Category Archives: Learning Spanish

Essential Spanish: Ser or Estar?

Essential Spanish Ser or Estar

One of the most confusing parts in the experience of learning the Spanish language can be the verbs ser and estar. Both these verbs have the same meaning as English language verb to be but are used in different ways. The simplest way to think about the difference is that ser is used when speaking of the essence of something or something that is permanent, while estar is used when speaking of the state of something, or something that is impermanent. In this article we will discuss how to properly translate the verb to be to either ser or estar while considering the following:

  • Using ser for the essence of something and estar for the state of something
  • Using mnemonic devices to remember when to use ser and estar
  • The importance of using ser and estar correctly to maintain nuance and meaning

Essence versus State

We use ser to describe the essence of something, and estar to describe its state. In fact, ser comes from the latin word esse, meaning essence in English, and estar comes from the latin word stare meaning state. In contrast, in the English language we use the verb to be to denote both state and essence.

The state of a subject is usually impermanent, so most grammar guides encourage Spanish language learners to remember to use estar in impermanent cases and ser for permanent cases. For example, if I say “yo estoy feliz” (I am happy), it means that my current mood is happy but that can change at any moment, I am in an impermanent state of happiness. We can also say “el lapiz está en el suelo” (the pen is on the floor), the pen is currently on the floor, but it can be moved, its current location (or state) is impermanent.

Ser, on the other hand, is used for more permanent cases such as one’s nationality. You say “Vanessa es colombiana” to mean Vanessa is Colombian; her Colombian nationality is permanent and a part of her essence as a person. We also use ser for physical descriptions. For example, “las montañas son grandes” (the mountains are big) describes the permanent characteristics, or essence, of the mountains. Another example is when telling time. We say “son las diez y media de la noche” (it is ten thirty pm) we are describing the time in one specific moment. Similarly, we also use ser for describing where an event is taking place “Ia fiesta es en su casa” (the party is in her house), the specific event is happening in one place in one moment.Using Mnemonic Devices

As previously mentioned, in the English language the verb to be is equivalent to both Spanish language verbs ser and estar. These are also copular verbs, meaning they are verbs that link an adjective or noun to a subject. To help remember how to use ser and estar Spanish language learners can remember the mnemonic devices D.O.T. (description, origin, time) for ser and Lo.Co. (location and condition) for estar.  Here are some examples of use for each of these cases:

Uses of Ser

D: Description

Ella es alta (she is tall). We use ser because an essential physical characteristic of the girl is that she is tall.

Yo soy un professor (I am a teacher). Here we use ser because someone’s profession is seen as part of who they are, their essence, even if one’s profession may change throughout their life.

Él es amable (he is a friendly person).  Again, we use ser because one of the characteristics of this man’s personality is that he is friendly.

O: Origin

Yo soy Maria (I am Maria). We use ser to state names because they are part of a person’s essence.

La cartera es de cuero (the wallet is made of leather). We use ser because the essence of the wallet is leather, if it is made of leather it cannot be changed.

T: Time

Son las tres de la tarde (It is three pm). We use ser for telling what time it is at any specific moment.

Hoy es lunes el primero de agosto (today is Monday, the first of August). Today can never be another date so we use ser.

Uses of Estar

Lo: Location

La tienda está en la calle Independencia (The shop is on Independencia Street). We always use estar for location, where something is currently, including the address.

Yo estoy en la escuela ahora (I am in the school now).  We use estar for locations of people and things (but not events).

Las llaves están en la mesa (the keys are on the table).  This sentence describes the current location of the keys so we use estar.

Co: Condition

Él está feliz (he is happy). The current condition of the man is that he is happy. He is feeling happy in this moment, but that feeling can change.

Siempre estoy cansado por la mañana (I am always tired in the morning).  We use estar here even though I am always tired in the morning, being tired is a state that will change; it is not an essential part of who I am.

Catalina está enferma (Catalina is sick). This sentence means that Catalina is currently, but not permanently, sick so we use estar.

The Importance of Proper Usage of Ser and Estar

As you can see, when translating from the English language verb to be it is important to use the correct Spanish language translation or the nuances of the text may be changed. If one chooses the incorrect verb, a native Spanish language speaker will immediately notice the error, and the translated document will seem unprofessional. Furthermore, if one chooses the incorrect verb, the meaning of the sentence will change. Imagine the offense that could be taken if someone wanted to express that Jaime is feeling bored but they wrote “Jaime es aburrido”, meaning Jaime is boring, when they should have written “Jaime está aburrido”.

Unless one is a Spanish language expert, it is easy to make mistakes using ser and estar. That is why it is important to always use Spanish translation and copy editing services from professionals at Spanish with Style. The Spanish language experts at Spanish with Style will ensure that the quality of the translated text is excellent with all the nuances of the original text maintained.

