Comparisons in Spanish: Tame the Beast with Mnemonics and Examples
Comparisons in Spanish are just as indispensable as those in any other language. From picking what to eat at a restaurant to describing which Star Wars you like the most, comparisons have to be made all the time. Can you afford to keep shelving it forever then? Should you? Let’s tame the beast once and for all, why procrastinate? Comparisons in Spanish involve a few choices, choice between de and que, between más and menos, between tan and tanto, and then some. In this article, we’ll attempt to internalize those choices using clever memory hacks and maybe some music.
Comparisons in Spanish: Words That Matter
Before we even get to the meat of the matter and discuss how to do comparisons in Spanish, we ought to learn the words that help us with the job. The two most important words here are más and menos. There’s also tan, tanto, and como, but one step at a time. Más and menos handle all unequal comparisons in Spanish. So we’ll address them first.
Once through with them, we’ll move on to tan, tanto, and como. These are the words you pull out when drawing similarities in Spanish, i.e. likening one thing to another. Sounds like a lot when you consider how you can just slap an -er or -est to the adverb or adjective and be done with comparisons in English. Even for those stray exceptions, more and less do the job quite well. But don’t worry, you’re about to see how Spanish can do the same job with no more words than English!
Comparisons in Spanish: Más and Menos
Más means more and comes from magis, the same Latin ancestor that gives us most in English. Notice the similarity there? Just remember, más sounds like most but is actually less extreme, and that’ll leave you with more. Etymology and word association can make memorizing any word, however alien, laughably easy. Need reinforcement? Think master. There’s a mas in master which rhymes with más. A master has más, i.e. more authority than his slave. Tacky but work, doesn’t it?
Menos is the opposite of más. So, if más is more, menos is less. How to remember that? Easy, menos comes from the same Latin source that gives us the English word minus. Minus should immediately remind you of subtraction, a mathematical operation that leaves you with less than what you began with. I bet the word’s gonna stick with you for life now.
In English, most adjectives have base form, a comparative form, and a superlative. For instance, good is the base form with better and best as the two other forms. We call these forms degrees. Similarly, bad has worse and worst. Of these, most form their comparatives by simply adding an -er to the base form. Superlatives, in those cases, take the suffix -est. Such adjectives form the bulk of the English adjective pool. Examples include dry-drier-driest and fat-fatter-fattest. The very few that do not have any non-base forms, let alone follow any pattern, use more and most to express degrees. Such adjectives include beautiful and interesting.
Comparisons in Spanish almost entirely follow the more-less rule. Adjectives, barring a very few common exceptions, do not have comparative and superlative forms. Thus, for instance, fatter is simply más gordo (more fat). To form the superlative, you just add the Spanish for the, e.g., el más gordo (the fattest).
By the way, see that little accent mark over the á in más? That’s important, don’t omit it. Because if you did, you’ll get mas which is a literary version of pero (but), not what you’re looking for. So cuídate!
Comparisons in Spanish: Tan, Tanto, and Como
Tan and tanto, both mean so in English, but here’s the catch: They’re not interchangeable. Okay, let’s be precise here, tan means so and tanto means so many or so much. Still confused? Think of it this way, tan goes with adjectives, tanto with nouns. Tan with qualities, tanto with things:
Su novia es tan bonita (His girlfriend is so lovely).
Tiene tanto dinero (She has so much money).
So, tan vs. tanto is basically just about quality vs. thing. You memorize that and you’re good to go. And how do you do that? Think of quality vs. thing in terms of so vs. so much. So has fewer letters than so much. Tan has fewer letters than tanto. This should help you map tan to so and tanto to so much. Another trick is to imagine someone who seems to have gained some awesome tan from a beach vacation.
Her tan is tan good!
This lame pun should help you map tan to quality, i.e. so. Whatever’s left, i.e. tanto, ought to be so many.
Now there’s como, Spanish for like in this context. Comparisons in Spanish, like those in any other language, often involve likening of things to each other. This isn’t about determining which one’s superior, this is about bringing out the similarity. It’s about how A is like B. Most often, the word is used in conjunction with tan or tanto in the context of similarity. One way to remember the como–like mapping is to imagine a guy who looks like a comic-book character. Give him a goofy face and you’ll never forget the word again.
Ways to Make Comparisons in Spanish
Now that we’ve got our words down, let’s get it over with the grammar of comparisons in Spanish. Unfortunately, the grammar bit in this case isn’t as straightforward as in English. Let me explain. You see, comparisons take more than mere qualifiers, they take a connecting word grammatically known as preposition. Prepositions are words like of, than, by, etc. A simple than suffices for all unequal comparisons in English. That’s the only preposition you need there. Not so simple in Spanish. Depending on what you’re comparing, there’s two different ways to do the job in this language. The prepositions of interest here are que and de. And they cannot be used at will. Very specific rules govern which one goes where. Let’s see how.
