Leçons Espagnol

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The Many Nuances of Spanish Subject Pronouns

In this lesson, we will talk about Spanish subject pronouns. Let’s first review what subject pronouns are and enumerate the subject pronouns in English.

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What is a subject pronoun in Spanish?

Since the definition of a subject pronoun is "a word that takes the place of a noun acting as the subject of a clause or sentence," we must first understand what a subject is.

 

Most simply stated, the subject of a sentence is what it's about, the noun that is being or doing something. Here are some examples of sentences with their subjects indicated beneath them: 

 

Samantha is studying Spanish.         

Subject:  Samantha 

    

The tango is a beautiful dance.        

Subject: Tango

 

Marina, Liam and I went to the movies.    

Subject: Marina, Liam and I

 

Edison is from the Dominican Republic.    

Subject: Edison

 

The chocolates taste amazing.

Subject: The chocolates

 

In order to avoid, for instance, repeating “the chocolates” over and over in a paragraph where we wish to thoroughly describe them, we could replace the subject, “the chocolates,” with the subject pronoun, “they.” Below, within the structures of the previous sentences, the subjects have been replaced with their equivalent subject pronouns:

    

She is studying Spanish.

 

It is a beautiful dance. 

 

We went to the movies.

 

He is from the Dominican Republic.

 

They taste amazing. 

 

Subject pronouns in English and Spanish

A complete list of the English subject pronouns is as follows: I, we, you, he, she, it, they. 

Now, let’s take a look at how the English subject pronouns correspond to their Spanish counterparts:

 

- First person (singular / plural): EN: I / we | SP: yo / nosotros, nosotras

- Second person (singular / plural): EN: you / you | SP: tú, usted, vos / vosotros, vosotras, ustedes

- Third person (singular / plural): EN: he, she, it / they | SP: él, ella / ellos, ellas

 

Looking at them side by side, you may notice that there are far more Spanish subject pronouns than English ones due to the many nuances they express when compared to their less specific English equivalents. Some differences you may notice between the English subject pronouns and the Spanish ones are as follows: 

 

1. The first person plural (“we” in English) in Spanish distinguishes between masculine and feminine in the sense that, if the “we” refers to a group of only males or a mixed group of males and females, nosotros is used, whereas if the group is all female, nosotras is employed. Since English does not make this distinction, nothing can be told about the gender of the group upon simply hearing a sentence beginning with “we.”

 

2. The second person singular (“you” in English) has three different Spanish translations: , usted, and vos. So, what’s the difference between them? Generally speaking, and vos are employed similarly to address people with whom one is more familiar —  a less formal “you”  — whereas usted is a more formal and respectful “you,” typically reserved for people we don’t know as well or, for example, for our elders.

 

Keep in mind that while is more commonly employed as the informal “you” in many Spanish-speaking countries, vos is typically used in other countries or regions. In contrast, the English subject pronoun “you” can be employed regardless of the relationship we have with the person we are addressing, their age, or the formality of the situation.

 

3. The second person plural also has several distinctions in Spanish not present in English. Whereas “you” is both singular and plural in English, Spanish requires a different subject pronoun to indicate that more than one person is being spoken to. Ustedes, vosotros and vosotras are the three second-person plural subject pronouns in Spanish, which take both gender and formality/familiarity into account.

 

In most Spanish-speaking countries, ustedes is the only second person plural subject pronoun utilized and can thus be used regardless of the formality of the situation or the gender of the people being addressed. Things are different in Spain, where usted would be used to address a single person in a more formal situation. Ustedes would then be its extension when addressing more than one person.

 

Speaking familiarly, with , the plural used in Spain would be vosotros and vosotras. These second person plural pronouns work the same way as the first person plural pronouns, nosotros and nosotras: ​​Vosotros ​is used to address more than one male or a mixed group, familiarly,​ while vosotras will refer to more than one female. 

 

4. The same kind of situation presents itself in the third person plural. The English “they” does not consider gender, but its Spanish equivalents ellos and ellas, do take gender into account, just as nosotros/nosotras and vosotros/vosotras do. Ellos is used for an all-male or mixed group, while ellas is used for more than one female. 

 

What about "it" in Spanish?

The English subject pronoun “it” generally replaces a subject that isn't a person or animal. Since there is no such subject pronoun in Spanish, how is the idea of “it” expressed? Let’s look at an example from a Yabla Spanish video: 

 

¿El favorito mío? Y el dulce de leche bombón. Es mi debilidad.

My favorite? "Dulce de leche bombon." It's my weakness.

