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Today’s Spanish Lesson, and Inquiry

“Paying attention” is an English idiom which means “to focus one’s attention on” or “to be attentive to.” Like other idioms, it does not translate literally into other languages, especially Spanish. (That is to say, “pagar atención” – from pagar, “to pay,” and (la) atención, “attention,” is incorrect.)

However, there are two ways to say it depending on what it is to which is being paid attention. If paying attention to a person, the phrase is “prestar atención,” which in a literal word-for-word translation means “to lend (one’s) attention.” On the other hand, if paying attention to an idea or a thing, one would use “poner atención.” which if taken in a similar literal translation means “to put (or set) attention.”

  • Correct: Presten atención al maestro cuando les habla.
    (Pay attention to the teacher when he speaks to you.)
  • Incorrect: Pongan atención al maestro cuando les habla.

Note the different connotations in the following two similar requests made from a a speaker (in our example, a teacher):

  • Ésto es muy importante. Pongan atención por favor.
    (“This is very important. Pay attention [to this concept/thing], please.”  The teacher is explaining something to his/her students and does not want distractions.)
  • Ésto es muy importante. Presten atención por favor.
    (“This is very important. Pay attention [to me], please.”  The teacher is demonstrating something, and wants his/her students to watch closely.)

I suppose it’s similar, slightly, to how Japanese translate the verb “to have” (or “to be/to exist”) as 有る(ある, “aru”) for objects and concepts but as 居る(いる, “iru”)for living things. Peculiar…but very interesting. Is this difference in Spanish for similar separation of living and non-living things? I wonder…Thanks for the neat Spanish lesson, mom! :)

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  1. izaera
    August 12th, 2009 at 23:37 | #1

    Hi from Spain:

    I agree with all you said, but in Spain we don’t use the article: “la”. We just say “prestar atencion” o “poner atencion”. So, we would say:

    -Ésto es muy importante. Pongan atención por favor.
    -Ésto es muy importante. Presten atención por favor.

    I don’t know if the use “la” in any of the countries in South America, but I believe they don’t either.

  2. aristo
    August 12th, 2009 at 23:48 | #2

    “Pongan la atención” (Wrong) “Pongan atención” (Correct)
    “Presten la atención” (Wrong) “Presten atención” (Correct)

    El artículo “la” está de más, “Pay attention [to me]” is “Prestenme atención, por favor”.

    Greetings from Venezuela

  3. natxo asenjo
    August 13th, 2009 at 00:03 | #3

    Maybe it’s a thing from Spain (so not from Latin America), but in Spain we would say ‘Presten atención al maestro …’ , so no article before ‘atención’.

    For the rest, yes, false friends can be really funny when literally translating stuff from one language to the other. A few years ago a couple of Spanish journalist wrote a really funny book called ‘From lost to the river’. You can read some examples of what we understand by that in this blog: http://blogs.gnome.org/rodrigo/2006/10/04/from-lost-to-the-river/

  4. Hare
    August 13th, 2009 at 01:05 | #4

    Well, in the Spanish spoken in Spain, this would be:

    Presten atención al maestro cuando les habla.

    The article “la” is not needed in this case, and the pronoun “él” is redundant, as “habla” is always 3rd person singular.

    Regards

  5. Juank Prada
    August 13th, 2009 at 05:30 | #5

    “Ésto es muy importante. Pongan la atención por favor.” Actually the correct way to say this is “Ésto es muy importante. Pongan atención por favor” we never use the “defined arcticle” ‘la’ (not sure if its the correct translation for that) in this kind of sentences. Not sure why but i can only think of your example as an exception to the rule as with some other sentences using ‘la’ is ok.
    For example:
    ‘Pongan -la- mantequilla sobre la mesa’.

  6. John Doe
    August 13th, 2009 at 11:08 | #6

    I’m a native spanish speaker and would like to note that what you are saying is not correct. You don’t say “Presten LA atención…”, it’s wrong, that is like saying “Pay THE attention…”. Also “Pongan atención…” is widely used and not incorrect.

  7. August 13th, 2009 at 12:54 | #7

    Thanks for all the comments about the extraneous articles. I noticed that and fixed it shortly after posting. :)

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