Prepositions join words together and show the relationship between the different parts of a sentence. These little words can cause you big problems because they do not necessarily translate well between English and Spanish. You cannot simply replace the Spanish preposition with an English equivalent.
Since prepositions are used differently in Spanish than they are in English, it is important to know when to use each Spanish preposition. They're called simple prepositions because they are only one word.
Some simple prepositions can be translated to a simple English equivalent. The most common ones are listed here:
However, the most commonly used simple prepositions are a, en, de, con, para, and por. After reading the explanation of these prepositions in the following sections, you will realize that there is nothing “simple” about them. It is impossible to ascertain a simple English translation for any of the following simple prepositions because you have to understand the situations in which you use each one.
The preposition a has several uses. It's used to indicate motion toward a place or thing, and as “the personal a” to introduce the clarification of indirect and direct objects. It's used between two verbs idiomatically. It's also used to indicate how something is done and when in time something occurred or will occur. Finally, it's used when a contraction must occur.
Motion toward a place or thing
The most common use for the preposition a is to indicate motion toward a place or thing. In such circumstances, it means to, toward, or at.
Vamos a la ciudad.
We go to the city.
Ignacio llegó a la oficina muy temprano.
Ignacio arrived at the office very early.
Llegué a Lima anoche.
I arrived in Lima last night.
José regresó a casa esta mañana.
José returned home this morning.
Use with direct and indirect objects
The preposition a is used to label a direct object when it refers to a person, an animal, or a personified idea. You must use the personal a in front of the direct object if it is a person. Since this usage doesn't have an English equivalent, it will not appear in the English translation of the following examples.
Quiero invitar a Lidia también.
I want to invite Lydia also.
¿A quiénes llamas tú?
Whom are you calling?
A is also used in front of an indirect object to clarify to whom the indirect object refers. Consider the following examples:
A Daniel le gustan las películas románticas.
Daniel likes romantic movies.
Eva le compró a su madre un regalo.
Eva bought her mother a gift.
If there is no indirect object pronoun in front of the verb of the sentence, the preposition para may be used instead of a to introduce the recipient of the direct object. Compare the following examples:
Silvia le compra la blusa ( a su madre) .
Silvia buys her mother the blouse.
Silvia compra la blusa para su madre.
Silvia buys the blouse for her mother.
Purpose between two verbs
The preposition a is used to convey the idea of purpose between a conjugated verb of motion and the infinitive that follows. The most common usage of this is with a conjugated form of the verb ir (to go) + a + infinitive. Notice in the following examples that the English version usually is stated as “someone is going to do something.” In Spanish, however, the present tense of ir is used, so the sentence is really saying “someone is going to do something” or “will do something.” These sentences in both languages indicate that something happens in the future without using the future tense.
Victoria va a estudiar medicina.
Victoria is going to study medicine.
César y Mariana van a casarse.
Cesar and Mariana are going to get married.
How something is done
The preposition a can be used to indicate the manner in which something is done and is followed by a noun.
Viajamos a caballo por el desierto.
We traveled by horse through the desert.
Es necesario llegar a pie.
It's necessary to arrive on foot.
Los estudiantes escriben a lápiz durante un examen.
The students write in pencil during a test.
Not all expressions about manner will use a. Idiomatic expressions that indicate manner can use the prepositions en or de and must be learned individually.
Location on a timeline
The preposition a can be used to identify a location on a timeline. To indicate what time something occurred or will occur, a is used with the definite article las, followed by the time. When the time is one o'clock (plus or minus any amount of minutes), a la is used in front of the feminine article una.
Voy a llegar a las ocho y veinte.
I am going to arrive at eight‐twenty.
Ellos regresaron a la una y media.
They returned at one‐thirty.
With practice over time, you will learn when to use a and when to use en in certain expressions. For example, Spanish uses en casa to express “at home,” not a, since the preposition en can mean “in” or “at” in English.
Contraction with a
There are two contractions in Spanish that are required: a + el and de + el. Any time the pronoun a is followed by the definite article el, the contraction al must be used. This contraction does not occur with the other definite articles, as you can see in the following examples:
a el lago (to the lake) must contract to al lago (to the lake).
a la pizarra (to the chalkboard) does not contract.
a los partidos (to the games) does not contract.
a las montañas (to the mountains) does not contract.
The preposition de is one of the most frequently used prepositions in Spanish. It has several English translations: of, from, by, and belonging to. The only way to know when the preposition de is appropriate is to understand the situations when it's used.
One use of de is to indicate origin. Here are a couple examples:
Soy de Nicaragua.
I am from Nicaragua.
El libro viene de la biblioteca.
The book comes from the library.
There are no apostrophes in Spanish. Possession is indicated by using the preposition de. The item that is possessed is followed by de and the person who owns it. For example, the only way to say “Mark's car” is “ El coche de Marco.” Here's another example:
Los libros de Diana son interesantes.
Diana's books are interesting.
To inquire about the possessor, you must use de in front of the question word quién. De quién is equivalent to the English question word “whose.” Check out these examples:
¿De quién es la casa?
