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When it comes to verbs of change, Spanish seems to be overflowing with options:

Se hizo rica.
She became rich.

Se volvió loco.
He became crazy.

Se puso enferma.
She became sick

Se quedó soltero.
He became single.

  • Why hacerse rico, but volverse loco?
  • Why ponerse enfermo, but quedarse soltero?
  • And above all, how can you choose between four different verbs that all mean to become?

The first step is to simplify the problem: instead of trying to tackle 30 verbs at once, we’re only going to focus on these four. But before we set out to explore them, let’s agree on what we’re looking for.

Verbs of change replace ser or estar

Rafa se hace un bocadillo de jamón y queso.
Rafa makes himself a (Spanish sandwich) of ham and cheese.

Rafa se hace rico vendiendo sus bocadillos.
Rafa (becomes) rich selling his (Spanish sandwiches).

What’s the difference between these sentences?

In the first one, hacerse means to literally make (oneself) something. It’s a variation on the regular meaning of hacer (to make). It is not being used as a verb of change.

In the second one, hacerse means to metaphorically (make oneself / become) rich. The regular meaning of hacer is replaced with that of ser: previously, Rafa no era rico (he wasn’t rich), but now Rafa es rico (he’s rich). Therefore, hacerse is being used as a verb of change.

If the verb can be replaced with ser or with estar (without changing the meaning too much), it’s a verb of change.

Rafa se hace un bocadillo.
Rafa es un bocadillo.
Rafa is not a sandwich, so hacerse must be acting as a regular verb.

Rafa se hace rico.
Rafa es rico.
Rafa is rich, so hacerse is acting as a verb of change.

If we want to keep our sanity, we should only compare apples to apples (verbs of change to verbs of change).

For example, in the regular verb usage, it’s totally fine to remove the pronoun: Rafa hace un bocadillo (Rafa makes a sandwich). In the verb of change usage, it doesn’t work: Rafa hace rico vendiendo sus bocadillos (Rafa makes rich??).

The relationship between the pronoun and the verb depends on what the verb is doing.

Linguistics people call verbs like hacerse, volverse, ponerse and quedarse semicopulative verbs because they can do their own job, as well as the job of ser and estar, which are the copulative verbs.

To complicate things further, verbs of change are only a subset of all semicopulative verbs. Other members include the verbs of permanence (ando liado, I walk busy / I’m kind of busy) and the verbs of presence (Te ves muy bien, You look (yourself) very nice), but they tend to be less problematic because they don’t overlap that much with become.

I’ll be referring to verbs of change throughout the article, but if you love precision, you can chant to yourself “a subset of the semicopulative verbs” as you read.

Great. Now that we know what verbs of change are, let’s find out what makes them tick.

Ser-verbs vs. Estar-verbs

ser_estar

Since verbs of change replace ser and estar, it’s useful to classify them based on which one they replace.

Both hacerse and volverse have a happy monogamous relationship with ser, while ponerse and quedarse have one with estar. OK, volverse sometimes drives to the other side of town to hook up with some estar adjectives, but who are we to judge?

In case you need a reminder on the ser/estar duality, here is the one-two-punch summary:

  1. Ser’s main job is to describe the essence of things. Since this is a little abstract, I like to break it down further into identifying characteristics (nice, useful, exciting) and pigeonholing categories (lazy bones, darling, vegetarian; basically anything that completes the sentence “You’re such a [whatever]!”).

  2. Estar’s main job is to describe the state of people and things.

OK, time to get started with our first ser-verb.

Hacerse

—Ahora que Justin Bieber es famoso, soy fan suyo.
“Now that Justin Bieber is (famous / a celebrity), I am (a) fan of his.”

—Pues yo ya era fan antes de que fuera famoso.
“(Well) I was already (a) fan before he was (a) celebrity.”

Those sentences are brimming with essence: famoso is an identifying characteristic of Mr. Bieber, fan is a pigeonholing category (You’re such a Bieber fan!). The only problem is that they’re a bit plain: he is this and I am that, and I was that before he was this.

To add some Spanish fire, we can describe the difference between being an average Joe and being a card-carrying fan, the difference between being a cute Canadian YouTuber and jam-packing stadiums—that is, the difference between being and becoming!

—Ahora que Justin Bieber es famoso, me he hecho fan suyo.
“Now that Justin Bieber is (famous / a celebrity), I have (made myself / become) (a) fan of his.”

—Pues yo ya era fan antes de que se hiciera famoso.
“(Well) I was already (a) fan before he (made himself / became) (a) celebrity.”

Hacerse highlights the moment when you acquire a new essential (ser-like) characteristic.

Infusing drama is not the only reason to replace ser with hacerse. Another reason for using it is when you care more about describing the transition to the new characteristic than the actual possession of it. This is a common gotcha when talking about what people do (or want to do) for a living:

—Oye, ¿y Paco no era arquitecto?
“Listen, wasn’t Paco (an) architect?”

