Here's a great introduction to gustar and other verbs like it
Within my first couple of months of learning Spanish I was moving along quite well through the basic present tense conjugations and some basic Spanish questions. I could easily say basic Spanish sentences like I eat (yo como) and I run (Yo corro), as well as all important questions like ¿Dónde está el baño? I had all the makings of a star student in a Spanish preschool class...
But it wasn't long until my Spanish teacher threw a curve ball and I realized that my Spanish preschool aspirations might have to wait.
In one of my online Spanish lessons we covered the Spanish verb you use when you want to say you like something: gustar.
Lets say for instance you want to say "I like coffee" (which I definitely do) the correct Spanish translation would be "me gusta café". This put my brain in a knot. "I eat tacos" in Spanish would be "yo como tacos". "I drink coffee" is "Yo bebo café". But "I like coffee" is "me gusta café" ?
Shouldn't "I like café" be "me gusto café" ??
It was like everything I had learned before about first person verb conjugations was a lie!!
If that wasn't bad enough I quickly discovered that gustar had plenty of other verb friends that also seemed to be just as weird. There was encantar, Me encanta café (I love coffee), molestar: Ella me molesta (she bothers me), Me duele la pierna (my leg hurts), and the list goes on...
Needless to say this was all a bit frustrating. Just when I thought I was starting to get a handle on one part of the Spanish language, I felt like was going back to square one.
But I didn't give up. Even though I was still a huge newbie to the Spanish language, I had already overcome some huge challenges in my learning. I wasn't about to let gustar and its rowdy gang of backwards looking verb friends stop me from reaching my goal of being fluent in Spanish.
Over time with some practice and a few grammar lessons I was able to both understand the reason for the differences and how to use these verbs naturally in conversion.
Here's how I did that.
Problems with Translating Gustar
If you type "I like" into any online Spanish translator or dictionary you will be told that it translates into "me gusta" . However it's important to note that this does not mean Gustar is a direct translation of the word "to like". In fact there is no direct translation of the English word "to like" in Spanish.
Instead of thinking that "me gusta" = "I like" in the same way that "I eat = como" it's better to think of it this way: When we say "I like" in English they say "me gusta" in Spanish. When we want to communicate the thought of preferring or beind fond of something in English we literally say "I like coffee in English"; but in Spanish they literally say "Coffee is pleasing to me" (Me gusta café). Jordan from Gringo Español explains this concept pretty well in the video above.
The word for "liking" something doesn't exist in the Spanish language like it does in the English language.
The Grammar Behind Gustar
If you're someone who likes to get into the nitty gritty of grammar Here's an explanation that can help you out. Gustar and the other verbs like it switch the direct and indirect objects of the sentence as we would find them in English.
In English we say "I like coffee ". In this sentence "I" is the subject of the sentence that performs the action (liking) on the indirect object (coffee). But in Spanish it's the coffee that is performing the action: the coffee is the subject and it performs the action (it is pleasing) affecting me (the indirect object).
The 3 Parts of a typical sentence using gustar
Indirect Object Pronoun
(is pleasing to)
This is why gustar and verbs like it seem backwards to native English speakers.
This also explains why gustar conjugates gusta and not gusto. Because the coffee is performing the action and I'm not, we use the lo/la conjugation of gustar (gusta).
Gustar almost always has an indirect pronoun in front of it to indicate who the subject of the sentence is pleasing to. In English terms this pronoun tells us who is doing the "liking".
I like (Yo)
You like (Tú)
he or she likes (Él/Ella/Ud.)
they like (Ellos/Ellas/Uds.)
You all like (Vos.)
We like (Nos.)
Learn Gustar Without Grammar
One great thing about language learning is that you can learn how to use words correctly without having to know too much about why it's used that way. If English is your native language you've probably already know some advanced English grammar concepts without actually knowing what they are.
Here's an example. Chances are you know which of the following sentences is correct:
She gave back it
She gave it back
But you probably don't know why. You don't need an in depth knowledge of phrasal or transitive verbs. You might not even now what a phrasal verb is. But you've heard and used sentences like "She gave it back" so many times that you can easily construct another sentence just like it without any problems.
