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I am far enough into learning Spanish that I know gustar does not literally mean 'to like' but means 'to be pleasing to.' My supposition would be that 'gustar' and similar verbs would function like other Spanish verbs with indirect objects; for example, 'Sonia likes apples', or in literal translation, 'Apples are pleasing to Sonia,' with Apples as a subject and to Sonia as the indirect object would be Las manzanas no le gusta a Sonia.

However, typically one would say A Sonia no le gustan las manzanas. Why is that? Doesn't that flip the subject and indirect object, or are they both the same?

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    You've got it the other way round. Gustar does literally mean "to like", the only difference is the structure, but not the meaning. This is a typical confusion, but Spanish has its own verb for "please". Gustar does mean "to like", it just uses the structure of the verb "please". This is just the way it is taught to English speakers because it sounds more familiar, but do not mix it with meanings, please. – FGSUZ Feb 26 '19 at 14:23
  • I see a bit of confusion in your question. The most common way to say it is "A Sonia (no) le gustan las manzanas" to express both like and dislike. The other ways are brilliantly explained on @guifa's answer. – DGaleano Feb 26 '19 at 16:22
  • "Gustar" and "to like" do mean the same but work in different ways in English vs Spanish. In "Sonia likes apples", "Sonia" is the subject and "apples" the object, but in "A Sonia le gustan las manzanas" (also note the pronombre reflexivo "le") "Sonia" is the object and "las manzanas" the subject. Maybe not in the meaning, but grammatically. It's pretty weird, right? – nanaki Aug 12 '19 at 14:34
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Your supposition that the translation would be

Las manzanas no le gusta a Sonia

is almost correct. With the apples being the subject, the verb simply needs to agree to be perfectly cromulent.

Las manzanas no le gustan a Sonia

Word order in Spanish is more flexible than in English and importantly, word order does not define the roles that words have in the sentence. The sentence "Sonia likes apples" can be translated six different ways in Spanish:

SVO: Las manzanas no le gustan a Sonia.
SOV: Las manzanas a Sonia no le gustan.
VOS: No le gustan a Sonia las manzanas.
VSO: No le gustan las manzanas a Sonia.
OSV: A Sonia las manzanas no le gustan.
OVS: A Sonia no le gustan las manzanas.

All mean the exact same thing, but there can be difference in emphasis. To respond to a question about if Sonia likes/dislikes something, and you want to clarify it's actually apples that she doesn't like, you'd probably go with a SVO/SOV option. If someone suggests having apples, you'll probably go with a VOS/VSO option. If someone wonders who doesn't like apples, you'll go with a OSV/OVS. The OVS is the most common, and most neutral in interpretation.

In English you can kind of mimic this type of emphasis by actually pronouncing a word longer/louder:

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    What a wonderfully clear explanation of the subtle differences word order in Spanish makes to the meaning of what’s being said/written. – Traveller Feb 26 '19 at 13:12
  • The key here is the "a" in "a Sonia". You don't have this bit of information in "Sonia likes apples" and thus you must rely on word order in English (at least in written). – nanaki Aug 12 '19 at 14:27
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There are two domains of language at play here: syntax on one hand (how subject and objects are ordered in the sentence), semantics and pragmatics on the other (what each part of the sentence means and where your focus is on).

In many "normal" Spanish sentences these two run nicely parallel: the order is subject, verb, object(s); the subject is normally the main topic of the sentence and therefore starts it; everything after the verb tends to be a commentary on the subject-topic. So the syntax (subject followed by verb and objects) aligns well with the pragmatics (topic followed by comment).

There's also something called the animacy hierarchy, that orders things according to their animate character (people come first, then animals, then plants and inert objects) and the like. This also tends to align with syntax, since it's often the case that subjects are people doing things while grammatical objects are nonhuman entities being done things.

These combined are probably the reason why the vast majority of the world's languages place the subject somewhere before the object(s) (in normal sentences).

What does this have to do with gustar and verbs like that? The thing with gustar and others like agradar, repugnar, apetecer, aburrir, hacer falta, etc. is that the standard syntactic order SVO goes against the animacy hierarchy and also inverts the topic-comment structure.

Take this "normalized" sentence (with the "proper" Spanish order SVO):

Las manzanas le gustan a Sonia.

This is not a semantically neutral sentence. If you wanted to say "Sonia likes apples" you wouldn't do it this way. The idea of "Sonia likes apples" is that you want to say something about Sonia, but the Spanish sentence, as it is, is a comment about apples! Spanish "wants" you to establish the topic first, and then commenting on it; and it "wants", if possible, the first argument of the verb to be more animate than the second. The latter is impossible using gustar; it would be possible if you used a different verb, like adorar:

Sonia adora las manzanas.

The only way to comply with the topic/animate - comment/inanimate structure, while keeping the sentence "neutral", is to move things around:

A Sonia le gustan las manzanas.

By placing Sonia first and then the apples, you have managed to produce a natural sentence that is equivalent to English "Sonia likes apples". You have also confused a lot of students of Spanish, native ones included, who expected the subject to come first.

Of course, Las manzanas le gustan a Sonia is also a correct sentence. But in this case you're changing the usual order for gustar and making the apples the topic, or starting theme, of your sentence.

A lot has been written about verbs like gustar, which feature "dative subjects" (things marked like indirect objects taking the place usually reserved for subjects). They're not exclusive of Spanish. They're basically nonexistent in English, but other related languages, like Icelandic and German, have them, as well as Russian, for example.

(Some other verbs of this kind, called by Melis et al. "emotional causatives", are: alegrar, atormentar, avergonzar, confortar, enamorar, enojar, escandalizar, espantar, maravillar, turbar, animar, asombrar, complacer, contentar, indignar, inquietar, molestar, ofender, satisfacer, admirar, regocijar, aburrir, asustar, fascinar, impresionar, interesar, irritar, preocupar, sorprender, aterrorizar, entusiasmar.)


For reference: Chantal Melis, Marcela Flores, Sergio Bogard. La historia del español. Propuesta de un tercer período evolutivo. (2003)

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You explained it great -- you only forgot to conjugate the verb for the third person plural. This is necessary because las manzanas is a plural subject.

For completeness I'll list the various combinations of singular and plural subjects and objects. I'll use several verbs of this type in the examples since, as you noted, gustar isn't the only verb that flips the subject-object point of view in comparison with English.

  • Plural subject, plural object: Los libros de García Márquez les gustan a mis alumnos.

  • Plural subject, singular object: Los libros de García Márquez le interesan a Alberto.

  • Singular subject, plural object: La obra de García Márquez les fascina a mis alumnos.

  • Singular subject, singular object: Este libro de García Márquez le confunde a Alberto.

The word order doesn't matter. We can put put the subject before the object or the object before the subject, either way works. Why? Three reasons:

  1. Noticing whether the verb is conjugated in the singular or the plural will give us a hint.

  2. If one of the nouns is an inanimate thing, as in the examples above, the thing has to be the subject and the person has to be the object.

  3. If both the subject and the object are people, there will be a special preposition, a, in front of the object. For example:

    • Creo que Isabela le gusta a Juan. (I think Juan likes [has a crush on] Isabela.)

    • Creo que a Isabela le gusta Juan. (I think Isabela likes [has a crush on] Juan.)

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