In this series of articles, you will internalize the usage of the Spanish language by learning to recognize patterns in the structure and the words used in different sentences.
Specifically, while we examine the sentence bellow, you will learn about:
● The structure of sentences
● The gender of nouns, adjectives, determiners and pronouns
● The form and usage of verbs
● The use of the preterite indicative tense and the imperfect indicative tense
● The use of ser and estar
Feel free to jump directly to any of these sections.
No compraron el coche porque era demasiado caro. (They didn’t buy the car because it was too expensive.)
●NO: no, not [negative adverb, invariable]
●COMPRARON: they bought [verb COMPRAR, 3rd person-singular, imperfect tense, indicative]
●EL: the [definite article, masculine-singular]
●COCHE: car [common noun, masculine-singular]
●PORQUE: because [conjunction]
●ERA: I, he, she, it was [verb SER, 1st / 3rd person-singular, imperfect tense, indicative]
●DEMASIADO: too much [quantity adverb, invariable]
●CARO: expensive [descriptive adjective, masculine-singular]
Understanding the structure of a sentence helps us distinguish patterns more easily.
In order to understand the structure of this sentence, the first thing we are going to examine is the verb (or verbs) in our example, because verbs determine the largest units in our sentence. Depending on the number of verbs, we will have one simple sentence, or several clauses in which we can divide the sentence.
In this example, we have two verbs—compraron (bought) and era (was)—so we know there are two clauses.
Whenever we have two or more clauses, we should look for the element that is linking them. It may be a word, a punctuation mark, or both.
In our example, the conjunction porque is linking the clauses. When using porque, the information before porque comprises the main clause. The clause containing porque—which expresses the reason for the statement in the main clause—is considered the subordinate clause. It is important to identify a subordinate clause, because such clauses open the possibility of using the tenses of the subjunctive mood.
The main clause is:
No compraron el coche. (They didn’t buy the car)
And the subordinate clause is:
porque era demasiado caro. (because it was too expensive.)
When using porque, the subordinate clause must follow the main clause.
The conjunction como can be used with the same meaning as porque, but the subordinate clause then appears before the main clause.
If we wanted to use como, the structure would be different:
Como era demasiado caro, no compraron el coche. (Since it was too expensive, they didn’t buy the car.)
Now, let’s look at the order of words in each clause.
In the main clause, the verb is compraron (bought).
Compraron is a form of the verb comprar (to buy), which is a transitive verb.
Transitive verbs are action verbs that, besides having a subject, have a direct object.
The subject is something or someone that performs the action of the verb.
The direct object is something or someone that receives the action of the verb.
The subject tends to be before the verb, and the direct object tends to be after it.
In the main clause, the subject is implicit—it is perfectly understood, so it isn’t said. We must think that, because of what has been said in the conversation, the person listening to this sentence knows already who the potential buyers of the car were. We could have used a personal pronoun to refer to them—ellos or ellas (they)—but, since the verb form compraron refers specifically to these pronouns, adding one of them is not necessary.
The direct object is el coche (the car), so we use it after compraron (they bought).
Coche (car), a noun, is the main element of the subject.
El (the) is a definite article. Articles always precede nouns. That is why we use el (the) before coche (car).
We are also using the negative adverb no (not) to negate the action of the verb. This adverb is always used before the verb, as we have here.
In the subordinate clause, the verb is era (was).
Era is a form of the verb ser (to be), which is a linking verb.
Linking verbs have almost no meaning, and are used to connect the subject of the sentence to an attribute that adds information about the subject.
The subject is el coche (the car). Now, these words don’t belong to the second subordinate clause, but to the main clause. We could have repeated them in the subordinate clause, but since it is perfectly understood that that is the subject, it is not necessary.
The attribute tends to be after the linking verb, so we use demasiado caro (too expensive) after era (was).
Demasiado (too much) is an adverb that modifies caro (expensive). And we tend to use the adverb before the adjective. Therefore, we have demasiado before caro.
THE GENDER AND NUMBER OF NOUNS, ADJECTIVES, DETERMINERS AND PRONOUNS
Spanish nouns possess two qualities—gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural)—that influence the form of adjectives, determiners and pronouns.
You can read more about the gender of nouns here.
You can read more about how nouns build their plural forms here.
As you have seen, in this sentence we have a noun: coche (car)
Coche is a masculine noun in its singular form, so any adjective, determiner or pronoun related to it has to be in its masculine-singular form.
El (the) is a definite article that modifies coche (car). It may appear in one of five different forms:
In this sentence, we use the masculine-singular form, el (the), because coche (car) is a masculine-singular noun.
