Things your Spanish teacher didn't tell you

A friend of mine (a native Spanish speaker) just started teaching one of his friends Spanish, and the first thing I said was:

Explain to her that ser is essence/identity/characteristic and estar is status, and that’ll go SO much better than the “ser is permanent and estar is temporary” that makes us try to say “es muerto” and “estoy bautista” (because hey, conversion exists). Like, death is pretty permanent, but it’s still a status.

Apparently, he’d told her the temporary/permanent thing about 10 minutes prior. It’s what my Spanish teacher (also a native speaker) told me as a child, and it is basically guaranteed to result in the student making the same predictable mistakes.

A well-experienced Spanish teacher will learn what consistent mistakes students make and adjust their teaching style around it. On the other hand, if you’re learning on your own, or you’re learning from a friend who has no Spanish-teaching experience, you’re probably going to make the same mistakes as everyone else.

So, here are a bunch of Spanish tips that add nuance to oversimplified rules, explain how to predict a word will break the simple rules (making them less unexpected), and occasionally even explain why they are that way. Basically, things I wish someone had told me 25 years ago.

Ser & Estar: to be & to be

Let’s start with the example from the introduction. “Muerto” means dead, and that’s permanent, so a student will naturally say “Elvis es muerto” and be wrong. Correspondingly, they might say “Ben Stein es vivo” and be wrong. That’s because “es” is for innate characteristics, like personality traits and identities. For their status (dead or alive), you want “está”. Elvis está muerto. Ben Stein está vivo.

Feel free to say Dolly Parton es viva, though. When used with “ser,” vivo/a means “lively.” (I can’t imagine calling Ben Stein “lively.”)

Similarly, you might be tempted, like I was, to say “estoy cuáquera” because you chose Quakerism, rather than being born into it. This is wrong. My religion, Quaker, is part of my identity. Soy cuáquera.

In fact, using “estar” with católico changes the meaning entirely (just like vivo being “alive” with estar and “lively” with ser). If someone “es católico,” they’re Catholic, but if the person “está católico” they’re in good health! Lawless Spanish has a list of adjectives that change meaning with “ser” and “estar”.

By the way, it’s fine to use emotion-related words either way; just know you’re saying different things. Are you a happy-go-lucky sort of person? Or are you happy because your boyfriend proposed?

This characteristic versus status rule will cover you for almost every use of ser & estar. Here are the two other rules to learn:

  • Almost everything “está” in a particular place; the exception is events. La reunión es en la oficina.
  • The passive voice always uses “ser.” El banco fue robado. (For more pairing with verbs, continuous tenses are a type of status. Estoy leyendo el libro.)

You might want to refer to this chart of when to use ser & estar, but what I’ve written pretty much covers it.

Oh, and why’s it like this? It’s directly inherited from Latin, which also has two separate verbs for innate characteristics versus statuses.

Gender stuff

At first, you’re told “if it ends in o, it’s probably masculine, and if it ends in a, it’s probably feminine.” There are a lot more patterns.

It’s not just -a and -o

  • Probably masculine: -o, -or, -aje, -u, -i, -ma
  • Probably feminine: -esa, -ina, -isa, -ia, -ía, -ora, -dad, -tad, -ión, -itis, -sis, -umbre, -ud, -z, -eza

Why does this noun’s gender seem weird?

There are times when a noun looks like it should be feminine, but it uses “el” and times that it looks like it should be masculine, but it uses “la.” There are almost always reasons, and knowing that reasons will help you remember them.

Because it was a Greek neuter word

Greek neuter words got mapped over to masculine in Latin. Nearly always, they end in -ma. Not every -ma word is masculine, but if it ends in -grama or has a -matic buddy in English, it probably is. Nouns ending in -ista are traditionally masculine, but nowadays, they’re often neutral, since they’re often jobs.

Here are some -ma/-matic words:

  • el enigma (enigmatic)
  • el cisma (schismatic)
  • el tema (thematic)
  • el clima (climatic)
  • el dogma (dogmatic)
  • el programa (programmatic)
  • el aroma (aromatic)
  • el idioma (idiomatic)
  • el drama (dramatic)
  • el sistema (systematic)

Because of the first syllable

You know how in English, you say “an apple,” not “a apple”? That’s because we don’t put those two “a” sounds together. Spanish has similar rules. (There’s another occurrence under the spelling rules section.)

