Hello again! Well we are now going to have a break from verbs. “What?” I hear you say. You mean there are other things in Spanish apart from verbs? Indeed there are and although I am feeling fairly optimistic at the moment, (don’t ask me why), this subject is actually about being negative.
Yes, our subject today is being negative, but not just that boring old ‘no’ that we can place before verbs to turn them around ‘tengo’ (I have) ‘no tengo’ (I don’t have) and so on. Instead we are going to look at the Spanish for never, no-one or nobody and nothing.
The Spanish for ‘never’ is ‘nunca’ and we will use this to illustrate how these negative words function in sentences. Basically, you have two options;
You can either start a phrase or sentence with them as follows:
‘Nunca he visto una cosa igual.’ (I’ve never seen anything like it!) ‘Nunca’ in this position sounds emphatic and so lends itself to this kind of exclamation.
If we want to use ‘nunca’ less emphatically, we have to put it later in the sentence and create what we call in English a ‘double-negative’.
‘No he visto eso nunca’. We’re back to the use of ‘no’ at the beginning and if we try to translate word for word we end up with ‘I haven’t never seen that’, which of course is not at all correct in English. In Spanish though, it is the principle way we express our negatives, with ‘no’ before the verb and the other negative word later in the sentence.
Exactly the same thing occurs with ‘no-one’ which is ‘nadie’. We can say ‘Nadie vino’ (Nobody or no one came) or we can express exactly the same idea with ‘No vino nadie’ which just sound slightly less emphatic.
‘Nothing’ is ‘nada’ and we can illustrate this with a very common phrase that is often taught as an item of ‘survival’ Spanish – ‘no pasa nada’. Again if we were to be horribly literal we would translate this as ‘nothing doesn’t happen’, but of course it should have just the one negative in English, giving us ‘nothing happens’. The phrase could mean exactly that, as in the sentence:
‘Nothing happens in this village.’
‘En este pueblo no pasa nada.’
However, it is far more commonly heard as a response to some kind of apology or expression of discomfort from another person; the equivalent of our ‘don’t worry’ or ‘nothing’s the matter’.
I say ‘Perdón’ (Excuse me) and you reply ‘No pasa nada’.
We can also use ‘nada’ in some contexts to mean ‘at all’, as in ‘no me gusta nada’ (I don’t like it at all).
If we want to be even more emphatic about our dislike of something, we can also say ‘no me gusta en absoluto’. This sounds positive, but in fact it is a negative phrase. I can’t think how to translate that extra emphasis, other than by becoming suddenly Irish ‘I don’t like it at all, at all, at all’.
Another little negative thing you might like to know is ‘neither … nor’ which is ‘ni …. ni’, although we don’t always express ourselves the same way in English. For example: ‘No me gusta ni la carne ni los huevos.’ (I don’t like meat or eggs – I like neither meat nor eggs).
If we focus on the most common, everyday uses of these negative words, it is remarkable that they are frequently used entirely on their own – often as responses.
¿Has estado en Nueva York? Nunca.
Have you been to New York? Never.
¿Quién vino a la reunión? Nadie.
Who came to the meeting? No-one.
¿Qué te pasa? Nada.
What’s the matter with you? Nothing.
‘Nada’ is the ultimate one-worder and is used in many ways. Sometimes it abbreviates ‘de nada’ (not at all)
‘Muchas gracias.’ ‘Nada.’
Sometimes it is used at the beginning of long explanations (for some strange reason). A reporter says ‘Cuéntanos qué paso’ (Tell us what happened) and the interviewee starts his long detailed account with ‘Nada. El avión se despegó y ….’ (Nothing. The aeroplane took off and ….)
Finally, you can finish off a conversation with ‘pues, nada’ (well, nothing) which can also be abbreviated to ‘nada’. Nada. Hasta la semana que viene.
Jane Cronin’s “Step by Step Spanish” articles are available as e-books at www.janecronin.eu where you can also obtain Jane’s “Step by Step Internet Spanish” course.