San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Get Active: Action Verbs Abound in Spanish

In my last column, I explained how I tortured my English composition students by forcing them to cut out the boring and inelegant verb “to be” from their papers, especially in the case of passive voice (“to be” plus past participle). I also explained that Spanish does not by nature make much use of passive forms.

There are two other “to be” structures in English that, when overused, render limp prose and which, in Spanish, exist not at all or not as much.

One of these is the word “there” plus “to be”; for example, “There was a violent rainstorm in San José.” Here again, Spanish simply does not use a form of “to be.” Rather, it employs the verb haber (a special use of the helping verb “to have”) in three simple, handy-dandy packages.

1. Present: Hay (“there is” or “there are”). For example,Hay muchos niños aquí (“There are a lot of children here”).

2. Past: Había (“there was” or “there were”). For example, Había una clase de artes marciales ayer (“There was a martial arts class yesterday”).

3. Future: Habrá (“there will be”). For example, Habrá dos reuniones de Alcohólicos Anónimos manaña (“There will be two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings tomorrow”).

Haber, like “to be,” may not be much of an action verb, but at least it doesn’t bore us to death with an overused word.

The third structure my victims had to revise as much as possible was the use of “to be” plus an adjective (descriptive word).

These are simple sentences such as “Jason was extremely hungry,” or “The twins are simply adorable.” In English, when we want to describe a physical or mental state, we most often put together a form of “to be” and an adjective. Spanish speakers, of course, also do this, but, thanks to other possibilities, not nearly as often.

For students of either language, an especially troublesome difference between English and Spanish is the use of tener (to have) in certain expressions that require “to be” in English. Thus, while we say “I am hungry,” a Spanish speaker says, Tengo hambre (“I have hunger”). Here is a list of some of these expressions:

to be thirsty tener sed (thirst)

to be sleepy tener sueño (sleep)

to be cold tener frío (cold)

to be hot tener calor (heat)

to be afraid tener miedo (fear)

to be ashamed tener vergüenza (shame)

to be right tener razón (reason)

to be jealous tener celos (jealousy)

to be in a hurry tener prisa (hurry)

to be 35 tener 35 años (35 years)

to be careful tener cuidado (care)

to be successful tener éxito (success)

to be guilty tener la culpa (blame)

to be lucky tener suerte (luck)

In addition to expressions with tener, there are other instances in which English uses “to be” and Spanish prefers a different verb. In expressions about weather, for example, Spanish will usually use the verb hacer (“to do” or “to make”). Consider the following:

What is the weather like? (¿Qué tiempo hace? or “What weather does it make?”)

It is quite cold. (Hace bastante frío, or “It makes enough cold.”)

It is very sunny. (Hace mucho sol, or “It makes much sun.”)

In a number of isolated, non-classifiable instances, Spanish once again demonstrates its preference for action over being. Here are just a few examples:

I am glad. (Me alegro, from alegrarse, “to become glad.”)

Be good! (¡Pórtese bien! or “Behave well!”)

I am sorry. (Lo siento, “I feel it”; lo lamento, “I lament it”; or disculpe, “forgive.”)

It’s not important. (No importa, from importar, “to be important.”)

She is still behind us. (Sigue atrás, or “She continues behind.”)

Is Enrique there? (¿Se encuentra Enrique? or “Does one find Enrique?”)

It is cheap/expensive. (Sale barato/caro, or “It comes out cheap/expensive.”)

It is difficult. (Cuesta mucho, or “It costs a lot.”)

It is attractive, effective, etc. (Resulta atractivo, efectivo, etc., or “It results attractive, effective,” etc.)

Where is it? (¿Dónde queda? or “Where does it stay?”)

Two potatoes are left. (Quedan dos papas, or “Two potatoes remain.”)

He was perplexed. (Se quedó perplejo, or “He remained perplexed.”)

And there are many, many more.

Even if some of the more technical aspects of this explanation escaped you, I hope you got the basic gist. Spanish is a language that naturally uses more action verbs and fewer adjectives than English. Once again, the message is: beware of directly translating from one language to another. If you do so as a Spanish speaker learning English, you may find yourself saying things like “I have hunger” or “How do you call yourself?” If you do so as an English speaker learning Spanish, you may find yourself saying things like “Estoy hambre” or “Español es hablado aquí.”

In other words, study these differences, listen for them and practice them.


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