If all of these things are true:

  1. The first syllable makes an “a” sound
  2. The first syllable is stressed
  3. It’s singular

Then the word uses “el” and “un” without changing its gender to masculine.

Because the gender doesn’t change, you still use feminine adjectives, as in “el agua fría.”

Because it’s just about the “a"s, the plural articles are still “las” and “unas.”


º Remember, “h” is a silent letter!

˟ Alfombra is stressed on the “o.”

Because the word used to be longer

When words are shortened, they don’t change gender. The gender goes by how the word used to end.

  • “La radio” used to be “la radiodifusión”
  • “La foto” is short for “la fotografía”
  • “La moto” is short for “la motocicleta” (ditto bici/bicicleta)
  • “La disco” is short for “la discoteca”
  • “El mapa” used to be “el mapamundi”

Standard spelling rules

The letters g & c change sounds depending on what letter follows them.

  • Hard C (as in “cat”) is used for ca, co, and cu
  • Hard G (as in “go”) is used for ga, go, gu
  • Soft C (“th” as in “think” in some parts of Spain, and “s” otherwise) is used for ce and ci
  • Soft G (like the Spanish “j”) is used for ge and gi

That’s the same pattern as in English (cat, gas, recent, register), except it’s actually consistent in Spanish.

(Ok, g’s pronunciation can be a little more nuanced, possibly depending on accent, but the point is the aou/ei split in spelling rules.)

Preserve c & g’s sounds

Whatever sound they made in the infinitive of the verb must be preserved during conjugation.

  • The hard c in “abanicar” must be preserved.
  • The hard g in “ahogar” must be preserved.
  • The soft c sound in “relucir” must be preserved.
  • The soft g sound in “dirigir” must be preserved.
SoundPatternVerb infinitiveExample
hard cca → queabanicarabaniqué
hard gga → gueahogarahogué
soft cc → zcrelucirreluzco
soft gg → jdirigirdirijo

Bonus tip: As far as I can tell, Spanish doesn’t bother with “ze”. Those get “ce,” like “feliz” pluralizes to “felices” and “cruzar” conjugates to “cruces” (such as when telling someone not to cross the street). Email me if you can think of any Spanish words with “ze” that aren’t recently borrowed from another language. Well, besides z’s own name, zeta.

Bonus tip: Ok, but what if you want that “u” after a “g” to actually be pronounced? Add diuresis, as in the word “bilingüe.”

The words o & y depend on the following sound

These are some of the first words you learn, but for some reason, teachers don’t tell you that they also have an “an apple”-style rule until you’re already fixed in your ways. So, I’m telling you up front:

The word “o” (meaning “or”) becomes “u” in front of words that start with “o” sounds. ¿Te sientes embarazaso u orgulloso?

The word “y” (meaning “and”) becomes “e” in front of words that start with “i” sounds. Ellos son padre e hijo.

Which syllable gets the stress

I was never taught the rules for syllable stress. Instead, I learned through exposure what “just sounds right” and then started placing tildes based on “if there wasn’t one, I’d say it [this other way].” But apparently there are rules!

(Oh, and the accent marks are called tildes in Spanish. Yeah, I know, in English we only use that word for ~. We got some wires crossed in translation.)

  1. If there’s a vowel with a tilde, stress that syllable.
  2. If the word ends in a vowel, n, or s, stress the second to last syllable.
  3. Stress the last syllable.

“Celebración” needs a tilde (popping it into rule 1’s domain) to stress that “o,” because otherwise it’d hit rule 2 (ending in n). “Celebraciones” ends in an “s,” and the “o” is now in the second to last syllable, so that “o” gets to keep its stress without you writing it down (rule 2).

Rule 3 is why you might notice all verb infinitives stress their -ar, -er, and -ir syllables.

Verbs that end alike conjugate alike

There are many irregular verbs, and you might think you have to memorize how each individual one conjugates. You don’t. Often, they can be lumped together with similarly spelled verbs that conjugate the same way.

Irregular verb roots

  • tener: obtener, mantener, retener, detener, abstener
  • poner: posponer, suponer, presuponer, oponer, imponer, disponer, componer
  • decir: predecir, bendecir, maldecir, contradecir

By the way, you might notice a lot of these look like their English counterparts. You can pretty reliably assume that any -dict word in English has a -decir equivalent with the same prefix. The same goes for -tain words in English having a -tener equivalent, and -pose words in English having a -poner equivalent.

