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Effective Spanish

This guide aims to provide basic guidelines for writing good Spanish and covers general conventions, some differences between Spanish and English, and a few common mistakes that should be avoided.

General points

Varieties of Spanish

As in English, there are many varieties or registers of Spanish, from the very formal style of official documents to the trendy insider slang of internet blogs. It is important to be aware of this and to choose the level of language appropriate to the context in which you are writing. As a general rule, the language used in essays, articles, and reports tends to be rather more formal in Spanish than it is in English. But the essential thing is to make sure that you use the language in such a way as to convey what you want to say as clearly and readably as possible. When in doubt as to spelling, register, or usage, always take the time to consult a dictionary.

Standard Spanish

Unless marked otherwise, the words, examples, and idioms in this dictionary belong to standard Spanish, which is universally understood and whose level of language is appropriate to most situations, whether written or spoken. It is the Spanish that you will find used in business, the media, and most printed matter.

Formal and literary language

As with English, formal Spanish constitutes a relatively restricted sub-group of the language. Careful writers of English generally tend to avoid over-using formal and literary terms as they can sound pompous and even unintentionally humorous. An English-speaker reading an official letter or a memo written in Spanish will often find the tone very formal. However, this tendency towards formal usage is slowly being superseded by a more straightforward style, except in specific areas such as Law. It is advisable for language learners to aim for simplicity and directness in the way they write.

Informal language

Spanish is rich in informal terms and turns of phrase that are used in almost every area of everyday life. Non-Spanish-speaking people living and working in a Spanish-speaking country are generally widely exposed to informal language through contact with their native contemporaries, friends or colleagues. This is a situation to be wary of as newcomers to the culture will not have the natural sensitivity of a native speaker when it comes to knowing what type of vocabulary to use when and where. This can easily cause offence. It is a good idea to be aware of this (a foreigner offends more easily than a native speaker) and certainly to refrain entirely from using informal Spanish when writing essays, reports, memos, etc. Conversely Spanish journalists often strive not to repeat words used in their reporting. This means that quite formal vocabulary finds its way into newspapers, with the risk that the non-native reader may assume from the context that the words are less formal than they actually are. Some examples of formal words to avoid are:

formal Spanish neutral Spanish
ataviarse vestirse
contraer matrimonio casarse
cuita problema
descender la montaña bajar la montaña
ebrio borracho
erguir levantar
expoliar apoderarse de
loar alabar
mácula mancha
morada residencia
postrarse arrodillarse
propincuidad proximidad
sepultar enterrar

Tone: personal versus impersonal

In articles, reports, and memos the tone should be as impersonal as possible. In academic articles it is still more common to find the first person plural pronoun nosotros used in Spanish, even when only one person is writing. A single individual writing a report on a situation in Spanish will, however, use I.

In English, the passive is often used to convey information in an objective way. The passive is much less widely used in Spanish and it is good practice to avoid it. Remember to use: the impersonal pronoun uno, as in cuando uno examina las cifras de cerca, and to use the relexive form of the verb with -se, as in cuando se examinan las cifras de cerca. Both sentences mean, “when the figures are examined closely”; the first being less formal than the second.

Punctuation

Spanish punctuation conventions do not differ greatly from English. You may encounter an older style of quotation marks, «…», although nowadays the use of “…” is more frequent. Single quotation marks, ‘…’, are not used in Spanish.

Some words are capitalized in English which are not in Spanish: names of days and months (enero, mayo, jueves, sábado), names and adjectives of languages or indicating nationality (español, inglés, italiano), and titles, even foreign ones (el duque de Alba, lord Lucan, sir Michael Rafferty). Note that the abbreviations ‘Sr., Sra’, ‘D. and Dña.’ are capitalized, whereas when written in full ‘señor, señora’ and ‘don, doña’ are not. You will often see the names of the days of the week and the months printed with capitals but that is not grammatically correct.

Spanish tends to use parentheses (…) rather than dashes – … – , especially at the end of a sentence.

