Monthly Word / La palabra del mes

May 2005 ~ Spanish that Works Review

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Expressing LikesLa palabra del mes

NOTE:  The “dd” in the pronunciation guide is a tapped “r,” similar to the fast “dd” of the word “buddy,” and the “th” in the guide is the voiced “th” of “brother.” The “eh” of the guide is like the Canadian “eh?”, similar to the “a” of “gate.”  You should stress the syllable written in all caps.


It pleases me, I like it!

Expressing likes and dislikes in Spanish is challenging for English speakers, because Spanish does not have a verb which can literally translate as “to like.”  Instead, you must use the verb gustar / goo-STAHRR, which means “to be pleasing” to someone. 

The verb gustar (to be pleasing to someone) is related to the noun gusto / GOO-stoh  (pleasure, taste).  You may recognize gusto from the expression Mucho gusto (Much pleasure), which means “Nice to meet you” when you make someone’s’ acquaintance.  The Spanish word gusto is also used to refer to social or aesthetic taste, as in Tiene buen gusto con la ropa (S/he has good taste in clothing).  In English, the word “gusto” refers to an enjoyment or zeal, a pleasure of life.  

Even advanced students often do not completely understand or correctly use the verb gustar.  The confusion starts because the thing or things being liked in a gustar construction are the subject of the sentence, because they are what is doing the pleasing.  In an English sentence, the things being liked are the object of the sentence, because they are receiving the action of being liked.  It’s hard for English speakers to accept the concept that the things they like aren’t expressed as the objects of their desire but rather as independent agents with the power to affect their happiness.  

As we have said, in Spanish you don’t like things.  Things are pleasing to you.  For example, to say “I like chocolate,” you must literally say “Chocolate is pleasing to me” (El chocolate me gusta OR Me gusta el chocolate).

Since the thing being liked is actually the subject, you have to make the verb plural when more than one thing is being liked.  Remember that to make a third person verb plural in the present tense you must add –N to the verb.

Me gusta el chocolate.  (Literally = Chocolate is pleasing to me.  I like chocolate.)
Me gustan las fresas.  (Literally = Strawberries are pleasing to me.  I like strawberries.)
Me gusta comer fresas con chocolate.  (Literally = It pleases me to eat strawberries with chocolate.  I like to eat strawberries with chocolate.)

NOTE:  When talking about an action that is liked, you always use gustar in the singular with an infinitive verb.  This is true even if there is more than one verb: Me gusta cocinar y comer. (Literally = It is pleasing to me to cook and eat.)  Also note that in a gustar construction, Spanish often uses the word “the” where English does not.  

Spanish word order adds to the confusion, because in Spanish, object pronouns such as “you,” “me,” “him,” and “her,” always go before the conjugated verb.  In English, object pronouns always go after the verb.  

For example, in English, you say “You give me,” but in Spanish, you say “To me you give” (Me da usted OR Usted me da).  

To further add to the confusion, Spanish word order is flexible with regards to the subject of the sentence.  For example, to say “You give me,” one can say Usted me da (You to me give) or Me da usted (To me you give), and it essentially means the same thing.  To say “I like chocolate” it is correct to say Me gusta el chocolate (To me is pleasing chocolate) or El chocolate me gusta (Chocolate to me is pleasing).  

Making it simpler

Expressing likes and dislikes is important when learning another language, so gustar is often taught early on, even before students understand all the grammar involved.  To make it simpler for the beginner, the gustar construction is sometimes presented in a chart such as this:  

no
(when it’s not pleasing)

person doing the liking
(to whom it is pleasing)

form of “gustar”
(present tense)

item(s) liked
(item(s) that are pleasing)

me (to me)

te (to you-intimate)

le (to him, her, You-polite)

nos (to us)

les (to them, You all–polite)

 gusta (when one thing is liked)

el chocolate
(use “the”)

gustan (when more than one thing is liked)

las fresas
(use “the”)

NOTE:  The pronoun os (to you all-intimate) is used in Spain, but not in Latin America.  Latin Americans use the polite form les with all groups.  

Construct your sentence going from left to right.  If one thing is being liked, you use gusta.  If more than one thing is being liked, you use gustan.  If something is not liked, you put no in front of the pronoun (me, te, le, etc.). 

Be very careful of your pronunciation when you say Me gusta / meh GOO-stah (It pleases me, I like it).  The Spanish word me / meh is pronounced similarly to the English word “may” and not like the English word “me.”  The “ee” sound in Spanish is spelled with an “i,” and the Spanish word mi / mee means “my.” 

