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A Quick Prep on the Use of Prepositions in Spanish

Spanish prepositions are generally less troublesome than English equivalents, although there are some exceptions and context may be needed

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Spanish speakers learning English often struggle with when to use “in” and when to use “on,” or with the difference between “to” and “at.”

This article reviews a selection of common prepositions found in everyday language conversations,  and learning to use these will help you to increase your ability to express yourself more fully in Spanish.

Uses of the Spanish preposition “a”

Spanish prepositions are generally less troublesome as there are no phrasal verbs to contend with, although there are some exceptions and one good example is the multi-purpose “a,” which means: “to,” “at,” and can even mean “from” or “for.”

When you buy something from someone, in Spanish you use “a” and not “de.

  • Le compré el coche a mi vecino (with the shortened “se lo compré“), can mean I bought the car from my neighbor, or I bought the car for my neighbor.
  • Likewise, le compré flores a mi esposa, can mean I bought flowers for my wife, or I bought flowers from my wife.

The context is usually sufficient for an understanding, unless you’re dealing with someone with extraordinary habits in durable goods purchases, or who is married to a florist.

In the event of possible confusion, “para” can be used to stress “for.”  Es para ti —it’s for you— but it would be wrong to use “de” to stress “from.”

Using the prepositions “at” and “to” in Spanish

The words “at” and “to” are usually translated with the simple “a“:

  • At six o’clock, a las seis.
  • We’re going to school. Vamos a la escuela.

There are some exceptions, for example:

  • At once, would be de una vez, or en este instante.
  • The expression “at all” becomes del todo.

Uses of the Spanish preposition “en”

For in and on, the word “en” covers many of the bases, but there are exceptions.

  • On the table. En la mesa.
  • In the spring. En la primavera.
  • Speak in Spanish. Habla en español.
  • He was hit on the head. Le pegaron en la cabeza.

Sobre also means “on” and can be used to specify “on top of” if there could be some doubt between in and on, and en could be ambiguous.

For example, dejé la carta sobre el escritorio, meaning the letter was left on top of the desk and not in a drawer or a tray or an integrated filing cabinet.

Sobre also means on in the sense of “about:”

  • Una discusión sobre política, or even
  • Una discusión de política.
  • But not una discusión en política.

Acerca de is another way of saying “about.” I want to speak to you about the Christmas party. Quiero hablar contigo acerca de la fiesta de Navidad.

Sobre can also mean “over.” El avión voló sobre la ciudad. The plane flew over the city.  

Uses of the Spanish preposition “de”

Arriba de and encima de are used for “over” and “above,” but can also mean “on.”

  • Sus calificaciones están por encima de las de sus compañeros. Her grades are above those of her classmates.
  • El cepillo está encima del tocador. The hairbrush is on the dresser.
  • Los viajeros ya están arriba del tren. The travelers are already on the train.

Uses of the Spanish preposition “en”

For months and years, Spanish uses en, just as English uses “in.”

But for days, where English uses “on,” Spanish uses the definite article, and always masculine since the word día is one of those that ends in ‘a’ but is masculine.

  • She arrived late on Friday. Ella llegó tarde el viernes.
  • He goes to church on Sundays. Él va a la iglesia los domingos

Quick reminder: days and months aren’t capitalized in Spanish.

Uses of the Spanish preposition “de” and “del”

The prepositions De and del mean both “of” and “from.”

  • I came straight from work. Vine directo del trabajo.
  • They have three of those dogs. Tienen tres de esos perros.

Using prepositions in Spanish related to “under”

Where English has several synonyms for under, such as beneath, underneath, and below, Spanish has abajo, debajo, and bajo. These are also often interchangeable.

  • The dog is under the table. El perro está abajo de la mesa, or el perro está debajo de la mesa.
  • Also, por abajo and por debajo. Los precios en esta tienda están por debajo del promedio de la zona. The prices in this store are below the average for the area.
  • But “under no circumstances” is always: bajo ninguna circunstancia.

Por & Para: Spanish has two words for “for” — por and para, which is dealt with in this related article.

Using prepositions in Spanish related to “behind”

In a similar vein, atrás de, detrás de, and tras are words for behind.

  • No lo vi atrás de la puerta. I didn’t see him behind the door.
  • Se escondió detrás del árbol. She hid behind the tree.
  • El ladrón ya está tras las rejas. The thief is now behind bars.

Prepositions used in comparisons

And then there are prepositions used in comparisons. In English you can say “different from,” “different to,” or even “different than”  (some people frown on the use of than), but “not the same as.”

Likewise in Spanish you can say este color es diferente (or distinto) de este otro, or mi opinión es diferente al tuyo, but if you say something is not the same as something else, you would use the preposition que. For example:

  • No es lo mismo correr en el bosque que correr en la ciudad.
  • Es diferente tomar agua que tomar cerveza.

The phrase igual a, literally equal to, also means “the same as” when comparing two people or things.

  • Este cuadro es igual al original. This painting is the same as the original.
  • La niña es igualita a su mamá. The girl is just like (or identical to) her mother—here using the diminutive igualita. [

Diminutives can be used in Spanish to enhance as well as diminish a word’s meaning, as described in this related article.

Expressions that don’t require a preposition

Some expressions in Spanish don’t require a preposition.

  • Look at me is just mírame.
  • Speak to him is háblale.

Actually, the ‘at’ and the ‘to’ are implicit in the pronoun referring to the indirect object. For example, throw her the ball is échale la pelota, while throw it (the ball) is échala. Throw it (the ball) to her is then échasela (la referring to la pelota.)

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