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Using the Verb 'Gustar'

Its Sentences Usually Have Inverted Word Order

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Bird in hand

Me gusta el pájaro. (I like the bird.)

Photo by Chad King; licensed via Creative Commons.

Gustar can be a confusing verb for English speakers learning Spanish. That's not because gustar, which often is used to translate English sentences using the verb "to like," is particularly unusual. To Spanish speakers it is just another verb. But it is used differently than the English verb it often stands for and is sometimes considered defective.

If you're a beginner, chances are most of the Spanish sentences you've been using as examples are ones that follow roughly the same word order as we use in English, with the verb following the subject. But Spanish also frequently places the subject after the verb, and that is usually true with gustar. Here are some examples of gustar in action:

  • Me gusta el coche. I like the car.
  • Nos gustan los coches. We like the cars.
  • Le gustan los coches. He/she likes the cars.

As you can see, the sentences aren't quite what you might expect. Instead of following the form "person who likes + verb + the object liked," they follow the form "indirect-object pronoun representing the person who likes + verb + the object liked." In these sentences, the object liked is the subject in Spanish.

The indirect-object pronouns are me, te, le, nos, os and les.

If this seems confusing, here's an approach that might help: Instead of thinking of gustar as meaning "to like," it is both more accurate and makes more sense in this sentence structure to think of it as meaning "to be pleasing." When we say, "I like the car," the meaning is much the same as saying, "the car is pleasing to me." In plural form, it becomes "the cars are pleasing to me," with a plural verb. Note, then, the differences in the common and literal translations below (the common translation is listed first, followed by the literal translation):

  • Me gusta el coche. I like the car. The car is pleasing to me.
  • Nos gustan los coches. We like the cars. The cars are pleasing to us.
  • Le gustan las camionetas. He/she likes the pickups. The pickups are pleasing to him/her.

When the pronoun le or les is used, as in the third example, the context might not always make clear who is the person doing the liking. In that case, you can add the prepositional phrase "a + the person liking" as shown below at the beginning of the sentence (or less commonly at the end of the sentence). Note that the indirect-object pronoun cannot be omitted; the prepositional phrase clarifies the indirect-object pronoun rather than replacing it.

  • A Carlos le gusta el coche. Carlos likes the car.
  • A María le gustan las camionetas. María likes the pickups.
  • ¿A ustedes les gusta el coche? Do you (plural) like the car?

Gustar isn't the only Spanish verb used this way. As you become familiar with Spanish, you will come across at least a dozen other verbs that are used in the same manner. A few sentences using such verbs are shown below to help familiarize you with the concept:

  • Me encantan las fresas. I love strawberries. The strawberries enchant me.
  • Le faltan dos dólares. He is two dollars short. Two dollars are lacking to him.
  • Me duele la cabeza. My head aches. The head is causing me pain.
  • A ella le interesan los deportes. She is interested in sports. Sports interest her.

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