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I was listening to news in slow Spanish today and came across the following sentence:

Obama dijo que le había dado más de un año al Congreso para que actuara y nada había ocurrido.

While I understand what the sentence means in essence, I am confused about the part after para que. Shouldn't it take an infinitive (actuar) since para que translates as "in order to" in this context? In fact, I don't even know what actuara means exactly since I couldn't find it in any dictionary. I am only guessing it to have something to do with actuar.

Also, does the le before había serve any particular purpose here? Would the sentence be incorrect without it since both the objects are already given explicitly?

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There's a couple of questions here.

First with para que. Once you hit the que, you have initiated a new clause and need a freshly conjugated verb. If you take out the que, then by virtue of having a verb after a preposition, an infinitive is the only option:

  • Estudiaba para sacar notas buenas.
  • Estudiaba para que me diese mi profesor buenas notas.

You can eschew the clausal form if the subject of the verb (that comes after the preposition, sacar in the previous example) is the same as the subject of the main clause:

  • Estudiaba(yo) para sacar(yo) buenas notas.
  • Estudiaba(yo) para que me diese(él) mi profesor buenas notas.

In your sentence, you can see there is a difference of subject, which normally causes the clausal form:

  • Obama dijo que le había(Obama) dado más de un año al Congreso para que actuara(el Congreso).

The le is completely optional since the indirect object is explicitly stated (it's only obligatory if an explicitly stated indirect object is a personal pronoun like a mí).

The pluperfect había dado and había ocurrido is necessary because the year he gave happened prior to when he made the statement. After dijo que, the only verb forms generally allowed are pluperfect or antepreterite (happened before he said something), imperfect (happened simultaneously with when he said something), imperfect ir a or conditional (happened after he said something or is to happen). In more colloquial Spanish, present tense or even future is allowable if it is current with the moment in which the reporting of what he said happens (confused yet?).

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    "Estudio para que me de el profe buenas notas" o "Estudié/estudiaba para que me diese el profe buenas notas", no? En eso ejemplos tiene que concordar el verbo, no? – Diego Nov 21 '14 at 3:07
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    @Diego : sí, es lo que me pasa cuando voy casi tres días sin dormir :) – user0721090601 Nov 21 '14 at 3:09
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    @Diego me dé – David Nov 21 '14 at 4:24
  • @David, gracias, tienes toda la razón del mundo: dé (con tilde diacrítica) → del verbo dar; de (sin tilde diacrítica) → preposición. Qué pena que no pueda editar el comentario para corregirlo :( – Diego Nov 21 '14 at 14:05

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