Online Spanish Lesson on Superlatives: General Rules

Comparatives compare two items:

Juan is taller than his brother.

Superlatives designate one item as surpassing all others:

Juan is the tallest in his family.

In English, superlatives may be formed either by adding –est to the end of an adjective or by using the words most or least before the adjective:

He claims to be the most intelligent as well.

So why is he the least successful?

Notice that the word the is used before all superlative forms in English.

Spanish superlatives are generally formed by using constructions very similar to the most… or the least… constructions in English.  Observe the translations of the sentences about Juan:

Juan es el más alto de su familia.

El afirma que es el más inteligente también.

Entonces ¿por qué es el menos próspero?

Notice that de is used in the first translation, NOT en.  Just as it sounds bizarre to say, “Juan is the tallest of his family” in English, in Spanish it does NOT sound correct to say “Juan es el más alto en su familia.”

The form of the article the and of the adjective will be determined by the gender of the noun and whether it is singular or plural.  Observe:

María es la más alta de la clase.

Lucia y Marta son las niñas más altas de la escuela.

Carlos y Gerson son los más altos de todos, ¡incluyendo los maestros!

Notice that the noun may be placed within the superlative structure, as in, “Lucia and Marta are the girls most tall (the tallest girls) in the school.”

Irregular Superlatives

The following adjectives have irregular superlative forms.  Both English and Spanish forms are included:

Adjetivo Superlativo Adjective Superlative

bueno el mejor good best
malo el peor bad worst

grande[1]

viejo

el mayor big

old

biggest

(also oldest)

pequeño

joven

el menor small

young

smallest

(also youngest)

Note that, whereas comparatives are followed by que, superlatives are followed by de:

Yo soy mayor que mi hermana.

Soy la mayor de la familia.

I am older than my sister.

I am the oldest in the family. (And female!)

Adjectives with –ísimo

Sometimes an adjective ending in –ísimo has a superlative connotation.  More often, though, the –ísimo ending simply means very… or extremely… Observe:

un hombre guapísimo a very handsome man
una mujer riquísima an extremely rich woman
una familia pobrísima an extremely poor family
un edificio altísimo a very tall building
los trabajos dificilísimos the most difficult jobs
las muchachas popularísimas the most popular girls

Whether the expression is superlative depends mainly on context, but using the article the may also indicate the superlative.  Note that, as with regular adjectives, the –ísimo ending changes to agree with the noun.

Practice

Complete these sentences with the missing words to form the superlative:

1)      Mi abuela es _______________ mujer _______________ pequeña _______________ la famila.

2)      Ella no es _______________ _______________ delgada.

3)      Sin duda, ella es _______________ _______________ bajita.

4)      Mi abuelo era _______________ _______________ alto _______________ la familia.

5)      Ahora, mi padre es _______________ _______________ alto.

6)      Papi es _______________ _______________ gordito, también.

Rewrite the following sentences according to the model:

Mi tía es muy guapa.                 Mi tía es guapísima.

7)      Mis tíos son muy divertidos.

8)      Tengo muchos primos.

9)      Es una familia muy grande.

Short answer:

10)  How would the meaning of the first sentence have changed if I had used menor instead of más pequeña?

For extra credit, translate 1-9 to English.

Answers

1)      Mi abuela es la mujer más pequeña de la famila.

2)      Ella no es la más delgada.

3)      Sin duda, ella es la más bajita.

4)      Mi abuelo era el más alto de la familia.

5)      Ahora, mi padre es el más alto.

6)      Papi es el más gordito, también.

7)      Mis tíos son divertidísimos.

8)      Tengo muchísimos primos.

9)      Es una familia grandísima.

10)  The sentence would have become “My grandmother is the youngest woman in the family” instead of “My grandmother is the smallest woman in the family.”

Translations

1)      My grandmother is the smallest woman in the family.

2)      She isn’t the slimmest.

3)      Without a doubt, she is the shortest.

4)      My grandfather was the tallest in the family.

5)      Now, my father is the tallest.

6)      Dad is the chubbiest, too.

7)      My uncles are so much fun.*

8)      I have tons of cousins.*

9)      It’s a huge family.*

*Note the exaggeration and the informality.  The –ísimo ending is often informal and is used to emphasize a point.  Translations will vary.


[1] The superlative form el más grande is also acceptable to denote “largest.”