Also notice that the word gusta ends in –A.  Many beginners try to use an –O on the verb, because they are thinking that they need an “I” verb.  That doesn’t make sense here.  Remember, you are talking about something else that is pleasing to you, so you must use the “s/he, it” ending of the verb.

Tips for understanding

One way to understand gustar is to change an English “like” sentence into a “pleasing” sentence before you try to translate into Spanish.

So, for example, you start with “We like strawberries,” transform that into “Strawberries are pleasing to us” and then you have Las fresas nos gustan or Nos gustan las fresas.  

Another trick for understanding gustar is to look at the English word “disgust.”  In English, we can say “Chocolate disgusts me” and we know not to say “I disgust the chocolate” by mistake.  It’s clear that the action is happening to us.  This is what is happening in a gustar sentence.

Now imagine that along with “disgust” we had a verb “gust” in English.  Then you would say “Chocolate disgusts me” if you didn’t like it and “Chocolate gusts me” if you did like it.

In fact, there is cognate of the English word “disgust” in Spanish.  The verb disgustar / thees-goo-STAHRR means “to displease.”  It is used just like gustar.  For example:

Me disgusta el chocolate.  (Chocolate displeases me.  I hate it!)
Me gusta el chocolate.  (Chocolate pleases me.  I like it!)

The next time you need to talk about something you like in Spanish, think about it not “disgusting” you and see it this helps you come up with the correct use of gustar.

Clarification of a “gustar” sentence

Sometimes you will want to clarify or specify who is doing the liking (my friend likes, María likes, he likes, etc.).  For these purposes you use the Spanish preposition a /ah (to) in order to show to whom the item is pleasing.  Look at these examples of who likes chocolate and who doesn’t:

A mi amigo le gusta.  (To my friend it is pleasing.  My friend likes it.)
No le gusta mucho a María.  (It doesn’t please María much.  María doesn’t like it very much.)
A ella no le gusta.  (It doesn’t please her.  She doesn’t like it.)
A Juan le gusta.  (It’s pleasing to Juan.  Juan likes it.)
A él le gusta mucho.  (It pleases him a lot.  He likes it a lot.)

¿A usted le gusta, Señor Padilla? (Is it pleasing to You-polite, Mr. Padilla?  Do You-polite like it, Mr. Padilla?)
No les gusta a ellos.  (It’s not pleasing to them.  They don’t like it.)
A ustedes les gusta más. (It pleases You all-polite more.  You all-polite like it more.)

When one person likes another, the word a / ah (to) will help you to know who is pleasing to whom.  For example:

A Juan le gusta María.  (María is pleasing to Juan.  Juan likes María.)
Juan le gusta a María.  (Juan is pleasing to María.  María likes Juan.)

Note that even when you use a name or other specific reference, you still have to use the pronoun le or les.  Spanish is redundant this way.  Also note that the phrase with a / ah (to) can go either before or after the gustar construction. 

Emphasis in a “gustar” sentence

Although not necessary for clarification, the following expressions may be used for emphasis in a gustar sentence:

A mí me gusta.  (I like it.)
¿No te gusta a ti? (You-intimate don’t like it?)
A nosotros nos gusta mucho.  (We like it a lot.)

The word / mee means “me,” but it is only used after a preposition such as “to” (a /ah) or “intended for” (para / PAHddah).  You can’t use in front of the verb. 

The word / mee (me, obj. of a prep.) is spelled with an accent mark to differentiate it from the word mi / mee which means “my.”  The word ti / tee (you-intimated, obj. of a prep.) does not have an accent mark because there is no other word that sounds like it in Spanish.

As with the earlier examples, the phrase with a / ah (to) can go either before or after the gustar construction.  So, you can say A mí me gusta OR Me gusta a mí  (I like it).

I like, I liked, I would like

Gustar is a regular –AR verb, and can be conjugated in all tenses, just like any other verb.  If you are a beginner, you will mostly be talking about present tense things, but there are some uses of gustar in other tenses which may be helpful to you.

First of all, you can use the verbs gustó / goo-STOH (s/he, it pleased) and gustaron / goo-STAHddohn (they pleased) to talk about something you or someone else liked in the past.  Note that there is an accent mark in gustó / goo-STOH.  The change in stress makes it third person past tense (s/he did) rather than first person present tense (I do). 

Me gustó mucho.  (It pleased me a lot.  I liked it a lot.)
¿Le gustó a usted? (Did it please You-polite?  Did You-polite like it?)
No me gustaron.  (They did not please me.  I didn’t like them.)
A mí no me gustó tampoco.  (It did not please me either.  I did not like it either.)

Secondly, the verb gustaría can be used with an infinitive verb to talk about something you or someone else would like to do.  Remember that you always use gustar in the singular with an infinitive. 

