Using the Spanish Verb ‘Gustar’

Verb used in translating ‘to like’ technically means ‘to please’

Family eating food
Les gusta la comida mexicana. (They like Mexican food.).

Stella Kalinina / Getty Images

The Spanish verb gustar is usually used in translating English sentences using the verb "to like," but in a sense the two verbs have sharply different meanings and use different grammatical approaches.

Think of that this way: If you like something, it pleases you. When understood literally, sentences using gustar specify what pleases a person rather than what the person likes.

Contrasting Gustar With ‘To Like’

Because gustar has a different meaning "to like," the grammar for a simple statement of liking is different in Spanish and English.

Note the construction of the following sentences:

  • English: I like the book.
  • Spanish: Me gusta el libro.
  • Literal word-for-word translation: Me (to me) — gusta (is pleasing) — el (the) — libro (book)

Thus we can see that in English the subject of the sentence is the person doing the liking, while in Spanish the subject is the item being liked, and vice versa.

Verbs that operate in the same way as gustar are sometimes known as defective verbs, or verbos defectivos, but that term also has other meanings, so it isn't used often. When used in this way, such verbs require an indirect object pronoun. The indirect object pronouns are me ("to me"), te ("to you" singular familiar), le ("to him or her"), nos ("to us"), os ("to you," plural familiar, seldom used in Latin America), and les ("to them").

Because the object liked is the subject of the sentence, the verb must match it in number:

  • Me gusta el libro. (I like the book, or, literally, the book pleases me. A singular verb is used because libro is singular.)
  • Me gustan los libros. (I like the books, or, literally, the books please me. A plural verb is used because libros is plural.)
  • Les gusta el libro. (They like the book, or, literally, the book pleases them. A singular verb is used because libro is singular.)
  • Les gustan los libros. (They like the books, or, literally, the books please them. A plural verb is used because libros is plural.)

The subject of such sentences does not need to be stated if it is understood:

  • No me gusta. (I don't like it, or, literally, it doesn't please me.)
  • ¿No te gusta? (Don't you like it? Or, literally, doesn't it please you?)

More Details About Using Gustar

A prepositional phrase beginning with a can be added to the sentence for either clarification or emphasis, further indicating who is being pleased. Even when the prepositional phrase is used, gustar still needs the indirect object pronoun:

  • A Kristi le gustó la película. (Kristi liked the film. A Kristi was added for clarification. The le is retained even though it is redundant.)
  • Me gustó la película. (I liked the film. This is the ordinary way of stating the sentence in English.)
  • A mí me gustó la película. (I liked the film. A mí adds emphasis added to "I" in a way that isn't directly translated to English. We might say something like "Even I liked the film" as a rough equivalent.)

The subject of gustar sentences, that is, the object being liked, can be an infinitive:

  • Me gusta nadar. (I like to swim, or, I like swimming.)
  • A Pedro le gustaba bailar. (Pedro used to like to dance, or, Pedro used to like dancing.)

Note that when there is more than one infinitive, the singular form of gustar is still used: Me gusta beber y comer. (I like to eat and drink.)

You can also use a phrase as the subject, often beginning with que or como. In such cases, a singular form of gustar is used.

  • Me gusta que los chicos respeten y adoren lo que tienen en su país. (I like that the children respect and adore what they have in their country.)
  • A él le gusta como bailas. (He likes how you dance.)

Avoiding ‘Like’ Confusion

When translating to Spanish, the verb "like" should not be confused with "like" as a preposition or conjunction, which can often be translated using como:

  • España no es un país como otro cualquiera. (Spain is not a country like any other. "Like" here is a preposition.)
  • Hazlo como yo lo hago. (Do it like I do it. "Like" here is a conjunction.)

A like as a noun, such as when referring to Facebook, can be translated as un me gusta (plural unos me gusta), although the English word is sometimes used: Mi mensaje recibió más de 20,000 me gusta. (My message received more than 20,000 likes.)

Key Takeaways

  • When translating English sentences using the verb "like," the Spanish verb gustar is used.
  • Technically, since gustar means "to please," the thing being liked becomes the subject of the sentence in Spanish, and the person or persons liking become the object of gustar.
  • Even though the thing being liked is the subject of gustar, it typically comes after the verb.