4 Common Mistakes In Spanish and How to Avoid Them
As a native speaker of Spanish who writes about language learning, one of the most common questions I get asked is: how hard is Spanish grammar for English speakers? The answer is that it really depends on your natural grasp of grammar in general, your attention to detail and, above all, your willingness to learn. That said, while Spanish is definitely not one of the most challenging languages for English speakers, there are some common grammar mistakes in Spanish that they tend to make which, with a little extra practice, could be easily avoided.
In this article, we’ll go over the four most common grammar mistakes in Spanish made by English speakers and we will give you a few tips on how to avoid them.
1. The use of capital letters
One of the most common grammar mistakes in Spanish has to do with the use of capital letters. In English, we use the upper case for the days of the week, months, seasons, titles, and even for the pronoun I!
Spanish, on the other hand, is much more economical with its use of the upper case and only employs it for proper nouns, such as names of people, places, and things.
This can be a tricky adjustment for English speakers because, in many cases, the words that are capitalized in Spanish would not be capitalized in English. Let’s see an example.
El verano pasado, fuimos al cine todos los domingos. Recuerdo vívidamente que el 15 de agosto vimos ‘Eterno resplandor de una mente sin recuerdos‘.
“Last Summer, we went to the cinema every Sunday. I vividly remember that, on August 15th, we saw ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.‘”
Have you noticed how Spanish only uses capital letters for the first word in the movie title, while English capitalizes all the words?
If you’re writing in Spanish, remember to only capitalise proper names, placenames, and the first word in movie and book titles!
2. The order of adjectives
Another big difference between English and Spanish grammar is the order in which adjectives appear next to a noun. In English, we typically use place adjectives before nouns. Let’s take a look at some common phrase nouns:
- A 28-year-old woman.
- A big house.
- An expensive dinner.
- An interesting film.
- Two strange men.
In the English language, the most natural way to talk about things is to provide their main quality or trait first, and then the object or person that we are referring to. In Spanish, this is often the opposite:
- Una mujer de 28 años.
- Una casa grande.
- Un restaurante caro.
- Una película interesante.
- Dos hombres extraños.
One of the most common grammar mistakes made in Spanish by English speakers is to forget this order and place the adjectives in the same position as they would be in English.
So, be careful. While making this very common error won’t affect the intelligibility of your sentences, it will give your discourse a ‘foreign’ quality.
You don’t believe me? Then read this inverse example:
“Two men strange came out of a house big and decided to go to a restaurant expensive”.
See how important it is to place your adjectives in the right place?
3. The difference between ‘ser’ y ‘estar’.
Are you bored or are you boring? In English, we have different adjectives to distinguish between a temporary feeling of fatigue or lack of interest in things and a defining personality trait. In Spanish, on the other hand, there is only one adjective for both concepts: aburrido.
What changes, then, is the verb: while “estar aburrido” means “to be bored” (a temporary state), “ser aburrido” translates to “to be boring” (a fixed trait).
Here lies one of the most common grammar mistakes in Spanish that English speakers make: mixing up the use of the verbs ‘ser’ and ‘estar’.
Both of these verbs can be translated as “to be”, but they are not used in the same way. Let me explain:
The verb “ser” is used to describe permanent characteristics: soy mexicano (I am Mexican), eres bonita (you are pretty), or es un perro muy inteligente (she is a very smart dog).
The verb “estar”, on the other hand, is used for temporary situations: estoy enfermo (I am sick), estás cansada (you are tired), or está lloviendo (it is raining).
So, which verb would you use to fill in the gaps in the following examples? Ser o estar? (answers below…)
- Eres/Estás una muy buena amiga. (You are a very good friend.)
- Soy/estoy un poco cansado esta noche. (I’m a bit tired tonight.)
- Soy/Estoy maestro. (I’m a teacher).
- ¿Eres/Estás molesto por algo? (Are you upset?)
Answer key: 1. Eres; 2. Estoy; 3. Soy; 4: Estás
The Second Conditional
Just like its English counterpart, the ‘second conditional’ in Spanish is used to talk about hypothetical situations in the present or future. For example:
- Si tuviera tiempo, me iría de vacaciones. (If I had time, I would go on vacation.)
- Si ganara la lotería, me compraría una casa enorme. (If I won the lottery, I would buy a big house)
So, why do so many English speakers make so many mistakes when using this type of phrase?
Easy. In English, the ‘conditional clause’ (If I had time; if I won the lottery), uses a verb form that coincides with the past simple conjugation. Spanish, however, uses a specific verb form called ‘imperfect subjunctive’ in these situations. This means that, in order to make conditional sentences, you have to learn a whole new set of verb declensions.
Here are some examples of imperfect subjunctive conjugations. Do you notice how the endings are always the same for every pronoun?
Si estudiaras más, te iría mejor en los exámenes.
“If you studied more, you would pass your exams.”
Si jugara mejor, lo aceptaríamos en nuestro equipo.
“If he played better, we would accept him on our team.”
Si comiera menos, me entrarían estos pantalones.
“If I ate less, I would fit into these jeans.”
As you can see, the imperfect subjunctive is not that difficult once you start to see the pattern. The only thing you need to remember is to use this verb form in conditional clauses, and to use the past simple when talking about actual past events.
So, there you have it. These are some of the most common grammar mistakes made by English speakers when learning Spanish.
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