Comparisons in Spanish Using Que
Structure: Más/Menos + adjective/adverb/noun + que
You can take this one as a rule of thumb. Que for all comparisons in Spanish. With an exception, of course, which we’ll discuss later. So whether you’re comparing how things are, how many/much they are, or how they act, you go with que. In other words, all comparisons of quality, number/quantity, and actions take que. That’s like 80% of all comparisons you’ll ever make! You’re smarter than your friend? That’ll be que. You have more brains than your friend? Also que. You learn faster than your friend? Que again.
Tengo más dinero que mi vecino (I have more money than my neighbor).
Ella es más bonita que su hermana (She is prettier than her sister).
Pedro corre más rápidamente que sus amigos (Pedro runs faster than his friends).
Do note that it’s que and not qué. No accent mark here. In a following section, we’ll learn a simple trick to remember this usage of que. Without rote memorization, of course.
Comparisons in Spanish Using De
Structure: Más/Menos + de + number + noun
This is the only exception when it comes to unequal comparisons in Spanish. Actually, this structure isn’t exactly comparison in the strictest of sense. I mean, you’re not pitting two things against each other here. You’re just answering how much or how many without being super specific. And when you do that, you go with de and not que. Confused? Allow me to explain. Do you have more books than I do? That’s que. But do you have more than ten books? That’ll be de. See the difference? English does fine with than in both situations, Spanish doesn’t. Let some examples break it down for you:
Corro más de cinco miles cada mañana (I run more than five miles every morning).
Tengo menos de diez dólares en la bolsa (I have less than ten dollars in my wallet).
No puedes tener más de uno (You can’t have more than one).
Superlatives in Spanish
Structure: el más/menos + adjective + de
We don’t always compare one thing with another. Sometimes, we pit one thing against an entire bunch. That’s where superlatives come in. In English, we turn most adjectives and adverbs into superlative by just slapping an -est to them. No such thing in Spanish. Más and menos are your friends even in this case. So how do we tell between comparatives and superlatives in Spanish? Good question. Let’s go back to English to see how it works:
She is the tallest girl in her class.
As you can see, tallest is the superlative here. But she’s not just tallest, she’s the tallest. That’s important. Because that’s exactly what we do in Spanish. We add the Spanish for the in order to form the superlative. And in case you want to mention the group being pitted against, the preposition de is in order. Let’s see it all in action:
Ella es la chica más alta de su clase (She’s the tallest girl in her class).
Somos los más rápidos (We are the fastest).
But that’s just with adjectives. The process with adverbs isn’t as simple as just tagging the adverb with más or menos. You need to, instead, break the sentence into two clauses. For instance, Joe runs the fastest needs to be expressed as the one who runs the fastest is Joe. Super contrived, I agree, but that’s how Spanish rolls. Let me reinforce this example better:
Joe corre más rápidamente que Javi (Joe runs faster than Javi).
El que más rápidamente corre es Joe (Joe runs the fastest).
It’ll just take a lot of practice to internalize this new way of doing things. There’s just no alternative, sorry. But then, how often do you use adverbs in the superlative anyway?
Trick to Pick between Que and De
So we have understood how to make unequal comparisons in Spanish. We have also learned which preposition serves which use-case. But how do we ensure we don’t get the two prepositions mixed up? How do we remember the rules governing que and de in the context of comparisons? One way is to cram the rules and hope they stick. But that’s not terribly efficient, is it? So let’s get creative. All we need to somehow remember is that que compares one against another, whereas de just quantifies one thing in isolation.
Maria is cuter than Kate — que
Maria has less than ten followers on Instagram — de
The first sentence is pitting Maria against Kate, the second only speaks of Maria. That’s the only difference that matters. And that’s the trick!
Maria is cuter than Kate but has less than ten followers on Instagram.
Bad for Maria, good for us. How? Notice we have two instances of than here. The first one involves Kate which rhymes with que. That’s your memory hook for que right there. The only than that remains must then correspond with de. You remember the first and the second one follows. If this mnemonic feels too unwieldy to you, feel free to devise your own. It’s all about how imaginative you can get.
Special Comparisons in Spanish: Mejor and Peor
These form the bulk of all comparisons in Spanish. Mejor is Spanish for better and peor for worse. If you recall, good is bueno in Spanish. But just as you can’t say more good in English, you can’t say más bueno in Spanish. That just sounds odd and is downright incorrect, even from a dialectical standpoint! Instead, you use mejor. The word looks eerily but deceptively similar to major. So use that as a memory hook. Think of how you’ll soon become better at Spanish than a majority of the world’s population!
