Want to Sound More Spanish?  Drop the Subject Pronouns

September 24, 2016
<p>You've probably made a pretty significant time investment throughout your Spanish journey to internalize the verb conjugations: <span class="sp"><strong>Yo</strong> prefiero</span> (<span class="en">I prefer</span>), <span class="sp"><strong>tú</strong> querías</span> (<span class="en">you wanted</span>), <span class="sp"><strong>él</strong> deseó</span> (<span class="en">he wished</span>).</p><p>What your Spanish teacher forgot to tell you is that <strong>natives <em>rarely</em> start their sentences with subject pronouns</strong>.</p><!--excerpt--><p>Subject pronouns in English have the essential job of establishing who we're talking about (I, you, he, she, it, we, they). In Spanish, however, this role got taken over by <strong>conjugations</strong> (verb endings).</p><p>Using subject pronouns when they're not required is like going back to your job after they fire you:</p><div class="mistake translation"><p><span class="sp">—¡Buenos días, Rodríguez! <span class="mistake">Tú</span> has madrugado mucho hoy.</span><br><span class="en">"Good morning, Rodríguez! <strong>You</strong> (came in) really early today."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Oye, ¿pero a ti no te habían despedido?</span><br><span class="en">"(Say), hadn't they fired you?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—<span class="mistake">Ellos</span> son unos bromistas. ¡Ja, ja, ja! ¿<span class="mistake">Tú</span> quieres un café?</span><br><span class="en">"<strong>They</strong>'re (a bunch of) jokers. Ha, ha, ha! Do <strong>you</strong> want a coffee?"</span></p></div><p>It's just awkward.</p><p>After the takeover, subject pronouns in Spanish (<span class="sp">yo, tú, usted, él, ella, nosotros, nosotras, vosotros, vosotras, ustedes, ellos, ellas</span>) found their market niche by providing three specific services:</p><ol><li><a href="#subject_change">Warning about an impending <strong>subject change</strong></a></li><li><a href="#spotlight">Shining a <strong>spotlight</strong> on the subject</a></li><li><a href="#advice">Facilitating the giving and asking of <strong>advice</strong></a></li></ol><p>Unless you're deliberately trying to accomplish one of these goals, <strong>omit the subject pronouns</strong>.</p><p>Let's look at each goal in action.</p><h2><a name="subject_change"></a> 1. Warning about an impending subject change</h2><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿Qué tal te llevas con Alberto?</span><br><span class="en">"How are you getting along with Alberto?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Me cae genial.</span><br><span class="en">"He strikes me (as an awesome guy)."</span></p></div><p>This is a perfectly native response. The conjugation does all the heavy lifting (3rd person singular).</p><p>However, starting the sentence with <span class="sp">él</span>, would suggest that you're surreptitiously comparing him to someone else:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—<span class="mistake"><strong>Él</strong></span> me cae genial.</span><br><span class="en">"<strong>He</strong> strikes me (as an awesome guy)."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Ah. ¿Y Fátima?</span><br><span class="en">"Oh. And Fátima?"</span></p></div><p>Your listener now thinks that there is somebody else you don't like. Either avoid the pronoun, or bring up both subjects at the same time:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—A ver. <strong>Él</strong> me cae genial, pero <strong>Fátima</strong> es muy pesada.</span><br><span class="en">"Let's see. <strong>He</strong> strikes me (as an awesome guy), but <strong>Fátima</strong> is really annoying."</span></p></div><h2><a name="spotlight"></a> 2. Shining a spotlight on the subject</h2><p>An obvious spotlight when you speak in English is changing the volume or the duration of the pronoun. In Spanish, you can get the same emphasis by simply adding the pronoun:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Vamos a ver. ¿<strong>Tú</strong> qué quieres hacer?</span><br><span class="en">"Let's see. What do <strong><em>you</em></strong> want to do?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—No sé. <strong>Tú</strong> me dijiste que querías ir al cine.</span><br><span class="en">"I don't know. <strong><em>You</em></strong> told me that you wanted to go to the cinema."</span></p></div><p>Another excellent use case for pronouns is establishing the identity of a subject who is right in front of you:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—<strong>Tú</strong> eres el novio de Carmen, ¿verdad?</span><br><span class="en"><strong><em>You</em></strong>'re Carmen's boyfriend, right?</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Sí. ¿Y <strong>vosotras</strong> sois sus amigas?</span><br><span class="en">Yeah. And <strong><em>you</em></strong> are her friends?</span></p></div><p>If the subject is not right in front of you, you don't actually need the pronoun: <span class="sp"><strong>Ese</strong> es el novio de Carmen</span> (<span class="en"><strong>that</strong> (guy) is Carmen's boyfriend</span>).</p><p>If the goal of your sentence is to determine <strong>who the subject is</strong>, you will sound super Spanish if you save the pronoun until the very end.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿Y por qué no viene a buscarte <strong>él</strong>?</span><br><span class="en">"And why doesn't <strong><em>he</em></strong> come to get you?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—No sé, pero como no me vaya ya no llego. ¿Los platos los lavas <strong>tú</strong>, porfa?</span><br><span class="en">"I don't know, but if I don't leave now I won't arrive (in time). (Can) <strong><em>you</em></strong> wash the dishes, (pretty please)?"</span></p></div><h2><a name="advice"></a> 3. Facilitating the giving and asking of advice</h2><p>Using a subject pronoun is a very efficient tool <strong>to convey your interest</strong> in someone else's opinion:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—No sé si llamarla. ¿<strong>Tú</strong> qué harías en mi lugar? </span><br><span class="en">"I don't know if (I should) call her. What would <strong><em>you</em></strong> do in my place?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Mira. <strong>Yo</strong> me iría a dormir y la llamaría mañana.</span><br><span class="en">"Look. <strong><em>I</em></strong> would go to sleep and I'd call her tomorrow."</span></p></div><p>You can also take a more empathetic tone by <strong>using the present tense in the second person</strong> and sticking the pronoun in front:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—No sé si llamarla. ¿<strong>Tú</strong> qué harías en mi lugar? </span><br><span class="en">"I don't know if (I should) call her. What would <strong><em>you</em></strong> do in my place?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Mira. <strong>Tú</strong> te vas a dormir y la llamas mañana.</span><br><span class="en">"Look. <strong>You</strong> go to sleep and you call her tomorrow."</span></p></div><p>This second-person technique is a softer alternative to direct commands: <span class="sp">Vete a dormir y llámala mañana</span>.</p><h2>Spanish takeaways</h2><p>If you want your Spanish to sound more native, be deliberate when you use your subject pronouns: to warn your listener about <strong>other subjects</strong>, to <strong>emphasize</strong>, and to <strong>exchange advice</strong>.</p><p>At the beginning it might feel super weird to not use subject pronouns all the time, but after a while I promise it will feel more natural than skinny dipping.</p>