Those tricky verbs

Compared to the chaos that is English, I find Spanish to be so serene and tranquil. The supreme order and rationality that reign in its grammar, spelling, and pronunciation are beautiful. When I taught English in Colombia, I took pity on my students and tried to frequently remind them that I wasn’t the one who invented phrasal verbs or devised the diabolical spelling. Whereas English can be downright willy-nilly and illogical, Spanish just makes sense. And for this reason, I always think it’s interesting when the native speakers get it wrong.

There are many different kinds of errors we could look at, but lately I’ve been thinking about verb conjugations. Here are three examples that come to mind.

I went to a bachata festival in another city this weekend, and naturally I got to meet people from all over and speak a lot of Spanish. I met a guy from Spain named Gonzalo, and at one point I was telling him that someone didn’t satisfy me. Although we’d been speaking for several hours in Spanish without a hitch, I struggled to conjugate satisfacer in the preterite. ¿No me satisfació? ¿No me satisfajo? ¿No me satisfizo? With that last guess, satisfizo, I was half-joking, sure that there was no way it was actually that. Gonzalo wasn’t any help, either. Neither of us had the slightest idea, so for the sake of efficiency we decided to just say No me dejó satisfecha and leave it that. Good grief. Now that I’m back home and have looked it up, I see that it is satisfizo after all. Color me surprised, but I guess I shouldn’t be. I knew that satisfago is the first person present tense conjugation of satisfacer, so it makes sense that it mimics hacer‘s conjugations. I’ll make sure I have satisfizo at the ready the next time, though I have the feeling I’m going to sound like a pedantic little ñoña when I say it.

I also remember two language doubts that came up when I was in Colombia last summer. One time, I was with a large group of friends in Bogotá– there were probably about 40 people there. The person talking, Alejo, said something like, “I want us all to add something.” Quiero que todos añadamos algo. And then he wondered out loud if he’d said it correctly, commenting on how weird and wrong añadamos sounded. The room broke out into a linguistic shouting match, everyone taking sides. I think many people, perhaps even most, concurred that it sounded wrong, and thus couldn’t be right. Of course, it was right. If there’s one thing a half-fluent gringa can offer to a room full of native speakers, it’s hyper-correct Spanish (often to a fault).

Lay lie

Another time on that same visit, I was talking to my friend Fanny in Bogotá and asking for advice. She said to me, Yo solo sé que de lo único que nos vamos a arrepentir al final de nuestras vidas es de las cosas que no hicimos, que no intentamos y que no dijimos. I just know that the only thing we’re going to regret at the end of our lives are the things we didn’t do, didn’t attempt, and didn’t say. And I must have responded by saying something like, Yes, when we die . . . Sí, cuando nos muramos . . . I had to interrupt myself, though, and ask if that was how you say it. She wasn’t sure. We knit our brows, pursed our lips, and scratched our heads for a bit, only to give up. It seemed like it had to be right, but it sounded so strange. I asked my friends Lorena and Claudia about it later on, and neither of them was sure either. They both majored in philology and now work as teachers. So much for native speakers speaking perfectly. If they can’t be bothered, why should you? In the same way, I’ve never known if it’s swam or swum, hanged or hung, or lay or lie, but that obviously doesn’t stop me from speaking English confidently. Stop quibbling and start speaking.

What verbs have you heard native speakers get tripped up by? What verbs make you break out in hives? 


16 responses to “Those tricky verbs

  1. cesarincarabello

    Try translating “bachateame”, as I attempted to do this weekend…


  2. Thank goodness! I thought I was the only one still getting confused with verb conjugations, talk about taking a load off.

    And it’s always nice to be reminded that even well-educated native speakers don’t always get it right either.

    Great post!


    • Thanks. Yes, the goal of perfection is an illusion and really just a device we use to delay the inevitable– getting out there and talking to people! Yo soy la más culpable de todos ;)


  3. Excellent post!


  4. great post! I was discussing this topic with a friend the other day..You have to be a grammar nazi with english because of the lack of rules, in English consensus is the only way to convey meaning (death to the post-modern approach to language). The rules based spanish verbs mean that you always know that even if it sounds weird it is probably right..


  5. and who wants to miss the joy of trying to say something and avoid ugly constructions, or trying to pull the brake on a headlong dive into a hanging participle which you know is just waiting for you ..


  6. My current problem in Spanish is that I reached a state where I understand almost everything, and I can have a conversation on about any topic. I feel pretty confident about talking (much less about writing), words are coming out pretty easily. On the other hand, I feel I make more mistakes now than I did before, precisely because I now feel confident and don’t think so much about how to say things.
    There is still one area where I do better than most of natives, it is at spelling. So many people are mixing B and V, or C, S, and Z.
    As far as conjugation is concerned, I had to admit I am soooo bad at it. Subjunctives are giving me headaches, not only how to conjugate, but also when to use it. About satisfacer, there is one thing to remember, it conjugates like hacer. Of course you have to know how to conjugate hacer in the first place :)


    • Practice makes perfect! Actually, I slightly disagree with that. At least in my case, tons of INPUT, especially listening to real world conversations, has helped me get closer to “perfect.” It’s great that you’re confident. Don’t worry about mistakes– you’ll iron them out with time.


  7. Si tienes razon, el verbo satisfacer es muy engañoso y la manera correcta de decir la tercera oracion es “cuando nos mueramos” porque es en modo subjuntivo. Existen algunos sustantivos que causan confusion incluso a quienes hablamos el español como agua o calor puesto que estamos tan acostumbrados a escuchar la calor o el calor que no estamos seguros de su genero. Muy interesante su articulo.


    • Hola Cesar, siento discrepar pero mueramos está mal. Debe ser muramos, pues la o no se cambia a ue sino a u para nosotros. De igual manera, uno diría cuando duerma, duermas, duerma, durmamos, duerman porque dormir se conjuga igual. ¿De dónde eres? No me acuerdo de haberme fijado nunca en alguien diciendo la calor, pero al leer tu comentario sabía que habia leído algo al respecto en estos días. Por suerte he dado con el artículo otra vez, que fue este el que pongo abajo. Indagué un poco mas respecto a lo de la calor, y veo que viene del español clásico y que todavía está muy arraigado en partes de España y en zonas rurales de muchos países. Parece que se emplea sobre todo cuando hace un calor tremendo o cuando uno quiere darle un toque humorístico a lo que dice. Pero claro que entiendo de sobra por qué suena mal a los oídos de muchos. Creo que voy a escribir una entrada al respecto. Muchas gracias por el comentario y por tus palabras tan lindas.


  8. Saber. To taste not to know. I’m a local and find very funny the way we would say in Spanish something like “I taste like chocolate” yo sepo a chocolate, I find the word sepo hilarious. Some people may wrongly say yo sabo… Its funny how saber means 2 completely different verbs.


    • Hi, thanks for the comment. Well, actually both sepo and sabo are incorrect. Technically, the correct way to say it is yo sé a chocolate. However, I know that nobody says it that way. Like you said, sepo is what people usually say, which is totally fine. I’m not a stickler for following rules– you have to be natural and just talk the way other people talk. But if you’re going to make fun of people who say sabo, just know that sepo isn’t any more correct ;)


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