Same story with bad. You go from bad to worse, not more bad. Same way, in Spanish, you go from malo to peor, not más malo. Peor is very easy to remember, it looks so much like poor! I dunno if the two words share a Latin past but sure, poor is associated with bad. So the trick should work well.
Mejor and peor are not the only two special cases though. There’s also mayor (older) and menor (younger). Mayor should, again, be easy to remember. Just picture a really old man as the mayor of your city. Menor sounds and looks very much like minor which should be all the mental cue you need to memorize the word.
Comparisons in Spanish: Similarities
We have our comparisons down. Well, almost. Because what we’ve seen thus far is only what we call unequal comparisons. But there’s also another kind of comparison, the one where we liken one thing to another. Shared qualities. Since there’s no inequality involved here, más and menos won’t work. It’s not taller than, it’s as tall as. It’s not more money than, it’s as much money as. The right words for the job this time are tan, tanto, and como. Depending on what it is you’re comparing, you go with either tan or tanto. And the two are not interchangeable. Como, however, remains the constant in both scenarios. Just remember, como is common.
Similarities in Spanish Using Tan
Structure: Tan + adjective/adverb + como
Tan is your word when you’re comparing qualities. It could be qualities of things or qualities of what those things are doing. You run as fast as your friend? That’s tan. You are as strong as Thor? That’s tan again. Tan is the first as in as-whatever-as. Como is the second. Let a few examples illustrate this:
Es tan alto como su hermano (He is as tall as his brother).
El tiempo está tan lluvioso hoy como ayer (The weather is as rainy today as it was yesterday).
José corre tan lentamente como mi abuela (Juan runs as slowly as my granny).
Tan doesn’t always have to go with como. It can act on its own too and when it does, it translates into so:
No te esperaba tan pronto (I wasn’t expecting you so soon).
It also stands on its own when used in exclamatory sentences, but it’s hard to translate it in such contexts. See for yourself:
¡Qué idea tan rara! (What an odd notion!)
And if you’re in Mexico, it has another interesting use-case, a very common one at that. There, tan often stands roughly for much or many in questions asking for the degree of quality:
¿Qué tan grande es? (How big is it?)
¿Qué tan grave está el enfermo? (How ill is the patient?)
¿Qué tan lejos? (How far?)
But I digress. The takeaway here is that tan…como is the structure you use while likening A to B or A’s actions to B’s.
Similarities in Spanish Using Tanto
Structure: Tanto + noun+ como
Tanto is almost the same thing as tan with one small but important difference: Tanto compares quantity, whereas tan compares quality. If tan…como says as..as, tanto…como says as many/much…as. It’s easier to show this with examples:
Tengo tantos libros como mi hermana (I have as many books as my sister).
Hay tantos hombres como mujeres (There’s as many men as women).
No tengo tantas manzanas como él (I don’t have as many apples as him).
Tengo tantos años como mi amigo (I’m as old as my friend).
Tanto…como, by the way, can also sometimes omit the enclosed noun altogether. That’s when we’re comparing the quantities of an action rather than things. In other words, you having as much as me is comparing quantities of things. But you doing as much as me is comparing quantities of actions. Let’s illustrate further:
Gano tanto dinero como ella (I make as much money as she does).
Trabajo tanto como ella (I work as much as she does).
Just like tan, tanto can also hold its own, i.e. without an accompanying como. In that usage, tanto translates into so much or so many:
Te quiero tanto (I love you so much).
Todavía tengo tanto trabajo para hacer (I still have so much work to do).
No se necesitan tantas (So many are not required).
Both tan and tanto have a ton of other fun uses but that’s for another day. For now, let’s just stick to comparisons in Spanish. Nothing wrong in staying focused, right? I’don’t think you need any mnemonic for this one, unless you skipped the part where I gave one involving suntan. Scroll up and it’s right there, I promise it is.
There’s a lot more to comparisons in Spanish than what we just discussed. But this should still give you a firm ground for further exploration. For instance, there’s this very intriguing practice of adding suffixes to make things bigger or smaller, either in size or otherwise. One such suffix is -ísimo. That’s how you get muchísimo from mucho (many, a lot) and riquísimo from rico (rich). But think of -ísimo as more like very rather than a comparative.
As you explore, you’ll also run into a myriad fun ways to use words like tan, tanto, más, and ménos in non-comparison functions. I would love to discuss them too but you’ll learn much better if you did some digging around of your own. Trust me it’s fun. And if you do run into some usage that particularly intrigues you, please don’t forget to share it with us in a comment below!