I-Nag-Na-In-An-Um: Routine, Habit, Accident and the Other Meanings of Tagalog Affixes

i-nag-na-in-an-um-the-kinds-and-intentions-of-actions-in-tagalog…..A way of teaching translation and language – based on the linguistic notion of focus (on the subject or object of an action) — does not quite capture the full essence of Tagalog and its conjugation system for verbs.  It is still a useful technique to learn the language because it allows us to differentiate a two verbs conjugated differently. When it is our only framework however, we obscure the special quality of Tagalog: its preference not so much on the focus of the action (its doer or object) as on the kind, extent, level, manner, intention behind that action. 

Focus in Tagalog

Tagalog speaker, when you are asked to translate into English, “Nagbasa siya ng libro” and “Binasa niya ang libro,” I am confident that you will come up with, “He read a book” and “He read the book.” And for “magluto ka ng manok” and “iluto mo ang manok,” you are likely to have “Cook some chicken” and “Cook the chicken.

And when a non-speaker of Tagalog asks you to explain the difference between the sentences, you will probably discuss the level of focus or specificity. “Nagbasa siya ng libro” implies less focus on a/the book, while “Binasa niya ang libro” has more. In binasa, the book is more specific.

How an Action is Done and Willed: More Important in Tagalog

This is well and good, but this way of teaching translation and the language— based on focus — does not capture the full essence of Tagalog.  Certainly, we can study Tagalog from the point of view of focus, but in doing so, however, we obscure the special quality of the language: its preference not so much on the focus of the action (its object or subject) as on the kind, extent, level, manner, or intention behind that action.

This aspect of Tagalog is little discussed in two online sources on the language that I saw. For instance, one source translates, “Na-amoy ko….” as “I smelled.” The translation is correct, but it doesn’t tell you in what way he smelled it, and how it differs from inamoy.

Another thread I saw explained the difference between magluto and iluto, and the answers pertained again to focus (either on the object or subject). Perhaps it may seem that way, but it doesn’t capture the fact that magluto entails more preparations while iluto implies that the object to be cooked (or its ingredients) are almost at hand.

These distinctions are lost on many a teaching source on Tagalog. And because they are not mentioned, a student of the language is left wondering the differences between naamoy and inamoy, and among the different conjugations of one root word (magluto, iluto, lutuin).

If language is culture, Tagalog speakers saw the need to construct their language on this basis: they wanted to know, because it was important to them, how you did something, and how you casually, intentionally did so. And so they invested affixes with the meanings and implications that they have today.

Nag vs In

From this perspective, nagbasa ako ng libro speaks less about the lack of focus on a particular book than about the casual, routine, inconsequential way we read the book. Binasa ko yung libro meanwhile means not just that you had a particular book in mind, but that, for many possible reasons, you really wanted to read the book. You pour more effort into reading it than if you just said, “Nagbasa ako ng libro,” which connotes habit, casualness, routine, and inconsequentiality. As habit, it is also used in the past and present progressive tenses, but ones denoting the aforementioned. “Nagbabasa ako kagabi …”(I was reading last night…)

At any rate, the question of intention, and not focus or specificity, is a good reason why we don’t say, “hinalikan ko si lola” instead of the usual “humalik ako sa lola.” Here, both refer to the same object, so matters of focus or specificity is out of the question. A more satisfactory explanation lies in the meaning of “in” as more willed and intentional. “Humalik” does not (necessarily) have sexual, romantic or at least less-than-innocent connotations, while “hinalikan” does.

The explanation based on the “focus” and “specificity of the action”  also becomes unsatisfactory when the affix “na” is brought in. Its existence is also part of Tagalog speakers’ preference for the quality of action; in this case, its unintentional nature. Hence, when we hit someone or something while driving, we will probably say in our defense, “Nabangga ko siya,” not “Binangga ko siya.” And when you accidentally meet someone you know in the mall, you say, “nakita ko siya” and not, “kinita ko siya.” Kinita ko siya is wrong in two ways: because you did not really intend to meet her, and because kinita has a different meaning altogether.


