8 Common Mistakes in Spanish
Whenever we’re learning a new language, we come across certain aspects of it that seem to make sense and be right to us as speakers of another language. However, as I’ve mentioned before, a language is not only a translation of words. It entails a whole cultural and linguistic background, and the unique history and evolution of each language define the meaning of every word and how we use them. Today we’ll have a look at some of the most common mistakes we can make when learning Spanish! Don’t forget to check out our accompanying video.
Several of these common mistakes stem from the fact that in Spanish (like other languages) there are some concepts that do not exist in English. This means that instead of trying to understand something that doesn’t exist in our world at all, we need to accept it and learn how it works. Other mistakes arise from the vast differences in the grammatical structure of each language – these are also certain rules that we’ll have to learn by heart. Additionally, similar-sounding words that actually have distinct meanings in each language cause many mistakes.
Before we start, remember that making mistakes is totally fine! It’s a part of the learning process. We’ve all made mistakes, and we’re going to make mistakes again. We even make mistakes sometimes when we speak our mother language. So don’t feel too bad about it – learn from it! The more you practice, the easier it will get.
1. Use of Ser and Estar
While in English there’s only one verb to express qualities of a thing or person (to be), in Spanish there are three: we can use either ser and estar depending on what we want to say, and sometimes we can even use tener (to have).
We use ser when talking about characteristics that are unchangeable and part of the essence of something or someone. On the other hand, we use estar when talking about characteristics that describe a specific or current state. Furthermore, we use tener when referring to an emotion or need.
Since we know that this is a delicate topic for any person learning Spanish, we’ll soon be sharing with you an entire blog post about the differences between ser and estar and the appropriate situations to use each!
2. Use of Adjectives
In English, we always use adjectives before nouns, but in Spanish, while we can use them before or after the noun, it is most common to use them after: noun + adjective!
Using adjectives before nouns in Spanish is a lot less common, but we can use them this way when we want to emphasize a trait or when writing poetically.
Let’s see some examples:
|La casa azul es hermosa.||The blue house is beautiful.|
|Mi amiga tiene un gato negro.||My friend has a black cat.|
|Y se quedará mi huerto con su verde árbol, y con su pozo blanco.||And my orchard will stay with its green tree and its white well.|
This last example is an abstract from the poem El viaje definitivo by Juan Ramón Jiménez. Notice how he used adjectives both before and after the nouns:
- adjective + noun = verde árbol
- noun + adjective = pozo blanco
3. Subjects in Sentences
Part of English grammar is always using a noun or pronoun as a subject in a sentence. In Spanish, because of the more detailed conjugation of the verbs that changes with each person (I, you, he/she/it, we, you all, they), the subject of the sentences can often be left out.
That means that we don’t always need to write who is performing an action. Instead of writing Yo voy al mercado (I go to the market), we only need to write Voy al mercado. Since voy is conjugated in the first person singular – yo, I – we understand that it is I who is performing the action without having to explicitly write it down.
There are cases when it is important to mention who is performing the action in order to give the sentence more clarity, but it is not needed for the sentence to be right. Keep in mind that in order for your Spanish to sound more natural, you need to avoid the excessive use of pronouns and other subjects in sentences.
4. People vs. Gente
In English, the word ‘people’ is a plural count noun and therefore takes a plural conjugation – we say people are and not
people is! In Spanish, the word gente is a collective noun so it refers to a group of people, a plural, but it keeps its singular form.
Gente has no plural because it is already a plural form for the word persona (person). Although personas is the plural of persona, we more often use gente to refer to a group of persons as a collective. In this case, we say that la gente es, instead of
la gente son or las gentes son.
Keep in mind that verbs and adjectives need to match the singular word although its meaning is plural:
|La gente baila bien.||People dance well.||The verb baila remains singular. Bien is an adverb so it doesn’t change.|
|La gente es buena.||People are kind.||The verb es remains singular. Buena is an adjective so it needs to match gente in gender and number (femenine, singular).|
5. False Cognate
False cognates, or false friends as we also call them, are words that sound or are written in a similar way but don’t have the same meaning. This can happen in one language, or in two separate languages. Always try to keep in mind that two words sounding or looking similar doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the same meaning. A very common mistake here is embarazada, which sounds a lot like embarrassed, but actually means pregnant! You certainly don’t want to say you’re pregnant when you want to express how embarrassed you already are about something. We’ll compile a list of the most common false cognates for you so you can always keep an eye on this. Stay tuned!
6. Capitalization of Words
In English, capitalization rules vary greatly from those in Spanish, as we capitalize a lot of words that are written with lowercase letters in Spanish.
