An Unusual Use for 'Lo'

In Real Life, Grammar More Flexible Than Logic May Dictate

Shakira in concert
Shakira en concierto. (Shakira in concert.). Photo by Oouinouin; licensed via Creative Commons.

Question About Using 'Lo'

I have been studying Spanish since I was 5 years old beginning in kindergarten. Ever since then I've been hooked to the language and have done really well mastering it by using it everyday for the past 14 years. I even remember using your Spanish guides to help along the way. But, there is just one thing that has bothered me for the longest, and that is a lyric from Colombian singer Shakira's song "Estoy aquí." In the song she sings, "No puedo entender lo tonta que fui," which translates to "I can't understand how foolish/dumb/stupid I was." I wanted to know why it would be lo and not la.

I've never seen lo used in front of anything feminine. I know tonta is an adjective and also a noun. Could you please help me out?

Answer

Probably the reason you haven't seen this use before is because it isn't a particularly common usage.

In the sentence from Shakira's song, the lo is fulfilling the same function as the neuter article lo (sometimes called a definite determiner). As you may recall, the neuter article is placed before the singular masculine form of an adjective to turn it into a noun. In such cases "lo + adjective" is typically translated to English as "the + adjective + one" or "the + adjective + thing." So lo importante is "the important thing."

When "lo + adjective" is followed by que, the sentence structure puts a bit of extra emphasis on the adjective, so many people translate such a phrase to English by using the word "how": La película demuestra lo bello que es la vida.

The film shows how beautiful life is. Yo pensaba en lo triste que es a veces la vida. I was thinking about how sad life is sometimes.

Note how in the first sentence, the masculine adjective is used even though what is being referred to is feminine. That makes sense if you remember that in this sentence construction, a phrase such as lo bello can be thought of as "the beautiful thing," a phrase that has no gender.

The sentence from the Shakira song could have also been said the same way and be grammatically correct, even if said by a female: No puedo entender lo tonto que fui. (One could translate that literally as "I can't understand the foolish one that I was," although a more natural translation would be "I can't understand how foolish I was.") However, and here's the answer to the question, it also is common in Spanish to make the adjective agree with what's being referred to, even though the lo is retained. It may not seem logical to follow lo with a feminine adjective, but that is what often happens in real life.

The use of the feminine adjective seems to be more common after certain verbs, such as ver or entender, that indicate how someone or something is perceived. Also, plural adjectives can be used in the same way after lo if they refer to a plural noun.

Here are some real-life examples of the use of a feminine or plural after lo:

  • ¿Recuerdas lo felices que fuimos entonces? Do your remember how happy we were then?
  • Nadie puede creer lo fea que es Patricia cuando ésta llega a una entrevista de trabajo. Nobody can believe how ugly Patricia is when she arrives at a job interview.
  • No saben lo importantes que son los libros. They don't know how important the books are.
  • No necesita un telescopio para ver lo roja que es la montaña. You don't need a telescope to see how red the mountain is.
  • Para que esta ley sea lo extensa que se requiere, debería establecer con claridad que toda información es pública. In order for this law to be as far-reaching as is required, it should be clearly established that all information is public.
  • El otro día he hablado con Minerva, que insiste en ser todo lo obtusa que puede. The other day I spoke with Minerva, who insists on being every bit as dimwitted as she can be.

You may sometimes hear lo followed by a feminine or plural adjective without being followed by que, but this is unusual.