Spanish expressions which use “tener” when the English ones use “to be”
Spanish language has another trait that messes learners up: “TENER” (to have). Like if the difference between ser and estar both meaning “to be” was not enough. And yeah, I know what you are thinking right now, “TENER” (to have) is not that difficult. Indeed, you are right but…sometimes the verb “TENER” in Spanish is not used in the same way that it is in English.
So to avoid mistakes or misunderstandings when talking with natives, I give you a cheat sheet with some of the expressions used with the verb “to have” instead of “to be”. You might already know some of these if you have been learning Spanish for a while, but perhaps they keep skipping from your brain as you are just used to use these verbal expressions in English. So let’s have a look to these expressions and see some examples.
Let’s start with the most common one.
1. TENER AÑOS
Ok the first one, I know that you are familiar with this one. But how many times have you said or written “soy 26 años” instead of “tengo 26 años”?
So yeah you are right, in Spanish we are not old, we have age, and that is why we use:
tener + years
- So next time someone asks you: “¿Cuántos años tienes?” - “How old are you?”
- Remember: “Tengo (your age) años”. - I have (your age) años.
- It’s never: “yo soy (your age)”. - “I am (your age)”.
It's the same when you are talking about someone else's age:
- It should be: Mi madre tiene 53 años - My mother has 53 years.
- It’s never: mi madre es 53 años - My mother is 53 years.
2. TENER FRÍO
TENER FRÍO means to be cold. If you are somewhere like in Scotland right now, and you are not wearing a jumper, in Spanish you could say “tendrás frío” while in English this literally means “you will be cold”.
Watch out! In English you would say “to have a cold” when you are sick, whereas this in Spanish is “to be” (weird things of languages). So when you actually catch a cold, in Spanish you would say “estás enfermo”.
3. TENER CALOR
TENER CALOR means to be hot. If you are talking about your holidays in Spain, probably at some point you will say:
- Fueron fenomenales pero tuvimos mucho calor, por las noches no podíamos dormir. - They were great but we were really hot, we could not sleep at night.
Does this sound familiar?
Remember: for “tener calor/frío”, if what you feel is quite intense you can put “mucho” in front, being:
- “tengo mucho calor” or “tengo mucho frío”.
4. TENER RESACA
TENER RESACA means to have a hangover. And let’s be honest, who has not said this sentence before? If for one night out, you drank more than usual, I bet it is common to hear you moaning the next morning when someone asks you how your night went:
- Última vez, no vuelvo a beber, tengo una resaca horrible. - [That’s the] last time, I am not drinking anymore, I am so hungover.
And that is until your next night out and the following morning when you will repeat it all over and over. So yea, this phrase is a handy one to be aware of.
5. TENER SUERTE
TENER SUERTE means to be lucky. Who hasn’t used this expression before! Probably not when talking about ourselves but rather of friend who just did or received something.
But let’s start by talking about yourself here. Imagine you start looking for a job and the first interview you go to, you get the job: how awesome would that be! You will be over the moon and instead of thinking you are good when people say congratulations, you will probably keep saying:
- Muchas gracias, la verdad es que he tenido mucha suerte, todavía no me lo creo. - Thank you so much, to be honest I have been very lucky, I still can’t believe it.
6. TENER ÉXITO
TENER ÉXITO means to be successful. This is a tricky one as I came across a lot of people who used the expression “ser éxito” (watch out!).
This is wrong if something or someone is successful because in Spanish we say that (he or she) has success “tiene éxito”. We can use “to be” too, but we need an adjective afterwards “ser exitoso”. Even still, this does not sound quite right; so stay on the safer side, and use the expression “tener éxito”.
If you tend listen to the radio or podcasts, and they are perhaps talking about someone with a lot of influence who just published a book. And that book has become a bestseller, a good way to introduce him would be:
- Hoy tenemos con nosotros a Pepito Pérez, que ha tenido un gran éxito con su último libro, convirtiéndose en uno de los más vendidos. - Today we have Pepito Perez with us, whose last book has been very successful and it has become one of the best sellers.
I know…I could be a good podcast host haha.
7. TENER SUEÑO
TENER SUEÑO means to be sleepy.
Like when you are really tired after an entire week of work but you are still meeting your friends. Afterwards, when you tell your friends that you are leaving, they all moan:
- “What is wrong with you?”
- “Are you ok?”
- “Why are you leaving? It is too early”
You can always reply:
- Nada, no me pasa nada, estoy cansada y tengo mucho sueño, sólo quiero descansar. - Nothing, I am ok, I am just tired and very sleepy, I just want to go rest.
Extra: “To be sleepy” is quite a popular expression in Spanish, so make a note on your notebook. Whereas in English, it is not that common (or at least I haven’t heard the saying “to be sleepy” as much since most of the time people tend to say they are tired).
8. TENER PRISA
TENER PRISA means to be in a hurry.