Same Spanish Word, Different Spanish Meaning

Same Spanish Word, Different Spanish Meaning

Speakers of the Spanish language span an incredibly large portion of the globe, from Europe to both South and Central America, and even the Philippines. It’s relatively easy to understand that there may be variations between local dialects of Spanish in areas that are geographically very separate from each other such as between Spain and South America, or the Philippines. All too often, however, the Spanish of Latin America gets grouped together as if it was one, cohesive dialect of Spanish.

Latin America’s Spanish Diversity Underestimated

Although Latin America is often referred to as if it was a cohesive unit, if we take a closer look we can see that Latin America is comprised of an incredibly diverse group of countries spanning an incredibly large distance. Latin America is actually comprised of 26 different countries and territories, and spans nearly 6,215 miles (10,000km) from the Mexican border to the tip of Argentina. In fact, the South American portion of Latin America alone is comprised of 12% of the total surface area of the earth. For comparison, the United States of America spans only 1.58% of the total surface area of the earth.

Additionally, Latin America was colonized over an incredibly long period of time, from the late 1400’s through to the 1800’s, allowing for many distinctive regional variations to develop. Even after Latin America had experienced intense colonization, the landscape over much of the continent is mountainous, desert or dense jungle, which limited people’s movement and thus interactions with each other. This was incredibly effective in allowing local versions of Spanish to flourish independently, without much influence from outside sources.

The diversity of Latin America gives rise to many local variations in language, some taking some cues from the indigenous languages that pre-dated the arrival of the Spanish language. A good example of this phenomenon is the Spanish word for avocado, which is aguacate in many more Northern countries such as Mexico and Guatemala, and palta when we head south to countries such as Chile and Ecuador. Both aguacate and palta can be traced back to their roots in local indigenous languages.

Same Spanish Word, Different Spanish Meaning

Where things begin to become more confusing, however, is when one word has multiple meanings across different Latin American countries. It is actually surprisingly common that not only will countries have regional vocabulary variations, but will assign new and often wildly different definitions do identical words.

Even really common words can vary wildly across destinations. Take for example the word for car, which is one of the more commonly used words in most countries of the world. In Spanish, the word carro is commonly used in countries such as Mexico, Venezuela, and places in the Caribbean. The word is derived from the old word for ‘carriage’. The word carro, however, can also mean cart or wheelbarrow in places such as Chile or Argentina.

In Mexico they use the word coche for car, which is also the word they use for car in Spain. Coche, however, means baby carriage in Chile – and you can imagine how embarrassing it would be to tell people you arrived to the meeting by coche. In Venezuela coche is used as not-so-polite slang for pigs, another mode of transport you wouldn’t want to tell people you arrived in for your meetings, for example.

Speaking of modes of transportation, another potentially complicated word is guagua, which means bus in Caribbean countries such as Cuba. In Chile and other Southern Cone countries, however, guagua means baby.

Another place where words are commonly freely borrowed between regions but with vastly different meanings is in the context of food. For example, the word plátano refers to the firm plantain fruit, which is banana like but served more commonly in savory dishes in most Central American countries, and banana’s are referred to as bananas. In Chile however, plátano just means banana, perhaps because plantains are not commonly found in that region. To track down an actual plantain in Chile would require more explanation, such as asking for the harder, more savory ‘banana’.

When ordering at a restaurant, you could be in for quite a surprise if you try and order a torta, in Mexico you would receive a sandwich, while in Argentina you would receive a cake. Caña is another problematic word, which could mean sugarcane (yum!) or fishing rod, but in Chile to be with caña means to have a hangover (yuck!).

This can be difficult to navigate when attempting to translate documents, as even someone who is fully fluent at a native level in Spanish could easily not be aware of regional differences such as these. Using the wrong word in a professional translation has the potential to be incredibly embarrassing at best, and offensive at worst.

The Importance of Spanish Language Translation and Copy Writing Professionals

As you can see, there are many potential pitfalls to consider when trying to construct a cohesive message meant to be understood across many countries, even if they are all in one region such as Latin America. For this reason (among others) it is important to seek out Spanish language translation and copy writing professionals.

Only Spanish language experts will have the training and knowledge to guarantee your message will be understood in a clear and concise manner by the intended target audience. All of the Spanish language translators and copy writing professionals at Spanish with Style are highly trained individuals, and able to readily identify and avoid pitfalls such as words that could have an inaccurate meanings. In fact, the Spanish with Style staff hails from many different regions, thus guaranteeing your translations will have a local feel to them, and that your message is relatable.

