22 Common Mistakes by Non-Native Speakers
I’ve compiled a short list of some very common and sometimes embarrassing mistakes made by non-native speakers of Spanish that are almost always a clue that the person doing this is not fluent or wholly proficient in Spanish.
This isn’t a complete list, it’s things that I’ve thought of as very common. So if I’ve missed any of your most embarrassing mistakes or you have some other examples, send them in!
1. Overusing a personal pronoun
In some cases, the use of a personal pronoun (yo, tú, nosotros) is not necessary. In Spanish, most verbs have a specific conjugation that applies to a certain subject that are unique… so there’s less of a reason to add a pronoun. When you do, you sound overly emphatic.
hablo = I speak
yo hablo = the one who is speaking is me
This can be a useful thing to know if you’re answering questions like “Who did ___?” but in everyday speech if you go through a routine like: yo hago la cama, yo me ducho, yo como el desayuno and so on sounds incredibly tiresome to a native speaker because you’re putting unneeded emphasis on it.
Where emphasis is better served is when the subject is doubtful - 3rd person singular and plural.
Because if “he” is conjugated like “she”, and “they” could be anyone, it’s sometimes useful to write the pronoun él or ella or name them to avoid confusion.
This is especially useful in the subjunctive where 3rd person singular looks like yo.
2. Capitalizing nationalities
In English, we write English. We write American as American, and Chinese as Chinese.
In Spanish, it’s not like that.
inglés / inglesa = English
español / española = Spanish
francés / francesa = French
griego/a = Greek
ruso/a = Russian
italiano/a = Italian
japonés / japonesa = Japanese
chino/a = Chinese
The only reason you would capitalize someone’s nationality or ethnicity would be if it were a tribe like los Iroquois or if it was their nickname/title like la Chinita [a historical woman]
3. Ser and Estar
Always a problem.
Ser is used with description, qualities, telling time, passive voice, what something is made of, what something is used for, set personality traits, and a few others.
Estar is used for location, temporary conditions (sick, tired, cloudy etc.), a person’s mood and NOT their personality, the progressive, and a few others.
The difference is best learned by practice and repeated example.
4. Ser and Haber
While ser is used for “to be”, one of the main functions of haber is “to be present/existing” which is typically hay but may be hubo/había/habrá etc. depending on the tense.
Son sillas = They are chairs
Hay sillas = There are chairs
When it’s a question of, “What is it?” you use ser.
When it’s a question of, “Does it exist?” use haber.
5. Addressing all letters with Querido/a for “dear”
In English, we just have “dear”. In Spanish there are two ways to say it.
Querido/a comes from querer which means “to love”. So querido/a means “dear” as in “person I care about” or sometimes “beloved”.
Generally, estimado/a is what you want to use when it’s someone above your station like a boss or a teacher, because “esteemed” is giving them respect and is more formal.
The real difference is if you’re on a first name basis, querido/a is fine.
If you’re not, or if you’re being formal, or it’s a stranger, estimado/a is what you want to use.
If you’re comfortable enough to begin a letter with, “Hey!” or “Yo!” then you can use querido/a but it can be seen as disrespectful or extremely buddy-buddy friendly to use querido/a instead of estimado/a in some contexts.
6. The use of americano/a
While americano/a is very commonly used for “American”, there are places where it’s frowned upon when you mean “from the United States”.
Because, while americano/a means “American” it refers to North AND/OR South America. Canada is “American”, Brazil is “American”, Haiti is “American”, Argentina is “American”.
So you might see: España tuvo colonias americanas / “Spain had American colonies”.
When you mean “from/pertaining to the U.S.”, it’s better to use estadounidense which means “from Los Estados Unidos” just to avoid accidentally being ethnocentric.
7. “I’m hot” =/= estoy caliente & “I’m cold” =/= estoy frío/a
Tengo calor. = I am hot.
Estoy caliente. = I am aroused.
Tengo frío. = I am cold.
Estoy frío/a. = I am distant, not friendly, frigid, or a cold fish.
[Note: estoy frío/a can also be used in the sense of “my body is colder than average”; generally the estar kind of implies “a body” and not a person… so you could say el muerto está frío which would mean “the dead man is cold” which is “to the touch”. Worse than this would be soy frío/a which is more obviously “I am frigid and dislike people”.]
8. Por and Para
9. Preterite vs. Imperfect
10. Position and Directionality - debajo vs. abajo, atrás vs. detrás, ante vs. antes etc.
Generally, de- implies that something is in a particular position. And generally, a- implies that there is motion.
