The Difference Between Llevar and Traer: an Annotated Text Conversation

December 19, 2016
<p>The best way to internalize complicated bits of Spanish is by <strong>noticing the context</strong> in which they're used and <strong>using them yourself</strong> until they become second nature.</p><p>Take <span class="sp"><strong>llevar</strong></span> and <span class="sp"><strong>traer</strong></span>. Trying to understand them by thinking of them as "<span class="en">to bring</span>" is as frustrating as chopping wood with a blunt axe. To sharpen your Spanish axe, you have to place them in a <strong>web of interconnected ideas that elicit an emotional response</strong>. Or more simply:</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>Embed confusing Spanish words inside <strong>memorable stories</strong>.</p></blockquote><p>Think about what happens when you hear the words "get up." Your brain has accumulated so many stories throughout your life that the meaning seems obvious (<em>Get up, it's time for school. Let's get up that tree. I want you to get up from the floor</em>). Those stories look nothing like the ones you have for, say, "take up" (<em>You're taking up too much space. The plant takes up nutrients. I want to take up Spanish</em>), but someone who hasn't collected enough stories for those words will have a hard time telling them apart.</p><p>If this is your problem with <span class="sp"><strong>llevar</strong></span> and <span class="sp"><strong>traer</strong></span> (or with their equally misunderstood cousins <span class="sp"><strong>ir</strong></span> and <span class="sp"><strong>venir</strong></span>), let's build some stories for them using the conversation below, where Bea and Diego are texting each other a few hours before they head out to Rafa's party.</p><!--more--><hr /><div class="translation translation--left"><p><span class="sp">Bea.—¡Buenas! ¿Vas a <span class="mistake">ir<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> a lo de Rafa esta noche?</span><br><span class="en">"Hi! Are you going to Rafa's thing tonight?"</span></p></div><div class="translation translation--right"><p><span class="sp">Diego.—Hola, guapa. Pues no estaba muy convencido. Pero si <span class="mistake">vienes<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> tú, igual me lo pienso.</span><br><span class="en">"Hi, beautiful. I wasn't totally convinced. But if <em>you</em> are going, I might consider it."</span></p></div><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> <span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> The difference between <span class="sp">llevar</span> and <span class="sp">traer</span> is similar to the one between <span class="sp">ir</span> and <span class="sp">venir</span>. If you translate them literally (<span class="en">to go</span>, <span class="en">to come</span>), you won't understand why Diego says <span class="sp">«Si <strong>vienes</strong> tú»</span> (<span class="en">if you come</span>) instead of <span class="sp">«Si <strong>vas</strong> tú»</span> (<span class="en">if you go</span>).</p><p>A better approach is to think of <span class="sp">venir</span> (and <span class="sp">traer</span>) as indications that <strong>the <em>mental location</em> of the speaker is the same as the destination</strong>.</p><p>When Diego says <span class="sp">«Si <strong>vienes</strong> tú»</span> he's <em>mentally</em> imagining himself at Rafa's party, so he frames the question from that perspective (<span class="en">if you come</span>).</p><p>This is completely optional; it depends on your mental state. He could have just as well used <span class="sp">ir</span>: <span class="sp">«Si <strong>vas</strong> tú, igual me lo pienso»</span>.</p><p>Likewise with Bea, if she had been imagining herself at the party in <span class="index index--annotation-manual mistake" manual="1"></span>, she could have asked: <span class="sp">«¿Vas a <strong>venir</strong> a lo de Rafa esta noche?»</span></p><p><img src="" alt="" class="alignnone size-large wp-image-863" /></p><div class="translation translation--left"><p><span class="sp">—A mí me apetece, pero <span class="mistake">llevo<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> todo el día currando y pasar una hora en el metro me da bastante pereza.</span><br><span class="en">"I feel like going, but I've spent the whole day working and spending an hour in the subway doesn't sound that appealing."</span></p></div><div class="translation translation--right"><p><span class="sp">—Creo que lo que tú quieres es que <span class="mistake">te lleve<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> en coche.</span><br><span class="en">"I think what you want is a ride."