¿Le gustaría ir al cine?  (Would it please You (polite) to go to the movies? Would You (polite) like to go to the movies?)
Sí, me gustaría.  (Yes, it would be pleasing to me.  Yes, I’d like to.)

You may see gustar in other tenses as well.  For example:

No me está gustando este chocolate.  (This chocolate is not pleasing me.  I’m not liking this chocolate.)
A usted le gustará más ese chocolate.  (That chocolate will please You-polite more.  You-polite will like that chocolate more.)
Antes no me gustaba mucho el chocolate.  (Before, chocolate didn’t used to please me much.  I didn’t used to like chocolate much before.)

Gustar in all persons

Beginning grammar textbooks usually concentrate on the third person forms (s/he, it, they) of gustar because the focus is on talking about things or activities that people like.  But what if you want to tell people you like them, or talk about people that like you?

You know how to say “I like strawberries,” but how would you translate “I like you?”  You can say “You like chocolate,” but how do you say “You like me?”  You know how to say “We like them,” but how do you say “They don’t like us?”

To get the answer, you have to go back to what gustar really means – to be pleasing.  Then conjugate the verb appropriately.  Here is the present tense conjugation of gustar and what each form means:

gusto – I am pleasing = someone likes me
gustas – you (intimate) are pleasing = someone likes you
gusta – s/he, it, is pleasing, You (polite) are pleasing = someone likes him, her, it, You
gustamos – we are pleasing = someone likes us
gustan – they, You (polite) plural are pleasing = someone likes them or You all

The “someone” that is being pleased (i.e. doing the liking in an English sentence) is expressed with the indirect pronoun (me, te, le, nos, les).  This generates sentences such as:

¿Te* gusto?  (Am I pleasing to you*? Do you* like me?)
Me gustas* mucho.  (You* please me a lot.  I like you* a lot.)
No le gusto a él.  (I’m not pleasing to him.   He doesn’t like me.)
No les gustamos.  (We’re not pleasing to them.  They don’t like us.)

*NOTE: This is the “buddy-buddy” or intimate “you” form.  Spanish that Works usually focuses on the usted form because it’s more appropriate in customer service situations and simpler for the beginner, but this isn’t the kind of sentence one typically uses with a customer!

Obviously these phrases don’t come up too often, at least not in a grammar class.  Textbooks don’t usually teach all the forms of gustar, because classroom dialogues don’t get that personal, and the textbook authors don’t want you to start thinking that gusto means “I like.”  In fact, it means the opposite!

Mostly you’ll talk about liking objects or activities, so you will use gusta (it pleases) and gustan (they please).  But sometimes it’s helpful to know that gustar is a regular verb and can be conjugated just like other verbs.

A special use of gustar

Native speakers from Mexico sometimes use the verb gustar similarly to an English “like” construction, to ask someone if he or she would like something.  For example, you may hear an expression such as ¿Ustedes gustan ir? (Would You all like to go?) or ¿Tú gustas un poquito de pastel? (Would you-intimate like a little cake?)

This is possibly an archaic use of the verb.  In Portuguese, which closer to Old Spanish, the verb gostar means “to like.”  So, Eu gosto means “I like,” just like you would expect in an English sentence.

This is a specialized and regional use of the verb, and should not be confused with the standard use of gustar to mean “to be pleasing to” someone.

I really like it!  I love it!

The Spanish verbs “to love” (querer, amar) are generally reserved for talking about love towards people, and are not used to talk about things or activities one likes a lot. 

To talk about something you really, really like, or “love,” you can use the verb encantar / ehn-cahn-TAHRR.  This verb literally means “to delight” and is used the same way that you use gustar.  For example:

Me encantan las fresas.  I love strawberries. 
A mi amiga le encanta cocinar.  My friend loves to cook.

To say that you like something a lot, you can also use mucho / MOO-choh (a lot).  If you like something more than something else, you use the word más / MAHSS (more).  For example:

Las fresas me gustan mucho.  I like strawberries a lot.  I really like strawberries.
Me gusta más comer que cocinar.  I like eating more than cooking.

Remember it!

Learn a few phrases to express things you like and don’t like. Then learn how to ask someone if he or she likes something.  Be careful with pronunciation, especially of me gusta / meh GOO-stah. Remember that gustar doesn’t really mean “to like” but rather “to be pleasing.”  Remember that if one thing is being liked you use gusta, and if more than one thing is being liked you use gustan.  If the “disgusts” / “gusts” trick works for you, use it. 

Try this month’s quiz to see if you have understood everything.  And if you don’t have it all quite right, just keep telling yourself, Me gusta el español, Me gusta el español, Me gusta el español...

try this month's translation quiz

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