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spanish prepositions de and a

Important Spanish Prepositions: When to Use De vs A

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Currently, over 580 million people across the globe speak Spanish as either their primary, secondary, or even tertiary language! 

As we are exposed to the cultures and languages of different Spanish-speaking countries like Spain, Mexico, and Colombia, it might be time to brush up on our Spanish skills. When it comes to perfecting our Spanish, we need to first go back to the basics: grammar. A fundamental part of Spanish grammar includes prepositions, such as por (for), para (for), con (with), contra (against), de (of), and a (to). 

In this article, we’re going to examine some of the most useful prepositions that are commonly confused by non-native Spanish speakers: de vs. a. In this master guide, you will learn:

  • The differences between de vs. a
  • When to use de in Spanish
  • When to use a in Spanish

Let’s get started!

When to Use De in Spanish 

In Spanish, de is one of the most common prepositions. Generally speaking, this word can be translated as the following: of, from, and about. However, depending on the context, de can also be translated as with, by, or in. 

In some instances, de doesn’t translate to anything in English! Let’s take a look at simple, grammatically correct sentence structure and when to use de in Spanish.

Simple Rules for De in Spanish

Rule #1:

First, let’s examine this English statement: “gold shoes.” Gold is an adjective used to describe the color or material of the shoes. Meanwhile, in Spanish, we would say zapatos de oro… NOT oro zapatos.

Rule #2:

Next, when the article el and the preposition de are combined, it creates the meaning “the.” So, if you say “the cats of the forest,” you would combine de + el to create this statement: los gatos del bosque. 

Now that you know the simple rules for de, it’s time to take a look at the 3 most common uses of this preposition:

  • When to use de for possession 
  • When to use de for causation
  • When to use de for characteristics

3 Most Common Uses of De

Let’s begin!

1. De for Possession

Possession means “to belong to” and can indicate either physical or figurative attachment to an object, place, thought, or thing. In English, we indicate possession with an apostrophe plus “s.” 

Meanwhile, in Spanish, this is almost always translated as “de” accompanied by the possessor. So, for instance, if we wanted to say “Fernando’s cat” in Spanish, it would be el gato de Fernando

Here are several more examples to help explain when to use de in Spanish for possession.

la chaqueta de Jessica (Jessica’s jacket)

la clase de Hailey (Hailey’s class)

Los derechos de vivir en paz. (The people’s rights to live in peace.)

¿De quién es este lápiz? (Whose pencil is this?)

2. De for Causation 

Similar to possession, de can be used to explain a cause. In this manner, de is translated as with, of, or by and usually follows an adjective. Keep reading to see some quick examples of how to use de for causation.

Ella está cansada de escribir ensayos. (She is tired of writing essays.)

¿Por qué mi generación está tan aburrida de la universidad? (Why is my generation so bored by university?)

Estoy feliz de nuestra amistad. (I am happy with our friendship. NOTE: in this case, de indicates the reason for happiness.)

Now that you know how to use de for cause and effect let’s move on to the final common use of the preposition.

3. De for Characteristics

Last but not least, de is also used to demonstrate the relationship between an object or person and its key features (including contents or what something is made of). These traits, known as characteristics, are commonly specified as a noun or infinitive. 

In Spanish, the use of nouns as adjectives, also known as attributive nouns, is usually not possible. That’s where de comes in… take a look:

tacones de oro (heels of gold)

la famosa iglesia de Chile (the famous church of Chile)

una casa de gente rica (a house of rich people)

As you can see, de has multiple meanings. However, the 3 most common uses indicate possession, characteristics, and causation. Now that you understand when to use de in Spanish, it’s time to talk about the simple preposition a!

When to Use A in Spanish

A common misconception is that the Spanish preposition a is often thought to only mean “to.” In reality, this little word has so many more translations and uses! In fact, a also means on, at, from, by, in… and in some cases may not translate to anything at all! 

Instead of just learning how to use a solely through translation, we’re going to take it a step further and determine WHEN we should use the preposition a

1. Use “A” for Motion 

Here’s a hard fact: almost every verb that suggests motion is followed by a. Meanwhile, some nouns are then preceded by this preposition!

For certain other verbs, it can also be used to indicate where the action takes place. Check out these examples:

Llegamos a Chile. (We arrived in Chile.)

Se acercó a la biblioteca. (She approached the library.) 

Cayó al piso. (It fell to the floor.) 

NOTE: just as de + el = dela + el = al. It’s that simple! 

2. Use “A” Before an Infinitive 

A is also used to connect a verb with a subsequent infinitive. Essentially, when we want to signal the start of an operation, we would use a. In this case, the preposition is NOT translated separately from the infinitive.

Furthermore, “ir a + infinitive” can be used to create the future tense. Confused? Don’t be. Here are some great examples to help you understand:

Voy a bailar. (I am going to dance. NOTE: in this case, we are using “ir a + infinitive”)

Tenemos que aceptar que las cosas no van a pasar como siempre queremos. (We have to accept that things don’t always work out the way we want them to.) 

Congratulations! Now you know when to use a in Spanish!

Learn More Spanish Grammar with Pimsleur

All in all, both de and a are extremely common prepositions that are used in almost every single Spanish conversation. One of the benefits of Pimsleur courses is that you don’t need to memorize grammar rules in order to speak well in Spanish. Pimsleur Spanish helps you to train your ear so that you’ll know immediately whether a phrase should use “a” or “de.” 

Ready to continue your Spanish language journey? Check out Pimsleur, an online language learning platform that allows you to expand your horizons and speak a new language with confidence. Try a free language lesson on us or visit our blog to learn more Spanish tips and tricks. Happy learning!