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How do native Spanish speakers resolve the ambiguous -amos ending in 1st person plural in all regular -ar verbs?

Example: 'hablamos' could be "we speak" or "we spoke."

All I can think of is context, that is, some word, words or a phrase in sentence that establishes the time frame.

This seems very problematic for the non-native speaker, since it implies one must wait to hear the entire sentence to get the tense the speaker intends, or, there is no time-sensitive context in the sentence. There must be a better way, since hundreds of millions of people around the world speak Spanish.

My goal is to speak Spanish like an educated native of Spain or Latin America.

Here, on 1/9/2019, I am adding text I tried to include as a comment, but it is too long.

When I asked this question, the answer I was hoping for was the answer a Spanish instructor would give in a Latin country. I assumed that even for native speakers, a formal pedagogical approach to resolving ambiguous verb endings was taught in school, and that curious students would ask the question much as I have. Perhaps that just shows how naive non-native learners are?

All the answers received thus far, though useful, depend on context or idiom. I was able to translate about half of aparente001’s examples from my vocabulary and knowledge of grammar. What do non-native learners then do? Resort to dictionaries and machine translators, as I did. Google had four problems with that text, so, I focused on intuiting what the writer intended and substituted my own words that did pass machine translation and made sense in context. For the phrase, «Ya llevamos tres capítulos.», which Google translates as “we’ve already had three chapters,” the closest I could get at Span¡shD¡ct is «llevo estudiados tres capítulos», but notice, this idiom includes the verb estudiados, past participle of estudiar. In fact, I suggested in a comment that perhaps the past participle with a helping verb of some sort was one way of dealing with ambiguous verb endings. Is this not such an example? It seemed to me «Ya leímos tres capítulos.», “we’ve already read three chapters,” expresses that thought without relying on an obscure idiom. Or, perhaps that idiom should be rendered as: «Ya llevamos leídos tres capítulos.» Google translates this as “We have already read three chapters.”

Google also had a problem with su voz, which, following Spinelli’s discussion of ambiguous su, I changed to la voz de ella. Google stupidly translated con ella as “with him.” It took con a ella to get Google to render “with her.” Go figure. Machine translators are far from perfect but absent an immersion program, or a Spanish-speaking friend to serve as mentor, what else can we do? I think idioms are fascinating, and I think a college Spanish major in U.S. could devote a full quarter or semester to their study. But that is not what I asked.

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I agree that there can be ambiguity. So, what do you do about it? I can think of three approaches:

(1) Intuit from the whole context

(2) If in doubt, ask, for example, "¿Dices, en general, o qué?"

(3) Allow yourself to live with a bit more ambiguity than comes naturally to you (I myself have a bit of trouble taking this approach to life sometimes -- it can be interesting to experiment with this a bit; and such a change can carry over psychologically in a beneficial way to other realms)

Note that an efficient, common way of indicating that the past tense is intended is to add a one-syllable adverb that puts the verb into the past: ya, which has a literal meaning of "already," but which is often used just as a way of situating the context somewhere in the past. Example:

  • Ya pagamos | We paid / We've paid [already]

Similarly, there is a cute adverb that positions the verb into the not-too-distant future: luego. Example (received a phone call from landlord):

  • Ay, se nos olvidó por completo pagar la renta este mes, disculpe usted, y ahora estamos fuera de la ciudad por quince días. Le enviamos un cheque luego por correo. | We completely forgot about paying the rent this month, very sorry, and now we're out of town for two weeks. We'll send you a check [presently].

("Le enviamos un cheque" could indicate present, past or future, depending on the context.)

Now let's put it all together with the helpful example brought up in the comments to Pablo's answer.

Mi esposa y yo estamos viviendo aparte por un tiempo por cuestión de trabajo. Antes de las vacaciones tratábamos de tener una llamada justo después de cenar, todos los días. Pero últimamente ya no lo estamos logrando de manera regular, por una u otra causa. Sin embargo ayer sí, pegamos en el clavo. Mi hijo y yo marcamos su número a las 7 y conversamos con ella por media hora.

