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Idiomatic Expressions and Uses of Tener

If you have spent any time studying Spanish, you’ve probably come across some form of the verb tener, ‘to have’. This lovely verb is one of the top five most frequently used verbs in the language, but you may not recognize its many other everyday uses. I started this post thinking of listing five examples, but within a few hours of posting I realized I had used at least four more during the first hours of my day!

1. Tengo que + infinitive–I have to _____

In addition to expressing possession, phrases with tener que express something you have to do. These days you can look just about any verb up, but making sure the que is in there is important to show the shift in meaning for this expression. Make sure your second verb is in the infinitive. *Infinitive just means you don’t have to conjugate the second verb–it should always end in -ar, -er, or -ir.

  • Tengo que dormir./I have to sleep.
  • Tengo que hacer la tarea./I have to do the homework.
  • Tengo que trabajar mañana/I have to work tomorrow.
  • Tengo mucho que hacer hoy./I have a lot to do today.

2. Tiene que ver con–It has to do with

In addition to being an expression with tener que + infinitive, in order to say

‘It has to do with’ the infinitive of ver–‘to see’ is used.

 

  • ¿Qué? Esto tiene que ver conmigo./What? This has to do with me.
  • No, esto no tiene nada que ver con eso./No, this has nothing to do with that.

3. Tengo ganas– I feel like

Again, the direct translation of this phrase is a bit strange, however, it is used very commonly in speech. If you want or do not want to do something, this might be your perfect phrase.

  • No tengo ganas de lavar los platos ahorita./I don’t feel like doing the dishes right now.
  • Tengo muchas ganas de viajar a la India./I really want to go to India.
  • ¿Tienes ganas de comer?/Do you feel like eating?
  • No, no tengo ganas. No tengo hambre./I don’t feel like it. I´m not hungry.

4. Tener éxito–to be successful

Éxito is success, so this is literally, ´to have success´. This may be used to describe a small accomplishment or something grande. Maybe you were able to get a lot done today. Where I live in Honduras some errands take a long time, and if you can accomplish more than 2 or 3 in a day, you have probably had success. If you have done well on an exam, you’ve also been successful. Here are a few examples:

  • Tuve éxito. Fui al banco, la migración, y hice las compras./I had success! I went to the bank, immigration, and I did the shopping.
  • No tengo mucho éxito con las matemáticas./I am not very successful (good) with Math.
  • Quiero tener éxito en el concurso./I want to be successful in the competition.
  • Tengo éxito/I am having success! (I am getting it!)
  • No tuve éxito/I wasn’t successful, I couldn’t do it. (the simple past tense is used here.)

5. Tengo hambre, Tengo sed–I am hungry, I am thirsty

Hunger, thirst, and sensations are often expressed with tener in Spanish. Rather than ‘I am hungry’ and ‘I am thirsty’ you ‘have’ hunger and thirst. This one is pretty straightforward, right?

  • Tengo sed. Tengo ganas de tomar un galón de agua.
  • Tengo mucha hambre./I am really hungry

6. Tengo Calor, Tengo Frío–I am hot, I’m cold

Talking about the sensation of feeling hot or cold also requires tener. It should be noted that using estar to express this kind of sensation can have a sexual connotation and cause for some confusion, so just remember to use tener!

  • Hace sol y está húmedo. Tengo calor./It’s really sunny and humid. I am hot.
  • Hace nieve. Tengo frío./It’s snowing. I’m cold.

7. Tengo miedo–I’m afraid

A typical idiom for expressing something you’re afraid of, tener miedo, ‘to have fear’ is used. Once again, tener is used to discuss feelings or sensations in Spanish!

  • Tengo miedo de los ratones./I am afraid of rats.
  • No tengo miedo de las culebras./I am not afraid of snakes.
  • No tengo miedo de hablar./I’m not afraid of talking.

8. Tengo pena–I’m embarrassed.

This one is slightly tricky to translate. For beginners, its best just to think of it as holding a bit of a negative or difficult feeling. Pena refers to embarrassment, shyness, pity, or shame. Upon looking up various professional translations, I found quite a few meanings and have heard all of them used:

  • Tengo pena cuando los animales sufren./I feel pity when I see animals suffering.
  • Tengo pena al hablar francés./I feel embarrassed/shy when speaking French.
  • ¡No tengas pena!/Don’t be shy/ashamed!
  • Ella tiene pena de irse./She feels teary-eyed leaving.

9. Tengo sueño–I’m sleepy

Literally translated this expression would be something like, ‘I have dream’. This isn’t really intuitive for a lot of English native speakers, but the phrase is extremely common and easy to use in place of Estoy cansado/a.

Tengo sueño y tengo que trabajar mañana./I am sleepy and I have to work tomorrow.

Ok! Go out, have fun, and use these expressions in your everyday life!

10. Tener used to talk about age or amount of time

In order to say how old someone is, you would use the verb tener.

  • ¿Cuántos años tiene/s?/How old are you?
  • Tengo quince años/I am fifteen years old.
  • Ella es joven. Solo tiene seis años./She is young. She is only six years old.
  • No tenemos 21 años. No podemos tomar tanto alcohol.

Just to reiterate, neither ser or estar can be used to talk about age.

Ser represents defining characteristics, and estar is used to talk about location and condition.

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Tener - to have

 singular plural 
1st personsyotengo nosotros
nosotras
tenemos
2nd personstienes vosotros
vosotras
tenéis
ustedtieneustedestienen
3rd personsél
ella
tiene ellos
ellas
tienen

Pronunciation Practice! 🤪

 

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