One of my awesome friends on the way to Spanish fluency recently started running. She wanted to tell me I just started running again, but this is how it came out in Spanish:

Acabo de empezar a correr de nuevo.
literal translation, needs Spanishifying

That’s a very interesting mistake; let’s see what we can learn from it.

We’ll start by carving out the 3 pieces of the puzzle, then we’ll see why some pieces don’t fit together, and we’ll finish by unveiling the secret Spanish word that makes everything right again.

By the end of this post you’ll feel as native as a deep-fried chimichanga stuffed with loads of jamón serrano (don’t try this at home unless you’re really comfortable with intercultural exchange).

Acabo de {infinitivo}
I just {verb}

Acabar is a verb and it means to finish, but when we append de, it gains a feeling of recency; the same feeling that just is so famous for.

If I hear Robertito acaba de… (Robertito has just…) my Spanish brain yearns for an infinitive verb to resolve the mystery of what Robertito has done this time.

For example: Robertito acaba de lanzar la dentadura de la abuela por la ventana (Robertito has just thrown (his) grandma’s dentures (through) the window). Another example:

—Papá, acabo de terminar mis deberes. ¿Puedo ir a jugar a la calle?
“Dad, I just finished (my homeworks). Can I go (to) play (to the) street?”

—Pero si tu madre te acaba de decir que estás castigado.
“But (don’t you realize that) your mother just said (to you) that you are grounded”

—¡Por eso te lo estoy preguntando a ti!
“(That’s why) I am asking (it to) you

Empezar a {infinitivo}
To start/begin to {verb}
To start/begin {-ing verb}

—¡Corre! Que está empezando a llover y no he traído paraguas.
“Run! (Because) it’s starting to rain and I haven’t brought (an) umbrella”

—Tienes que empezar a darte cuenta de que en este país llueve cuando menos te lo esperas.
“You have to start to realize that in this country it rains when you least expect it”

No acabo de acostumbrarme al clima escocés.
“I (don’t finish getting / can’t get) used to to the Scottish climate”

Things to notice:

  • In the first sentence empezar is conjugated (empezando), but in the second sentence it’s in the infinitive because it comes after tener que. This conjugated/infinitive duality is par for the course in Spanish territory.
  • After acabar de and empezar a, Spanish ears crave an infinitive (llover, darte, acostumbrarme)
  • Double-whammy combo for using both empezar a and acabar de in the same example. High five!
  • Actually, maybe I shouldn’t get so excited. This no acabar de {infinitivo} construction is a bit of an exception because the emphasis here is not on the feeling of recency, but rather on the fact that the act of finishing has not yet reached completion. As awkward as my literal attempt to translate the third sentence was, trust me: you’ll sound very native (or uppity, depending on the context) if you say something like:

No acabo de entender por qué a la gente le gusta tanto el cilantro
I (don’t finish understanding) why (the) people enjoy (the) cilantro so much.

De nuevo

You might be tempted to treat both de nuevo and otra vez as synonyms for again, but I wouldn’t recommend it:

—Voy a empezar de nuevo porque veo que te has quedado dormido.
“I’m going to start over because I see that you have fallen asleep”

—Por favor, papá, no empieces otra vez la misma historia.
“Please, dad, don’t start again the same story”

—Verás, cuando tu madre y yo empezábamos a salir, nos gustaba comprar vinilos y escucharlos en el tocadiscos, y bla, bla, bla…
“(You see), when your mother and I started to go out, I liked buying vinyls and listening to them in the record player, and blah, blah, blah…”

Things to notice:

  • In the first two sentences, empezar/empieces is not immediately followed by an infinitive, so we don’t need to add the a. In the third sentence, however, we do need it.
  • Empezar de nuevo has a strong flavor of starting over (starting from the beginning).
  • Empezar otra vez has a strong flavor of starting one more time.
  • I say strong flavor because you may find yourself in a poetic circumstance where you have to use de nuevo to mean one more time (and I don’t want to rob you of that opportunity), but as a general rule you should follow the strong flavor.

Tell me what the problem is and how to fix it

You’ll sound totally native as long as you stick to these combos:

Acabo de empezar a correr
I just started (to run/running)

Ha empezado a contarme la historia de nuevo
He started (to tell) me the story from the beginning

Acabo de ver a Juan otra vez
I just saw Juan again (I had seen him before)

But this sounds super weird:

Acabo de ver a Juan de nuevo
my mental Spanish train is derailing

The problem is that acabo de ver emphasizes the recency of the vision, and de nuevo emphasizes the feeling of going back to the beginning. So one part of the sentence is saying “Let’s go over here” and the other is like “No, man, let’s go over there“.

So let’s leave all the bickering behind and choose a much more diplomatic and effective solution.

Volver a {infinitivo}
To {verb} again

To resolve the epic battle between acabo de {infinitivo} and de nuevo we can use volver a {infinitivo}. This is what my friend at the beginning of the post actually wanted to say:

Acabo de volver a empezar a correr.
I just started running again

Beautiful. Volver a {infinitivo} fits in this sentence as snuggly as an avocado pit. It plays nicely with acabo de {infinitivo} without getting in the way of empezar a {infinitivo}, and it adds this feeling of returning/redoing/coming back that gets to the point without sounding artificially poetic.

Spanish takeaways

What have we learned? Quite a bit:

  • Acabar de {infinitivo} emphasizes the recency of the infinitive verb.
  • Empezar a {infinitivo} emphasizes the beginningness of the infinitive verb.
  • Both acabar and empezar can be conjugated, but the verb that comes after de/a is always an infinitive:

Acabamos de perder el partido.
We just lost the game

Empezaré a jugar mañana.
I’ll start (to play) tomorrow

  • De nuevo emphasizes the feeling of starting over/from the beginning.
  • Otra vez emphasizes the feeling of again/one more time.
  • Acabo de {infinitivo} + de nuevo feels like chewing a sandwich on a windy day at the beach.
  • A better alternative is volver a {infinitivo}.

Me ha gustado tanto este artículo que acabo de volver a leerlo de cabo a rabo
I have enjoyed so much this post that I just (re-read) it from (start to finish)