Adjectives Part IV: Exceptions to the Rules

Spanish is wonderfully systematic—even the exceptions to the rules have sets of rules!  While many students of Spanish are initially dismayed by this news, some students can attest that these rules actually make Spanish grammar easier to grasp and ultimately master than other languages!  Trust me, and when you’re ready, read on:

Adjectives ending in –án, -ón, -or, or –ín

In Adjectives Part I, we studied the formation of adjectives ending in –o, -e and in consonants.  In Adjectives Part II, we studied the formation and usage of adjectives of nationality.  There is a group of adjectives ending in consonants that follows the same pattern as adjectives of nationality.  These adjectives have four forms and may carry a written accent in the masculine singular.  They end in –án, -ón, -or, or –ín:

burlón mocking
charlatán gabby, chatty
chiquitín tiny
encantador charming
hablador talkative
holgazán lazy
preguntón inquisitive
trabajador hard-working

Unlike other adjectives ending in consonants, the adjectives listed above have masculine and feminine forms as well as singular and plural forms.  Observe:

el muchacho preguntón la muchacha preguntona
los niños preguntones las mujeres preguntonas

el hombre trabajador la mujer trabajadora
los estudiantes trabajadores las maestras trabajadoras

Remember, in general, regular adjectives ending in consonants do NOT have four possible endings; every word on the list above is an EXCEPTION to the rule.

This next list is made up of regular adjectives.  Although they end in –or, the following adjectives are NOT included in the first list because they are NOT exceptions to the rule.  The adjectives on this list follow the same rules as regular adjectives ending in consonants—they only have singular and plural forms (add –es for the plural):

anterior

previous
exterior outside, exterior
inferior lower, bottom, inferior
mejor better, best
posterior rear, back, posterior
superior* upper, top, superior
ulterior ulterior; hidden, concealed

*Okay, there’s an exception here, too.

In the expression Mother Superior, the translation is la madre superiora.

Shortened masculine singular

You may have run into the expression “apocopated adjectives”—that’s what we’re talking about here.  Certain adjectives have a shortened form in the masculine singular, and some of these forms carry a written accent in this shortened form.  This point is often overlooked in Spanish classes, because it seems so minor and inconsequential—barely noticeable, really—to fluent speakers and readers of Spanish.  For those of you who may be confused, or for those of you who truly want to achieve educated near-native proficiency someday, here’s the way apocopated adjectives work—observe:

bueno

un buen hombre
malo un mal muchacho
primero el primer hijo
tercero el tercer libro
alguno algún día
ninguno ningún talento

All other forms of these adjectives (feminine and plural forms) are regular:

una buena mujer

una mala idea

la primera página

algunas condiciones

But wait!  Don’t adjectives have to follow the nouns they modify?!  Usually, yes.  These adjectives are exceptions to that rule as well.  Ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.) always come before the noun.

The word grande provides an added twist:  its position before or after the noun changes the meaning of the sentence.  When grande comes BEFORE the noun, the form is shortened and it means “famous” or “great/accomplished/important.”  When it comes AFTER the noun, it means “big” or “large.”  Think that’s a minor concern?

Would you rather be remembered as

una gran persona or una persona grande?

That’s what I thought.  Notice, too, that the shortened form gran is acceptable in the masculine AND FEMININE singular forms—it’s an exception to the exception!

Practice

Fill in the blanks with the correct form of the adjective in parentheses.  For extra credit, translate the passage to English.

Mi novio es un _____________________ hombre, muy inteligente y ______________________.  (bueno, trabajador) Él no es _____________________ , pero tiene dos hermanas muy _____________________ .  (hablador, charlatán) Mi novio y yo somos _____________________ amigos; espero que _____________________ día nos podemos casar.  (mejor, alguno)

Answers

(By sentence)
buen, trabajador
hablador, charlatanas
mejores, algún

(Translation)
My boyfriend is a good man, very intelligent and
hard-working. He isn’t talkative, but he has two very chatty
sisters. My boyfriend and I are best friends; I hope that
some day we can be married.

Adjectives Part III: Colors

In English, the word orange can signify both a color and a fruit, as well as the flavor of that fruit.  Frequently, we describe other, less basic colors in terms of well-known objects of the same color: chestnut, violet, aquamarine, etc.  In Spanish, the tendency to name colors for other objects is even more common, and the grammar rules for these object-adjectives are different than for other adjectives.

The following Spanish color words have no meaning[1] other than the colors for

which they are named:

amarillo

yellow
anaranjado orange
azul blue
blanco white
gris gray
negro black
rojo red
verde green

Like other adjectives, these color words follow and agree with the nouns they modify (see Adjectives Part I). However, colors may be modified by additional adjectives, like navy blue, light green, dark red or bright yellow.  When this happens, the color adjective becomes invariable—it does not change to agree with the noun.  Observe:

pantalones azules pantalones azul marino
zapatos verdes zapatos verde claro
una blusa roja una blusa rojo oscuro
una camiseta amarilla una camiseta amarillo vivo

[1] Except for blanco and negro, which also refer to race.  Refer to Cultural Notes at the end of this lesson.

