Spanish sentences generally use the same order and sentence structure as English sentences. An example:
Yo como la pizza.
I eat pizza.
Here both sentences start with a subject, move on to a verb, and finish off with an object.
But this isn't always the case. Certain Spanish verbs basically work in reverse, which forces us to change the order of the sentence. Gustar is the most common of these verbs.
How to Use Gustar
How would you translate the following sentence?
I like pizza.
If you look up "to like" in the dictionary, you'll probably be told to use gustar. This might prompt you to translate the sentence like this:
Yo gusto la pizza.
But that's not the correct translation even though gustar is the appropriate verb to use in this situation. While it's not wrong to say that gustar means "to like," it's not exactly true either. It's more accurate to say that gustar means "to be pleasing." Knowing that, you can see that you can't really translate "I like pizza" word for word. Instead you'll need to first change the sentence to something like this:
Pizza is pleasing to me.
The meaning hasn't changed, but you're expressing it a different way. Notice that what used to be the object (pizza) is now the subject of the sentence, and what used to be the subject (I) is now an object (me).
So how do we translate "Pizza is pleasing to me"? Well, we still need to make another change before we can translate. Gustar is a member of a class of verbs sometimes called "backward verbs." Sentences that use these verbs have an abnormal sentence structure. Rather than appearing at the beginning of the sentence, the subject comes after the verb. Therefore the subject (the thing that is pleasing) comes at the end of the sentence, the form of gustar comes in front of that, and the sentence starts with an object pronoun (which refers to the person being pleased). So instead of "Pizza is pleasing to me" we should translate:
To me is pleasing pizza.
So how do we do that in Spanish? Follow this formula:
IOP (of person being pleased) + gustar + subject (thing that is pleasing)
What's an IOP? IOP stands for "indirect object pronoun." You'll learn more about IOPs later, but for right now refer to these charts:
Put it all together and here's what we get:
I like pizza.
Pizza is pleasing to me.
To me is pleasing pizza.
Me gusta la pizza.
Here are some more examples:
Te gusta la pizza.
You like pizza.
(Pizza is pleasing to you.)
Le gusta la pizza.
She likes pizza.
(Pizza is pleasing to her.)
Nos gusta la pizza.
We like pizza.
(Pizza is pleasing to us.)
Les gusta la pizza.
They like pizza.
(Pizza is pleasing to them.)
Note: To say "I like it" simply omit the subject altogether: Me gusta.
Notice how the verb gusta doesn't change in any of the examples above. That's because the subject "pizza" doesn't change either.
What if you like more than one thing? Now we need to conjugate gustar differently. We need the plural form, gustan, since we now have a plural subject. Some examples:
Me gustan los tacos.
I like tacos.
(Tacos are pleasing to me.)
Te gustan las galletas.
You like cookies.
(Cookies are pleasing to you.)
Nos gustan los huevos.
We like eggs.
(Eggs are pleasing to us.)
Les gustan las papas fritas.
They like French fries.
(French fries are pleasing to them.)
Keep in mind that we're conjugating gustar to agree with the plural subjects at the end of the sentence (tacos, galletas, huevos, and papas fritas). The objects (me, te, nos, and les) don't affect our verb conjugation even though they're at the beginning of the sentence.
The vast majority of the time, you'll use either gusta (if one thing is liked) or gustan (for more than one thing). It's rare that you would need gustas or gustamos, and there are other, better ways of conveying that meaning. See Liking People below.
Note: Because they are not "countable" you should always use gusta with infinitives: Me gusta leer y escribir.
Using Gustar with More Than One Subject
Once you've learned about using plural subjects with gustar, you may encounter sentences that look like they contain a grammatical error, such as the following:
Me gusta el arte y la música.
I like art and music.
Art and music are two things, right? Shouldn't gusta (singular) really be gustan (plural)?
Not always. Things get a little messy when y is used in the subject. The official rule comes down to "countability." If your subjects are "countable" (tangible, concrete, specific), you should treat them as plural and use gustan:
Me gustan el vestido y la cartera.
I like the dress and the purse.
If your subjects are non-countable (abstract, indefinite), you should treat them as singular and use gusta:
Me gusta la tecnología y la moda.
I like technology and fashion.
