EN or A in Spanish? Get the right preposition every time!

EN or A in Spanish? Use the right preposition every time!

¿Estoy a la estación o estoy en la estación? (I am at the station or I am in the station?)

¿En la derecha o a la derecha? (On the right or to the right?)

¿Pon los platos a la mesa o pon los platos en la mesa? (Put the dishes in the table or put the dishes on the table?)

I admit, knowing when to use “en” & “a” in Spanish is not easy, especially because “a” is a big preposition we use for a lot of things. But in this video we’ll go over how to differentiate them so that if you learn these chunks, you’ll know you’re getting it right every time!

I’m Spring Spanish teacher Maura, and here is chunk number one:

1. “En” Vs. “A”: the biggest difference

Estoy en la piscina Vs. Voy a la piscina. (I’m in the pool Vs. I’m going to the pool.)

If we use English as a base, we can say “en” is often translated as “in” and “a” is often translated as “to”. In Spanish, you can think of “en” for everything that means inside and “a” for everything that requires a movement towards something or somewhere.

That’s why you’d say: estoy en la piscina (I’m in the pool) to mean you’re inside the water. And: voy a la piscina (I’m going to the pool) to say you’ll move, or go, towards the pool.

You have to understand that the verb is the preposition’s master. This means, dependiendo del verbo, se usará una u otra preposición. (depending on the verb, you’ll use one or the other preposition.) Understanding this will help you use it in your favor. For verbs of movement use “a”, for verbs of placement inside somewhere or something, use “en”. For example:

Verbs of movement:

  • Corre al supermercado y compra hielo. (Run to the supermarket and buy ice.)
  • Sube a la terraza y trae dos sillas. (Go up to the terrace and bring 2 chairs.)
  • El perro salió al jardín esta mañana. (The dog went out to the garden this morning.)

Verbs of placement inside somewhere or something:

  • Estoy en la casa, puedes venir. (I’m in the house, you can come.)
  • Vivimos en un planeta maravilloso. (We live on a wonderful planet.)
  • Pon la ensalada en la nevera. (Put the salad in the fridge.)

Remember, you don’t even have to learn the rules. Just learn these chunks, and you’ll sure be using them correctly every time! Además, antes de pasar a la siguiente sección, (Also, before we move on to the next section,) let’s quickly review why it is that even if we’re talking about “en” and “a”, I keep using “al”.

If you need to use “el” right after the preposition “a”, like in “voy a el cine” (I’m going to the cinema), merge the two words and use “al”: voy al cine (I’m going to the cinema.) ¡Y eso es todo! (And that’s it!) With “la” it doesn’t happen, as you can see here: voy a la panadería (I’m going to the bakery).

Let’s all share a second of silence to rejoice in how simple that was. Now let’s look at some more confusing examples. Sigamos. (Let’s continue.)

2. Time

So, el tiempo es definitivamente el terreno más importante que estas dos preposiciones tienen en común. (time is definitely the most important terrain these 2 prepositions have in common.) With time, there’s no clear “movement” or “placement” here, so things become more confusing!

As a general rule, use “en” for bigger extensions of time, like a month. “A” works mostly with hours, like a la una de la tarde (at 1 in the afternoon). But let’s just look at some chunks you can memorize, which will make everything much easier:

Time with “en”:

  • John Lennon nació en 1940. (John Lennon was born in 1940.)
  • Las vacaciones empiezan en julio. (Vacations start in July.)
  • Aquí no hace tanto frío en invierno. (Here it’s not so cold in winter.)

Time with “a”:

  • Nos vemos a las 5:30 p.m. (See you at 5:30 p.m.)
  • El tren sale a diez para las 8:00 a.m. (The train leaves at ten to 8:00 a.m.)
  • Tenemos que empezar a las 12:00 en punto. (We have to start at 12:00 sharp.)

Antes de que lo olvide, acompáñame hasta el final si quieres conocer un par de expresiones idiomáticas con “en” y “a”, que nada tienen que ver con estas reglas ¡pero que son usadas todo el tiempo! (Before I forget, join me at the end if you want to know a couple of idiomatic expressions with “en” and “a”, that have nothing to do with these rules but are used all the time!)