Lost in Translation: Negatives, Gender and Word Order

Lost in translation

As we have previously discussed, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet, both geographically speaking and in sheer number of speakers. The Spanish language is also one of the most studied languages worldwide, second only to the amount of people learning to speak English. One of the more difficult parts of learning Spanish, particularly as an English speaker, is figuring out the sometimes subtle grammatical differences between the two languages.

Over the next few weeks we will be going over some of the more common differences between Spanish and English grammatical structures resulting in some of the most common errors made in English to Spanish translation. Last week we outlined the differences between Spanish and English orthography, where we discussed the differences in capitalization rules, placement of commas and how to properly record numbers.

This week we will be going over a few more of the bigger differences between Spanish and English grammatical structures and what to look out for to avoid common errors in English to Spanish translation:

  • Spanish Language Word Order: Translating a sentence into Spanish word for word will not give you an accurate translation as Spanish language grammar employs a slightly different word order
  • Spanish Double Negatives: English and Spanish grammar have VERY different rules regarding negations
  • Gender in the Spanish Language: Every Spanish noun is assigned a gender and it can also change the way a sentence is constructed

Spanish Language Word Order

When we begin to learn another language, we often do so by learning as much vocabulary as possible. However, simply knowing how to translate the individual words doesn’t mean that the end translation is going to be correct. Knowing just a little bit of vocabulary can trick us into thinking we can translate a sentence word for word while still maintaining the meaning which is simply not true. This is another reason why it is important to use a professional Spanish language translation and copy editing service such as Spanish with Style for even basic translation needs.

The Difference:

The biggest difference, and the area where English speakers tend to make the most mistakes in Spanish, is the position of adjectives in relation to nouns. In Spanish, adjectives always come after nouns, while it is the opposite in English. In English, when describing something we begin with the descriptor followed by the object of our description. For example, if we are describing ‘the red house’, it would be la casa roja in Spanish, which literally translates to ‘the house red’.

Spanish Double Negatives

The English language constructs its negative sentences in a very particular way. English grammar rules are not set up to allow for double negatives and in the off chance that one is used, the phrase changes its meaning completely. For example, while not strictly speaking a grammatically correct sentence in English, it is possible for the phrase ‘I didn’t not take anything’ to be used casually. The double negative in this instance shifts the meaning of the phrase to imply the subject did in fact ‘take something’, by not ‘not’ taking ‘anything’.

The Difference:

Spanish not only embraces double negatives, but they are often grammatically required. The more negative markers one stuffs into a sentence, the more certain you can be of its negation. For example, if we were to translate the same example we gave above, ‘I didn’t not take anything’ directly into Spanish, we would get yo no tomo nada. In Spanish it is exceedingly clear that the subject of the phrase certainly did not take anything, which is not what it meant in English. This is another example of why using a professional Spanish language translation and copy editing service is extremely important, even for simple phrases such as this. Imagine if you had tried to use a software based translation service such as Google translate for this particular phrase, the meaning would have been quite literally, lost in translation.

Gender in the Spanish Language

The use of gender (masculine and feminine) in most Romance languages, Spanish in particular, can be very difficult for native English speakers to grasp. English does not make use of gender when sorting nouns and the prospect of learning not only an entirely new vocabulary but also remembering if they are classified as male or female can seem daunting. The only time English makes use of gender is if you are speaking about a specific person, in which case you would use ‘he’ or ‘she’. English doesn’t even actually require you to do this, and if you preferred, you could refer to people as ‘they’ and bypass gender classification in all cases. This is absolutely not the case in Spanish.

The Difference:

Spanish, as we discussed above, makes heavy use of gender classification and it is also grammatically very important. Not only is every single noun in the Spanish language attributed a gender, but the gender will affect the way the rest of the sentence is constructed. The most prominent example of this is in the use of adjectives. If you wish to describe something as being ‘old’, you must first determine the gender of the old thing in order to know whether to use the word vieja or viejo. Is it an old book? Un libro viejo. Is it old clothing? La ropa vieja.

So how can you tell what gender the noun is? The basic trick is to look at the end of the word. Generally speaking feminine words will end in ‘a’ while masculine words will end in ‘o’. However, this does not help you with the vast amount of Spanish language vocabulary that do not end ‘o’ or ‘a’, and it does not account for exceptions to this rule. The most notable example of what I will call a ‘trick word’ is the word día for day. Using the methodology outlined above you would think it is a feminine word, but it is in fact, a masculine word. The appropriate way to wish someone a good day is buenos días, and not buenas días.

The staff at Spanish with Style are incredibly well trained and are experts in their field. They have many years of education and experience on the matter and know what to watch out for with the often subtle grammatical differences between English and Spanish. You can be certain your text has been translated accurately, clearly and concisely when you entrust your translations to our Spanish translation and copy editing professionals.