Writing essays and reports in Spanish

Reports, essays, dissertations, etc. are usually less tightly structured in Spanish than in English, but you should give an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. Less attention than in English is paid, for example, to the structure of paragraphs; you will often find paragraphs that seem long or that do not keep to one main idea. However, Spanish readers welcome precision and conciseness in writing, so aim to write short paragraphs and sentences. Write your paragraphs bearing in mind that ideally they should develop a single idea. It is also good to think of the first and last sentences in a paragraph as the introduction and conclusion, respectively, and to try to link one paragraph with the next. A simple and readable structure and expression are especially necessary in a business context.

The plan

Before you start writing, it is advisable to sketch out a plan of what you are going to say. Establish what the main ideas are, and distribute them in an order that makes sense to you; then start writing a paragraph for each. It is a good idea to leave writing the conclusion, and especially the introduction, till after you have finished writing the body of your essay. Be very careful not to state your conclusion in the first paragraph.

A few tips

  • Do all your writing, including the plan and as far as possible your thinking, in Spanish. Working from English will land you in trouble very quickly.
  • Formulate your title, which should be simple and direct in order to engage the interest of your reader or listener.
  • Draw up your plan and develop your ideas and observations before beginning to write or key in any text.
  • Avoid long sentences as far as possible and equally avoid unnecessary ‘sentence-fillers’ such as ‘visto lo visto’, ‘huelga decir’, ‘como es sabido’, ‘hacer hincapié en’, ‘al fin y al cabo’, etc. They may sound very Spanish, but are ultimately empty phrases. English speakers of Spanish have particular problems with the correct use of ser and estar, por and para. Look these words up in the dictionary as well as the grammatical note at be, for help in getting ser and estar right. Do not rely on guesswork as the incorrect use of ser and estar can convey a different meaning to the one you intended.
  • Avoid unnecessary use of adjectives and adverbs. Make sure that you frequently establish links between the various stages of your report. For hints on how to do this, see also Useful expressions for variety under General advice on writing.

Re-read your report carefully several times. Edit out superfluous matter, particularly in the introduction, which must be clear and to the point and constructed so as to engage immediately the attention of your reader. Check carefully that the links in your argument are clearly and explicitly stated.

  • Watch out for the kind of mistakes it is easy to make; for example, remember that gente is singular and therefore its verb is also singular. Remember that Spanish generally uses an article (el, un) with percentages: una subida/bajada de un 20%; el 15% de los consumidores. Check that adjectives agree with their nouns and that words like problema, sistema, programa are treated as masculine nouns.

Drawing up the agenda for a meeting

The word agenda in English is used to refer to two distinctly different things: the list of topics for discussion/resolution that is circulated at a meeting, in Spanish el orden del día, and the rather more complex document circulated in advance of the meeting to those invited to attend. In Spanish, this information is usually contained in a document called la circular – but note that the document sent around after a meeting in order to communicate the decisions which have been taken is also a circular. There is no fixed format but in general you will head the document: Reunión de… followed by the title of the department or group concerned. The orden del día is usually the first item after that. Here is a list of terms you may find useful for the agenda, in the order in which they may appear, though this is not fixed:

fecha (de la reunión) date (of the meeting)
hora de comienzo/finalización start/end time
organizada por organized by
departamento department
teléfono (abbr. tel.) telephone number
secretario de actas minutes secretary
actas minutes
participantes participants
circular enviada a circulation (for information)
asunto de la reunión purpose of the meeting
orden del día agenda
dossier background documentation
solicitados a to be supplied by
para el for the (date required)
documentos adjuntos documents attached
otros asuntos or temas AOB (any other business)
seguimiento follow-up

Writing the minutes of a meeting (las actas)

Conventions here are very similar to those in English. In brief, the minutes:

  • follow the order of the agenda
  • are impersonal and objective
  • record suggestions with the name of the person responsible
  • record decisions and where appropriate the action required (la actuación) and the person responsible for taking action (el/la responsable) accompanied by the date required by (para el…).
  • record relevant remarks made in the final discussion of otros asuntos.

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