Our rainbow isn’t finished yet.  The following color words are derived from flowers, fruits or minerals, and they follow slightly different rules:

Meaning Color
naranja orange (fruit)* orange
café coffee brown
marrón chestnut dark brown
rosa rose pink
vino wine reddish purple
violeta violet purple

*Naranja is used in many places to denote the color as well as the fruit.

When using this form, the rules below apply.

When using anaranjado, follow the regular rules for color adjectives.

Like other adjectives, the color words listed above follow the nouns they modify—but since these color words are also nouns themselves, they are invariable: they do not agree with the nouns they modify.  In addition, the expression de color de or other variations may be used to signify that the color word also refers to another object.  Observe:

flores de color de rosa “flowers the color of a rose”
flores color de rosa “flowers colored like a rose”
flores de color rosa “rose-colored flowers”
flores rosa “rose/pink flowers”

The variations of the de color de expression do not significantly alter the meaning (the difference is so subtle that I used parentheses to show that the translation provided is very loose and approximate.)  Flores rosa is far less poetic and would be generally translated as “pink flowers” without reference to roses—except for the fact that rosa does not change to agree with flores.

Sometimes you will hear marrón change to a plural form (pantalones marrones), but strictly speaking, it should not change to agree with the noun (pantalones marrón).

Cultural Notes

Whereas in English it is necessary to specify “the Black woman” or “the white man,” in Spanish it is sufficient to say la negra or el blanco. Los blancos or los negros refer to the entire race, or to a specific group of whites or Blacks within a community or other specific situation.  Neither phrase is considered derogatory in Spanish.  It is important to note that the racial make-up of Spanish speaking countries is very different from that of the United States.  In the States, we consider white/Caucasian, Black and Latino/Hispanic to be three individual races.  In Spanish speaking countries, the tendency is to consider everyone (all mixed descendents of natives, Spaniards and, depending on the area, African slaves and/or European immigrants) a member of the same race, which they call la raza. Color variations within the race are expressed using color words, with many people characterized as morenos, dark-skinned with dark eyes and dark hair.  Blanco (or the gentler blanquito) may refer to an unusually pale Latino, or to an actual Caucasian immigrant or visitor.  (Rubio, though usually translated as “blond,” more often refers to any individual whose natural hair color is lighter than dark brown.)  Negro (often negrito in polite conversation) may refer to an unusually dark Latino or to any individual of African descent.  In many countries, like Peru and Mexico, indigenous groups still thrive, and these individuals (even in mixed families) are referred to by their proper names (like Maya or Quechua) or else, more commonly, as indios (literally “Indians”).

Practice

All of the following phrases were used in today’s lesson, but were not specifically translated!  Using the color words you have learned, write the Spanish phrase from the lesson next to its English translation.

1)  light green shoes                              _____________________________________

2)  dark brown pants                            _____________________________________

3)  a bright yellow T-shirt                      _____________________________________

4)  a dark red blouse                            _____________________________________

5)  navy blue pants                                _____________________________________

Express the following in English:

6)  una camisa anaranjado vivo             _____________________________________

7)  pantalones de color violeta             _____________________________________

8)  zapatos café                                    _____________________________________

9)  una familia blanca                            _____________________________________

10)  una morena                                   _____________________________________

Answers

1)    zapatos verde claro

2)    pantalones marrón or marrones

3)    una camiseta amarillo vivo

4)    una blusa rojo oscuro

5)    pantalones azul oscuro

6)    a bright orange shirt

7)    purple pants (or, if intending to sound poetic, violet-colored pants, etc.  Spanish is more naturally poetic than English!)

8)    brown shoes

9)    a white family

10)  a dark-skinned Latina girl or woman—It is also common to hear Latinos in the U.S. use this term to refer a Black or African American woman. This is why the word moreno/morena is making its way into the English-speaking world!

Regular Present Tense Verbs

Yes, this is probably one of the first topics that was introduced in your learning Spanish course of study—but if you’re a beginner, or if you’re struggling with other verb forms, you just may need to review this lesson.

