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Beware of False Cognates! How to Express "Attend," "Assist," and "Help"

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 2/14/2012

Watch out for atender, asistir and ayudar or even apoyar... They don't mean what they sound like they should to the English speaker's ear. They are false cognates- false friends! in this article, learn what you should say instead.

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    Beyond "Asistir a..."

    Most texts and teachers of Spanish are quick to point out the false cognate asistir -- which does not mean to assist, as in to lend someone a hand. It always is used with the preposition a and means to attend, as in to attend class.

    Juan siempre asiste a sus clases de química (John always goes to his chemistry classes).

    This fact logically leaves some students wondering how to express the idea of helping someone out. The answer vexes many of them, but it needs to be learned as a dull fact of vocabulary: one solution is atender. It is as if the two cognates reversed their roles between the two languages and that is as good a way to remember their difference as any other. Rather like the fact that librería is a bookstore but biblioteca is library, or just as how sopa is soup but soap is jabón (not to be confused with jamón which is the meat portion of a ham & cheese sandwich!). The a used with atender is not used in the same way as the a with asistir -- this use is the personal a:

    Los dependientes atendieron a los clients en el almacén (The clerks helped/tended to the customers in the department store).

    The verb atender can also be used in the sense of tending to or minding one's affairs . Note that the a is still required, although it is not the personal a, but simply a prepositional marker:

    Ellos siempre atienden a sus asuntos sin mirar a nadie (They always take care of their own business without looking at anyone).

    Finally, there's the verb to help: ayudar. It is the generic way of expressing most of the English meanings of the verb to help, but not all.

    Ellos me ayudaron cuando no tenía trabajo (They helped me when I didn't have a job).

References

  • Author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.

Spanish Usage

The articles in this series deal with various questions about the right choice of word or phrase when English may have one or two structures but Spanish has more. They often deal with prepositional issues.
  1. Spanish Usage Questions: "Above"
  2. Using "Actual" and "Actually" in Spanish
  3. A Problem Preposition: The Ways "About" is Expressed in Spanish
  4. The Many Spanish Faces of the English Verb "to Agree"
  5. Spanish Usage Questions: Ways to say "Again"
  6. Expressing the Many Meanings of After
  7. Spanish Usage Questions: How to Say "Ahead"
  8. Spanish Usage Questions: "Anyone" and "Anybody"
  9. Using "Anyway..." in Spanish
  10. Let's Learn About How to Talk About Appointments & Dating
  11. What Do You Use for "Around" in Spanish
  12. The Spanish Verbs Meaning "to Ask" are Many!
  13. Beware of False Cognates! How to Express "Attend," "Assist," and "Help"
  14. Are You "Cool" or "Cold"? Explore the Nuances in Spanish
  15. The Difference Between "Why" and "Because" in Spanish
  16. The Temporal and Spacial Meanings of "Before": How to Get it Right in Spanish
  17. Don't Be Left in the Dust! Learn to Express the Meanings of "Behind" in Spanish
  18. Get the Low Down on the Preposition "Below" and Say it Right in Spanish!
  19. Understand Saying "Help" in Spanish
  20. Translating "Beside" & "Besides" into Spanish: Interesting Solutions!
  21. Not all Meanings of "But" Are Equal!
  22. Expressing the Various Meanings of the Preposition "By" in Spanish
  23. What Can the English Word "Can" Mean and How to Get it Right in Spanish
  24. Spanish Usage Questions: "Corner"
  25. The Word "Country" in Spanish
  26. The Various Meanings of "Outweigh" in English and How to Express Them in Spanish
  27. Expressing the Idea of "Ownership" in Spanish
  28. How to Express "Time & Distance" in Spanish
  29. Treat, Try, Attempt, Deal with... In Spanish, You Probably Need "Tratar"
  30. Spanish Usage Questions: "Having Fun"
  31. Even a Word Like "Even" Has Many Counterparts in Spanish
  32. Don't Go Wrong When You Look for Ways to Express "to fail"
  33. Do You Mean "Fair" Weather, a "Fair" Game or a "Fair" Complexion? Learn How to Say Them in Spanish!
  34. Love, Desire and Wanting -- Spanish Style!
  35. Discover the Right Spanish Verbs for Taking, Holding, Grabbing... and More
  36. You Have Nothing to Fear Except Not Knowing How to Say "Fear" in Spanish!
  37. Spanish Equivalents of the Common English Word "Find"
  38. Discover the Various Meanings of "Middle" and How to Say Them in Spanish
  39. Not All Spanish Words Meaning "Worker" Are Created Equal