There are some verbs that don’t translate very neatly between English and Spanish. The verb “become” is one such example, as it has six equivalents in Spanish and they’re not all interchangeable. Before you become (no pun intended) panicked, there are fairly simple rules regarding the use of each of these translations and, with a little practice, these forms will become second nature. Let’s break them down one by one:
Ponerse: This verb will always be followed by an adjective and generally refers to a temporary change in one’s emotional or physical condition. Let’s suppose that you received some bad news and became very upset. You could say: “Me puse furioso cuando recibí las noticias.” Or imagine that your friend won the lottery yesterday- “Él se puso muy feliz” – and that he wouldn’t share any of his winnings: “yo me puse verde de envidia.” Or let’s say you saw an undesired staff meeting scheduled on the calendar: “Yo me puse enfermo y falté al trabajo.” Or that your favorite pet reptile died: “Me puse muy triste.”
Ponerse can also refer to temporary changes that occur in the environment: “El cielo se puso oscuro y empezó a llover.” The idea is, whenever you use ponerse, you’re describing changes which are temporary in nature and which, in most cases, occur suddenly and unexpectedly.
You will also see ponerse a + verb which has a slightly different meaning. This means “to start doing something” or, more literally, “to put oneself to doing something”: “María se puso a lavar los platos” or “Juan se puso a trabajar.” This is a classic case of a verb having multiple meanings and nuances, but don’t get too worked up about it. The context will usually make the meaning clear and, in this instance, ponerse and ponerse a are easily distinguishable by the preposition “a”.
Hacerse: The verb hacerse refers to deliberate changes which are the results of a person’s actions or efforts and which usually have a transformative effect on the individual. Most often, hacerse is used to describe a change in a person’s characteristics, career, affiliation or financial condition. Unlike ponerse, it describes changes which are made with intention and on purpose:
- “Juan se hizo miembro del sindicato.” = Juan became a member of the labor union.
- “Al terminar sus estudios, Francisco se hizo médico.” = Upon finishing his studies, Francisco became a doctor.
- “María se hizo rica.” = Maria got rich.
- “Brenda se hizo católica y su hermano se hizo sacerdote.” = Brenda became a Catholic and her brother became a priest.
To help you remember that hacerse refers to deliberate changes, consider that it literally means “to make oneself into something or someone.” Also notice that hacerse takes nouns or adjectives, because you can become “a doctor” and you can also become “rich.”
Llegar a ser: This phrase is partly synonymous with hacerse and translates roughly as “to come to be” as in “He came to be regarded as a very important statesman.” The main distinction with llegar a ser is that it refers to changes which take place over a long period of time, whether by one’s efforts (as in hacerse) or by a slow, natural progression of events (unlike hacerse). Here are a few examples:
- “El llegó a ser un político muy importante.” = He became a very important politician.
- “Todos llegaremos a ser viejos algún día.” = All of us will become old someday.
- “El trabajo llegó a ser muy pesado.” = The job became very difficult.
If you can use the word “eventually” with “become” in English, llegar a ser is probably the best translation choice: “We will all eventually become old someday.” The main caveat is the verb ser, which describes inherent, permanent or semi-permanent characteristics. For phrases which denote temporary states, such as emotions, use ponerse or skip the “become” part altogether: “He eventually got mad” = “Finalmente se enojó.”
Quedarse: Quedarse describes changes to one’s physical state which have long-term or permanent implications. It basically translates as “to end up.”
- “She ended up pregnant” = Ella se quedó embarazada.
- “He ended up paralyzed.” = El se quedó paralítico.
- “They ended up deaf.” = Ellos se quedaron sordos.
Another meaning of quedarse is to describe a person’s impressions or reactions to something:
- “Me quedé impresionado con su trabajo.” = I [became] was impressed with his work.
- “Ella se quedó sorprendida cuando recibió las malas noticias.” = She [became] got surprised when she received the bad news.
As these examples demonstrate, “become” wouldn’t be our verb of choice in English to translate these phrases, but the sense of the word is still there.
Volverse: Volverse is closely related to ponerse but there is a subtle difference between the two. Whereas ponerse describes changes in a person’s emotional or temporary state, volverse describes changes in an individual’s personality (usually negative). There is a marked difference between “El se puso enojado” and “El se volvió loco.” The former describes what someone felt at a particular moment, whereas the other describes what kind of person someone ultimately became. Here are a few examples with volverse.
- “Eduardo se volvió muy violento después de su divorcio.” = Eduardo became very violent after his divorce.
- “Mi hermana se ha vuelto muy pesada últimamente.” = My sister has become very difficult lately.
Volverse can also describe changes in the inherent characteristics of a thing or situation:
- “Mi trabajo se ha vuelto una pesadilla.” = My job has become a nightmare.
- “Lo de María se ha vuelto insoportable.” = Maria’s situation has become unbearable.
Convertirse en: Finally, we have a verb to describe what happens when substances change from one state to another: “El agua se convirtió en vino” or “El hielo se convirtió en líquido.”
Convertirse en can also apply to sentient beings which change their state. If your boss is a shape-shifter, you could say “Mi jefe se convirtió en monstruo.” A less intense example could be “La oruga se convirtió en mariposa.”
Convertirse en will always take a noun, whereas as volverse will *usually* take an adjective. Many exceptions are made, however, with respect to volverse and you will sometimes seen it used in the sense of convertirse en: “El agua se volvió vino,” “La oruga se volvió mariposa,” etc. There is a subtle difference in that volverse emphasizes the abruptness of the change, whereas as convertirse en focuses on the change itself. Either, however, are correct in these instances, but convertirse en cannot take adjectives and thus never describes the personality changes for which volverse is used.
To recap, here are the six ways to say “become” in Spanish and when you use them:
Ponerse + adjective = emotional or physical states which are temporary in nature and not changes in inherent qualities
Hacerse + adjective or noun = changes effected by effort or intention; “to make oneself into something”
Llegar a ser + adjective or noun = slow, gradual changes which occur with time and as the consequence of a process
Quedarse + adjective = physical changes with long-term or permanent implications
Volverse + adjective or noun = abrupt changes, usually regarding personality but sometimes also physical states
Convertirse en + noun = physical changes from one state to another
Comments? Thoughts? Other examples? Add them below…¡y que no te vuelvas loco con todo esto! Es más fácil de lo que parece…