Common Errors

By bogotapost May 16, 2014

Spanish and English have a lot of similarities, but also some major differences – especially in the way we use certain tenses and express certain ideas. Oliver Pritchard explains some common mistakes and how you can avoid them.


Use the passive tense more
The use of the passive tense is a big difference between English and Spanish.  Although the passive is used in Spanish, it is much more common in English.  Spanish speakers sometimes sound strange when they describe a world in which everything is active.  At intermediate levels of English, correct use of the passive voice is one of the signs of better students.  We will look at the passive again later this year, but for now remember the basics.

Use the passive to make an  the object the most important thing in a sentence.  For example The Police killed Pablo Escobar (active – the police are important).  Pablo Escobar was killed (passive – Escobar is important).  Use Object + be + past participle to form the passive.

Don’t try to use the subjunctive
Colombians often sound imprecise in English.  This is often because situations which take the subjunctive in Spanish are more defined in English.  For example “Yesterday maybe I studied”.  For most English speakers, this sounds strange.  You studied or you did not study.  Using ‘maybe’ sounds as if you can’t remember.  Usually in English we use structures like “I’m not sure but maybe…” or “I think (maybe)…”.

Another related problem is using ‘maybe’ instead of ‘about’.  This is quite common, for example “she is maybe 170cm” when “she is about 170cm” or “she is 170cm, more or less” are much better.

Be careful of ‘too’…
Using too (tall) in place of very/so (tall) is another common error.  In English, [too + adjective] is always negative.  It means ‘more than sufficient’.  This is a serious error because the feeling of the conversation changes completely.  For example “your hair is too long” [You should cut your hair, it is a problem] and “your hair is so/very long” [a neutral description or a compliment, depending on context and intonation].

Avoid direct translation
There are many good reasons not to directly translate, although the most important is this: languages work in different ways.  The more advanced you become, the more problems you will have with translation.  We will look at this in more detail in a future issue, but for now let’s look at three of the most common problems.

Hacer ≠ make.  Although it sometimes translates as ‘make’ in English it often translates as do or have: “my neighbours have a lot of parties”  “my editor does yoga”.  Listen carefully to your teacher and learn which verbs collocate with which nouns.

Por  ≠ for.  For in English is extremely irregular and hard to define.  Most dictionaries list at least 10 different uses.  Learn which ones to use at which times.

Also, when giving reasons, we use to+infinitive in English, not for: “I came to Bogotá to see the Andes”.

Finally, be careful with Latin words.  These are often very old and unusual in English, or have very specific meanings.  For example, people are very rarely tranquil in English.  This is usually used for natural places like woods or fields.

Learn the right phrases
There are several phrases that are regularly used in Spanish but don’t work in English – ‘In this moment’ is probably the most common of these.  Personally, I don’t mind this very much in class.  However, there are a lot of teachers who get quite angry about this and say it is not proper English.   A better phrase is ‘at the moment’ or simply ‘now(adays)’.  Similarly, ‘for this’ (por eso) doesn’t usually work in English and sounds very strange.

In English a person is 25 years old, they do not have 25 years old. You agree, or are in agreement – I never am agree.

Don’t use adjectives as nouns
Other than words like racist and sexist, we rarely use adjectives as nouns in English, except  when using Spanish loanwords.  For example “I support the indignados in Spain”.  You cannot say “I support the indignants in Spain”.  You have to give the object: “I support the indignant protesters in Spain”.

Pay attention to False Friends
A false friend is a word that looks like a word in Spanish but has a different meaning in English.  For example, English speakers often say embarazada for avergonzado/a because they think of the English ‘embarrassed’…this makes them much more embarrassed!  Sometimes false friends be obvious errors – like embarazada, but sometimes they are still good in English, but with a very different meaning.  Some common false friends are listed below.

False Friends

In Spanish this means to answer your phone.  In English it means to have a competition or to challenge someone.  It sounds very aggressive and confusing to English speakers if you say “I will contest you!”.

Molest in English is far more serious than in Spanish.  It means to attack someone (usually sexually).  If you want to use molestar in English, you should use ‘bother’ instead.  “I was really bothered on the Transmi this morning” is very different to “I was molested”.  What bothers you?

Arguments and discussions
Although we do use ‘argument’ in a similar way to the Spanish (a reason for supporting an opinion), it is more normal to use it for a verbal fight.  The opposite is true of discussion!  This is very clearly negative in Spanish, but in English it simply means a conversation about one topic.  Who do you argue with?  What topics do you like to discuss?

In English a compromise is something that is OK. It is not what you want, but everyone is happy.  Hopefully, your fiance (who you will marry) is not a compromise!

Like argument, this can be the same in English as Spanish.  However, it needs context.  It is much more normally used like (but not exactly the same as) darse cuenta.  For example “I just realised I forgot my keys!!!”.

In English, this is an adjective meaning ‘something you know a lot about’.  Your family probably are very familiar to you, but the word is not connected to family.  For example: “all Bogotanos stupid enough to not buy a bicycle are familiar with the problems on the transmilenio”

In Spanish, carrera means degree, whereas a career in English is your work and not your study.  When you finish University you will begin your career, not while you are at university.

Exitado in Spanish has only one of the two meanings it has in English.  Unfortunately, the primary English meaning is just that you are happy that something is happening…not that you are ready for sex.  So don’t be surprised when your friends say they are excited!

By Oli Pritchard