Captions 35-36, Buenos Aires Heladería Cumelen

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You can see that, although we would say “It’s my weakness” in English when referring to the yummy dulce de leche ice cream, “it’s” being a contraction of “it is,” in Spanish, the “it” is simply omitted, and the verb, “es” (the third person singular conjugation of ser, or “to be”) is sufficient.

 

Because of this, a common error for Spanish speakers learning English is to try to replicate this structure in English by saying or writing something like, “Is my weakness.” However, this is not grammatically sound and, although it is often acceptable to omit a subject pronoun in Spanish, the same is not so in English, where the “it” is indeed necessary. 

 

Let’s look at one more example:

 

Pero cuando llueve no hay otro remedio

But, when it rains, there isn't any other choice

Caption 86, 75 minutos Del campo a la mesa - Part 13

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Note that in English, since “it” in this example does not actually refer to anything concrete (does not replace a particular word), it is known as a “dummy” (or expletive or pleonastic) pronoun, which is still necessary to express this idea correctly. In contrast, in Spanish, the verb “llueve” (the third person singular conjugation of llover, or “to rain”) can simply be used without a pronoun to express the idea of “it.”

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Omitting the subject pronoun

Even in cases which don’t involve “it,” due to the more specific manner in which Spanish verbs are conjugated according to their subject pronouns, it is not always necessary to write out the subject pronoun:

 

Mientras leo el diario, respondo los correos electrónicos.

While I read the newspaper, I respond to emails.

Caption 9, GoSpanish La rutina diaria de Maru

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Although this could also be written as Mientras yo leo el diario, yo respondo los correos electrónicos, the first-person singular verb conjugations leo and respondo let us know that the subject pronoun is yo, and thus, it's not necessary to include it.

 

This is not the case in English, as the subject pronoun “I” is indeed necessary in order for the sentence to make sense (“While read the newspaper, respond to e-mails” would definitely not fly). One reason for this is that verb tenses in English tend to be much less specific to their subject pronouns. 

 

To reiterate this idea, let’s contrast the English present and past verb tenses with their Spanish equivalents:

 

ENGLISH (present / past):

I speak / spoke

You speak / spoke

He speaks / spoke

She speaks / spoke

It speaks / spoke

We speak / spoke

You speak / spoke

They speak / spoke

 

SPANISH (present / preterite):

Yo hablo / hablé

Tú hablas / hablaste

Vos hablás / hablaste 

Él, ella, usted habla / habló

Nosotros/as hablamos / hablamos

Vosotros/as habláis / hablasteis

Ellos/as, ustedes haban / hablaron

 

You may notice that the English present tense conjugations are limited to just “speak” (for “I,” “you,” “we” and “they”) and “speaks” (for “he,” “she” and “it”), while there is no variation whatsoever for the past tense, which regardless of the subject pronoun, is “spoke.”

 

In Spanish, on the other hand, we see a total of seven different conjugations in the present tense and six in the preterite, a revelation which may seem daunting to many English-speaking students of Spanish! And those are just two out of the fourteen Spanish verb tenses.

 

To conclude, let’s look at one last example:

 

Y, ¿va a pedirle a Lisa Bernal que sea su pareja en la fiesta?

And, are you going to ask Lisa Bernal to be your date at the party?

Caption 1, Los Años Maravillosos Capitulo 6 - Part 2

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Unlike the previous case in which the verb conjugations leo and respondo were specific to the Spanish subject pronoun, yo, this one is a bit more ambiguous, as the verb conjugation va (of the verb ir, or “to go”) could correspond to the Spanish subject pronouns él, ella, or usted. So, if this sentence were encountered in isolation, the possible translations could be as follows: 

   

- And, is he going to ask Lisa Bernal to be his date at the party?

- And, are you going to ask Lisa Bernal to be your date at the party?

- And, is she going to ask Lisa Bernal to be her date at the party?

- And, is it going to ask Lisa Bernal to be its date at the party?

 

Although the last option does not seem logically plausible, how do we know which one of the others is correct in the absence of a subject pronoun? Context. Often in print or video media or even in conversation, the subject is introduced in a previous sentence.

 

However, since this is the first sentence in this video, we are left to infer from the characters’ subsequent dialogue that the correct translation is, “And, are you going to ask Lisa Bernal to be your date at the party?” where Kevin’s friend, Fede, is addressing him as “usted” (as a side note, even close friends and family members often address one another as “usted” in certain parts of Colombia). 

 

Although many beginning Spanish students might feel overwhelmed by the multitude of Spanish subject pronouns and the task of having to conjugate verbs based upon them, we hope that this lesson has shed some light on some of the many fascinating differences between subject pronouns in English and Spanish. And don't forget to send us your comments and suggestions.

 

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