Bonus: caber is like saber

At some point, a native speaker or someone who speaks more Spanish than you might tell you that “caber” is an absolute nonsense word when it comes to conjugations. It’s not. It conjugates nearly identically to “saber,” one of the first words you learned.

When saber’s root becomes “sup-,” caber’s becomes “cup-.”

When saber’s root becomes “sabr-,” caber’s becomes “cabr-.”

When saber’s root becomes “sep-” caber’s becomes “quep-.” This is an example of the spelling rule about maintaining a hard “c” sound.

The sole difference between these two words is the present-tense “yo” conjugation. Yo sé. Yo quepo.

Stem-changing verbs

You’ve probably been taught that there are 3 stem-changing patterns:

  • e → ie
  • o → ue
  • e → i

The first thing to know is that -ar verbs change the least, and -ir verbs change the most. For instance, that last pattern only happens with -ir verbs. Be suspicious of -ir verbs.

The second thing to know is that it only happens on stressed syllables. Let’s look at poder:

  • poder
  • Yo puedo
  • Tú puedes
  • Vos podés
  • Él/ella/usted puede
  • Nosotros podemos
  • Vosotros podéis
  • Ellos/ellas/ustedes pueden

You might have been told “except nosotros” or “except nosotros & vosotros,” but you probably weren’t told that it’s about syllable stress.

Side note: Only know “nosotros” out of that list? Vosotros is Spain’s “y’all”. Vos is used in place of tú in parts of Latin America, mostly concentrated in Argentina and Central America. It mostly conjugates the same as tú, but the rules vary regionally. Most commonly, the present tense is the only thing that changes with vos.

If you know Latin, these stem changes happen based on which vowel was used in Latin, and how that evolved. In some cases, certain vowels were combined, or it was easier to pronounce a particular way. Spanish revised its spelling to match pronunciation.

Unfortunately, unless you know Latin, you’re going to have a hard time guessing which words do and don’t undergo these stem changes. This is an unfortunate case of either memorizing it or reading/hearing so much that it just sinks in.

Some pronunciation notes

Being aware of some ways sounds differ from English might help improve your pronunciation and accent. It’s likely that your teacher told you that b & v are said the same, maybe something about c & z if they were teaching you Spain-style, that h is silent, how to say j, and they probably spent a lot of time on r. The rest are close enough to English that you’ll be understood fine, but there’s more nuance available.

Spanish is overall less “plosive” than English, meaning where English speakers say (for example) the letters “p” and “d” in ways that they might spit on you, the Spanish letters are more constrained.

There are some letters that are said differently depending on where they are in a word. With enough exposure, you might just naturally improve your accent in that direction. It’s entirely likely that if your teacher is a native speaker, they don’t even realize they do these things.

Wikipedia has a good list of letter to sound correspondences, with explanations of when a letter’s sound changes. It glosses over ll & y with just “varies by accent,” so here are some possibilities for those letters.

I also want to point out that if you think you’ve heard the pronunciation of ll/y swap between English-j and English-y even when said by a single person, you’re not imagining it. Linguists have observed and documented it. That accent feature exists.

Native speakers will often swear up, down, and sideways that it doesn’t happen because to them, it’s the same sound. If someone has ever tried to demonstrate to you the haa and hhaa sounds in Arabic and left you blinking, saying, “I don’t get it. They’re both just h,” then you know how native Spanish speakers feel when you insist that English-j and English-y are different sounds.

If you haven’t figured out the pattern for when that “y” sound becomes a “j” sound, it is:

  • at the start of a word (yo, llevar, llamo)
  • after nasal sounds (conyuge, conllevar)

Also, people who don’t normally do it in their speech might do it when they want to emphasize the word, like over-enunciating.

In linguistics terms, it’s the difference between phonemes and allophones. Haa & hhaa are entirely separate phonemes in Arabic, but in English they’re both allophones of a single phoneme. The English-j and English-y sounds are distinct phonemes in English, but in Spanish, they’re mere allophones.

To see the same phenomenon in English, say the words “love” and “wool,” paying close attention to where the tip of your tongue is on the Ls. If you’re a native English speaker, they’re probably different. But they’re both just L! One phoneme, two allophones.