The trick to these words is if you are describing something’s static position, versus a state of movement.
debajo = underneath
abajo = downward
detrás = behind
atrás = moving behind [<<¡Atrás!>> as an interjection is, “Stand back!”]
tras = after / pursuing / chasing / following
ante = (to stand) before [e.g. ante la Corte "before the Court"; ante la Corona “before the Crown”]
antes = before (something happens) / just in front
11. Use of excitado/a
excitado/a = aroused sexually
emocionado/a = excited / filled with emotions of anticipation and maybe nervousness
12. Use of capable
capar = to neuter / to castrate
capable = able to be castrated
capaz = capable / having ability
13. Darse cuenta vs. Realizar
Both translate as “to realize” but in different senses.
Using darse cuenta is saying “to realize” as in “to have a revelation” or “to come to understand something” and is usually what you want.
Using realizar is saying “to make a reality” or “to finalize”. This is used primarily with projects or when making dreams a reality. It’s better translated as “to carry out” or “to finish”.
14. Preguntar vs. Pedir
Both mean “to ask” but not in the same way.
To ask a question is usually hacer una pregunta or preguntar. When you use preguntar you’re saying “to question (someone)” or “to ask about something of which you don’t know”. Hacer una pregunta is more often “to ask (someone) a question”.
Pedir on the other hand is “to ask for (something)”. It may be easier to think of it as “to request”. It’s most often associated with asking forgiveness [pedir disculpas], making demands, and especially in the sense of “ordering” at a restaurant.
15. Capitalizing everything in a sequence/title
Spanish typically capitalizes only the first letter of a sentence or sequence or title. English takes after German in the way of capitalizing every noun but not the prepositions or particle. Just be aware that this does not apply for proper names within the title.
So for instance…
Cien años de soledad = One Hundred Years of Solitude
Alicia en el país de las maravillas = Alice in Wonderland
Lo que el viento se llevó = Gone with the Wind
La vuelta al mundo en ochenta días = Around the World in 80 Days
El mago de Oz = The Wizard of Oz
16. Overuse of para with various verbs
Most commonly, this mistake happens with esperar "to wait for" and buscar “to look for”.
People commonly write buscar para or esperar para, but because the “for” is already implied, there’s no need to add para.
Busco mi libro. = I’m looking for my book.
Busco novio. = I’m looking for a boyfriend.
Busco a ella. - I’m looking for her.
Estoy esperando el autobús. = I’m waiting for the bus.
Estoy esperando a ella. - I’m waiting for her.
17. Moverse vs. Mudarse
moverse = to move physically
mudarse = to move places of residence
*Note: mudar by itself means “to mutate” or “to molt” which is different from both of these meanings
18. Older/Younger vs. Elder/Younger
This is a problem that exists because English, but in Spanish there’s a clear distinction between both sets of words.
viejo/a / joven = old / young as in age
mayor / menor = elder / younger as in sequence of age
Mi hermana es mucho más mayor que yo. - My sister is much older than me. [“My sister is my senior in age because she was born first”]
Mi hermana es mucho más vieja que yo. - My sister is more of an old woman than me. [“My sister is a senior citizen”]
*Note: There’s a bit more leeway with joven and menor… the general distinction is that joven implies “youth”, but menor means “younger than” which implies a sequence.
19. Using en with days of the week / months of the year
Generally, with days of the week or months of the year, people are more likely to say: “On Tuesday” and write en martes
In Spanish, that’s not how it’s done. It’s more common to use el to imply a due date or when something occurs.
La tarea es para el lunes. - The homework is due Monday.
Hagan la tarea para el viernes. - Do the homework by Friday
Mi cumpleaños es en febrero. = My birthday is in February.
Mi cumpleaños es el diez de febrero. = My birthday is February 10th.
20. Historia vs. Cuento
la historia = a long story / history (the subject)
el cuento = a short story [related to contar “to tell”]
21. Words that end in -a that are masculine, words that end in -o that are feminine
This is mastered by repetition. Sometimes it’s because they’re loanwords (especially from Greek)
- el día [Indo-European and not Greek] = day
- el poema [Greek] = poem
- el clima [Greek] = climate
- el aroma [Greek] = smell / aroma
- el programa [Greek] = program
Other times they’re abbreviations
- la radio(grafía) = radio / radiography
- la moto(cicleta) = motorcycle
- la bici(cleta) = bicycle
- la tele(visión) = television
You just have to do your best to learn them as you go.
la radio = radio [the machine or a radio program]
el radio = radius [geometry]
22. Reflexives with me, te and nos
When a reflexive is listed, it’s often in the “unconjugated” infinitive + reflexive se.
So for instance, irse “to leave” is listed as irse in the dictionary. When it’s conjugated however, the reflexive must adhere to the subject.
So when it's yo it turns to me and so on:
Tengo que irme. = I have to leave.
Tienes que irte. = You need to leave.
Ella tiene que irse. = She needs to leave.
Ellos tienen que irse. = They need to leave.
Tenemos que irnos. = We need to leave.
*Note: This applies to all reflexives and in all tenses; me fui, te fuiste, se fue; me iba, te ibas, se iba; me vaya, te vayas, se vaya and so on.
The se is only used for 3rd person, singular or plural.