—Sí, pero con la crisis se ha hecho alpinista.
“Yeah, but with the crisis he has (made himself / become) (a) mountain climber.”

Using hacerse instead of ser gives off the impression that, deep down, Paco is not a true mountain climber, he just became one for financial reasons. In English, there are no negative connotations with using become to describe your dreams, but in Spanish you’re better off saying quiero ser alpinista.

When talking about your professional career, use ser.

Other species of hacerse

The official Spanish dictionary lists 58 official meanings for hacer (not counting expressions), and 17 of them involve hacerse. We don’t really care about all these meanings (all we care about in this article is building a strong foundation), but we’ll go through a couple of the most common variations of hacerse so you can notice them more easily when you run into them in the wild.

Hacerse as deception

It looks like hacerse + el/la/los/las + {noun/adjective}, and it means to play {noun/adjective}.

Alfonso, no te hagas el tonto y devuélveme el dinero que te presté.
Alfonso, don’t (make yourself the dumb / play dumb) and give me back the money I lent you.

Cristiano Ronaldo se está haciendo la victima, pero ni siquiera le han rozado.
Cristiano Ronaldo is (making himself the victim / playing the victim), but they didn’t even graze him.

Ese se hace el despistado, pero es más listo que el hambre.
That (one) is (making himself the clueless / playing dumb), but he’s (smarter than the hunger / as cunning as a fox).

Hacerse as perception

It often looks like hacerse + personal pronoun + adjective, and it means someone experienced something in an {adjective} way.

If you change the personal pronoun, you change the person doing the experiencing: se te está haciendo largo (you feel like it’s long), se nos está haciendo corto (we feel like it’s short), se les está haciendo difícil (they feel like it’s difficult).

The second sentence in the tweet is a very common way of talking about time (hacerse de noche, to get dark or hacerse tarde, to get late). If you ever need a wishy-washy excuse for being late, just add a personal pronoun:

Siento haberte tenido esperando tanto tiempo, pero es que se me hizo tarde.
I lament having kept you waiting so much time, but (the thing is) that it got late on me

Volverse

Volverse means to return (oneself). But that’s the regular meaning; if you’re literally returning home (me vuelvo a casa), it’s not acting as a verb of change.

Volverse acts as a verb of change when it describes a new essential characteristic (often a pigeonholing category) that someone acquires. For example, if someone used to be really fun, and is now kind of a drag, you could say se ha vuelto un aburrido (he has acquired the label of boring person), which is more expressive than just saying es un aburrido (he’s a boring person).

That sounds a lot like what hacerse does, so what’s the difference?

hacerse_volverseb

Volverse emphasizes the contrast between how things used to be and how they are now.

It’s up to you to decide if you want to express surprise that someone who was unknown became famous (Bieber se ha vuelto famoso), or if you want to talk about their fame without caring about their past (Bieber se ha hecho famoso).

One more example to hammer the point home:

Te has vuelto todo un bailarín. Me acuerdo cuando no sabías ni el paso básico.
Focus on the past: You have (turned yourself / become) quite (a / the) dancer. I remember when you didn’t even know the base step.

Te has hecho todo un bailarín. Supongo que dentro de poco abrirás tu escuela de baile.
Focus on the future: You have (made yourself / become) quite (a / the) dancer. I assume that within (some time) you will open your dance (school / studio).

Volverse’s adventures in estar land

When volverse gets bored of describing changes in essential characteristics, it goes to hang out at estar’s house and they geek out talking about changes in state.

The important thing about these changes is how likely they are to be either permanent or transitory. If someone becomes especially nice (or annoying), you will describe their change differently depending on how long you think it will last.

volverse_ponerse_quedarse1b

—¿Por qué se ha vuelto tan pesado tu hermano?.
“Why has your brother (turned himself / become) so annoying?”
—No sé. Estará en la edad del pavo.
“I don’t know. He must (be in / have hit) (the age of the turkey / puberty)”

All those adjectives that work with both ser and estar are great candidates for volverse, but its most famous companion is loco (mad/crazy).

In Spanish, loco is considered a state of mind, so we say estás loco (you’re (in a) crazy (state of mind)). We almost exclusively say te has vuelto loco (you’ve gone mad/crazy) because once you go crazy, we believe you’ll be crazy forever.

Ponerse

volverse_ponerse_quedarse2b

In contrast to volverse, ponerse is used for changes in state that are likely to only last a short while.

Mi compañero de piso se está poniendo pesado.
My roommate is (putting himself / becoming) annoying.

Mi compañero de piso se ha vuelto un pesado.
My roommate has (turned himself into / become) an annoying (person).

In the first sentence, ponerse indicates that my roommate has left behind his normal neutral state and is now entering the pesado state. I secretly hope he will stop being annoying.

