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In Spanish, Two Verbs are Better than One

Along with two verbs "to be," Spanish also has two different verbs for "to know," as well as two verbs "to have." This article describes them.

Spanish Pinpointed

Along with two verbs “to be,” Spanish also has two different verbs for “to know,” as well as two verbs “to have.” This may appear to complicate things, although it also allows for some subtle uses of language which aren’t immediately available when speaking English.

Two Spanish verbs ‘to know’

Of the two verbs to know, the irregular saber is generally applied to facts, and the almost regular conocer to people and places. There are areas, however, where the two overlap, and either verb could be used—languages, for example:

  • él sabe español, means he knows Spanish, and
  • él conoce el español means he knows, or is acquainted with, the Spanish language.

One way to determine whether conocer can be used is to test whether the phrase “is acquainted with,” could be substituted for “know.”

When applying conocer to people, the preposition a is used. So:

  • conoce Cervantes, means he knows the work of the author of Don Quixote, while
  • conoce a Cervantes would mean he knows the writer.

Saber is used for “to know how to,” for example:

  • ellos saben nadar (they know how to swim), and
  • ella sabe tocar el piano (she knows how to play the piano).

Two Spanish verbs ‘to have’

The two verbs “to have” are tener and haber, and both irregular.

  • Tener is used to show possession, tengo dos perros (I have two dogs), and
  • haber as the auxiliary verb for forming compound tenses, for example,
  • hemos llegado por fin (we have arrived at last).

The expression hay, derived from haber, is used to say “there is” or “there are.”  Hubo or había mean “there was/were.”

The verb haber can also be used in some instances for “must,” “should,” or “ought to.” For example,

  • ha de ser difícil, (it must be difficult), or,
  • has de conocer esta regla, (you ought to know this rule).

Dealing with the imperative

For indicating an imperative, such as tenemos que tomar el camión (we have to take the bus),  tener is used when the subject is specific. Tengo que ir (I have to go), tienes que entender (you have to understand), but haber can be used when you want something done, don’t want to do it yourself, wish someone else would do it, but would rather not appear to be pushy. This is all possible with the not so subtle “hay que…” Hay que recoger la mesa means the table has to be cleared. This is also useful for broad statements like hay que tener paciencia. The English equivalent “one has to be patient” is somehow stilted in comparison.

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