When we write in English, we capitalize the days of the week, months of the year, languages, religions, nationalities, and most words in titles of books, plays, articles, etc. However, in Spanish, we don’t capitalize any of the above, and when it comes to titles, we only capitalize the first letter!
Some of the most common capitalization rules are that we only capitalize:
- Given names of people, animals, and places (Majo Grajeda, Firulais, Guatemala)
- All significant words in given names of organizations, associations, institutions, organism, newspapers, universities, schools, companies, musical groups, etc. (El Periódico, Instituto Nacional de Turismo, Universidad del Valle)
- The first word of titles in movies, books, articles (Bajo la misma estrella, El rey león, La isla del tesoro)
7. Double Negative
When in English we want to say that we haven’t written anything, we can either say that we haven’t written a thing, or that we have written nothing. What we cannot say, is that “we haven’t written nothing.” This is a double negative, and in English, a double negative creates a positive statement.
So if we said “I didn’t hear nothing” it means that “you did hear something,” and not that “you didn’t hear any noise.” In Spanish, however, we use double negatives all the time because it is the right way to say things and using them doesn’t alter the negative meaning of statements.
An important rule here is that Spanish sentences don’t usually mix positive and negative words in statements. If you start your sentence as a negative statement (no, nunca, nada, nadie, ningún/ninguna, jamás, tampoco) you need to continue your sentence, with a negative word. This also applies to sentences that start as positive statements. In those cases, you need to continue your sentence with a positive word (siempre, algo, alguien, algún/alguna, también).
|(Él) No comió nada. *||He didn’t eat anything.|
|Nunca le compro nada a nadie.||I never buy anything for anyone.|
|¿Nadie vio nada? ¿Alguien vio algo? **||Did no one see anything? Did someone see anything?|
|Yo nunca vi nada. Yo también vi algo. **||I never saw anything. I also saw something.|
*Note that in this example, we even have three negatives: nunca (never), nada (nothing), nadie (no one). While in Spanish it is correct to use the three negatives, in English we need to use ‘anything’ and ‘anyone’ although what we buy is ‘nothing’ for ‘no one’.
**In these last two examples, you can see how both positive and negative words in Spanish need to match in the entire sentence, while in English, there can only be one negative word in each sentence.
8. Right Usage of Verbs
In Spanish, there are verbs that seem to have similar meanings but may subtly or completely alter what you’re trying to say. Let’s have a look at 3 of these pairs:
Ir vs. Venir
Ir means ‘to go somewhere,’ while venir means ‘to come from somewhere’:
|Yo voy a la tienda.||I go to the store.|
|Yo vengo de la tienda.||I come from the store.|
Traer vs. Llevar
Traer means to bring something to a place where you already are or to a place that you’re already talking about. Llevar means to take something to a place different than the one you’re currently at or that isn’t part of the context of what you’re speaking at the moment.
To understand this better, let’s have a look at a little conversation:
(Backstory: Maria and Ana are at Ana’s house getting ready for a party.)
|María: ¿Traes el regalo?||María: Do you have the present|
|Ana: No, lo olvidé en mi casa y mi mamá no me lo puede traer acá, entonces ella lo va a llevar a la fiesta.||Ana: No, I forgot it at home and my mom can’t bring it here, so she’s taking it to the party.|
María is asking Ana whether she has brought the present with her and whether she has it with her right at that moment, so she uses traer. Ana tells María that she forgot the present at home and that her mother doesn’t have time to bring her the present to where she currently is, so she uses traer. Ana also tells María that her mother is bringing the present to the party – somewhere other than where they are currently – so she uses llevar.
Oír vs. Escuchar
Oír means to perceive sound with your senses, while escuchar means to pay attention to what you’re listening to. While these two verbs are interchangeable at times – and everyone will understand what you mean if mix them up – it’s important to keep in mind that there are cases when using one is better than using the other one.
|No oí el timbre. *||I didn’t hear the doorbell.|
|Me cuesta escucharte cuando hay mucho ruido. **||It’s hard to hear you when there’s so much background noise.|
*In this case, you didn’t hear the doorbell; you didn’t perceive the sound of the doorbell with your senses so you use oír.
**In this case, while you can hear the person on the other end of the line – la puedes oír – you have a hard time escuchando – this means you cannot understand what they are saying.
Mastering these common mistakes will bring your Spanish skills to a whole different level! Don’t forget to watch our video and schedule a FREE class with one of our native Spanish teachers to clarify any doubts you may still have.
Ready to learn more Spanish grammar? Check these out!
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- All the Ways to Use the Spanish Word ‘Fregar’ in Latin America
- How to Use the Verb ‘Faltar’ in Spanish
- Doler Conjugation: Free Spanish Lesson, Quiz, and PDF
- How to Use Commas in Spanish
- How to Use the Verb ‘Averiguar’ in Spanish