Caro (expensive) is a descriptive adjective that modifies coche (car). It may appear in one of four different forms:
In this sentence, we use the masculine-singular form, caro, because coche is a masculine-singular noun.
ADVERBS ARE INVARIABLE
Adverbs, on the other hand, are invariable; they have just one form. That is why, even if we apply demasiado (too much) to a masculine-singular adjective, we don’t have to care about its form.
Note that the form demasiado can be both an invariable adverb and one of the four forms of a quantity adjective:
We apply adjectives to nouns, and apply adverbs to adjectives, other adverbs and verbs. Since caro (expensive) is an adjective, we use the form that is also an invariable adverb. We would still use it even with other forms of the adjective:
With a masculine-singular adjective: demasiado caro
With a feminine-singular adjective: demasiado cara
With a masculine-plural adjective: demasiado caros
With a feminine-plural adjective: demasiado caras
The no (not) before compraron (bought) is also an adverb—applied to a verb—so it doesn’t have another possible form.
In Spanish, verbs are the most variable among all kinds of words. We can choose among their different forms in order to express mood, tense, person and number.
We have two verbs in our sentence: compraron (bought) and era (was).
1. Compraron is a form of the verb comprar (to buy).
There are different factors that determine the form of the verb.
There are two moods in Spanish: the indicative and the subjunctive. The indicative is a neutral mood, while the subjunctive is triggered by certain words or conditions, particularly in compound sentences. Since there is no word or condition that would trigger the subjunctive in the main clause, we use the indicative.
The tense of the verb is mainly determined by the time we want to express, but also by some characteristics of the verb itself and, especially in compound sentences, by some words and by the sentence structure.
In our sentence we want to express a single past action. That is one of the settings where we use the preterite indicative tense.
There are six forms of the preterite indicative tense conjugation of comprar:
1st person-singular: compré
2nd person-singular: compraste
3rd person-singular: compró
1st person-plural: compramos
2nd person-plural: comprasteis
3rd person-plural: compraron
The person (1st, 2nd or 3rd) and number (singular or plural) the verb must adopt are determined by the subject of the sentence.
However, we can’t see any subject in this sentence. This is quite common in Spanish. Since there is normally a different form for each grammatical person, we understand the subject without saying (or writing) it.
For example, since compraron is the form for the 3rd person-plural, we automatically know that the subject is ellos or ellas (they).
2. The verb in the subordinate clause, era (was), is a form of the verb ser (to be).
Since there is no word or condition that would trigger the subjunctive in the subordinate clause, we use the indicative.
With era, we want to express a characteristic of the car (that it was expensive) at a given moment in the past (the time when at least two persons decided not to buy the car). That is one of the settings where we use the imperfect tense.
This tense is called imperfect because it doesn’t express the completion of the situation or characteristic it expresses. In this sentence, compraron (bought) determines our reference time, which starts and finishes at the time the potential buyers decided not to buy the car. But the characteristic of the car being expensive doesn’t end there. That is what the imperfect tense expresses: that the characteristic continues beyond our reference time.
There are five forms of the imperfect indicative-tense conjugation of ser (the 1st and the 3rd person-singular share the same form):
1st person-singular: era
2nd person-singular: eras
3rd person-singular: era
1st person-plural: éramos
2nd person-plural: erais
3rd person-plural: eran
The person (1st, 2nd or 3rd) and number (singular or plural) the verb must adopt are determined by its subject.
The subject in this sentence is el coche (the car). Since it is a singular element that doesn’t represent the person speaking (1st person) nor the person listening (2nd person), the form of the verb we use is the 3rd person-singular: era
SER VS. ESTAR
In Spanish there are two verbs that are translated as “to be” in English: ser and estar. Foreign speakers of Spanish often have problems deciding which verb to use in each case.
When linking a noun to an adjective, we use ser or estar depending on the meaning of the adjective. Generally speaking, we can say that we use ser when we perceive that the adjective expresses an intrinsic quality, and we use estar when we perceive that the adjective expresses a condition resulting from a change or process.
Since being expensive is an intrinsic quality, we use the verb ser with caro (expensive).
Since the number of adjectives that are normally used with ser is much larger than the number of adjectives normally used with estar, and many of the adjectives used with estar can also be used with ser, I always recommend students to use ser as a general rule, and learn the uses of estar with adjectives as exceptions.
You can find a list of adjectives that are used with estar here.
GO FIND PATTERNS!
There are several technical words in this post, but remember that, once you know them, you will easily be able to identify different kind of words inside a sentence. Then you will start recognizing patterns that you can use when creating your own sentences.
Check other posts with sample sentences; You will become familiar with all these terms very quickly. You will be seeing patterns everywhere!
If you have any questions related to this post, you can leave a comment or send me a message through the contact form.