Qué horas son, mi corazón? (What time is it, my dear?)
In Spanish class, as a student or as a teacher, certain uncertainties come up when dealing with phrases such as the following:
·¿Qué hora es? (What time is it?)
Es las diez / Son las diez (It’s ten / “They’re ten”)
·¿Qué pasó en la ciudad? (What happened in the city?)
Hubo problemas con el agua / Hubieron problemas con el agua
(There “was” problems with water / There were problems with water)
·¿Qué te gusta comer a media mañana? (What do you like to eat mid-morning?)
Me gustan las salteñas / Me gusta las salteñas (Salteñas please me / Salteñas “pleases” me)
Not only do students feel unsure about the use of such expressions, but so do native Spanish speakers. Teachers, researchers, specialists and even writers from any Spanish speaking country can’t escape the confusion, whether it be a formal or informal situation. For this reason, the purpose of this article is to provide some information to interested readers and to encourage discussion.
The first point is that, no matter which expression one chooses to use, these phrases do not cause problems with communication. Still, we can suppose that one of each of the pairs of phrases is grammatically incorrect and we would prefer to speak or write without errors. This is especially true for writing because people have time to edit and write cleaner drafts.
If you ask why we say SON LAS DIEZ (“They’re” ten o’clock), HUBIERON PROBLEMAS (There were problems), and ME GUSTAN LAS SALTEÑAS (Salteñas please me), surely, most people would say because DIEZ, PROBLEMAS, and SALTEÑAS are plural, and so the verb has to be conjugated accordingly. It seems logical, but…
More than a few dictionaries and grammar books claim that ES LAS DIEZ and SON LAS DIEZ are both valid and correct (I suggest reading pages 780 and 781 from “Nueva Gramática de la Española - Manual” from the Academic Association of the Spanish Language).
Others claim that the only correct form is: SON LAS DIEZ
As for HUBIERON PROBLEMAS and ME GUSTA LAS SALTEÑAS, most would agree that they are totally incorrect, and the correct forms, for now, are HUBO PROBLEMS and ME GUSTAN SALTEÑAS.
Certainly, people could use either form without any communicative problems, as mentioned previously; the exception being the occasional fussy individual who is too particular about these kinds of things.
It’s important to explain that grammatically speaking there are no reasons to think that ES LAS DIEZ is wrong, simply because in Spanish there are verbs that are used in third-person-singular as a way to be impersonal and you don’t necessarily have to make it agree with DIEZ. The best way to really clarify the confusion is to say that, in the present day, SON LAS DIEZ is the more common expression. As for HUBIERON PROBLEMAS, it is considered totally wrong because HABER can only be conjugated in third-person-singular. The question is: If you can accept SON LAS DIEZ, why can’t you accept HUBIERON PROBLEMAS?
When dealing with the phrase ME GUSTA LAS SALTEÑAS, we can, with little doubt, also consider it to be incorrect. We can safely say that since LAS SALTEÑAS is the subject of the sentence, and even though it comes after the verb, it must fall into a grammatical agreement. We can admit, at the very least, that this is normal confusion for students who we don’t force into deep grammatical analysis.
It’s almost certain that taking a position on these examples requires being as objective as possible. This is not always easy as people may take a stance in accordance with an educational or cultural standard. In other words, there are people who have a set way of understanding “Correct Grammar.”
It’s possible that in the future the verb GUSTAR will be used only as a singular conjugation and the verbs SER and HABER will agree with the following word; simply because language changes and evolves according to how people decide to use it.