Notorious Difficulties In The Spanish Language

Spanish is often thought to be an easy language to learn, but there are a number of areas of grammar and usage which are hard for English-native speakers to get right, even after years of practice. A notorious difficulty is the correct use of ser and estar. The differences in usage are fully examined at the entries for be, ser and estar. Readers are recommended to study these entries with their contrasting examples. In addition many adjectival entries are specifically marked to guide the user to correct usage, see aburrido, bueno, entendido. Similarly para and por can be difficult to use correctly and again readers are recommended to refer to these entries. The following provides some further hints of where it is easy to make mistakes in Spanish.

Lexical difficulties

Within the Indo-European family of languages, English belongs to the Germanic group, whereas Spanish is a Romance language, with its roots in vulgar Latin. Nonetheless, many English words come from Latin and Spanish words like accidente, enciclopedia, inteligencia, situaci贸n, etc. are transparent to the English speaker. These are true friends; they mean the same thing. However, there are also many false friends. These are either words that have a common root but have taken on different meanings over time, or words that just look similar. Below is a list of some false friends. Often more than one translation is possible, so check the relevant entry in the dictionary for more information.

SpanishEnglish translationEnglish look-alikeSpanish translation
actual:present:actual:real:
la situaci贸n actualthe present situationthe actual costel costo/coste real
actualmente:currently:actually:en realidad:
actualmente viven en Par铆sthey are currently living in Parishe's actually a lot olderen realidad es mucho mayor
atender:to pay attention:attend:asistir a:
no atiende en clasehe never pays attention in classshe didn鈥檛 attend the meetingno asisti贸 a la reuni贸n
decepci贸n:disappointment:deception:enga帽o:
fue una gran decepci贸nit was such a disappointmenta cruel deceptionun cruel enga帽o
disgustado:upset:disgusted:indignado:
est谩 muy disgustada con lo sucedidoshe's very upset about what happenedhe was disgusted at the way we鈥檇 been treatedestaba indignado por la forma en que nos hab铆an tratado
茅xito:success:exit:salida:
la perseverancia es la clave del 茅xitoperseverance is the key to successwhere's the exit?驴d贸nde est谩 la salida?
genial:brilliant, great:genial:simp谩tico:
una idea geniala great ideaa genial characteruna persona simp谩tica
gentil:kind:gentle:suave:
gracias, eres muy gentilthank you, that's very kind of youa gentle voiceuna voz suave
jubilaci贸n:1) retirement:jubilation:j煤bilo:
1) su inminente jubilaci贸nhis imminent retirementscenes of jubilationescenas de j煤bilo
2) cobra una buena jubilaci贸n2) pension he gets a good pension  
librer铆a:bookstore:library:biblioteca:
en venta en todas las buenas librer铆asavailable from all good bookstoresI borrowed it from the librarylo saqu茅 de la biblioteca
pinchar:to burst:pinch:pellizcar:
se divert铆a pinchando los globoshe was having fun bursting the balloonsdon鈥檛 pinch me!隆no me pellizques!
preservativo:condom:preservative:conservante:
un paquete de preservativosa packet of condomswithout artificial colorings or preservativessin colorantes ni conservantes artificiales
pretender:to expect:pretendfingir:
pretend铆a que lo hiciera yoshe expected me to do ithe pretended not to noticefingi贸 no darse cuenta
sanidad:public health:sanity:cordura:
el gasto en sanidadspending on public healthto preserve your sanitymantener la cordura
sensible:sensitive:sensible:sensato:
una mujer fr谩gil y sensiblea fragile, sensitive womanat your age you should be more sensiblea tu edad deber铆as ser m谩s sensato
Contrast the following: 
simp谩tico:nice, pleasant:
gente simp谩tica y cordialnice, friendly people
sympathetic:comprensivo:
his boss was sympatheticsu jefe se mostr贸 comprensivo
truculento:horrifying:
la truculenta historia de su asesinatothe horrifying story of his murder
truculent:malhumorado y agresivo:
the service was slow and the staff truculentel servicio era lento y los empleados malhumorados y agresivos

