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Using the Verb 'Esperar'

Meanings Include Hope, Expectation, Waiting

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Sculpture by Robert Indiana in Valencia, Spain

El amor llega cuando uno menos lo espera. (Love comes when you least expect it.)

Photo by Sento used under terms of Creative Commons license.

Although "to hope for," "to wait" and "to expect" (among others) have different and distinct meanings in English, they can be translated as the same Spanish verb, esperar. Context, sentence structure and whether esperar is followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood are the big clues as to what meaning is intended. Even so, many sentences using the verb may seem ambiguous to English speakers, especially when out of context.

Here are some of the most common ways that esperar is used, with examples:

Esperar que followed by a verb: Esperar que is typically followed by a verb (although the verb may have a subject). If that verb is in the subjunctive mood, esperar can often be understood to mean "hope," while if that verb is in the indicative mood, it usually can be understood to mean "expect." (The distinction between the two isn't always precise, however, so you still need to pay attention to context.)

Note, for example, the difference in meaning between "Espero que va a ganar el torneo," which means "I expect he will win the tournament," and "Espero que ganes el torneo," "I hope you win the tournament. The use of the indicative mood (va a) in the first sentence suggests some degree of certainty, while the subjunctive mood of the second indicates desire. The use of the subjunctive following esperar que is far more common than not.

Some examples with possible translations:

  • Espero que no nieve. I hope it doesn't snow.
  • El presidente espera que no sea necesario incrementar la supervisión de los sistemas financieros. The president hopes it won't be necessary to increase oversight of the financial systems.
  • Espera que no es fácil. He expects it isn't easy.
  • Estaba yo en casa y esperaba que lloviera. I was at home and I hoped it would rain.
  • Esperan que biocombustibles tengan éxito en América Central. They are hoping that biofuels will be successful in Central America.

It should be noted that the use of the subjunctive after que is very common, and that it is not unusual for esperar que to mean "expect" if the context so demands. For example, take this sentence that appeared in Spanish news media: Los ciudadanos no esperan que ETA declare una tregua en los próximos meses. The context of the story made clear that the sentence should be understood to mean "Citizens don't expect (not "hope") that the ETA will declare a truce in the coming months." And a sentence such as "¿Porqué no esperabas que te llamaran? can mean "Why didn't you hope they would call you?" or "Why didn't you expect they would call you?" depending on the context.

Also, the following phrases are common:

  • ¡Espero que sí! I hope so!
  • ¡Espero que no! I hope not!

Esperar meaning "to wait" or "to wait for": This is one of the most common meanings of esperar:

  • Por favor espera aquí por un momento. Please wait here for a moment.
  • Los pasajeros vuelan a México tras esperar 20 horas en el aeropuerto Los Ángeles. The passengers are flying to Mexico City after waiting 20 hours in the Los Angeles airport.
  • Bajaron al andén y esperaron el tren. They stepped down to the platform and waited for the train.
  • Esperábamos el trencito del parque. We waited for the little train in the park.
  • ¿Qué esperas para triunfar en esta vida? What are you waiting for in order to be victorious in this life?

Esperar meaning "to expect": Another common meaning determined by the context:

  • Te esperamos a las 16 horas en el zócalo. We'll expect you at 4 p.m. in the city square.
  • El amor llega cuando uno menos lo espera. Love comes when you least expect it.
  • Para el 2008 esperamos la llegada de unos 406 mil turistas. For 2008 we are expecting the arrival of some 406,000 tourists.

The phrase estar esperando can be used in the same as the English "to be expecting" when referring to pregnancy: Carme Chacón confirma que el bebé que está esperando es un niño. Carme Chacon confirms that the baby she is expecting is a boy.

Using esperar like gustar: Esperar is sometimes used in the same way as gustar and some other verbs — in a sentence with inverted word order. A usable translation in such cases often is "await":

  • Toledo dice que a Fujimori le espera la justicia si pretende regresar a Perú. Toledo says that justice awaits Fujimori if he tries to return to Peru.
  • Al dólar le esperan tiempos peores. Worse times await the dollar.
  • Me espera una vida nueva en algún lugar del mundo. A new life awaits me somewhere in the world.

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