The Zen of How and Why

Comic book The Zen of how and whyI once knew a Vietnamese couple named Hau and Wen. No, really. When their first kid was born, the wags who hate to change diapers said he could have been christened “Why.”

An alternative christening for my column might be, “The How and Why of Spanish.” I admit to spending more time on the how than the why. Maybe that is because my credentials suck. Or because I am only smart enough to observe but not explain. Reader, judge for yourself.

But this is another area where you must wean yourself from the applesauce and strained peas of Spanish 101, where Spanish is “easy” because each English word magically equates with a single Spanish word. Yeah, right.

Howness and whyness command their own lexicon in Spanish. How is never really como, except as an interrogative: ¿Cómo? Plain old como is closer to as or even to like, especially for making similes or indicating degree.

Look at this simile: Falstaff was “as fat as butter.” The first as becomes tan (more on this later) and the second, como: Falstaff es tan gordo como la mantequilla.

Fatness not withstanding, he had mistresses. How many?—¿Cuántos? To answer, you use tantos or tantas working with como: El tuvo tantas amantes como el Rey Enrique VIII. Or maybe even tanto como Enrique Kissinger.

Why the chicks go for Falstaff and Kissinger may be for you a big question, but you at least know how to start it. Use ¿Por qué?

You are unlikely, in Spanish 101, to learn that the distinction between ¿Por qué? and porque is deeper than one being a question-former and the other not. Porque always means because, which, as a conjunction, is not even the same part of speech.

Porque may begin a sentence if because begins its English equivalent, usually by way of opening an explanation. But it cannot begin all explanations. Longer ones, those having multiple clauses, start with como.

But como also means, you recall from above, not how but as or like or even, as a verb, “I eat.”

You might ask a historian of World War II ¿Por qué? he believes that Hitler was not a vegetarian.
The reply could be, “como comía nudos de cerdo, no lo fue.” He’s right; pig’s knuckles do not grow on trees or vines. This como could as well equate with since as well as with because. Not “since” the adverb that marks elapsed time (Socrates’ wife has been nagging him since last March), but “since” the conjunction (Socrates wants to move out, since his wife nags him).

You could start this latter declaration with como, but puesto que or it synomym ya que, are better. Reader, ya que compraste este libro, I hope you get your money’s worth.

English contains a semantic overlap unrelated to Spanish, and this is that Why? and, How come? are effectively synonyms. You could ask my editors why I cannot write, or how come I cannot write. Or I could ask why or how come I am into major self-deprecation this month. All these questions, translated, could begin with ¿Por qúe? Their answers could begin with porque if they are short and sweet, but with como if they are truly explanatory.

With that out of the way, how do we express how-ness when degree is in question?

Here the construction is ¿Qué tan? as in ¿Qué tan enojado se puso Joey cuando no recibió su Happy Meal? The reply contains the inverse construction: Se puso tan enojado que rompió la nariz del encargado de turno (He was so angry that he broke the shift manager’s nose).

This ¿Qué tan? is not to be confused with another howish phrase, ¿Qué tal? (How goes it?). But it is essential for anything that we can measure. What follows are examples that we could put to Joey after he grows up yet fails to reform. ¿Qué tan amplia es tu cintura? (How big is your waist?) ¿Qué tan pequeña es tu celda? (How small is your prison cell?). ¿Qué tan lejos queda tu audiencia? (How far off is your court date?)

So you need this phrase even when giving specs to a carpenter. Just like my editor needed it to ask me how long this column would be: ¿Tan larga como sea nesecario?

Sixty Zen columns now form a unique book, The Zen of Pues, useful to Spanish scholars at all levels. Visit; also available in bookstores throughout Guatemala. Tel: 7762-2022 or

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