In the second sentence, volverse indicates that my roommate belongs to the pigeonholing category of pesados (annoying people) and I no longer have any hope he will change.

If you think the change will be a brief one, use ponerse.

We say ponerse enferma because we hope the state of getting sick won’t last. We say ponerse rojo because you only turn red (blush) for a bit. We say ponerse guapa because you’re temporarily going above your baseline level of beauty, maybe for a special occasion, maybe to impress someone.

Confession time: that wasn’t my original tweet. It was this one:

–Como te pongas ahora a lavar los platos, no llegamos.
“If you (put yourself / start) now to wash the dishes, we won’t get there in time”

–No te pongas nervioso y pásame los cubiertos.
“Don’t (put yourself / get) nervous and pass me the silverware.

In the middle of writing this article, I realized that ponerse a lavar is a completely different species of ponerse: it means to start doing something. You can use it with every verb that implies an action, without worrying about all the distinctions that its verb of change alter ego has to deal with.

So let’s acknowledge the existence of this usage and move on:

Ponerse a {infinitivo} is a great way to start doing something.

The most glaring exception to the “ponerse is for temporary states” rule is enfadarse/enojarse (to get angry), which we never describe as ponerse enfadado (in European Spanish) or ponerse enojado (in American Spanish).

I have no idea why we don’t use ponerse in that context. Maybe it’s because if you’re a little bit angry, you’re already angry. No idea. All I can recommend, if you want to describe the anger build-up, is to use a gerund:

—Mamá, ¿te estás enfadando con papá?
“Mom, are you getting angry at dad?”

—No, hija. Ya estoy enfadada con él.
“No, daughter. I’m already angry at him.”

Quedarse

volverse_ponerse_quedarse3b

Quedarse doesn’t care about the likelihood of change, the past or the future. It cares about the aftermath of events (quedarse a gusto, to feel satisfied (with something); quedarse tranquilo, to feel in peace / to relax (about something); quedarse embarazada to get pregnant) and about anticlimactic situations (quedarse dormido, to fall asleep; quedarse quieto, to remain still; quedarse callado, to remain silent).

—Pepe, no te quedes callado. Dile algo a mi madre.
“Pepe, don’t (stay yourself / remain) silent (anticlimactic). Say something to my mother.”

—Si tengo suerte, un día de estos me quedaré soltero.
“If I’m lucky, one of these days I will (stay myself / become) single (aftermath of a breakup).”

Both sentences describe the aftermath of the tongue-lashing.

Use quedarse to describe aftermaths and anticlimaxes.

For some adjectives, figuring out the perfect verb of change is pretty straightforward; for others it depends on the context. For example: contento (happy/satisfied). We are rarely happy and satisfied for long, so it smells like a job for ponerse, but we can also feel happy/satisfied with something after it happens, so quedarse is also an option:

Me puse muy contento cuando me dijiste que ibas a venir…
I (put myself / became) very happy when you told me you were going to come….

…pero me quedé más contento todavía cuando te fuiste.
…but I (stayed myself / got) (more happy / even happier) still when you went away.

Both sentences could be flipped around and they would still work: Me quedé muy contento cuando me dijiste que ibas a venir, pero me puse más contento todavía cuando te fuiste. (Great deliberate looping exercise, by the way).

Figuring out these nuances is what makes learning Spanish fun. If you want rigid rules, you’re better off learning a programming language like COBOL.

Quedarse is not quedar

Just like the rest of verbs of change, quedarse has its literal meaning as a regular verb (to stay in one place), and another bunch of meanings (with and without the pronoun). Let’s try to preempt some future confusion:

  1. When quedar means to meet, it never has a pronoun.
  2. When quedarse means to literally stay, it always has a pronoun (and it’s not a verb of change).

—Al final, ¿quedamos el viernes o el sábado?
“At the end, (do we meet / are we meeting) (the / on) Friday or (the / on) Saturday?”

—El sábado. Pero prefiero que nos quedemos en casa viendo una peli.
“(The / on) Saturday. But I prefer that we (literally) stay home watching a (film).”

Spanish takeaways

summaryb

We just went on a pretty hard-core tour of the four main verbs of change:

  1. Hacerse and volverse act as verbs of change when they replace ser (changes in essence).

  2. Volverse is past-focused and hacerse is not.

  3. Ponerse and quedarse (and sometimes volverse) act as verbs of change when they replace estar (changes in state).

  4. Ponerse describes changes in state that are likely to change, while volverse focuses on changes that are unlikely to change.

  5. Quedarse cares about aftermaths and anticlimaxes.

Now that you have a logical understanding of the underpinning of Spanish verbs of change, forget about all this and start making a list of sentences that you like, or that confuse you.

Say them out loud in the shower, on your way to work, while doing the dishes.

Get a little obsessed.

I promise it’s worth it.


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