Expressions with ‘soler’.

When people start learning Spanish, they often assume that every word in English has an exact equivalent in Spanish.  Although this assumption is very quickly dispelled, it always takes us longer to remember words and phrases when we cannot translate them directly back into our own language.   It is also a lot harder to explain their meaning. We are going to spend a few articles looking at individual words in Spanish that do not have a direct translation in English.  

Our first example is the verb ‘soler’.  As we do not have a direct equivalent in English, we have to use several words to explain what it means and the nearest equivalent is: ‘to be in the habit of’.  

Very often when translating the word in the Present Tense we substitute it for ‘usually’.  However, this can be confusing as ‘soler’ is a verb and ‘usually’ is an adverb.

How do we use this wonderful word?

In the Present Tense ‘soler’ is a root-changing verb, so the six forms of the conjugation are:

suelo, sueles, suele, solemos, soléis, suelen’.  

This is then followed by the infinitive of another verb. For example, we say things like:

Suelo leer antes de dormer. – I am in the habit of reading before sleeping, or in other words “I usually read before I go to sleep.”  

Solemos salir los sábados. – We are in the habit of – that is, we usually – go out on Saturdays.

This use of soler plus the infinitive, is a very common way of expressing the idea of ‘usually’.  There is also an adverb that means ‘usually’, which is normalmente, which gives us an alternative. If I want to say “I usually watch TV in the evening”, I can say Normalmente veo la tele por la tarde or Suelo ver la tele por la tarde.  The difference between these two is minimal and hard to explain.  To all intents and purposes they mean exactly the same thing.

Like all verbs, soler can be used in other tenses, although we have to use a bit of common sense to realize that it is more likely to occur in some tenses than in others.  

Most common of all is the past continuous tense: solía.  If I say: Solía nadar todos los días. – I am saying: “I was in the habit of swimming every day”.  

The most common way of expressing this idea in English is with the expression “used to” – “I used to swim every day”.  

There is another way of saying this is Spanish!  As well as Solía nadar todos los días, we could say Nadaba todos los días (I swam, or I used to swim, every day).  

What is the difference? In reality very little.  We are in the realms of ‘finer points’.  The sentence with solía perhaps emphasizes more distance in time and contrast with the present, but really the difference is minimal and certainly both can be translated in the same way.

As you can see, I’m already running into difficulties explaining a word which does not have a direct equivalent in English. To sum up; there are two paths we can take when understanding expressions like solía nadar and suelo leer in English.  We can either translate them literally and clumsily: (“I was in the habit of swimming”/“I am in the habit of reading.”), or find the nearest equivalent in English, (“I used to swim”/“I usually read”) on the understanding that the nearest equivalent in English may already have another alternative in Spanish (nadaba/normalmente leo).   

Well, whoever said that learning Spanish was a straightforward affair?  I have got a really nice word for next month which I will do my best not to complicate, although I’m afraid I can’t promise.   See you then.

Jane Cronin’s ‘Step by Step Spanish’ articles are available as E-books at where you can also obtain Jane’s ‘Step by Step Internet Spanish Course’.