San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Unfamiliar Distinctions: Part Two

WHEN a Spanish speaker studying English must learn the difference between the words “hope,” “wait” and “expect,” he is likely to have trouble distinguishing one from the other. This is because there is only one word in Spanish for these three: esperar. Thus, “Espero que ganes el concurso,” “Espero el bus,” and “Espero que termines tu tarea,” probably mean “I hope you win the contest,” “I am waiting for the bus,” and “I expect you to finish your homework,” though the first and last sentences can be interpreted in more than one way.Verbs, verbs, verbs! It’s difficult enough to conjugate them, use the correct tense and know when to use the subjunctive. Language learners also have to face accursed verbs that mean different things.Let’s look at just two examples in which Spanish uses more than one verb to express what we think is only one meaning: “to miss” and “to stop.”In English, we can miss a bus, miss a party, miss our mother or be missing a button. In Spanish, these are three or four different ideas.Spanish speakers don’t miss the bus; they “lose” it, using the verb perder: “Llegué tarde y perdí el bus” (“I arrived late and missed the bus”). It is also possible to “lose” a party if it means that you couldn’t help it: “Por estar enferma, Gabriela perdió la fiesta” (“Because she was sick, Gabriela missed the party”). But if we mean simply that Gabriela didn’t show up, we need to use faltar a (“to be lacking to”): “Gabriela faltó a la fiesta.”But be careful. Missing a person or anything else we care for can be expressed with three different verbs. The one closest to English, but used least here in Costa Rica, is extrañar: “Te extraño mucho” (“I miss you a lot”). If you turn it around, however, it takes on the meaning of strangeness or surprise: “Tu actitud me extraña” (“Your attitude surprises me”).The second verb, echar de menos a, is nearly untranslatable on a literal level. “Echo de menos a mis padres” (“I miss my parents”).To add misery to confusion, the third verb, hacer falta a, which is used most frequently in Costa Rica, must be reversed. That is, the person or things we miss are the subjects of the verb: “Me haces mucha falta” (“To me you make much lack,” that is, “I miss you a lot”). “¡Cómo me hacen falta los años ochenta!” (“How I miss the eighties!”)Finally, if we are missing a button or something we have misplaced, it’s like Gabriela, who didn’t show up at the party; we must use faltar a, and the person or thing lacking is the subject: “A esta blusa faltan dos botones” (“To this blouse lack two buttons,” that is, “This blouse is missing two buttons”). “Nos hace falta un vaso de este juego” (“We are missing a glass from this set”).Whew! Here’s hoping you never have to “miss” much of anything in Spanish.THEN there’s the problem of “stopping.” In English, we can stop the car, stop someone from falling, stop a crime or stop biting our nails. In Spanish, we must contend with parar, detener and dejar de – and a bit more.Both detener and parar mean to stop movement or to stop the action of someone or something different from who or what is doing the action, usually as long as it involves motion. The difference is that detener can be used only to express stopping something or somebody, such as a car, a horse or a blow (it’s what is called a transitive verb), whereas parar can be used to express stopping something or somebody or merely to stop as an action in itself (an intransitive verb). Thus, “De repente, Adriana detuvo el carro” (“Suddenly, Adriana stopped the car”), and “Alfonso paró el golpe” (“Alfonso stopped the blow”); but “Eduardo paró en medio de la calle” (“Eduardo stopped in the middle of the road”). However, either verb can be reflexive and used thus as an action in itself: “Eduardo se detuvo (or se paró) en medio de la calle.”It is perhaps easier to think of detener as meaning “to detain” and parar as “to stop.” In fact, another meaning for detener is “to arrest,” for example, a suspect. Unfortunately, pararse also has another completely unrelated meaning: “to stand up.”The bad news is that if you are stopping a thing not involving motion, such as an accident or a problem, you must use some other verb, such as evitar (“to avoid”) or prevenir (“to prevent”). ¡Ay ay ay!On the other hand, dejar de is used as “to stop” in the sense of “to quit,” “to give up” or “to leave off.” (In fact, the word dejar by itself means “to leave.”) “Finalmente, mi hermano dejó de fumar” (“Finally, my brother stopped smoking”), and “¡Deje de preocuparte!” (“Stop worrying!”).Well, as I said, verb differences are tough. The toughest, as many of you are well aware, is the difference between ser and estar. But this merits an article all to itself (someday).

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