Me sorprendí de recibir otra llamada de mi esposa a las 9. Mi hijo se acababa de dormir cuando sonó el teléfono. Cuando oí su voz, comenté: "Pero ya hablamos hoy. ¿Hay algún problema?" Su respuesta: "Tranquilo, todo está bien, nomás quería chequear mi idea de regalo de cumpleaños, ¿te parece bien si compro el segundo libro de Harry Potter?" Yo respondí: "¡Qué bien que chequeas conmigo! Ya lo compramos el sábado cuando estábamos en la librería. Ya llevamos tres capítulos. Quizá sería buena idea que compraras el tercero. ¿Por qué no veo mañana y pasado mañana qué tanto le está gustando, y luego chequeamos otra vez el fin de semana?"

  • OK; may I make this assumption, in either conversation or in reading/writing: that absent any time-specific context in a sentence, where there is apparent ambiguity based on a 1st person plural verb ending, for either regular -ar and -ir verbs, the presente tense is what is intended? And clearly, context rules, if there is some word or phrase that establishes the verb's time. That comment re normalmente was very illuminating, reminding me that habitual action is presente de indicativo. Ese estuvo mucho util. – perlboy Jan 5 '19 at 18:40
  • @perlboy - Muy útil. Glad it helped. // I am adding something to my answer that I think will help. – aparente001 Jan 7 '19 at 14:30
  • ¡Espléndido! Buenos ejemplos. Muchas gracias. I made three small changes me thinks fit the intent just a little better. If you concur, you might edit your comment, since it will be useful to others besides me. I made it "con a ella" instead of "con ella" in first paragraph. Also, I changed "chequeas" to "chequeaste" and "llevamos" to "leímos." Also, thanks for the pointer to ya y luego, especially ya, which I am discovering is in many idioms. Thanks again. I think I now have a handle on -amos y -imos. – perlboy Jan 9 '19 at 0:24
  • @perlboy - glad this was helpful. I don't see your edits. I think I would stick with the original in all those cases, though. "Con a ella" doesn't make any sense to me; "Qué bien que chequeas conmigo" means "It's great that you're checking this with me"; "Ya llevamos tres capítulos" is an idiom, and it means that we've already gotten through three chapters. – aparente001 Jan 9 '19 at 20:46
  • When I was studying English, I found the same problem with verbs like set, cut, put, and fit, which are unchanged in the past. If you can live your life in English with no problem using those verbs, you can apply the same strategy to Spanish. – Carlos Arturo Serrano Jan 10 '19 at 1:42
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There really isn't any confusion. Consider that in English there are many verbs that have identical past and present forms (hit, for instance), but that doesn't cause much if any issue (most English speakers aren't even aware that there are verbs that act like that). While it's true in an isolated sentence you need to have additional information, in a conversation, tenses don't tend to rapidly switch at random, and are generally in response to some other statement or question. If the previous sentence was in the past, you can generally assume the next sentence to also be in the past.

There was likely back in the day an actual distinction between the two forms.1 Nonetheless, the distinction didn't hold, which is evidence to it not really causing much confusion.


1. Consider Asturian/Mirandese/Portuguese which amamos (present), and amemos (ast/mwl) / amámos (pt) (preterite). The former came from Latin amāmus, but the latter from amāvimus. Like with 1st person amāvi, the v (probably vocalic) fell away, leaving the a diphthong that raised the a, hence today amé (ast/es) / amei (pt/mwl)

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    Judeo-Spanish also has a distinction in the -ar pres. ind./preterite: in the 17th century it became -amos / -emos and since the 18th century has been -amos / -imos (mirroring -er/-ir). Distinctive Characteristics of Jewish Ibero-Romance, circa 1492 – ukemi Jan 4 '19 at 0:17
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    How's Portuguese amámos pronounced differently from amamos? As I was taught it, they are the same, as in Spanish. – pablodf76 Jan 4 '19 at 10:26
  • @ukemi The link is broken, or at least it's showing me an error. – FGSUZ Jan 4 '19 at 10:35
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    @pablodf76 that is the case for Brazilian Portuguese (where both are amamos, pronounced as amâmos). The á is open/raised. – user0721090601 Jan 4 '19 at 13:17
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    The ambiguity you crafted is resolved by context. No native Spanish speaker would think that there's a past tense in «Normalmente hablamos unos pocos minutos después de la cena» because normalmente is enough to show that you're speaking of a habitual action in the present. – pablodf76 Jan 4 '19 at 20:54

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