  pobre: esa pobre mujer, that poor woman (in the sense of being pitiful); esa mujer pobre, that woman who is poor  solo: un solo hombre, only one man; un hombre solo, a lonely man  triste: un triste viaje, a terrible one; un viaje triste, a sad one  único: la única estudiante, the only student; una estudiante única, a unique student


Use of the word Por



Para and por cannot simply be thought of as the English “for”, as they are both very rich in meaning.  To use them successfully you must think beyond the surface words.  Para is the easier, more limited one.  Think of it as handing something to someone, as destination of an object.  Este regalo es para ti.

Another use is for the purpose of – Este ejercicio es para aumentar (increase) el vocabulario.   In a very broad sense you can think of por as being more inward and para with an arrow pointing outward.  A really frequent thing to say is Gracias por todo.  In this sense, it means in exchange for.  (Using para here is never correct, but it’s a common mistake we see frequently here in the office when people write us.)

Other uses with this exchange idea are in buying things.  ¿Cuánto por el libro?  Pagué 10 dólares por el regalo. Think of por as having these extended meanings:             By (times), per:  Dos por cuatro son ocho.  Voy a la clase dos veces por semana.  Prefiero viajar por tren.  Necesito hablar por teléfono con mi amigo.  El libro fue escrito por Carlos Fuentes.              Through (along), throughout, during   Caminamos por el parque.  Voy a hacerlo por la mañana (an unspecified time).

For the sake of, in favor of, on behalf of     Lo hice por el amor.  Voté por el mejor candidato.

Contrast the following: Compré el regalo para ti.  (It’s going outward to you as a recipient.)  Compré el regalo por ti.  (I bought it on your behalf or for your sake.)

Trabajo para la compania, y trabajo por mi familia.  I work for the company, and I work for the sake of my family.

For a period of time – Leí el libro por dos horas anoche.  But here be careful.  Para is used for a time deadline or specific time in the future.  Necesito el taxi para el lunes.  Te amo para siempre.

There are many idioms with por:  por cierto – certainly, por primera vez  – for the first time, por todas partes – everywhere, por fin – at last, por eso – therefore, por lo general – generally, as a rule, por dentro – inside, palabra por palabra – word for word, por supuesto – of course, por casualidad – by chance, por mi parte – as for me, por lo menos – at least, por allí– around there, that way, por adelantado – in advance

And don’t forget to distinguish between Por qué, meaning why and Para qué, meaning for what purpose.

Don’t get so tense about tenses!

Quite often I hear students express that their main problem in Spanish is choosing the right tense.  Verbs are definitely more complicated than in English, but there are some nuances which make things easier.  I have been struck while living in Mexico how often the simple present tense is used, even for things that haven’t happened yet. For instance, in English, quite often we say (using a future tense), I’m going to call you later or I’ll call you tomorrow.  Because this future is not so far off, in Spanish it would be commonly expressed as Te llamo más tarde (o mañana).  Simple present tense!

Other examples which in English are future, but in Spanish in the present, with either tú or usted forms: Will you let me know?  ¿Me avisa(s)? Will you wait for me?  ¿Me espera(s)? Will you sign for me?  ¿Me regala su firma, por favor?  (This is one of my favorite, as you’re being asked literally to give your signature as a gift, or a regalo.  Very polite!)  Another note here, if they ask for your firma electrónica, it’s your card PIN number required.  Will you call me tomorrow?  ¿Me llama(s) mañana? I am going to come by your house Monday.  Paso por tu casa el lunes.  

Sometimes in English we use will, not as the future, but to make a request.  Will you split a salad with me?  In Spanish, just use the present tense of querer (ie).  ¿Quiere(s) compartir una ensalada?  Will you do me a big favor?  ¿Quiere(s) hacerme un favorzote? 

But then there’s the future tense in Spanish used for something we commonly say in English in the present tense.  How many times do you start a sentence with “I wonder”.  There’s no real equivalent of this in Spanish (although me pregunto is sometimes used as in the meaning I ask myself), but the future tense comes to the rescue.  When saying to a driver or a clerk, I wonder if you have change.  In Spanish even simpler, ¿Tendrá cambio?  I wonder what time it is.  ¿Qué hora será?  I wonder if he’s coming or not.  ¿Vendrá o no? 


Use these little gifts of Spanish tenses to make your life less tense!

How to sound “cool” in casual conversation


Cool Words From Real Life All The Cool Words Your Spanish Teacher Never Taught You

águas! look out!
agringarse to be gringofied
andar de volada to flirt
andar lurias to be crazy
arre move it
arrecho horny
beso kiss
bobos lazy
borlo a party
cállate shut up
carajo! I swear!
chale no way
chones underwear
chulo/chula a really cool person
cuates good friends
ebrio drunk
el gordo the fat man
el mono the movies
frajo a cigarette
gabardinos americans
gorrón a moocher
hijole holy cow
la flaca the skinny girl
loro a friend
metiche nosy
nam nam yum yum
nel nah/nope
nena girl/young lady
no hay piri don’t worry
panzó pot-bellied
peló bald
pichón a hot chick, babe
pielas beers
qué onda? what’s up?
qué padre how cool
rocanrolero a rock and roller

Proverbial Wishdom

If your Spanish is more or less grammatically where you want to be, another step in expressing yourself fluently is to throw in an appropriate proverb in Spanish when the time is right.  A few favorites, and many include a historical reference which we don’t have the space to adequately explain here.  These are widely heard and easy to remember to incorporate into your conversations.