Where does “um” come in? Given our discussion so far, “um” is generally used for acts of nature and/or natural acts, as well as for self-reflexive verbs (a la Spanish, me voy, me despierto, etc). Thus we say, umulan, umaraw, umihi, uminom (acts of nature) and tumalon, tumawa, sumakay, and pumunta (self-reflexive). Um is also used to denote an action that “springs forth” from within ourselves, as it were. Thus, we can also say “bumasa ako ng libro.” In the framework of focus, the focus lies on the act of reading. From our own approach, um connotes a declamation of sorts, like a special urge to read. “Nagbasa ako ng libro” is more routine and casual.

Mag Vs I

What about magluto ka na ng manok and iluto mo ang manok? It’s easy to see a difference when we say that the former focuses on the doer, while the latter concentrates more on the object. It may seem sensible, but it doesn’t capture the full, if not actual, meanings of the words. In this case, magluto implies that more preparations are to be made (you have to take out the ingredients, slice the chicken, while iluto means that the ingredients are already at hand).

Take note that the dynamics of Tagalog verbs are not limited to these foregoing discussions. They have other meanings that pertain to distinctions between “effortful vs effortless activity, state vs action, exclusive and non-exclusive object, inner-directed and outerdirectedness,” examples for which I cannot give now. The point is that Tagalog is not concerned with focus, with doers and objects, but the kind, type, and context of actions.

Use and Context, Not Grammar Per Se

If you are confused as to when to use in as opposed to um, nag as opposed to na, you need to understand that generally, affixes in Tagalog are NOT exclusive to certain verbs. A verb can be conjugated with different affixes depending on how the speaker (and listener) interprets that action, including one’s own. In other words, the use of affixes is context-bound; most of the time, a conjugated verb is only “wrong” if its use is inappropriate in a certain situation. Hinalikan ko si lola is grammatically correct, but socially scandalous because of its sexual, romantic, or less-than-innocent overtones. Similarly,  nagbasa and binasa are both correct. It just depends on how you or your audience sees your act of reading: did you do it by habit or by routine, or did you really mean to read it for any reason whatsoever?

Of course, as with all rules, the applicability of affixes to any verb has exceptions. Some root words cannot be used with certain affixes; I don’t have an extensive list thereof. But an example is laba, to do the laundry. It can be naglaba or linaban (a different affix with a different meaning), but not lumaba, which is grammatically correct and conjugated right.  Based on our framework so far (um as special urge), lumaba is off. As far as I know, that conjugation is never used.

Foregrounding this aspect of Tagalog implies the way we can teach and learn it. One, Tagalog cannot simply be learned by giving examples of conjugated verbs, whose uses are abstracted/extracted from, and are dependent on, their contexts and the interpretations of its speaker and/or listener.  To learn it more effectively, as Wittgenstein showed us, you have to see how the affixes are used in various contexts. Learning it via a list of textbooks will be fine, but someone, perhaps your teacher, should invent possible contexts for the verbs.

Another good way to learn the use of affixes to read simple narratives in Tagalog, and have someone explain the contexts of the actions in relation to our discussion so far. It would also be help if you translate a simple story in English. The task of translation will force you to be sensitive to context. In some cases, you will have to project your interpretation.

Try “I was reading a book when she knocked on the door.” You can say, “Nagbabasa ako ng libro…” In this case, we use “nag” because of the article “a,” which to us means not just that the kind of book he was reading was not important, but that for the speaker, the act of reading was routine, casual, and inconsequential. But “I was reading the book” will be translated as “Binabasa ko ang libro.” This means not just the action was focusing more on a specific book, but that the act of reading had a particular significance/urgency/intention. We don’t know of course why. The rest of the invented story would have to be given so that we can know why she was reading that particular book with such intention.

