Here’s a verb whose uses go far beyond the simple dictionary definition of “to fall”. Caer appears in dozens of expressions and slang terms and an entire book could be written about it. Today, I simply want to focus on the uses you’re most likely to encounter as a beginning or intermediate student:
1) “To fall” – This is the simplest and most succinct definition of caer there is. It covers the English verbs “to fall”, “to fall down” and “to fall over” (the latter two being unnecessary complications of our own language- where else is there to fall?). Examples of this usage include:
- Me caí del puente y me doblé el tobillo = “I fell from the bridge and twisted my ankle”
- Juan se cayó de repente = “Juan fell down suddenly”
Note that, with this meaning of caer, the verb can be reflexive or non-reflexive. In other words, the two sentences above could be stated as:
- Cai del puente y me doblé el tobillo
- Juan cayó de repente
In fact, the Real Academia Española (the body of academics who preserve the “purity” of the Spanish language), prefer the latter constructions. In daily speech, however, the reflexive constructions are extremely common and add a tinge of unexpectedness to the act of falling. When dealing with inanimate objects (that is, things that cannot prevent their falling by conscious choice), you generally use only non-reflexive forms:
- Las hojas de los árboles empiezan a caer a principios de septiembre
We’ll see an exception to this in a bit.
2) “To succumb” – This use also parallels its English meaning. It’s perfectly acceptable (at least grammatically) “to fall into temptation”. In Spanish, this is said caer en la tentación. You can also fall into emotional states, like depression: caer en la depresión. Note that this usage is not reflexive.
3) “To drop” – This is one of my favorite constructions in the whole language: Se me cayó el vaso. It means “I dropped the glass” but its wording translates to “The glass dropped on me”. It doesn’t imply that a glass came falling out of the sky and landed on you, but rather that a glass was in your possession and, through no fault of your own, fell to the floor. You may have indeed caused the glass to fall, and its understood that you did, but the use of se in this sentence exonerates you from any responsibility for it shattering into a million pieces.
Let’s say, however, that the glass dropped on top of you, hitting you in the head. In this case, you could say Se me cayó un vaso encima. Vaso in an inanimate object, but the reflexive is used in this case to emphasize the sudden and unexpected impact of the event. Something else (presumably gravity) dropped the glass on you.
3) “To like somebody” – This is one of the handiest uses of this verb. Most students are taught that gustar means “to like”, but they aren’t always aware of its nuances. If you say Me gustas it means that “I like you in a provocative way”. You’re generally not going to say this to friends or most of the people you meet on the street. If you like somebody in a non sensual way, then you can say Me caes bien. Conversely, if you can’t stand someone, you can say Me caes mal or, to sound more slangy, Me caes gordo or Me caes pesado.
A similar meaning is also sometimes applied to food. ¿Cómo le cayó la comida? basically means “Did the food go down all right?” You could answer, Sí, pero no me cayó la papa (“Yes, but the potato didn’t set will with me”).
4) We all know people who show up by surprise or when we don’t want them to. Spanish speakers relate this to the act of someone falling on you. Roberto me cayó en el momento más inoportuno translates as “Roberto showed up at the worst possible moment”. Los abuelos nos cayeron mientras salíamos para el aeropuerto = “Grandma and Grandpa showed up while we were leaving for the airport”. There is a slight difference in nuance if you say that someone llegó de sorpresa or cayó de sorpresa. The latter implies that the act of showing up wasn’t exactly welcomed.
5) “To swear” – This usage of caer is mostly limited to Mexico and isn’t considered very formal. Spanish already has a verb which means “to swear” or “to promise” and this is jurar. The standard way of asking “Do you swear?” or “Do you promise?” is ¿Juras? However, you’ll sometimes hear ¿Te cae? To say that “I swear” you can answer Me cae. Note that it’s only the third-person singular form which is used in this context.
There are seemingly zillions of other ways to use caer, many of which are slangy in nature. One of the most famous expressions with this verb is caer el veinte, which means “to finally get or understand something”. Por fin me cayó el veinte de que como usar este verbo = I finally figured out how to use this verb.
Hope this helps 🙂