The Zen of Cuando and Cuanto
Folks in Readerland who know phonetics might note that their spellings are even closer than they appear: they differ by one letter, and barely that. The d and t are — don’t slap this magazine shut — “labiodentals.” That is, they are formed by tongue and tooth. When you pronounce d without moving your vocal chords, you get t. Try it.
Our introduction to the pair may be as question openers, where we find that (1) ¿Cuándo? means When and that (2) ¿Cuánto? and its forms mean How much? or How many?
I say “forms” of ¿Cuánto? because (unlike ¿Cuándo?) it is an adjective, modifying something “cuan-tifiable.”
¿Cuántas chicas hay en tu libreta negra, Pepito? (How many chicks are in your little black book, Joey?)
Since they are question formers, both words carry the chicken scratch over the a to distinguish them from their non-interrogative forms (cuando, cuanto).
Let us start with ¿Cuándo? and cuando.
¿Cuándo? is straightforward but, until we get to, say, Spanish 203, we tend to overuse it. We ought to restrict it to those instances when, by asking When?, we are inquiring about duration or expectations. Pepito, cuándo vas a dejar de meterte con otras mujeres? (Joey, when are you gonna quit fooling around with other women?)
We should avoid ¿Cuándo? when we want to know a specific time or date. Most often, we want the hour, for which we need ¿A qué hora …? For larger time units (days, months, years), we need ¿En qué mes …? We ask the prison warden, ¿A qué hora podemos visitar a Pepito? but we ask the judge, ¿En qué mes le darán de alta a Pepito? (In what month will they discharge Joey?)
Such phrasing applies not just to prison visits separated by (in Joey’s case) blue moons, but in information gathering generally. ¿A qué hora debo llamarte por teléfono? (When should I call you?) ¿A qué hora se abre la panadería? (What time does the bakery open?) ¿En qué año llegó Guillermo el Conquistador a Hastings? (When did William the Conqueror arrive at Hastings?)
Cuando joins clauses. La Señora B va a golpear a Pepito cuando regrese (Mrs. B. is ‘gonna’ clobber Joey when he returns).
Note that the verb form following cuando is subjunctive. Why? Well, although we know that Mrs. B will clobber Joey, we do not know exactly when. Her action remains contrary to reality until it becomes, uh, reality. And then it is something past and, ergo, known.
And so, Mrs. B clobbered Joey at 2 a.m. when he returned — cuando él regresó (or volvió). The form regresó is past tense but not subjunctive because we now know when this occurred. So the verb form following cuando is (1) subjunctive if the action has not happened, and (2) past (preterite or imperfect) for when it did happen.
The phrase, de vez en cuando, and its synonym, de cuando en cuando, translate our from time to time.
Now to ¿cuánto? and cuanto.
Cuánto, again, is an adjective that must agree with a noun. The interrogative form is normally, not always, the first word in a question. Often you need a preposition, as in Stalin’s pithy query, ¿Con cuántas divisiones cuenta el Papa? (How many divisions has the pope?) Or, more prosaically, ¿En cuántos asientos hay pasajeros? (How many seats are occupied?)
Cuanto (no chicken scratch), is a bit rare. It appears in declarations that describe the need-to-know that prompted the questions: El compañero (Comrade) Stalin quiere saber con cuantas divisiones cuenta el Papa or La azafata (flight attendant) intenta enterarse (tries to find out) cuantos asientos no están ocupados.
I wrap up with mention of the key phrases en cuanto and cuanto antes, that strike me as zenny because it seems that they should be spelled with d instead of t. Both mean when or just as soon as, as in Dejaré de quejarme en cuanto mandes a cortarte el pelo (I’ll quit griping as soon as you get your haircut). Note that the verb (mandar) is in the subjunctive, because when and whether the hair will be cut remains in question.
¿En qué mes — When? — volverá esta columna? El mes próximo.