Whose house is it?
Es la casa de Natalia.
It's Natalia's house.
Motion away from something
There are certain verbs in Spanish that are typically followed by de, such as venir (to come) , salir (to leave) , and llegar (to arrive). With these verbs, de is used to indicate motion away from a place.
No quiero salir de mi patria.
I don't want to leave my homeland.
Lola llega de Virginia hoy.
Lola arrives from Virginia today.
To indicate the contents or the material that something is made of, use de. The Spanish equivalent of the word “made” (hecho) is often not necessary, as you can see in the examples. Notice that when used, hecho reflects the number and gender of the subject (that which is “made of …”)
La ropa (hecha) de algodón es muy suave.
The clothing (made) of cotton is very soft.
El traje es de poliéster.
The suit is (made) of polyester.
Modify a noun
De is used to create a phrase in which a noun modifies another noun. In English, it is acceptable to use a noun as an adjective by simply placing one noun in front of another. For example, “a baseball game” uses the noun “baseball” to modify the noun “game.” This is not permitted in Spanish. The noun being described is first, followed by the preposition de and the noun that is being used to describe it. Un partido de béisbol is literally translated “a game of baseball” but must be used to mean “a baseball game.” Here are a couple more examples:
Olvidé mi libro de álgebra.
I forgot my algebra book.
Los niños tienen clases de natación.
The children have swimming classes.
Contraction with de
Whenever the pronoun de is followed by the definite article el, the contraction del must be used. For example:
de el norte (from the north) must contract to: del norte (from the north).
de la luna (from the Moon) does not contract.
de los libros (from the books) does not contract.
de las novelas (from the novels) does not contract.
The contractions of al and del do not occur if it is the pronoun él rather than the definite article el preceded by a or de.
The preposition en is mistakenly considered a cognate for the English preposition “in” or sometimes “on.” While there will be times when en is used like “in” or “on,” there are many uses of en that are translated to a different English pronoun. The only way to place this preposition correctly is to learn the specific reasons for using en.
The preposition en has many uses in Spanish, but the most difficult for English speakers to remember is that en is used to indicate location, such as “at home” (en casa) (except for the few reasons listed previously with the rules for a). Most of the time an English speaker uses the preposition “at” when indicating where someone is undertaking some activity. The Spanish uses are more literal. A person works in a restaurant, not at a restaurant, so the Spanish use the preposition en to indicate this concept. Here are some examples:
Mis amigos trabajan en McDonald's.
My friends work at McDonald's.
Lo conocí en el centro comercial.
I met him at the mall.
There are some circumstances where the Spanish pronoun en is translated as the English preposition “on,” as in this example:
Ellos pusieron los libros en la mesa.
They put the books on the table.
Amount of time
En is used to express an amount of time necessary for completing something. This usage of en is similar to a familiar English preposition “in.”
Terminó la tarea en diez minutos.
She finished the task in ten minutes.
Volvimos en unos minutos.
We returned in a few minutes.
Price exchange and how something is done
The preposition en is used in many places that could just as easily use the preposition por. For example, to indicate the price of exchange or the means by which something is done. Either preposition is acceptable in such cases. Also, en can be used instead of por to indicate the price of exchange. For example:
Te lo dejo en diez pesos.
I'll let you have it for ten pesos.
In some specific expressions, en is used to indicate the means by which something is done (for more expressions, see Appendix).
Le dije ese cuento en broma.
I told you that story jokingly.
Belita siempre habla en serio.
Belita always speaks seriously.
Common error with en
A common error with en is to use it when referring to days of the week, however, that is not the case in Spanish. To state that something occurs “on Monday” would be stated in Spanish with the definite article “ el lunes.” The definite article is also used in the plural to indicate “on Mondays” in general: los lunes would indicate “every Monday.” To state that something generally occurs “on weekends” use los fines de semanas.
Siempre vamos a la playa los sábados.
We always go to the beach on Saturdays.
Uds. tienen una prueba el miércoles.
You guys have a quiz on Wednesday.
The preposition con is pretty consistently translated as the English preposition “with.” It is used to indicate accompaniment, contents, and means of accomplishment.
The preposition con indicates accompaniment.
Benito llega con flores cada vez que viene.
Benito arrives with flowers each time he comes.
Ella sale con su novio.
She leaves with her boyfriend.
Me gusta el té con limón.
I like tea with lemon.
How something is done
Con is one of the prepositions that can indicate the means by which something is done. Con may be followed by a noun or a verb in its infinitive form.
Abre la puerta con la llave.
He opens the door with a key.
Ella siempre gana con llorar.
She always wins by crying.
How something has been accomplished
When con is used to express a contrast between what has been accomplished given the circumstances, it should be translated to the English expression “in spite of …”
Con todos sus problemas, ella todavía es feliz.
With (in spite of) all her problems, she still is happy.
Con can be used instead of de to indicate the contents of a container.
Tengo una bolsa con comestibles.
I have a bag of groceries.
El cesto con ropa es para lavar.
The basket of clothing is for washing.