There are cases where the English and Spanish words share a number of meanings but they diverge in one or more senses. These are known as partial false friends. The difficulty here is that often it is the meaning that does not exist in English that seems to be the most frequent or important in Spanish. Here are a few examples:

Spanish wordEnglish look-alikeSpanish Word also means
asistirassist= to attend: no podr茅 asistir I won鈥檛 be able to attend no asisti贸 a la reunion he didn鈥檛 attend the meeting
agendaagenda= diary: lo anot贸 en su agenda he wrote it down in his diary
direcci贸ndirection= address: 驴tienes su direcci贸n? have you got her address?
coincidirto coincide= to agree: coincidimos en que ya no hac铆a falta we agreed that it was no longer necessary
declararto declare= to give evidence: Morales declar贸 ante el juez durante dos horas Morales gave evidence in court for two hours
denunciarto denounce= to report: denunciaron el atraco inmediatamente a la polic铆a municipal they immediately reported the hold-up to the municipal police
embarazoembarrassment= pregnancy: durante el embarazo during pregnancy
exposici贸nexposition= exhibition: una exposici贸n retrospectiva de la obra de... a retrospective exhibition of the work of...
formidableformidable= tremendous, great: una idea formidable a tremendous idea
importanteimportant= considerable, significant: sufrieron importantes p茅rdidas they suffered considerable losses
manifestaci贸nmanifestation= demonstration: una manifestaci贸n en contra de la guerra a demonstration against the war
posibilidadpossibility= opportunity: tuve la posibilidad de estudiar en Estados Unidos I had the opportunity of studying in the United States
profesorprofessor= teacher: mi profesor de ingl茅s my English teacher
registrarto register= to search: registraron la casa del sospechoso the suspect's house was searched
sugestivosuggestive= stimulating: public贸 un art铆culo sugestivo sobre el tema he published a stimulating article on the subject
vitalvital= life (before noun): su ciclo vital dura s贸lo cuatro semanas its life cycle lasts only four weeks

Grammatical difficulties

The subjunctive mood

The use of the subjunctive is very frequent in Spanish and often causes native speakers of English difficulties. This is a summary of its main uses.

1) wishes or commands: 
prefiero que no se entereI鈥檇 rather she didn鈥檛 find out
ojal谩 fuera m谩s cari帽osoI wish he was more affectionate
pap谩 dice que esperesdad wants you to wait/dad says wait
2) conditions: 
si tuviera un hobby, no se aburrir铆aif he had a hobby, he wouldn鈥檛 be bored
siempre y cuando no lluevaas long as it doesn鈥檛 rain
no ir茅 a menos que se disculpeI鈥檓 not going unless he apologizes
aunque lo supiera, no te lo dir铆aeven if I knew, I wouldn鈥檛 tell you
3) emotional reactions, attitudes or judgements:
siento que no puedas venirI鈥檓 sorry you can鈥檛 come
me sorprende que no haya llamadoI鈥檓 surprised he hasn鈥檛 phoned
es rid铆culo que digas esoit's ridiculous that you should say that
tengo miedo de que se ofendaI鈥檓 worried she might take offence
4) hope: 
espero que te gusteI hope you like it
ojal谩 tengan 茅xitoI hope they succeed
5) intention: 
te lo digo para que lo sepasI鈥檓 telling you so that you know
ponlo de manera que todos podamos verloput it so that we can all see it
6) doubt, uncertainty: 
dudo que entiendaI doubt he鈥檒l understand
no creo que lo sepaI don鈥檛 think he knows
no estoy seguro de que sea ellaI鈥檓 not sure it's her

Compare the above examples with the certainty and near certainty of the following: estoy seguro de que es ella (I鈥檓 sure it's her) and creo que lo sabe (I think he knows), where the indicative is used.

7) possibility: 
quiz谩s llame m谩s tardemaybe he鈥檒l phone later
no quiero arriesgarme a que me veaI don鈥檛 want to risk her seeing me
lo m谩s probable es que acepteshe鈥檒l most probably accept

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