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, situación, 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
la situación actualthe present situationthe actual costel costo/coste real
actualmente:currently:actually:en realidad:
actualmente viven en Parísthey 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’t attend the meetingno asistió a la reunión
fue una gran decepciónit was such a disappointmenta cruel deceptionun cruel engaño
está muy disgustada con lo sucedidoshe's very upset about what happenedhe was disgusted at the way we’d been treatedestaba indignado por la forma en que nos habían tratado
la perseverancia es la clave del éxitoperseverance is the key to successwhere's the exit?¿dónde está la salida?
genial:brilliant, great:genial:simpático:
una idea geniala great ideaa genial characteruna persona simpática
gracias, eres muy gentilthank you, that's very kind of youa gentle voiceuna voz suave
jubilación:1) retirement:jubilation:júbilo:
1) su inminente jubilaciónhis imminent retirementscenes of jubilationescenas de júbilo
2) cobra una buena jubilación2) pension he gets a good pension  
en venta en todas las buenas libreríasavailable from all good bookstoresI borrowed it from the librarylo saqué de la biblioteca
pinchar:to burst:pinch:pellizcar:
se divertía pinchando los globoshe was having fun bursting the balloonsdon’t pinch me!¡no me pellizques!
un paquete de preservativosa packet of condomswithout artificial colorings or preservativessin colorantes ni conservantes artificiales
pretender:to expect:pretendfingir:
pretendía que lo hiciera yoshe expected me to do ithe pretended not to noticefingió no darse cuenta
sanidad:public health:sanity:cordura:
el gasto en sanidadspending on public healthto preserve your sanitymantener la cordura
una mujer frágil y sensiblea fragile, sensitive womanat your age you should be more sensiblea tu edad deberías ser más sensato
Contrast the following: 
simpático:nice, pleasant:
gente simpática y cordialnice, friendly people
his boss was sympatheticsu jefe se mostró comprensivo
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 podré asistir I won’t be able to attend no asistió a la reunion he didn’t attend the meeting
agendaagenda= diary: lo anotó en su agenda he wrote it down in his diary
direccióndirection= address: ¿tienes su dirección? have you got her address?
coincidirto coincide= to agree: coincidimos en que ya no hacía falta we agreed that it was no longer necessary
declararto declare= to give evidence: Morales declaró ante el juez durante dos horas Morales gave evidence in court for two hours
denunciarto denounce= to report: denunciaron el atraco inmediatamente a la policía municipal they immediately reported the hold-up to the municipal police
embarazoembarrassment= pregnancy: durante el embarazo during pregnancy
exposiciónexposition= exhibition: una exposición 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 pérdidas they suffered considerable losses
manifestaciónmanifestation= demonstration: una manifestación 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 inglés my English teacher
registrarto register= to search: registraron la casa del sospechoso the suspect's house was searched
sugestivosuggestive= stimulating: publicó un artículo sugestivo sobre el tema he published a stimulating article on the subject
vitalvital= life (before noun): su ciclo vital dura sólo 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’d rather she didn’t find out
ojalá fuera más cariñosoI wish he was more affectionate
papá dice que esperesdad wants you to wait/dad says wait
2) conditions: 
si tuviera un hobby, no se aburriríaif he had a hobby, he wouldn’t be bored
siempre y cuando no lluevaas long as it doesn’t rain
no iré a menos que se disculpeI’m not going unless he apologizes
aunque lo supiera, no te lo diríaeven if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you
3) emotional reactions, attitudes or judgements:
siento que no puedas venirI’m sorry you can’t come
me sorprende que no haya llamadoI’m surprised he hasn’t phoned
es ridículo que digas esoit's ridiculous that you should say that
tengo miedo de que se ofendaI’m worried she might take offence
4) hope: 
espero que te gusteI hope you like it
ojalá tengan éxitoI hope they succeed
5) intention: 
te lo digo para que lo sepasI’m 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’ll understand
no creo que lo sepaI don’t think he knows
no estoy seguro de que sea ellaI’m 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’m sure it's her) and creo que lo sabe (I think he knows), where the indicative is used.

7) possibility: 
quizás llame más tardemaybe he’ll phone later
no quiero arriesgarme a que me veaI don’t want to risk her seeing me
lo más probable es que acepteshe’ll most probably accept

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