Prepositions: Those vile linguistic critters crawling through just about every Spanish sentence.
They can seem tiny nuisances, but one false step with your prepositions and your Spanish gets very silly sounding, or, even worse, is rendered meaningless.
We have to live with them, though, and this post can help with that. I’m going to assume here that you’ve already had quite a bit of work with Spanish prepositions and how to use them with verbs.
You’ve even zeroed in on some problem areas, like the distinctions between por and para.
Today we’re going to cover nine super-common mistakes that intermediate to advanced Spanish students tend to make in conversation, even after they’ve learned their prepositions backwards and forwards.
The 9 Most Dastardly Spanish Preposition and Verb Problems for English Speakers
1. Asking for
In English, “ask for” is two words, and it’s common to hear English speakers trying to recreate this effect in their Spanish:
[X] Pregunté por ayuda.
[X] Pedí por ayuda.
Neither of the above works. It should in fact be:
Pedí ayuda. — I asked for help.
Isn’t that sweet and short? The Spanish verb pedir means “to ask for” or “request” all by itself—no need for any extra preposition.
The verb preguntar (to ask) can in fact be used with the preposition por, but then you’re no longer requesting something but asking about it:
Pregunté por su amiga. — I asked about his friend. (For example, a friend of his who was supposed to come with him.)
2. Time periods of the day
The prepositions por and de can be confusing in terms of time periods. To say in the morning you might use either one, depending on the situation:
Por la mañana trabajo. — I work in the morning.
Empiezo a trabajar a las 10:00 de la mañana. — I start working at 10:00 in the morning.
As you can see from the examples, de is used to follow an exact time that something happens, and por with approximate times that things tend to happen. The same principal applies to tarde and noche.
Salgo por la noche. — I go out at night.
Salgo con Ana a las 10:00 de la noche. — I go out with Ana at 10:00 at night.
3. Time spent doing something
A student heading to Cuba for study abroad might declare:
[X] Voy a vivir en Cuba por seis meses.
But after living there and improving her skills, she’ll know how to say it correctly:
Voy a vivir en Cuba seis meses. — I’m going to live in Cuba for six months.
No preposition is needed to say how long you’re going to be doing something for.
4. Dressed in something
Do you like what a special someone is wearing? Don’t say this:
[X] Me encanta cuando Ana va vestida en negro.
But rather this:
Me encanta cuando Ana va vestida de negro. — I love it when Ana goes dressed in black.
In English, we think of her as dressed “in” whatever color, but in Spanish we use de (of) with the name of the color. You can also say va vestida de vaquera (she’s going about dressed as a cowgirl).
5. Noticing something
We’ve seen a couple of examples wherein Spanish has no preposition and English does, but the reverse also happens, for example, when you’re talking about noticing something. It’s not:
[X] Fíjate eso.
Fíjate en eso. — Take note of/pay attention to that.
The verb-preposition combo fijarse en means “to notice,” and you need the en.
6. Future intentions
To express the idea of doing something with an objective, por is not your friend:
[X] Utilizo la aplicación FluentU mucho por poder hablar mejor.
After enjoying some authentic Spanish videos through the app, however, the improved speaker will say:
Utilizo la aplicación FluentU mucho para poder hablar mejor. — I use the FluentU app a lot so that I can speak better.
The general rule is that when you’re thinking of the future or of moving forward, you’re going to choose para, and not its poor, backward-looking sister por.
7. I passed in front of…
Sometimes antes and delante can cause a bit of confusion. You definitely shouldn’t say:
[X] He pasado antes de la piscina.
He pasado por delante de la piscina. — I passed in front of the pool.
Antes can be used with concepts of time, like antes de las 9:00 (before 9:00), el día antes (the day before) and antes de matarte (before killing you).
Delante gets the nod when we’re talking about spatial conceptions: estoy delante de la tienda (I’m in front of/opposite the store) or delante de mis ojos (before my very eyes).
8. Obligatory contractions
It’s not uncommon to hear even more advanced speakers say something like:
[X] el personaje de el libro
If they stop to think about it, they probably know very well that it should be:
el personaje del libro — the character from the book
Unlike in English, contractions in Spanish are obligatory. So, de (of/from) and the masculine definite article el (the) must always be combined when they occur together: del.
Take care to do the same with a (to) and el. The result is al, as in:
Voy al banco. — I’m going to the bank.
This mistake can be insidious because it’s so small that teachers and friends might not bother to correct you.
9. Duration and the past
The difference between hace and desde hace can seem a bit horrifying.
I can’t go into all of the uses here, and in any case if you’re unfamiliar with them I’d encourage you to learn each one separately, on separate days, and focus on the constructions in which they’re used. But here’s what you should remember, for those who may have already studied them and then gotten a bit confused.
When you’re talking about a point in the past, use the past tense and hace:
Llegué aquí hace dos horas. — I got here two hours ago.
[X] Llegué aquí desde dos horas.
When you’re talking about a thing that started in the past and is continuing up to now, use the present tense and desde hace:
Estoy aquí desde hace dos horas. — I have been here for two hours.
[X] Estoy aquí hace dos horas.
The latter is a very common error, but so meaningless that it would be hard for a native speaker to guess what exactly you’re trying to say!
Figuring out when to use which preposition with which verb is an ongoing adventure that you’ll deal with throughout your education in Spanish. As with any language, its prepositions are sneaky and difficult to learn, but very important for not sounding like an idiot, and sometimes even for getting your point across.
Take heart, though. After a while the correct uses do just start to “sound right.”
That’s where lots of practice with native speakers—and of course watching lots of videos like we do on the FluentU app—can help enormously.
Ask people to correct you, and when they do, try to pay special attention to prepositions—they’re tiny, but as we’ve seen here, quite vital.
Mose Hayward also has his own blog about unconventional and untoward language learning techniques.
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