If you bump into someone you know on the street or when you haven’t seen someone for a long time but you can’t afford to stop as you are running late, you would apologize by saying:
- Lo siento pero tengo prisa, no puedo hablar o voy a perder mi autobús. - I am sorry but I am in a hurry, I can’t talk or I will miss my train.
9. TENER MIEDO
TENER MIEDO means to be scared.
The literal translation is “to have fear”, so I ask you, when do you ever use that sentence in English? It’s much more common to say “to be scared”.
So, if someone asks you what scares you, remember not to say:
- Estoy asustado de las arañas - I am scared of spiders. (This is quite common, but way too literal).
Instead, you can say:
- Tengo miedo de las arañas - I have a fear of spiders. This phrase will give your sentence a greater Spanish touch).
10. TENER CUIDADO
TENER CUIDADO means to be careful.
Again the literal translation is “to have care”, but again, in normal speech you would just say “to be careful”, won’t you?
If your friend is planning a trip to a part of a city you have been where you think there might be pickpockets, you will advise your friend by saying:
- Es una ciudad preciosa, pero ten cuidado en el metro con los carteristas. - It is a beautiful city but be careful in the subway with the pickpockets.
11. TENER CELOS
Literally means “to have jealousy”, but let’s be normal guys, “to be jealous” is the appropriate phrase to use.
If someone just had a new baby and already has a 3 year-old child, you will be concerned about how the 3 year-old is getting on with the new baby. So you will ask:
- ¿Y qué tal Silvia?¿Tiene celos del pequeño? - And how is Silvia? Is she jealous of the little one?.
12. TENER CONFIANZA
TENER CONFIANZA means to be confident.
Remember that whenever you are not confident, in Spanish you “have confidence”; but if we use the verb “ser”, then we would need to say “soy confiado”.
If we are talking about our feelings, however, then we use “tener”.
Like if you have an exam in order to get a promotion and your friends ask you if you are nervous but you are feeling pretty good about it. This is where you can say:
- No, no mucho la verdad, tengo confianza de que va a ir bien - No, not much to be honest, I am confident it is going to be fine.
13. TENER VERGÜENZA
TENER VERGÜENZA means to be embarrassed.
If you have one of those friends (and we all seem to have one) who sings badly but still does it in every party, you can say:
- No entiendo cómo Ricardo puede cantar en todas las fiestas, ¡lo hace fatal! No tiene vergüenza. - I can’t understand how Ricardo sings at every party, he does it very bad! He has no shame!
Learning tip: Sinvergüenza is most of the times a bad word used to describe dishonest people. Sometimes it can be used among friends in a funny way, but it is not a nice word to use.
14. TENER HAMBRE
Another phrase which surprised me, and it is heavily linked to the following phrase, is that we do not say that: we are hungry or we are hunger (I know…a bit extreme).
So if you meet some Spanish friends, probably your internal clock gets hungry before theirs (you know the crazy meal times we have) so you will need to say:
- ¡Hey chicos! Tengo hambre, ¿comemos algo? - Hey guys! I am hungry, should we eat something?
If you say this, it does not mean your Spanish friend will oblige you though.
15. TENER SED
Yeah, I know it is funny how it is perceived the Spanish people are not thirsty, we have thirst.
So if you arrive to a Spaniard’s house and they ask you if you want something, remember to say:
- Sí, tengo sed, ¿tienes (insert the drink you prefer to have, it could be: water, juice, wine, etc.). - Yes, I am thirsty, do you have (drink selection)?
16. TENER GANAS
This is one of my favorites, why? Because it is one of the most common expressions that people still forget, as it is nothing similar to its English equivalent of “to be looking forward to”.
If you have holiday plans and you are talking about it with your friends, at some point in the conversation you will say:
- Sí, ya tengo todo planeado, el hotel, el viaje, sólo falta que llegue el día, tengo muchas ganas. - Yeah I have everything planned: the hotel, and the trip. I just need to wait until the day comes, and I am so looking forward to it.
Tip: with this sentence in English, we usually use “can’t wait”. If you want to sound as a native, forget about the literal “no puedo esperar” and use “no veo el momento” instead. Trust me, people will be impressed.
So let’s go back to the example that you are going on holidays and one of your friends ask you:
- ¿Tienes ganas de ir de vacaciones? - Are you looking forward to going on holidays?
Ok, a bit of a silly question, but let’s practice the answer:
- No te puedes imaginar, no veo el momento, necesito unas vacaciones. - You can’t imagine, I can’t wait, I need a holiday.
There are a few more examples but I did not want to overwhelm you with so many, so at the moment this is it! It has ended up being a longer post than I thought, but we are not done yet.
Before we say adios...
Homework, yes! What would be of a post without an actionable, so come on, train your brain to be more bilingual today and leave a comment below with one of the sentences above.
Also leave a comment below and tell me:
- Did you know these sentences were used in Spanish with the verb “tener”?
- Have you used or heard them before?
- Were you ever confused before trying to translate or understand them?
Looking forward to reading all your comments & I will talk to you soon!
Hero image by Kats Weil (CC0 1.0)