  • No se ganó Zamora en una hora.  Loosely – Take your time to do something right and win the battle.
  • Lo barato sale caro.  – Quality is worth the price, as something cheap won’t last or be effective.
  • En boca cerrada no entra mosca. Know when to keep your mouth closed.
  • Hay moros en la costa.  This isn’t a proverb, but it’s something you say to alert someone that there may be someone else overhearing your conversation.  I love the history on this one, as it refers to the Moors of Spain and locals trying to secure themselves from spies and invasions.
  • A pan duro, diente agudo.  When times get tough, the tough get going.
  • A buen hambre no hay pan duro. Hunger creates the best appetite.
  • De tal palo, tal astilla.  Like father, like son.
  • Del plato a la boca se cae la sopa.  There’s many a slip between cup and lip.
  • No hay que buscarle tres pies al gato. Don’t overcomplicate things.  Keep it simple.
  • Cada quien a su gusto.  To each his own.
  • Las cuentas claras y el chocolate espeso.  Keep your business matters transparent and your friendship matters thick.  Saying that you are un hombre de cuentas claras means that you’re on the up and up in business affairs.
  • Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente.  Out of sight, out of mind.


12 common Spanish errors to avoid


A catch-all of common errors to avoid.

1.       Adding un or una in front of otro, when it means another.  Correct – Otra cerveza, por favor.

2.       ¿De dónde está usted?  Wrong!  This is confusing two things – location and origin.  Correct –¿De dónde es (eres) usted?  Where are you from?

3.       Me llamo es Paco.  Wrong!  You’re literally saying that you call yourself “IS”.  This phrase is not used as “my name is”.  It literally means I call myself, so no ES, por favor.

4.       Little prepositions dealing with time – it’s a mistake to say “en” with either of these Expressions, a las ocho de la mañana (8 in the morning), por la mañana (in the morning)

5.       Doscientos sillas – wrong!  This is one of the numbers which changes in gender to match the  noun.  Doscientos libros, doscientas sillas

6.       Gracias para todo – wrong!  Gracias por means thanks in exchange for something.

7.       español y inglés – wrong!  In this case the I sound in inglés disappears when Y is put in front of it.  Use the substitute “e” here – español e inglés.  But note you can say inglés y español!  The idea of siete u ocho (where u substitutes for o) is the same.

8.       Estoy caliente.  If you mean to say that you’re in a passionate state right now, then you’ve expressed that.  However, if you’re talking about temperature from the weather, tengo calor.

9.       ¿Es caliente la sopa? No, no.   If you want to know if it’s spicy – ¿Es picante la sopa?  If you want to know the soup’s temperature, a changeable state – ¿Está caliente la sopa?

10.   Soy un arquitecto – wrong.  Drop the un or una in front of a person’s profession when it is Not modified.  Soy arquitecto.  I am an architect.    …And now two really embarrassing ones…

11.   Tengo muchos anos.  If you’re trying to say you’re old, you’ve failed when you haven’t added the tilde NY sound to this word.  However, you have described yourself as a physical anomaly in your lower region.  Be sure to say año, especially in saying ¿Cuántos años tiene usted?

12.   Estoy embarazada.  Great if you’ll be giving birth, as it means you’re pregnant, not that you’re embarrassed.

What is what?

What is what?  Unlike English, “what” cannot be translated into an all purpose word in Spanish.  It all depends on what kind of what you’re talking about, and qué is not an all purpose what. Here’s a quick recap of the various differences.  What – meaning a definition:  ¿Qué es un puente?  Un puente es una construcción que cruza los dos lados de un río y que se usa para el transporte.  What – meaning which of many possibilities:  ¿Cuál es su apellido?   ¿Cuál es el número?      Special note here.  When the “selection” word is used in combination with a noun, you use qué instead of cuál:  ¿Qué número tiene?  ¿Qué apellido es el más famoso?  What – meaning that which:  Lo que es muy importante es la calidad del programa.  Lo que más me gusta es bailar.  Lo que necesito es más tiempo y más dinero.  What – meaning what did you say:  This can have various forms, but the most universally used one is ¿Cómo?  It’s like saying how did you mean that?  What – meaning what something is like:  ¿Cómo es la novia de Pablo?  What’s Paul’s girlfriend like?  Qué- when it doesn’t mean what, but how:  ¡Qué bonito!  ¡Qué guapo!  ¡Qué rico!  Qué – when it doesn’t mean what, but how far: ¿ A qué distancia está la casa de la escuela?  How far is the house from the school?  Que – when it means who:  El hombre que vive aquí es español.  The man who lives here is Spanish.  Qué – to mean you’re welcome:  No hay de qué.  Que – to mean have a nice day when you’re the one leaving:  Que le vaya bien.  With a good friend:  Que te vaya bien.  It’s like may it (things) go well with you, the equivalent of the English have a nice day.  There are many other times when que (without an accent) is used in idioms:  Hay que hacerlo.  One must do it.    Tengo que aprender más español.  I have to learn more Spanish.  Es imposible que él lo haga.  It’s impossible for him to do it.  Tengo más libros que tú.  I have more books than you.  But be careful with the next one.  Tengo más de cuatrocientos libros.  I have more than 400 books.  Notice the de when it’s in front of a specific number.