Apart from translation, another method to learn Tagalog (in the classroom) is to have a teacher tell a real story and to analyze the whys of the affixes used. Why did the teacher use “nag” instead of “in? ”

Lastly, teaching verbs in Tagalog cannot simply be done by giving one conjugated verb and translating it (see naamoy example above). The affixes’ meanings have to be learned of course, and more importantly, the different conjugations of a verb have to be given alongside each other, with the meanings of each explained.  As Structuralism teaches us, language works by difference. Using naamoy alone will make it difficult for learners to see when to use it, and see the differences among naamoy, pinaamoy, umamoy and inamoy. 

I hope to have shed light on learning Tagalog and that I have given a deeper, more sensitive appreciation for how the language works, and thus — how thus you can learn it better. Remember, Tagalog verbs are conjugated based on, among other distinctions and contextual factors, how and how willed (or otherwise) an action is done. This discussion is based on my uncle who is a linguist. He showed me that this is how Tagalog works, and I hope that I did his explanations much justice.

To illustrate my pedagogical advice, Nabigyan ko ba ng hustisya ang mga paliwanag niya? (Did I do justice [to them]? I use na and its meaning of chance and accident because I am not yet sure if I am able to explain it well. My use of na also implies that the success of my goal – to explain his explanations – partly lies outside my hands, outside my targeted, intentions in doing so.

See what is lost when we only focus on focus?

On a concluding note, I should note that this preceding discussion can be couched in formal linguistic discourse, which speaks of modalities, and other related concepts. Mine simply represents my interpretation and understanding of what I learn from my uncle.

APPENDIX 1: Common Affixes

As a farewell gift, here are other common affixes and their meanings:

  • I + Root Word + Object = Do something to an Object at Hand; imperative
    • Ilagay mo ang libro sa… (the book is already nearby, and you just have. See difference with another imperative maglagay ka ng libro sa. This implies you still have to get a book somewhere before placing it…
  • Naka + Root Word = To be able to…
    • Naka + punta ako sa mall (I was able to go to the mall). Look at nagpunta ako sa mall = casual, matter of factly; pinuntahan ko yung mall implies “I really wanted and need to go to that mall.”
  • Naka + Root Word + Na = To have been able to do something
    • Nakapunta na ako sa….. (I have gone to….)
  • In + Root Word + An = Generally, to intentionally do something to or upon something/someone.
    • Sinulatan ko ang pader (I wrote on the wall; because it uses “in,” it implies the action was malicious/deliberate
  • Na + Root Word + An = To accidentally/unintentionally do something to someone
    • Nasulatan ko ang pader = I accidentally wrote on the wall; sumulat ako sa pader = the action of writing comes from inside you (a bit vague here)
  • Nag + Root Word + An = To do an action in a messy, repetitive, unplanned way
    • Naghalikan kami (We made out; we kissed (a couple doing so; hence you can see the messy/passionate way)
    • Nagpuntahan sila (they came en masse, in droves)
  • Ipa + Root Word = Imperative; to ask someone to do something
    • Ipa + Sara + mo + sa kanya ang Pinto (Have him/her close the door)
  • Pina + Roo Word = To do something to someone/something
    • Pina + punta + niya + ako  (He had me go or he asked me to go)

APPENDIX 2: Affixes and Pronouns

Note also that affixes are used with certain pronouns

  • To denote a subject pronoun with in and na, use the pronouns: ko (I), mo (You); niya (He/She); namin (we exclusive); natin (we inclusive); ninyo (you plural); nila (they)
    • Sinuntok ko siya (I punched him). Note word order: Verb + Subject + Object
  • To denote an object pronoun with in, use the pronouns: ako (me); ka (you); siya (him/her); kami (us exclusive); tayo (us inclusive); kayo (you plural); sila (them)
    • Sinuntok niya ako (He punched me). Note word order: Verb + Subject + Object
  • To denote a subject pronoun with nag, mag, naka use the pronouns: ako (me); ka (you); siya (him/her); kami (us exclusive); tayo (us inclusive); kayo (you plural); sila (them)
    • Nagbasa ako
  • To denote an object pronoun with na, use the pronouns:  ako (me); ka (you); siya (him/her); kami (us exclusive); tayo (us inclusive); kayo (you plural); sila (them)

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