</span></p></div><div class="translation translation--left"><p><span class="sp">—Jajaja. Un poco, sí. 😊</span><br><span class="en">"Hahaha. Yeah, kind of."</span></p></div><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> One of the things that makes <span class="sp">llevar</span> extra confusing is that it has many more meanings than just <span class="en">to bring</span>. In this case, we're dealing with <span class="sp">llevar {tiempo} {gerundio}</span>, as in:</p><p><span class="sp">Llevo toda la mañana limpiando la casa y has tenido que venir tú a ensuciármela</span> (<span class="en">I've spent the entire morning cleaning the house and you had to come here and make a mess.</span>).</p><p>That's an example of the kind of story that is worth <strong>committing to memory</strong>. If you do, next time you want to talk about the length of time you've spent doing something, <span class="sp">llevar</span> will come to mind effortlessly.</p><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> This is another <span class="sp">llevar</span> usage. It means to <strong>transport</strong> something or someone to a destination. Rather than <span class="en">to bring</span>, in English we might say <span class="en">to take</span> or <span class="en">to give a ride</span>, but what we really need is a story to solidify the meaning. You can use mine for now, but eventually you should come up with your own:</p><p><span class="sp">No puedo pasarme todo el día <strong>llevándote</strong> de compras por la Quinta Avenida</span> (<span class="en">I can't spend the whole day taking you shopping on 5th Avenue</span>).</p><div class="translation translation--right"><p><span class="sp">—¿Y hay que <span class="mistake">llevar<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> algo de comer? Porque no sé si me va a dar tiempo de preparar algo.</span><br><span class="en">"And are we supposed to bring something to eat? Because I don't know if I'm going to have time to make anything."</span></p></div><div class="translation translation--left"><p><span class="sp">—Por eso no te preocupes, que mi abuela me ha dado una receta para hacer tarta de moca y estoy en plena faena.</span><br><span class="en">"Don't worry about that. My grandmother has given me a <a href="">mocha cake</a> recipe and I'm hard at work."</span></p></div><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> We know Diego's mental location matches his physical location because he's decided to use <span class="sp">llevar</span>. Using <span class="sp">traer</span> would make more sense if he were speaking to Rafa (and was there with him mentally).</p><div class="translation translation--right"><p><span class="sp">—¿En serio? ¡Me encanta esa tarta! Cuando era pequeño se la pedía a mi madre en cada cumpleaños y ella la odiaba porque hacerla era una odisea. ¿Tú cómo lo <span class="mistake">llevas<span class="index index--inline"></span></span>?</span><br><span class="en">"Seriously? I love that cake! When I was young, I would ask my mom to make it on each birthday and she hated it because preparing it was quite the ordeal. How are you doing?"</span></p></div><div class="translation translation--left"><p><span class="sp">—Creo que bien. <span class="mistake">Llevo<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> una hora mezclando café y mantequilla y de momento no se me ha cortado. 👍</span><br><span class="en">"I think I'm doing well. I've been mixing coffee and butter for an hour now, and so far it hasn't curdled."</span></p></div><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> Another meaning of <span class="sp">llevar</span>: to be doing something in a certain way (usually <span class="sp">bien</span> or <span class="sp">mal</span>). In English, we can also say <span class="en">How's it going?</span> For example: <span class="sp">¿Cómo <strong>llevas</strong> las clases de guitarra?</span> (<span class="en">How are the guitar lessons going?</span>)</p><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> This is the same meaning that we saw in <span class="index index--annotation-manual mistake" manual="3"></span>: <span class="sp">llevar todo el día</span>.</p><div class="translation translation--right"><p><span class="sp">—Entonces ya lo tienes. Ahora solo te falta hacer las capas de galletas y moler las avellanas.</span><br><span class="en">"Then you're almost done. Now you just have to layer the biscuits and grind the hazelnuts."</span></p></div><div class="translation translation--left"><p><span class="sp">—¿Esta tarta <span class="mistake">lleva<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> avellanas?</span><br><span class="en">"This cake has hazelnuts?"