Unlike English, Spanish verbs are recognizable by their endings.  Whether or not you’re a fluent speaker, whether or not you understand what you’re reading, you can pick out the verbs based on the way the ending is spelled.  Spanish verb infinitives end in –ar, –er or  –ir, and regular verbs are conjugated in a predictable pattern depending on these endings.  Unlike English, all Spanish verbs have different conjugations for first, second, third person and plural forms—but fortunately, these conjugations follow a pattern.

If you’re confused, take heart—it’s not as complicated as it may look.  Let’s conjugate the English verb be in the present tense.

be

I am (first person singular) we are (first person plural)
you are (second person singular) you (all) are (second person plural)
he is (third person singular)
she is (third person singular) they are (third person plural)
it is (third person singular)

Is it ever correct to say “They is best friends,” or “He am my father”?  Is it grammatically correct to say, “You be a good cook”?  NoIs, am and are are all conjugated forms of the English infinitive be. The infinitive is sometimes called the base form of the verb—it’s the verb before it’s been conjugated.  In English, present tense conjugation is very simple—for most verbs, the only change is adding an s to the infinitive in the third person singular (talk:  I talk, you talk, he talks…).  Very few verbs have additional conjugated forms, and English speakers usually struggle with the idea of Spanish verbs having “so many” conjugations.

In truth, the pattern for conjugating regular verbs is so simple and predictable that Spanish speakers often omit the pronoun—instead of saying “Nosotros hablamos español,” most speakers will simply say, “Hablamos español.”  They will not be misunderstood, because hablamos can only mean “we speak”—it cannot be used to mean any other person!
Let’s conjugate a regular verb in English and in Spanish:  talk and hablar:

talk

I talk (first person singular) we talk (first person plural)
you talk (second person singular) you (all) talk (second person plural)
he talks (third person singular)
she talks (third person singular) they talk (third person plural)
it talks (third person singular)

hablar

yo hablo (first person singular) nosotros hablamos (first person plural)
hablas (second person singular; informal

“you” form)

(second person plural: in Latin American Spanish, use the “ustedes” form)
él habla (third person singular; “he talks”) ellos hablan (third person plural)
ella habla (third person singular; “she talks”) ellas hablan (third person plural, all female)
usted habla (formal “you” form) ustedes hablan (formal “you” plural form)

English-speaking beginners often assume that Spanish verbs work more or less the same as their English counterparts.  In English, the same verb form is used in all of these sentences:

I always talk to my friends.

We talk on the phone.

They talk a lot.

Do you talk to your friends?

Without understanding the need to conjugate every person, singular or plural, many English speakers would translate the above sentences like this:

Yo siempre hablar con mis amigos.      (“I always to talk to my friends.”)

Nosotros hablar por teléfono.              (“We to talk on the phone.”)

Ellos hablo mucho.                               (“They I talk a lot.”)

¿Hablan con tus amigos?                     (“Do they talk to your friends?”)

Yikes!  Three sentences make no sense at all, and one of them changes the meaning of the original sentence completely!

It is necessary, therefore, to shift your thinking if you’re making this type of mistake.  Spanish does not parallel English; it is a whole different system.

With that in mind, here is the system for conjugating regular present-tense verbs in Spanish:

1)      Start with the infinitive (in Spanish, it is the form ending in –ar, -er, or –ir.)

2)      Drop the –ar, -er or –ir ending.

3)      Add a conjugated ending to the stem (also called the root) of the verb.  The conjugated ending you choose will indicate who is doing the action.  The verb ending must match the subject of the sentence!

Notice the way the verb hablar follows the rules listed above:

hablar

yo hablo (I speak)                      nostros hablamos (we speak)

tú hablas (you speak)

él habla (he speaks)                    ellos hablan (they speak)

As you can see, the conjugated endings for regular –ar verbs are:

-ar

-o

-as

-a

-amos

-an

Regular –er and –ir verbs work the same way:

-er -ir

-o                                             -o

-es                                           -es

-e                                             -e

-emos                                       -imos

-en                                           -en

Let’s practice.  Conjugate the verbs in parentheses following the rules you’ve just learned, then translate these sentences to English.

1)      Yo ___________________ con mis padres.  (vivir)

2)      Ellos _____________________ mucho.  (hablar)

3)      Mi mamá_______________________ en una oficina.  (trabajar)

4)      Mi papá_____________________ libros.  (escribir)

5)      ¿Tú _______________________ visitarnos pronto?  (prometer)

Answers:
1) vivo. I live with my parents.
2) hablan. They talk a lot.
3) trabaja. My mom works in an office.
4) escribe. My dad writes books.
5) prometes. Do you promise to visit us soon?

