In over a decade of teaching Spanish, I can count the number of times someone has told me they like grammar: once. Ok, maybe it was twice. Unfortunately, language learning is not possible without grammar. It is really the basic structure, the foundation upon which you can later build and enrich your learning experience. You can memorize a ton of vocabulary, but if you don’t know grammar, you will miss out on actual communication beyond pointing to objects and gesturing.
Over the years I’ve come to a conclusion you will probably disagree with: Spanish grammar is very mathematical. It’s not artistic. It might sound beautiful, but it’s mathematical. Why do I say that? It is possible to break Spanish into logical, structured patterns, which is what I do through my own Diáfano Method. That means you can memorize clear, concise rules that will help you hack the language. Here are five to live by:
Por vs. para. Both can mean for, so which to choose? The good news is you have a 50% chance of succeeding, which is fantastically high. All jokes aside: por is a circle; para is an arrow. I’m not kidding. Here is why: por used for duration, the means by which you get somewhere, communicate with someone, pay for something. Para is for goals, objectives and destination.
- Ella habla POR teléfono con su madre – She talks on the phone
- Él paga $50 POR la camisa – He pays $50 for the shirt
- Yo estudio PARA médico – I study to be a doctor
- El ensayo es PARA mañana – The essay is for tomorrow (the deadline is tomorrow)
- Nosotros vamos PARA Barcelona este verano – We are going to Barcelona this summer
Qué vs. cuál. You can go on and on trying to define qué vs. cuál but my rules come down to this:
- Defining something: qué + verb ser. For example: ¿Qué es el tango? – What is tango?
- Choices and preference using a noun: qué + noun. ¿Qué móvil prefieres, el iPhone o el Samsung? – What cell phone do you prefer, iPhone or Samsung?
- Choices and preference using a verb: cuál + verb. Notice that even though choices are not necessarily given, they are implied: ¿Cuál prefieres? ¿Cuál te gusta? – Which do you prefer? Which one do you like?; ¿Cuál es la capital de Guatemala? Tegucigalpa – What is the capital of Guatemala? Tegucigalpa; ¿Cuál es tu nombre? – What is your name? In the last two examples it’s a good idea that there is a pool of capitals and names to choose from. In English, a more literal translation would be “Which is the capital of Guatemala?” and “Which is your name?”
- All other uses with a verb: qué + verbo. ¿En qué trabajas? – What do you do for work; ¿Qué haces en tu tiempo libre? – What do you do in your free time?
Present perfect vs. preterite indefinite. Preterite perfect either has a link to the present, meaning it’s something that just happened or that has happened today, this week, this month, and (you guessed it) this year. Indefinite defines when something happened in the past.
- Preterite perfect: Esta noche he ido al cine – I’ve gone to the movies this evening
- Preterite indefinite: Ella estuvo en Santiago en el 2007 – She was in Santiago in 2007.
The present perfect is also used to mention an event in the past without specifying when it happened.
- ¿Usted ha vivido en el extranjero alguna vez? – Have you ever lived abroad
- Preterite indefinite would then define when this happened: Sí, viví en Australia por dos años – Yes, I lived in Australia for two years.
Preterite indefinite vs. preterite imperfect. It’s a Broadway show: the imperfect sets the stage (what time period, the lightning, the weather, the atmosphere); the indefinite consists of the actions of the actors. Hamlet recited his famous soliloquy -indefinite. Hamlet was devastated – imperfect.
- Preterite imperfect: Era un día muy frío y nublado – It was a very cold and cloudy day
- Preterite indefinite: Mauricio decidió quedarse en casa – Mauricio decided to stay home.
Subjunctive vs. indicative mood. I often hear people say that the indicative mood deals with facts. This is partially true, but not entirely so. The indicative mood also deals with opinions and wishes as long as there is one clause and the same subject.
- Indicative: El niño quiere tener un perro – The boy wants to have a dog
- Subjunctive: Quiero que tú vengas a la fiesta – I want you to come to the party
Notice that the second example has two subjects and two clauses divided by que.
When all fails, remember that the subjunctive is just a fancy word for:
If you want to read more on language hacking, read my article on Spanish writing and pronunciation tips.