The Art of the Contraction: When to Combine Words

The Art of the Contraction When to Combine Words

Grammar and grammar rules can be complicated, even in our own native languages. For native English speakers who wish to learn Spanish, or any other language, understanding and remembering a new grammar structure can be daunting. Luckily, there are some grammar structures that are even easier to understand than their English counterparts. An example of one such grammar rule is contractions.

What are Contractions in Spanish?

The word contraction, to contract, literally means to squeeze something together, and grammatically it refers to when two words which normally stand alone, are pushed together to form one word. The English language is full of contractions that we use regularly, and the average English speaker probably doesn’t even realize how often he or she might use them in daily speech. An Examples of an often used contraction in English is “it’s”, which is when “it” and “is” are combined to form one word. English contractions are formed by taking two stand-alone words, pushing them together, and separating them with an apostrophe. The same goes for “don’t”, which is a combination of “does” and “not”, there is also “I’d”, “you’d”, “isn’t” and so on and so on. As you can see, contractions are very popular in the English language, and this is a major hurdle for non-English speakers attempting to learn the language. This is particularly true as many English contractions are considered optional, and used more frequently in the vernacular rather than the formal. Luckily, for those of us wishing to learn Spanish, the use of contractions in Spanish is far simpler.

The Spanish language employs only two contractions, and constructing them is a very simple task. The two contractions used in the Spanish language are “del” and “al”. We can see already that an obvious difference between English and Spanish is that Spanish does not rely on an apostrophe to create contractions whereas English does.

Both contractions are employed when the masculine singular definite article – “el” (meaning “the”) is placed after the preposition “a” (meaning “to” or “at”), or the preposition “de”, (meaning “from”). The structure is as follows: “del” (de + el) and “al” (a + el). In both of these cases the placement of two vowels back-to-back require that one vowel be dropped, and in both cases that vowel is the extra “e”.

Errors in forming contractions are more often made when writing, as verbally pronouncing these two words subsequently will generally speaking automatically cancel out one of the vowels, unless you are speaking very slowly and deliberately, which native Spanish speakers do not often do. Since it is not something that you often need to pay attention to while speaking, it is an area where many mistakes are made when writing.

Spanish Contractions in Use

As previously mentioned, when speaking aloud it is natural to drop one of the vowels due to the way Spanish pronunciation works, particularly in the case where “a” and “el/la” meet. Imagine saying “Ella va al  tienda” (she goes to the store) and trying to pronounce “a + la” separately. We can easily see how saying “Ella va a la tienda” is much more easily pronounced.

When we are referring to the preposition “de”,meaning “of”, things get slightly more complicated. In English, ownership is expressed by adding an apostrophe and an “s”, but the same is not so in Spanish. Take for example the phrase “The boy’s dog”, which in Spanish is “el perro del niño”, where in the contraction works just as you would expect. However, if we take the phrase “the girl’s dog”, “el perro de la niña”, we notice that is does not require a contraction. As mentioned above, contractions are only required wherein a masculine singular definite article is in play, “el”. The same goes for the sentence “the employees of the stores”, “los empleados de las tiendas”, wherein we are referring to many stores (tiendas). We can see here that a contraction is also not required, because in addition to being masculine, it must also be a singular definite article.

Where Mistakes are Made with Spanish Contractions

As with most grammar rules, there are of course exceptions and variations to every rule. One of the most important exceptions to consider is the following. If the masculine singular definite article “El” is part of a proper name or title, then a contraction is not made. For example, if someone is introducing themselves as being from El Salvador, they would say “Soy de El Salvador”, and not “Soy Del Salvador”, the latter being incorrect since the El in this case forms part of the proper country name of “El Salvador”.

It is also important to pay particular attention to the difference between “el” and “él”. In English we don’t make use of accents other than the occasional borrowed word or proper name (such as “Beyoncé”, for example) and as such English speakers attempting to learn other languages such as Spanish can fall into the trap of ignoring or downplaying the importance of accents.

In Spanish, an accent is used to signify where the stress is placed when pronouncing a word. Many words in Spanish will still make sense to a native Spanish speaking reader if the accent is left off, although it will see as incorrect and poor grammar. There are, however, many words in Spanish that change meaning completely depending on if they are spelled with an accent or without. For example, “como”, meaning “like” and “cómo”, meaning “how”, “papa” which means “potato, or “papá” which means “dad”, or “si” which means “if”, and “sí” which means “yes”. Another one of these words is “el”, which becomes a completely different word with a completely different meaning when an accent is added: “‘él”. This difference is particularly important to watch out for when deciding if a contraction is in order, as only the accentless “el” needs a contraction.

A very common mistake that non-native Spanish speakers will make is to place a contraction where one is not needed. For example, saying “este teléfono es de él” (this phone is his) might seem like it should take a contraction, but if we look closer we can see the “el”  in this case is actually “él”, and thus is referring to “him” and not “the”. We can see here the importance of paying close attention to the use of accents to avoid placing a contraction where one is not needed, for example “dile a él que venga” (meaning tell him to come) should not be accidentally written as “dile al que venga”, which is not only grammatically incorrect, but nonsensical as well.

Despite the fact that constructing and knowing when to use contractions in Spanish is relatively easy, you can see that there are still many opportunities for errors to be made. If you or your business have texts that need to be translated from English into Spanish, you can see how important it is to employ professionals. All of our staff at Spanish with Style are certified Spanish language experts, and trained in Spanish language translation and copy editing. Spanish with Style guarantees that your message is being translated clearly, concisely, and professionally. Leaving your translation needs up to the professionals takes the guesswork out of the process, and you can be confident that well trained Spanish language experts will ensure all accents are correctly placed, and that contractions are used properly – with no mix ups between “el” and “él”.