In Spanish, second person singular familiar simple past preterite -er/-ir verbs usually end in -iste. Second person singular formal and third person singular simple present -er/-ir verbs usually end in -e.

However, all simple past preterite tense conjugations of "ver" (to see) are regular, but without the accents. "vestir" (to dress) has an "e" to "i" stem change in the simple present tense with no other irregularities.

As a result, the word "viste" can mean "you saw" or "you dress", "he/she dresses". So, if a sentence contains the word "viste" and does not include the subject, how do we know what we are talking about, just by looking at the rest of the sentence?

  • Context is everything. Resistance is futile. – Lambie Jun 1 at 19:36
  • @Lambie What are you talking about? – Arunabh Bhattacharya Jun 1 at 19:46
  • In any language, things that are similar can only be understood in context. "Resistance is futile." is a famous line from Startrek. Your question in English could be something like: How do you tell the difference between lead and lead? [I lead the band] [He has lead in his shoes.] – Lambie Jun 1 at 20:23

Like most ambiguities of this kind, we know what is really meant by looking at the context. That means not only the rest of the sentence but possibly the rest of the paragraph (if written) or the general topic of the text or the conversation.

Because seeing and dressing are totally different kinds of things, it would be very strange to confuse them in real life. Also, because the grammatical persons involved are different (2nd singular vs. 3rd singular), in actual discourse it would be very difficult to find a situation where one could mistake one for the other.

If you are having a conversation with another person, and I ask "¿Viste un traje nuevo?", that can in principle mean 1) "Did you see a new suit?" or 2) "Is he wearing a new suit?", but there are not many conceivable real-life situations where it could be interpreted ambiguously. If I haven't mentioned a third person before and we're talking about going shopping for clothes, then it must be option 1; if I'm pointing at a third person who is present somewhere close to us, then it must be option 2. If neither of those are true, then the sentence is ambiguous, but in that case it makes no sense to begin with.

I don't recall ever finding this particular ambiguity problematic. That is, I've never had a problem differentiating viste from vestir with viste from ver. It simply doesn't happen in real life. It can only happen in isolated sentences that are constructed (as a sort of exercise) specifically to be ambiguous.

  • also, in the minimal option of ambiguity, you could use a synonym. So, you could ask ¿observaste un traje nuevo? (for see) or ¿Usa un traje nuevo? (for wearing). The one who has sense, there you have the verb that you need – VeAqui Jul 7 '20 at 3:07
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    2) "Is he wearing a new suit?" "if I'm pointing at a third person who is present somewhere close to us, then it must be option 2." But, if you are talking formally to someone around you, then it would mean "Are you wearing a new suit?" – Arunabh Bhattacharya Jul 7 '20 at 4:19
  • Could you also disambiguate by saying for (2) "Se viste un traje nuevo?" – Peter M Jul 7 '20 at 12:55
  • @PeterM No, that would be ungrammatical. There are several ways to disambiguate that one though. In fact it's rather unusual to employ vestir alone in this way in speech. – pablodf76 Jul 7 '20 at 19:16
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    @ArunabhBhattacharya Yes, you're right. In that case, however, we usually don't drop the pronoun (so we'd explicitly say usted). – pablodf76 Jul 7 '20 at 19:28

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