Regardless of grammar, you're more likely to see and hear the singular gusta when the subject has an y in it, even if the subject is countable.
Ambiguity with Le and Les
If you use me, te, nos, or os as your indirect object pronoun, the meaning of the sentence should be clear. However, if you use le or les, it's not readily apparent whom you're talking about. For instance, how would you translate these sentences?
Le gustan los libros.
Le gustan las películas.
¿Les gustan las canciones?
The first sentence could be translated "He likes books," "She likes books," or even "You (Ud.) like books." To clear up any confusion, Spanish speakers will often add some context to the sentence by adding a and a pronoun:
A él le gustan los libros.
He likes books.
(Books are pleasing to him.)
A ella le gustan las películas.
She likes movies.
(Movies are pleasing to her.)
¿A Uds. les gustan las canciones?
Do you like the songs?
(Are the songs pleasing to you?)
It may seem redundant to include both a él and le in the same sentence since they mean the same thing, but it happens regularly in Spanish. Even if we don't need to, we always use an indirect object pronoun with gustar.
In a similar way, if you need to include someone's name in the sentence, you'll start with a followed by their name, and you'll still use the indirect object pronoun:
A Elena le gustan los zapatos.
Elena likes shoes.
(Shoes are pleasing to Elena.)
A Marcos le gustan los videojuegos.
Marcos likes video games.
(Video games are pleasing to Marcos.)
A Rodrigo y Felipe les gusta su escuela.
Rodrigo and Felipe like their school.
(Their school is pleasing to Rodrigo and Felipe.)
Remember that the a is necessary because even though Elena, Marcos, Rodrigo and Felipe are at the beginning of the sentence, they're the objects of the sentence, not the subjects. We need to say "To Elena," "To Marcos," and "To Rodrigo and Felipe."
We can also use a and a prepositional pronoun where it would otherwise be unnecessary in order to emphasize whose opinion you're discussing:
¿A ti te gusta la Coca Cola?
You like Coca Cola?
A mí me gusta la Pepsi.
Me, I like Pepsi.
Even though they are redundant, a ti is used together with te, and a mí is used with me, to put a stronger emphasis on the "you" and the "me."
Notes on Gustar
Normally to turn a sentence into a question we move the subject from the beginning of the sentence to the end. With gustar the subject is already at the end of the sentence, so all we need to do is add the question marks:
Te gustan las anchoas.
¿Te gustan las anchoas?
Do you like anchovies?
Gustar with Other Verbs
Simply pair gusta with an infinitive to say that you like doing something. No need to conjugate twice:
Me gusta dibujar.
I like drawing.
¿Te gusta jugar al golf?
Do you like to play golf?
Me gusta leer.
I like to read.
Gustar in Other Tenses
Gustar works the same way in other tenses (and moods):
Me gustó la música.
I liked the music.
Le gustarán los libros.
She will like the books.
Le gustaría la comida.
He would like the food.
Note: It's appropriate to say ¡Con mucho gusto! ("With much pleasure!") when meeting someone.
Gustar is typically used to state that you like things, not that you like people. While it's not out of the question to say something like Me gustas tú ("You are pleasing to me") or Les gustamos ("We are pleasing to them"), those expressions can indicate physical attraction and should be used carefully. You're better off re-wording things or using the phrase caer bien:
Es mi amigo.
He's my friend.
Me cae bien Ronaldo.
I like Ronaldo.
Les caemos bien.
They like us.
Caer bien literally means "to fall well," but in this context would be more like "to leave a good impression." You can use caer mal to indicate dislike: Me cae mal Ronaldo.
Unless you're very narcissistic, you're going to want to avoid saying Me gusto.
Other Verbs Similar to 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 and they usually come in front of the subject:
aburrir (to be boring)
agradar (to be pleasing)
bastar (to be sufficient)
disgustar (to be upsetting)
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 be a bother)
parecer (to appear to be)
picar (to be itchy)
placer (to be pleasing to)
quedar (to be left over)
Me duele la espalda.
My back hurts.
(My back is painful to me.)
¡Le encanta la limonada!
He loves the lemonade!
(The lemonade is enchanting to him!)
No me importan las razones.
I don't care about the reasons.
(The reasons aren't important to me.)
Les interesan los coches.
They're interested in the cars.
(The cars are interesting to them.)