When starting out with Spanish, many of us will learn a few helpful phrases without paying much attention to exactly how or why such constructions are made. One such example is sentences starting with “Me gusta…” which many newcomers will learn translates to mean “I like…”.
Of course, phrases such as “I like…” are extremely useful and the perfect way to get oneself up and running speaking a little Spanish immediately. However, it serves us well to try to understand exactly why
“Me gusta…” translates to mean “I like…” so we can correctly use this verb and many others like it. So, today we are going to take a closer look at these so-called back to front verbs.
The expression “Me gusta…” uses the verb gustar.
So if “Me gusta…” means “I like…” then surely the verb gustar
means to like?
This would be the obvious assumption and some people do consider this to be the direct meaning. However that’s not strictly correct. In fact, gustar
more accurately means to please.
Whilst some might argue to please
and to like
are more or less the same thing, it is this subtle yet important difference we are going to look at today.
Let’s take a complete sentence and look in more detail what we’re really saying here: “Me gusta la playa”.
“Me gusta la playa” translates to mean “I like the beach”, however the literal translation is “to me (it) pleases the beach”. In English we could make the same construction as “The beach pleases me” which whilst sounding perhaps a little old-fashioned is the same thing as saying “I like the beach”.
So, what’s really happening here?
In English when we make constructions like “I like the beach”, in this instance I
am doing the liking, so I
am the subject. However, when phrasing things such as “The beach pleases me”, then in this case the beach itself is performing the act of pleasing, and I (oneself) becomes the recipient of the action, so the beach is now the subject and I become the indirect object.
So, whilst statements like “I like the beach” are clearly describing something that is about oneself, the way we phrase it is actually from the point of view of the beach. It is pleasing to us, not that we like it.
When learning Spanish, it seems that gustar (to please)
is always given as the de facto
example of these so-called back to front verbs. But are they really backwards? Or is it just that we have to grow accustomed to their literal meaning and how they are commonly used?
There are plenty of examples in English where we use verbs whereby the thing is the subject
and we become the indirect object.
“It seems to me”, “It bores me”, “It bothers me” are all examples where really we are talking about ourselves, yet we phrase it from the point of view of the thing. Once we realise this happens in English all the time, it should be less daunting to then see Spanish verbs used in the same way.
Before we look at some other verbs, let’s quickly see gustar
used in a few other constructions so we can begin to get a real flavour of how we use this verb from several different perspectives:
|Spanish ||Literal translation ||Meaning |
|“Me gusta ese perro” ||To me (it) pleases that dog ||I like that dog |
|“Me gustan los perros” ||To me (they) please the dogs ||I like dogs |
|“¿A ella le gusto?” ||She to her I please? ||Does she like me? |
|“A ella le gustas mucho” ||She to her you please a lot ||She likes you a lot |
|“Me gustaría probarlo” ||To me (it) would please to try it ||I would like to try it |
|“¿Te gustó la película?” ||To you did (it) please the movie ||Did you like the movie? |
|“Me ha gustado” ||To me it has pleased ||I (have) liked it |
Remember: the verb gustar
must agree with thing that is pleasing. So, if we’re describing more than one thing then we need to use a plural form as shown with “Me gustan
los perros” (I like dogs).
Now that we’ve seen gustar
in some detail, let’s see a few other examples of verbs that can also be used in this way.
|Verb ||Spanish ||Meaning |
|Parecer (to seem) ||“Me parece bien” ||It seems good to me |
|Encantar (to love / enchant) ||“Me encanta la playa” ||I love the beach |
|Molestar (to bother) ||“¿Te molestaron mis amigos?” ||Did my friends bother you? |
|Quedar (to remain) ||“¿Cuántos te quedan?” ||How many have you got left? |
|Faltar (to lack / miss) ||“¿Qué te falta?” ||What are you missing? |
|Doler (to hurt) ||“Me duele la cabeza” ||My head hurts |
The above are all examples of verbs being used in such a way that neither the speaker nor the person being spoken to are the subject of the sentence. The thing being spoken about is the subject and people involved become indirect objects.
“Me encanta la playa” doesn’t literally mean “I love the beach”, it more literally means “The beach enchants me”, albeit with that Spanish word order. If we wanted to express the same thing with another verb meaning to love
, we could say “Amo la playa” using the verb amar (to love).
In this construction the subject is indeed the speaker. So we may love things ourselves directly with the verb amar, but we may also love things indirectly when we are enchanted by them using the verb encantar. Conclusion | En conclusión
English expressions like “It seems to me…” being used as an alternative to “I think…” are a great example of the very concept we are describing today. Once we get used to alternative ways of phrasing things, and more importantly why they are phrased this way, we soon grow accustomed to seeing and using verbs like gustar.
We will certainly return to this topic another time and look at some more interesting constructions using these ”back to front”