</span></p></div><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> New meaning. It's very common to use <span class="sp">llevar</span> with ingredients. As in <span class="sp">¿qué lleva la tarta que está tan buena?</span> (<span class="en">what did you put in this cake to make it so delicious?</span>)</p><div class="translation translation--right"><p><span class="sp">—Una tarta de moca sin avellanas es como una tortilla sin cebolla.</span><br><span class="en">"A mocha cake without hazelnuts is like a Spanish omelette without onion."</span></p></div><div class="translation translation--left"><p><span class="sp">—Pues en casa no tengo. Me las vas a tener que <span class="mistake">traer<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> tú cuando <span class="mistake">vengas<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> a recogerme. 🚗😊</span><br><span class="en">"I don't have any at home. You're going to have to bring them with you when you pick me up."</span></p></div><div class="translation translation--right"><p><span class="sp">—Mira qué lista.</span><br><span class="en">"Aren't you clever?"</span></p></div><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> <span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> If you understood <span class="sp">ir</span> and <span class="sp">venir</span> above, you'll have no problem with <span class="sp">llevar</span> and <span class="sp">traer</span>.</p><p>Bea is asking Diego to bring hazelnuts to her location (she is both the speaker and the recipient), so she uses <span class="sp">traer</span>. It doesn't really make sense for her to use <span class="sp">llevar</span>, except if she explicitly mentioned another location: <span class="sp">Lleva las avellanas a casa de Rafa</span> (<span class="en">Bring the hazelnuts to Rafa's house</span>).</p><p>Diego, however, has two options:</p><ol><li>He can see himself already at Bea's house: <span class="sp">Te traigo avellanas</span> </li><li>He can see himself at his physical location: <span class="sp">Te llevo avellanas</span></li></ol><p><img src="" alt="" class="alignnone size-large wp-image-867" /></p><div class="translation translation--left"><p><span class="sp">—Lo de las avellanas ha sido idea tuya, así que no te quejes. Además, te estoy ahorrando la vergüenza de llegar a la fiesta con las manos vacías.</span><br><span class="en">"The thing with the hazelnuts was your idea, so don't complain. Besides, I'm saving you from the embarrassment of showing up at the party empty-handed."</span></p></div><div class="translation translation--right"><p><span class="sp">—Y por supuesto, después de la fiesta querrás que te <span class="mistake">traiga<span class="index index--inline"></span></span> de vuelta a casa, ¿no?</span><br><span class="en">"And of course, after the party you'll want me to bring you back home, right?"</span></p></div><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> Well played, Diego. By using <span class="sp">traer</span>, you are subtly implying that you're already at Bea's place, therefore it's the natural place to come back to after the party.</p><p>Using <span class="sp">llevar</span> would have worked just as well, but it would have been less suave.</p><div class="translation translation--left"><p><span class="sp">—Te dejo <span class="mistake">venir<span class="index index--inline"></span></span>, pero solo si te portas bien 😉</span><br><span class="en">"I'm going to let you come, but only if you behave."</span></p></div><p><span class="index index--annotation mistake"></span> I think Bea <a href="">picked up</a> on Diego's hint.</p><hr /><h2>Spanish Takeaways</h2><p>The key to clearing up the confusion between <span class="sp"><strong>llevar</strong></span> and <span class="sp"><strong>traer</strong></span> (and <span class="sp">ir</span> and <span class="sp">venir</span>) is to start accounting for the speaker's <strong>mental location</strong>. If it overlaps with the recipient or the destination, use <span class="sp">traer</span> (or <span class="sp">venir</span>); otherwise, use <span class="sp">llevar</span> (or <span class="sp">ir</span>).</p><p><span class="sp">Llevar</span> and <span class="sp">traer</span> also have a bunch of <strong>other unrelated meanings</strong>. The best way to deal with those (or with any bit of Spanish, in general) is to come up with a one-sentence story, validating it with a native speaker, and <strong>committing it to memory using the <a href="">scaffold technique</a></strong>.</p><p>Not only does it help you get rid of the confusion, you also get <strong>all the accompanying grammar for free</strong>.</p><p>Let me know how it goes in the comments.</p>