The first time we see a new word and its definition displayed in a textbook, we get tricked into thinking it is only as large in scope as the English translation we are given. This is the danger in overexposure to formal language learning materials and underexposure to naturally spoken language. Our awareness of the range of meanings of new words becomes narrowed.

Most beginning textbooks supply the learner with a single English equivalent for a given Spanish term. The effect is much like looking up a word in the dictionary and being able to read only one of the listed definitions. Some parts of speech are more prone than others to mislead us like this. Verbs are particularly tricky. Sometimes a verb can indicate a very specific physical action. Other times, the same verb may signify a whole other slew of ineffable meanings.


Common Verb Examples

Here are 15 verbs you will likely encounter early on in your Spanish studies. Notice the various usages in the English translations.

1. Andar:

Andaba por el camino cuando presenció el crimen.
He was walking along the road when he witnessed the crime.

No me anda Internet en el celular.
The Internet isn’t working on my cell phone.

Andábamos comprando cosas para nuestros hijos para la navidad.
We were buying things for our children for Christmas.

Después de andar perdido, fueron rescatados.
After being lost, they were rescued.

2. Caer:

Tenga cuidado de no caerse por las escaleras.
Be careful not to fall down the stairs.

No les caigo bien a tus amigos.
Your friends don’t like me.

Comió algo que le cayó mal.
She ate something that didn’t agree with her.

3. Contar:

Los niños están aprendiendo a contar.
The children are learning to count.

Te cuento toda la historia.
I’ll tell you the whole story.

Yo sé que puedo contar con tu apoyo.
I know that I can count on your support.

Cuenta con 2 años de garantía limitada.
It has a 2 year limited warranty.

4. Dar:

No le dieron opción.
They gave him no choice.

Quiero dar con la ubicación perfecta antes de elegir un apartamento.
I want to find the perfect location before choosing an apartment.

Se lo dio por muerto.
He was presumed dead.

5. Deber:

Ya sabemos lo que deberíamos hacer.
We already know what we should do.

No le debo nada a nadie.
I don’t owe anybody anything.

Debe de tener mucho estrés porque tiene ocho hijos.
He must have a lot of stress because he has eight children.

6. Echar:

Échalo a la basura.
Throw it in the garbage.

Le echaron de la universidad.
They kicked him out of the university.

Se le echa agua a las plantas para que no se mueran.
You pour water on plants so they don’t die.

Al ver el oso, echaron a correr.
When they spotted the bear, they started to run.

7. Hacer:

Estoy sin algo que hacer.
I have nothing to do.

No quiero hacerles llorar.
I don’t want to make them cry.

Hizo mucho calor la semana pasada.
It was very hot last week.

Hace dos años compré la computadora.
I bought the computer two years ago.

8. Llevar:

Ella no está llevando su propia camisa.
She isn’t wearing her own shirt.

Sólo llevo diez dólares.
I’m only carrying 10 dollars.

Los reuniones familiares son más interesantes cuando los miembros de familia no se llevan bien.
Family reunions are more interesting when the members of the family do not get along well.

Llevo varios días esperando el envío.
I have been waiting for the shipment for several days.

9. Marcar:

No olvides marcar la página web para que puedas leerla más tarde.
Don’t forget to bookmark the web page so you can read it later.

El termómetro marca 21 grados centígrados.
The thermometer reads 21 degrees Celsius.

La batalla marcó el fin de la guerra.
The battle marked the end of the war.

El número que ha marcado es incorrecto.
The number you have dialed is incorrect.

10. Marchar:

Los manifestantes marcharon en Washington.
The protesters marched on Washington.

Se marchó de inmediato por la puerta trasera.
He left right away through the back door.

Todo marcha bien.
All is well.

11. Pasar:

Pásame el vino por favor.
Please pass me the wine.

Ahora toca averiguar qué pasó.
Now it’s time to find out what happened.

Pasaron las vacaciones con sus familias.
They spent the holidays with their families.

Todo la pasamos bien.
We all had a good time.


12. Poner:

Es buena idea siempre poner las llaves en el mismo lugar.
It’s a good idea to always put the keys in the same place.

Tenemos que poner la mesa antes de llegar la familia.
We have to set the table before family arrives.

El sol se pone por el Oeste.
The sun sets in the west.

Me pusiste nervioso.
You made me nervous.

13. Quedarse:

Quédate en cama hasta que te sientas mejor.
Stay in bed until you feel better.

Sólo nos quedan unos pocos artefactos misteriosos de esa cultura desconocida.
We only have a few mysterious artifacts left from that unknown culture.

Queda un teléfono público cada cinco cuadras.
There is a public telephone every five blocks.

La camiseta azul te queda mejor que la roja.
The blue shirt suits you better than the red one.

14. Salir:

Salieron de la habitación, pero nadie se dio cuenta.
They left the room, but no one saw them.

Es imposible saber porque no salió bien.
It’s impossible to know why it didn’t turn out well.

Levántese temprano para ver el sol saliendo sobre las montañas.
Get up early to see the sun rising over the mountains.

15. Tomar:

Toma la llave y abre la puerta.
Take the keys and open the door.

Tomar un taxi es la opción más barata.
Taking a taxi is the cheaper option.

Toma sopa y te sentirás mejor.
Eat soup and you will feel better.

These translations do not represent an exhaustive list of possible meanings for each verb in question. When verbs are paired with prepositions, as demonstrated in several of the examples above, the list of possible meanings grows. When verbs are paired with nouns and adverbs to form more specific collocations, the list of meanings is virtually endless.


How to Manage the Mayhem

Don’t get overwhelmed – guard against the confusion by preparing yourself early on. Recognize that frequently used verbs will be introduced in the early chapters of your text and typically have a wide range of meanings. Verbs that are rarely expressed in language often have a more limited scope.


When you first come across a new verb, look it up to see if there are more definitions than what you’re being presented with. Think of all the different contexts in your own life where you might use the verb. Consider all the ways it can be translated.


Practice using it in conversation. Spanish-to-English dictionaries are a great resource for example sentences, but don’t stop there. Use a guess-and-check strategy with Google to see if a verb is used in the way you would use it in English. Make flashcards and review them often. Have a native speaker on italki check your accuracy.

Picture by Caleb Roenigk, (CC BY 2.0)