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How to say "I like tennis" (etc) in Spanish

A sentence such as I like tennis, he likes cats etc looks simple enough on the surface. However, it turns out that to say the equivalent in Spanish requires a few bits of grammar that can be tricky for the beginner, particularly for those who haven't learnt any other language related to Spanish.

The first problem is that this is one of a number of expressions that Spanish tends to encode 'the other way round' to English. In English, the experiencer or person having the feeling of "liking" is the subject of the sentence1. In Spanish, the usual verb to express the notion of "liking" is gustar. However, this verb works more like English verbs please or enthuse: the experiencer becomes the object of the verb, and the agent (in other words, the thing-- in this case tennis-- causing the person to have the feeling of "liking") becomes the subject. So in Spanish, to say "I like tennis", we actually use a construction more similar to "tennis enthuses me" in English. Since the agent ("tennis") is now the subject, this is what the verb will agree with. So just as with English enthuse, if the agent is plural (cf tennis and badminton enthuse me), then the Spanish verb gustar will also need to have a plural form.

Another difficulty in the Spanish sentence is word order. In Spanish, a special type of word is used whenever the object of a verb is a pronoun2. This special type of word is technically called a clitic. A clitic is something similar to English -n't (as in don't, can't etc): it gets "hooked on to" the beginning or end of another word. In Spanish, clitics are placed before the verb in many cases, a bit like in the English phrase to go house-hunting. So to express the idea of "I like tennis", Spanish actually says something similar to "tennis me-enthuses".

With all this in mind, these are the basic steps to translating a sentence such as I like tennis.

Step 1: the verb gustar

The verb gustar, which as we mentioned is the usual verb to translate English like, is a regular Spanish verb. If you're not too familiar with how Spanish verbs work, you might want to go through this site's interactive introduction to Spanish verbs. For now, we'll just consider the singular "he/she/it" and plural "they" forms, which are:

SubjectForm of justar
e.g. tennis, football, the cinema
e.g. cats, red shoes, films, sports

So if the sentence says that we like a singular thing, then we'll need gusta. If the sentence says we like a plural thing like cats, red shoes, then we'll need gustan.

Step 2: add the clitic ("pronoun") corresponding to the person

Now we need to choose the special Spanish word which corresponds to the "person doing the liking" or "person that is enthused" in English. In Spanish, these are:

PersonSpanish (pronoun) cliticExample
I like ... > ... pleases mememe gusta ...
I like ...
you like ... > ... pleases youtete gusta ...
you like ...
he/she likes ... > ... pleases him/herlele gusta ...
he/she likes ...
we like ... > ... pleases usnosnos gusta ...
we like ...
you (all) like ... > ... pleases youosos gusta ...
you (all) like ...
they like ... > ... pleases themlesles gusta ...
they like ...

As we mentioned, these special little words or clitics are placed before the verb in simple sentences such as this.


Strictly speaking, these clitics are of a particular type often called indirect. They actually represent the preposition a ("to") followed by a pronoun, and would be the clitics that would be used to denote a recipient (e.g. I gave the book to him, I gave him the book). The indirect clitics are also used with the verb gustar. In English we wouldn't say tennis enthuses to him, but in Spanish that's the construction that is used literally speaking. It's not uncommon for a verb in one language to use one construction but for its nearest translation in another language to use a different construction.

Forms of address

As you'll be aware, Spanish has various ways of saying you, depending on whether one or more people are being addressed, and on whether you're speaking to them on informal or formal terms. The word te is used when you'd address the person as (i.e. the informal or non-honorific form of address). In Spain, os is the informal plural: used as the object of the verb where you'd address the people as vosotros or (to address a group of females) vosotras.

If you're addressing the person on formal terms, then le and les are the equivalent clitics to usted and ustedes. So as well as meaning they like..., the form les gusta... would also be used to mean you like... when addressing more than one person on formal terms. (In Latin America, ustedes is always the plural form of address, so les gusta... would always be the way to say you all like....)

Step 3: add the "thing being liked", remembering the article

Now we translate our noun phrase such as tennis, cats or whatever. If there isn't already one there, we usually need to add the definite article (el, la, los, las) because we're expressing a "generality". So for tennis, we'd say el tenis; for cats, we'd say los gatos. Although it's the subject of the sentence, it's actually common to put it after the verb in Spanish. So this gives us sentences such as the following:

Agent (thing being liked)Experiencer is "I"Experiencer is "you"Experiencer is "he/she"
el tenis
me gusta el tenis
I like tennis
te gusta el tenis
you like tennis
le gusta el tenis
he/she likes tennis
los gatos
me gustan los gatos
I like cats
te gustan los gatos
you like cats
le gustan los gatos
he/she likes cats

If you put the subject before the verb (which is also possible in Spanish), it must go before the clitic. Recall that a clitic is a special word that gets "glued on" to the verb, so you can't put the subject between the clitic and the verb. So that gives los gatos me gustan etc as an alternative word order.

Interactive example

On the next page is a tool allowing you to see some examples with gustar interactively.

Other similar verbs

Some other common verbs have Spanish translations that use the "reverse" construction to English.

1. The subject of a sentence is the part of the sentence that the verb agrees with. That is, the verb like agrees with I. Consider what happens if you change the person to he: now the verb form must be likes to agree with the subject.
2. A pronoun is equivalent of me, you, him etc in English: in other words, something that in simple terms "stands in for" a noun phrase.

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