You can learn how to use gustar and other "backward verbs" the same way. You don't need to know why gustar is used, you only need to learn how it's used. This comes with practice and a bit of trial and error.
You can create a Spanish cheat sheet of gustar and other verbs and practice using them during language exchanges or your next Spanish lesson. The more you use these words the more natural they'll feel and before long you'll be able to use them easily in conversation.
This is how I first learned gustar. My teacher at the time taught me the word and we practiced its different conjugations through conversation. I didn't learn the grammar behind it until much later.
Me gusta for things & Me cae for people
Gustar is almost always used to refer to things and not people. When you say me gusta ella or él it usually denotes a romantic or physical attraction.
If you want to say you like someone in a more platonic way you would say "me cae bien ella" or "me cae bien él". This literally translates to something like "they fall on me well". It doesn't make much literal sense in English but in essence it means that someone leaves a good impression on you.
You can also say the opposite with me cae mal, which roughly means "I don't like them".
You can however use gustar to refer to people when you refer to their professional titles. An example would be : "me gustan los doctores" (I like the doctors). When you use gustar this way it doesn't have any romantic implications.
Singular & plural
The two main conjugations you will run into when using gustar are gusta and gustan. You use gusta when you only like one thing ( a single taco), and gustan when you like more than one thing (2+ tacos).
Using gustar with verbs
When using gustar with another verb (For instances the sentence "I like to swim") always use the infinitive conjugation of the other verb (me gusta nadar).
Also, when using gustar with another verb always use the singular version of gustar, even if you list multiple verbs.
I like to dance, sing, and play the guitar
Me gusta bailar, cantar, y tocar la guitarra
Avoiding ambiguity with le & les
When le or les is used alongside gustar they leave room for ambiguity.
Le gusta café
Les gusta café
The sentence above could either mean he (él), she (ella), or you formal (usted) like tacos. Similarly the second sentence could mean they (ellos, ella) or you all (ustedes) like tacos. To avoid the confusion you will often hear something like a él or a ellos before the phrase le gusta or les gusta. This is to clarify who you're talking about.
(him or her)
(is pleasing to)
(him or her)
(is pleasing to)
Also, if you are using someone's name in a sentence you would preface their name with a.
A Juan le gusta el café
Adding emphasis with a mí & a ti
A mí and a ti, are sometimes used with gustar but not for the same reason. Te gusta will always refer to you (tú) and me gusta will always refer to me (yo). But you can still use a mí and a ti for added emphases. Saying ¿a ti, te gusta jugar baseball? Would mean something similar to "You mean you like play baseball?" (as if you were surprised or shocked that the other person liked to play baseball).
Gustar conjugates as a regular AR stem verb. Just remember that, unlike English, the thing being liked is performing the action. When you say you like something in Spanish you say that it is pleasing to you. You don't actually say that you like it. This is why you almost always use gustar in the third person conjugations (él/ellos).
Gustar (Singular subject)
Me gustó el café
Me gustaba el café
Me gustaría el café
Me gustará el café
I liked the coffee
I used to like the coffee
I would like the coffee
I will like the coffee
Gustar (Plural subject)
Me gustaron los tacos
Me gustaban los tacos
Me gustarían los tacos
Me gustarán los tacos
I liked the tacos
I used to like the tacos
I would like the tacos
I will like the tacos
Click here for a more complete conjugation table
Other Verbs Like Gustar
As I mentioned before gustar isn't the only verb in Spanish that that seems "backward" to English. Luckily they all work pretty much the same way. Once you have a handle on gustar and understand how it's used you shouldn't have much problem using similar verbs. Here's a list of some of the more common ones:
Remember our table with the 3 parts of a gustar sentence? Well these verbs will function much the same way.
Indirect Object Pronoun
(is pleasing to)
(are bothering to)
(is painful to)
Again, once you become comfortable with using gustar other verbs will become easier to use as well. As always practice makes perfect. Hopefully this post helped clear of some of the confusion surrounding the Spanish "backward" verbs.