¿Me toca o me toco?

It was an innocent question that turned out to be not so innocent after all. There I was, standing in line in the cafeteria with my boss and another teacher, shooting the breeze. I had been in Colombia for a few weeks. They asked me if there was anything in Spanish I felt confused about, any doubts they could clear up. Sure, I replied. What’s the difference between me toca and me toco? Both turned red and began laughing hysterically. Obviously, I realized right away that I must have said something really idiotic. There was nothing to do but stand there and blush, though, waiting for them to straighten up and catch their breath. When they finally got a hold of themselves, they delicately and kindly explained to me why what I had just said was so (unintentionally) funny.

Basically, I had just asked them what the difference was between “I have to” and “I masturbate.” Hm, a big one, I think we’d all agree, regardless of the language. Talk about TMI. What made my gaffe particularly regrettable was how unimaginative it was—I hadn’t unwittingly stumbled upon some impressive, colloquial reference to masturbation, and no adroit double entendres were involved. Me toco = I touch myself. Nothing complicated there. Even with my Spanish as rudimentary as it was at the time, I still understood its implications. Thus, I’m still not sure how I managed to say it with a straight face (to my boss, no less) or what exactly was my uncertainty. I’m going to have to play the gringa card. I don’t usually go around divulging these kinds of things in public, I swear.

And what about the first part, me toca–? Where did I get “I have to” from? Isn’t it just a matter of he/she touching me vs. me touching myself? Yes and no. You know that tocar means to touch, among other things, so pat yourself on the back for knowing how to conjugate it. Give yourself a gold star, though, if you know what I didn’t when I came here: it also means to have to do something (à la tener que), and it’s used this way all the time here. Me toca cuidar a mi abuela. I have to take care of my grandmother. Le toca preparar la clase. He has to plan the class. Nos toca pagar la multa. We have to pay the fine. As you can see, in the standard present tense construction, you start with the indirect object pronoun, then toca, then the infinitive.

Like all verbs, you can express the idea in different tenses. This might be where my foot-in-mouth question stemmed from– maybe I had been hearing me tocó, as in, Quería ir al concierto, pero me tocó ayudar a mi mamá con algo. Or, more succinctly, something like, ¿Te acostaste temprano?–Sí, me tocó. The accent mark (and corresponding stress) is critical in this sentence! Avoid my error, and keep gratuitous bedroom details to yourself. None of us really want to know.

If you’re speaking in general, you can skip over the pronoun and get right to the point. Para comunicarse con el DAS, toca ir en persona. If you need to talk to DAS, you have to go in person. A nadie le gusta cambiar los pañales, pero a veces toca. No one likes to change diapers, but sometimes you just have to. And ditto if what you’re saying is a combination of have to and should–we can get away with not including the pronoun. Amor, ¿cuándo va a ser el trueque de libros?–No sé, toca llamar. Honey, when is the book exchange going to be?–I don’t know. We have to call them/we should call them.

Is this usage highly Colombian? I’m not sure, but in the WordReference forums, person after person asked things like, “My Colombian friends are always saying me toca. I thought this just meant “it’s my turn,” and I can’t find it in the dictionary. Help!!” So, maybe it is used a little differently here. Toca averiguar.

Mañana me va a tocar madrugar para ir al médico.

Tomorrow I’m going to have to get up early to go to the doctor.

¿Cómo así que te toca trabajar mañana? ¡Es sábado!–Sí, pero me toca trabajar los sábados hasta mediodía, lamentablemente.

What do you mean, you have to work tomorrow? It’s Saturday!–Yeah, but I have to work Saturdays until noon, unfortunately.

_________________________________________________ Non-natives, what’s your experience with this construction? Had you heard it before? How have you heard it used? Where? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with?

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15 responses to “¿Me toca o me toco?

  1. Great post, VB! Chistoso & Educacional!

    Keep up the great work!

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  2. Hey, thanks a lot. Humor is key when learning another language, which is why your posts are always so fun to read :)

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  3. LOL, GREAT post, the title alone had me cracking up and the photo was a nice touch.

    The uses of tocar are not just Columbian, all Spanish speakers use these constructions and your explanations are great, I learned a few things myself.

    Thanks!

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  4. Hi Rodney,

    Glad you liked it. You are also quite good with providing embarrassing misunderstandings– a moment’s worth of shame is worth much, much more in learning potential.

    Good to know that everyone uses this construction. I thought the same thing, but then found it interesting that so many people on WR were complaining about Colombians saying this…

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  5. if you talk to young people in Colombia you can use “figuró” the same way you use “tocó”. it is a funny way to express that you have to do something that you don’t like to do. Quien va a bailar con mi abuela? me figuró a mi :(

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    • Hi Cristian,

      Thank you so much for the comment. That’s exactly the kind of useful help I always hope to get with my posts. Me suena eso lo de “figuró”, aunque la verdad nunca me había fijado en eso. Por qué dices que es chistoso? De qué parte de Colombia eres? Pregunto por curiosidad, nada más. Como dices que son los jóvenes que usan esa palabra, no sé si yo califico– tengo 24.

      Algo que me parece interesante es que se exprese así en pasado, como “me/te/le figuró”, aunque se diría “me/te/le toca”, cierto? Cuando le pregunté a mi novio, también me dio un ejemplo parecido, con alguien diciéndole al otro, “le figuró”, aunque está hablando sobre el presente. Quién sabe por qué? Espero haberlo entendido bien, y estaré pendiente de ese uso de ahora en adelante. Gracias nuevamente por tu aportación :)

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  8. I was talking to a man from Honduras yesterday who owns a thrift store. It was my second visit there and I explained that I came to town to see my doctor and be said, “Ah, ¿te toca a volver?” I. Said, “No entiendes” and tried to repeat what he said. He gave me a few examples of how to use it(wish I remembered, but I was struggling to understand). Then I said, “Ah, !es una expresión! I found your blog in my search for this new expression. Most of my spanish-speaking friends are Mexican and I’ve never heard them say this, but I will be asking. Learning a language is a constant adventure. Good thing you made that mistake in the presence of people who were kind enough to correct it :)

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  9. lol bueno ,pues entonces les toca buscar, como se usa tocar. ya me voy por que me tocara trabajar temprano ,adios

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  10. cesarincarabello

    English title: you gonna touch me? or do I have to touch myself?

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  11. I am in Colombia and have been hearing this very often….thank you so much for the explanation!

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