Demonstratives. Not the most intimidating aspect of Spanish grammar but wild enough to stump rookie learners for quite some time before they finally settle down. They are so elementary that virtually every Spanish grammar book ever printed talks about them. That’s the good news. The bad news is that none of those books offer any memory hook to help you remember them apart. They are too darn similar!
Not sure what I’m talking about? Okay, demonstratives are words like this and that. Spanish has three of them – este, ese, and aquel – whereas English has just two. That’s another beef I have with Spanish and its other Romance cousins. Why have three when you can be just fine with two? Why complicate life for no good reason? It’s like introducing a fifth dimension to a non-physicist who could only ever comprehend three. Why, just why?
Potatoes Potate, Demonstratives Demonstrate
And that’s why the name, demonstrative. They demonstrate. They figuratively point a finger at something for you to take note of. They point things out for you. For starters, let’s get acquainted with the various members of this small but confusing family of words. Only after that will we be able to appreciate the need for a memory hook around them. So without wasting another minute, here they are:
Did you notice that we have two different words for that? We’ll get to that in a moment. For now, just know that they are not interchangeable. Oh and each of them has a feminine version too:
este – esta
ese – esa
aquel – aquella
Another point to bear is that in plural, este does not become estes and ese does not become eses. That would be too simple and Spanish doesn’t do simple. The correct forms would be estos and esos, respectively. Aquel becomes aquellos. Okay but one question: Why aren’t the singular forms just esto, eso, and aquello then? That would sound more intuitive, right? Well, that’s because esto, eso, and aquello do exist and have a slightly different use-case. We’ll come to that a little later but we will, I promise. First, let’s get it over with ese and aquel.
Ese vs. Aquel: That and That
This one had me stumped too, so don’t beat yourself up over it. Both ese and aquel translate into that and are still far from synonymous. So how does one know which one goes where? The answer has more to do with philosophy than with grammar or linguistics. Bear with me as I break it down for you.
In English, things are either here or there. What’s closer to you is here and everything that isn’t is there. That’s just as simple as it gets, right? Not so much in Spanish and its Romance buddies. Now in a true zen guru fashion, let me spice this up with some visuals. Pick a cozy corner in your room and spread a yoga mat on the floor. Take a seat, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Now picture yourself in a conversation with, say, your neighbor from across the street. If you were talking about something closer to you than to your neighbor, you’d use this or, in Spanish, este. Right? Similarly, if you were talking about something closer to her than to you, it would take a that or, in Spanish, ese. But what about something that were far from both of you, say, her husband who is out buying groceries? In English you’d still use that but not in Spanish. This is where aquel makes its debut. Now let me condense this long-winding story in an easy-to-digest list:
este – Closer to the speaker
ese – Closer to the listener
aquel – Closer to neither
So you see, it’s all about the distance, either physical or figurative. Spanish seems to enjoy threesomes. Everything English does with two, Spanish does with three, be it demonstratives or gender. Remember the neuter gender? Yes, there is one although used only in very special cases and better understood as the indeterminate.
I Stand for Gender Equality
Okay just before you get in that panic mode, Spanish does have only two genders – masculine and feminine – for all practical purposes. So relax, Spanish grammar is not as sadist as it sounds. However, there are situations where the subject, and consequently its gender, is not known or, as grammar prefers to call it, indeterminate. For example, take the following question:
What is this?
Here, the question by itself doesn’t have enough information for the reader to determine the gender of this. The answer to it could be a mesa (table; feminine) or a libro (book; masculine). So how would you render such a question in Spanish? Would you use este or esta? Situations like this call for a solution that transcends gender barriers. An indeterminate, if you will. For demonstratives, those would be esto (this), eso (that), and aquello (that). Now you see why we couldn’t use esto for the masculine singular even though estos is the masculine plural? Here’s a couple more situations calling for this usage:
¿Qué es esto? (What is this?)
No me gustan esos (I don’t like those).
No he comido; no olvides eso (I haven’t eaten; don’t forget that).
Eso no es lo que dije (That’s not what I said).
A very handy usage of the indeterminate demonstrative is the set phrase por eso, literally translating into for that or, in simpler terms, that’s why. Look at this:
Me gusta este idioma y por eso lo aprendí (I like this language and that’s why I learned it).