Subject and Prepositional Pronouns

First things first:  pronouns take the place of a noun.  Instead of saying,

Ana is my friend.  Ana lives in my neighborhood.  I often go out with Ana on weekends.

replace one of the nouns with a pronoun:

Ana is my friend.  She lives in my neighborhood.  I often go out with her on weekends.

Notice that two words were used to replace Anashe and her.  In English, we use subject pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they) if the pronoun is the subject of the sentence or the “do-er” of the action.  We use object pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, them) after a preposition, or if the pronoun is the direct or indirect object of the sentence.  (Notice that you and it are both subject and object pronouns in English.)

Bearing in mind what you already know about subjects and objects in English, we’ll switch now to SpanishIn Spanish, the same words are used for subject pronouns and prepositional pronouns (pronouns used as the object of a preposition), with two exceptions that we’ll explore in a moment.  (Be careful!  Direct and indirect object pronouns are very different from subject pronouns in Spanish—so different that they’ll require a lesson all their own.)  The sentences about Ana would read like this in Spanish:

Ana es mi amiga.  Ella vive en mi pueblo.[1] Muchas veces yo salgo con ella los fines de semana.

Keeping this in mind, let’s examine subject and prepositional pronouns.

Subject Pronouns Prepositional Pronouns
English Español English Español
I yo me
you tú, usted, ustedes you ti, usted, ustedes
he, it él him, it él
she, it ella her, it ella
we nosotros/nosotras us nosotros/nosotras
they ellos/ellas them ellos/ellas

Several important differences should be obvious:

1)  Why are there so many ways to say you?

2)      Why is it on the same line as he and as she?

3)      Why are there –os and –as endings for some of the words?

We’ll begin with the second question.  All nouns in Spanish are considered masculine or feminine, even inanimate objects.  Nouns with el are masculine:  el barco, el zapato, el libro.  Nouns with la are feminine:  la computadora, la camisa, la bandera.  When using a pronoun to replace a masculine noun, use él; to replace a feminine noun, use ella.  Observe:

I love this shirt.  It is so pretty.

Me encanta esta camisa.  Ella es muy bonita.

It should be noted here that pronouns are often omitted in Spanish.  Since the verb forms are so specific, pronouns almost seem redundant.  In the previous example, most Spanish speakers would omit the pronoun:

Me encanta esta camisa.  Es muy bonita.

It is understood that bonita refers to the camisa in the previous sentence.

The third question is related to the second in that it also deals with masculine and feminine pronouns.  Use nosotras or ellas if all of the people or items in question are feminine; use nosotros or ellos for all-masculine or mixed groups.

They are my sisters.

Ellas son mis hermanas.

Now for the first question:  why are there so many ways to say you?  Unlike modern English, in Spanish there are formal and informal systems of address.  Use to address relatives, friends, and children.  Use usted (abbreviated as Ud. or sometimes V. or Vd.) to address older people, people you do not know well, or anyone to whom you wish to show respect.  (In families, the level of formality varies.  In some families, grandchildren would never use the usted form with Abuelita; in others, children would never use the form with Padre.)  When addressing a group of people, formally or informally, use ustedes (Uds. or sometimes VV., Vs. or Vds.).

Some final notes about the prepositional pronouns mí and ti:

1)      is written with an accent mark to distinguish it from the possessive pronoun mi (my).

2)      When used with the preposition con (with), and ti become the compound words conmigo and contigo.

Voy al comercio central—¿quieres ir conmigo?

Contigo no, a ti te gusta perder todo el día allá.

(Translations for these two sentences are in the answer section—consider them

extra credit!)

3)      and ti are the only two prepositional pronouns that are different from their subject pronoun counterparts.

Practice

If you were speaking to these people, would you use tú or usted?

1)      your daughter

2)      your daughter’s teacher

3)      your boss

4)      an elderly woman at the supermarket

5)      your best friend

Fill in the blanks with the pronoun in parentheses:

6)      (She) ___________________ es mi mejor amiga.

7)      (We) ___________________ hemos sido amigos por muchos años.

8)      Siempre paso con ___________________ (her).

9)      Sus hijos me respetan cuando salgo con  ____________________ (them).

10)  Su esposo es muy buen hombre.  (He) _____________________ cuida de la familia.


[1] Barrio, the usual translation for neighborhood, carries a negative connotation for many Spanish speakers.  In some areas, urbanización (development), zono or distrito are more appropriate.

Answers:

1)      tú                                 6)   Ella

2)      usted                            7)   Nosotros

3)      usted                            8)   ella

4)      usted                            9)   ellos

5)      tú                                 10) Él