Using Gustar

What Does Gustar Mean?

The simplest way to think about the verb "gustar" is that it means "to like." You should therefore have no trouble translating the following sentence:

Spanish:

Me gusta el libro.

English:

I like the book.

While this is not untrue, it's not really accurate either. Taking a closer look at the example sentence, you should notice some problems.

Spanish:

Me gusta el libro.

English:

I like the book.

In the English version, things are as we would expect them to be; a subject is followed by a verb, which is followed by a direct object. The Spanish version does not follow this pattern however. First of all, you should notice that if the subject is "I", gustar ought to be conjugated gusto not gusta. Secondly, "Me" is not the subject but rather an object pronoun. Even if we tried to make it the subject, the translation would sound like a caveman talking ("Me like the book").

Something's not quite right with the notion that gustar means "to like." If "Me" isn't the subject, what is? Clearly gusta is the verb, which means that "el libro" is actually our subject. If that's the case, a more literal translation would look something like this:

The book __(?)__ me.

What goes in the blank? Well, the idea of liking a book is not incorrect; it's just that the subject and object have been switched around so instead of me liking the book, the book pleases me.

Spanish:

Me gusta el libro.

English:

The book pleases me.

Case closed. Mystery solved. Right? Not yet. We're still oversimplifying things because in this case "Me" happens to be an indirect object pronoun (IOP) not a direct object pronoun (DOP).

Gustar and Object Pronouns

Hopefully you remember that a direct object answers the questions "who?" or "what?" receives the verb, whereas an indirect object answers the questions "to whom?" or "for whom?" Since "Me" is an IOP rather than a DOP we need to include either a "to" or a "for" in our translation:

Spanish:

Me gusta el libro.

English:

The book is pleasing to me.

All of this IOP talk raises a few questions. Why do we care whether the object pronoun is a DOP or an IOP? And wouldn't it be easier just to treat "gustar" like a reflexive verb? Let's take a look at all of our Spanish pronoun options:

Direct Object
Pronouns

Indirect Object
Pronouns

Reflexive
Pronouns

me

nos

te

os

lo, la

los, las

me

nos

te

os

le

les

me

nos

te

os

se

se

You'll notice that it really doesn't matter which chart we pull our object pronoun from until we get to the bottom row (third person). But if we are talking about the likes or dislikes of other people we need to use the correct indirect object pronoun.

Los gustan los videos.
Se gustan los videos.
Les gustan los videos.

Also when conjugating a reflexive verb, the reflexive pronoun needs to agree with the verb conjugation (e.g. "Me baño") which is not the case when we use gustar.

Having learned all that, our new translation, "The book is pleasing to me," is a literal one but it's not a very useful one. It would be far more meaningful to say, "I like the book." This brings us right back to where we started and explains why you were probably taught that "gustar" means "to like."

So why bother learning that gustar actually means "to be pleasing"?

Translating Gustar

We need to know how to use gustar properly when translating from English to Spanish. Consider:

You like computers.

Armed with the knowledge that gustar is better translated as "to be pleasing," we can make a quick transformation before we translate. Our direct object ("computers") becomes our new subject and our subject ("you") becomes an indirect object:

Computers are pleasing to you.

which in Spanish would be written as:

Las computadoras te gustan.

or better yet,

Te gustan las computadoras.

Please note that gustar has been correctly conjugated as gustan to agree with our (plural) subject, "computers."

Some more examples:

English:

She likes school.

We like sports.

revised:

School is pleasing to her.

Sports are pleasing to us.

Spanish:

Le gusta la escuela.

Nos gustan los deportes.

More About Gustar

There are a few more issues about the verb gustar to review. First of all how would you translate the following sentence?

Spanish:

Le gusta el coche.

English:

The car is pleasing to (?).

Clearly, someone likes the car, but who? Just using "Le" doesn't help; it could mean "him," or "her," or even "you" (in the usted form). How do Spanish-speaking people understand each other in these situations? Quite often they will add a few words for clarification:

Spanish:

A ella le gusta el coche.

English:

The car is pleasing to her.

The "a ella" and the "le" are actually accomplishing the same thing in this sentence. They're both indirect objects but one is an object and one is an object pronoun. We would never use both in English but it happens quite often in Spanish. Here's another example of adding words to a gustar sentence:

A mí me gustan las películas.

Once again the "A mi" and the "me" have the same function in the sentence, but this time it's for a different reason. Unlike "le," the "me" could not be confused for anything other than "to me." In this situation the "a mí" has been added for emphasis rather than clarification. The speaker of this sentence wants to emphasize his/her opinion in contrast to other opinions: "In my opinion..."

You may have noticed that in all of this translating, we've haven't used a form of gustar other than gusta and gustan. This is not a coincidence and it makes sense when you think about it. Due to our sentence structure of a direct object being transformed into a subject, there's no reason to conjugate gustar for anything other than a singular object or plural objects. But this raises an interesting question; what if you want to tell a friend that someone likes them?

In that case you would conjugate gustar a different way:

English:

Julio likes you.

English:

You are pleasing to Julio.

Spanish:

le gustas a Julio.

However, it's important to note that (much like in the middle sentence above) when we use gustar in this way, the connotation is not a friendly relationship but a physical attraction. Therefore this conjugation of gustar should be used very carefully.

The expressions "caer mal" and "caer bien" are much safer to use when talking about friendships. (You're literally saying that someone "falls on you well," or "falls on you poorly.")

English:

I like Elena.

I do not like them.

Spanish:

Elena me cae bien.

Ellos me caen mal.

Verbs Like Gustar

While we're on the subject of gustar, there are a number of other verbs which work similarly. The following verbs all take an indirect object pronoun just like gustar:

aburrir (to be boring)

agradar (to be pleasing to)

bastar (to be sufficient)

disgustar (to be disgusting)

doler (to be painful)

encantar (to be enchanting)

faltar (to be lacking)

fascinar (to be fascinating)

hacer falta (to be lacking)

importar (to be important)

interesar (to be interesting)

molestar (to bother)

parecer (to appear to be)

picar (to itch)

placer (to be pleasing to)

quedar (to be left over)

Notice "disgustar" is the opposite of "gustar." We have a similar verb in English which works the same as "gustar" in Spanish. It may help to think about "disgustar" when dealing with "gustar."

You disgust me.
(You are disgusting to me.)
me disgustas.

Gustar in Other Tenses

And it should be pointed out that "gustar" works not only in the present-tense, but in other tenses (and moods) as well:

Me gustó la musica.

Le gustarán los libros.

Le gustaría la comida.

I liked the music.

She will like the books.

He would like the food.


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