Su abuelita murió; por eso está triste (His grandma died; so he’s sad).
Hope you thoroughly understand the concept of gender-agnostic demonstratives now. It’s no rocket science after all, is it? Just ask yourself if you know the stuff you’re referring to, i.e. if you know its gender. If the answer is no, you go with the o-ending versions.
The Trick to Memorize It All
Knowing and understanding a grammar concept is one thing. Remembering it while speaking or writing is entirely a different ballgame altogether. The trick is to mnemoni-fy the whole idea for easy recall. So now that you have already learned the three demonstratives of Spanish, it’s time to memorize them. Let’s see what fun mnemonics one could employ for the job here.
With este and ese, the trick is to count the t’s. If you notice, this has just one t whereas that has two. On the other hand, este has a t whereas ese has none. In other words, Este with one t means this with one t. Does this sound like a hint? If this can help you remember the este–this relationship, the other word must mean that which leaves you with ese. Another way to reinforce this is by noting that the English word with more t’s, i.e. that, maps to the Spanish word with fewer t’s, i.e. ese, and vice versa.
If counting t’s isn’t so much your thing, here’s another idea. Este is longer than ese, spelling-wise. And what’s closer looks bigger than what isn’t. This candle looks bigger than that star. So, a bigger this should be easier to map to a longer este, right? This is the one I used for myself and it worked better than a charm. You could wake me up in the middle of the night to test me on este and ese and I’d pass with ease.
Having dealt with este and ese, it’s time to look at aquel. This one can also be made simpler than it sounds. Let’s say you and your best friend both have the hots for the same girl, a drop-dead gorgeous Latina in your class. Imagine having a chat with, discussing stuff you like about her. Of course, she’s not around so you can objectify the hell out of her; men doing what men do best, right? What’s her name? Raquel! Since Raquel is away from both you and your friend, both physically and figuratively, she’ll remind you of aquel (note the rhyme). Think of everything far from you and your friend as Raquel.
One last bit to remember is that none of these words – este, ese, and aquel – end in -o, the signature masculine ending of Spanish nouns and adjectives. However, when the gender is not specified, they all go with that ending. That’s how we get esto for este, eso for ese, and aquello for aquel. That being said, the o-ending comes back to masculine demonstratives when in plural, giving us estos for este, esos for ese, and aquellos for aquel. This very anomaly of -o not signifying a gender when it comes to demonstratives despite being a masculine marker elsewhere should be a memory hook strong enough. If not, try singing “–o when you don’t know.”
The Miniature 1
In English, demonstratives can be used as both adjectives as well as pronouns. Look at the following example:
This watch is very old.
This one is very old.
In the first example above, this goes with a noun and serves as an adjective. In the second, it goes with one as a set phrase (this one), the book being implied rather than stated explicitly. Both this and this one are demonstratives. But one is an adjective whereas the other, a noun. In Spanish both are rendered as este with one small difference: An accent mark over the first letter when used as a noun – éste. Think of that accent mark as representing one in this one. It should be easy to visualize since it does kinda look like a slightly tilted copy of the numeral, 1. Hence, the above examples are rendered as below:
Este reloj es muy viejo (This watch is very old).
Éste es muy viejo (this one is very old).
The same goes for ese and aquel too and here are some examples illustrating that:
Me gustan todos los relojes pero no me gusta ése (I like all watches but I don’t like that one).
Le gusta esta ciudad pero no le gusta aquélla (She likes this city but she doesn’t like that one).
Once again, just think of the little accent mark as a representative of one in this one, that one, those ones, etc. Again, it does look like a miniature version of the numeral anyway, doesn’t it?
How comfortable do you now feel with these little monsters? I bet as comfortable as their English counterparts. If not, I suggest you fortify your learning with some rigorous exercise. Think of as many sentences using this, that, those, etc. as possible, and write them down in Spanish. Feel free to refer to this article if you need to but write as many sentences as you can, perhaps a few dozen of them. Eventually, you’ll feel no need to refer to this article and will get confident with the usage. That’s how you always reinforce newly acquired vocabulary. All the tricks in the world will fail to be any good if you don’t put what you learn to use and practice incessantly. That’s the key to cementing everything firmly in your brain.