Within the day with “a” and “en”:

During the day itself, there are different moments that correspond to either one or the other. Let’s check this little drawing I made for you and go over them together:

  • Está más oscuro en la madrugada. (It is darkest in the early morning.)
  • El sol sale en la mañana. (The sun rises in the morning.)
  • Solemos comer al mediodía. (We usually eat lunch at noon.)
  • Luego seguimos trabajando en la tarde. (Then we continue working in the afternoon.)
  • En la noche nos relajamos. (In the evening, we relax.)
  • A media noche es buena hora para dormir. (Midnight is a good time to sleep.)

Chunk Alert!

En punto (sharp) maybe you already know this, but in case you don’t, I cannot let the opportunity pass. Muy pocas expresiones en español tienen una sola alternativa (Very few expressions in Spanish have only one alternative) but this is, as far as I know, the only way to refer to this that is not slang.

So put it in your pocket and use it anytime you need to be adamant about time, like: ¡te veo en la puerta de la estación a las 3:30 p.m. en punto! (see you at the station gate at 3:30 p.m. sharp!)

For more irreplaceable chunks like this one, make sure to access the link en la descripción (in the description) to get our free Essential Spanish Chunking kit! ¡Está especialmente hecho para ti! (It’s made especially for you!)

3. Position

Now let’s go over positions in space. Careful! This is not about places like edificios, ciudades o areas (buildings, cities, or areas) which we already established go with “en”. This is about whether things are to your right or on the table, for example:

  • Use “a” with:
    • Left and right:
      • A la izquierda pueden ver el monumento nacional, y a la derecha, los jardines reales. (On the left you can see the national monument, and on the right, the royal gardens.)
    • Sides:
      • Siéntate a mi lado. (Sit next to me.)
      • La farmacia está al lado de la plaza. (The pharmacy is next to the square.)
  • Use “en” with:
    • On top of something:
      • Colgamos el cuadro en la pared. (We hung the painting on the wall.)
      • Tengo pintura en la cara. (I have paint on my face.)

Notice how we could usually exchange this “en” for “sobre”. This also happens in this context:

  • Cuéntame en qué estás pensando. (Tell me what you are thinking.)

4. Duration

These two prepositions can talk about duration, but in very different ways. Let’s see some examples and understand where the difference lies.

  • Nos vemos en tres semanas. (See you in 3 weeks.)
  • La veo tres veces a la semana. (I see her 3 times a week.)
  • El proyecto debe estar listo en un mes. (The project must be ready in one month.)
  • Se hace un proyecto al mes. (You do one project a month.)
  • No le he escrito en dos días. (I haven’t written to him in 2 days.)
  • Le escribo dos veces al día. (I write to him twice a day.)

In each case, we use “en” when we are talking about length and/or duration, like: nos vemos en tres semanas (see you in 3 weeks) would mean we have to wait that length of time to see each other.

Whereas, we use “a” to talk about how often something happens, as in: La veo tres veces a la semana. (I see her 3 times a week.)

Little side note: use the expression “a diario” (daily) to say something happens every day. For example: Yo tengo que meditar a diario. (I have to meditate daily.)

5. Transportation

Because I’m sure you’ve heard this and, again, we use both in the same way but not for the same thing, let’s talk a little bit about transportation.

Use “a” for “a pie” (on foot):

  • Prefiero ir a pie, me gusta caminar. (I rather go on foot, I like to walk.)
  • Ellos van a pie al colegio porque les queda cerca. (They go on foot to the school because it’s nearby.)

Use “en” for everything else that is not your body:

  • Me encanta viajar en barco. (I love to travel by ship.)
  • Es sano moverse en bicicleta. (It’s healthy to move around by bicycle.)
  • No necesito andar en carro. (I don’t need to ride in a car.)
  • Nos iremos en tren. (We’ll go by train.)

6. Useful expressions

Time for those two idiomatic expressions. We use these all the time, but it is almost impossible to get to them through the rules we’ve seen so far.

  • En este momento (at this time): we can use this with and for anything. For example:
    • Estoy ocupada, no puedo mirarlo en este momento. (I’m busy, I can’t look at it right now.)
    • En este momento yo diría que sí, pero después te confirmo. (At the moment I would say yes, but I will confirm later.)
  • Poco a poco (little by little): this expression is just as common, and we would use it to say something happens slowly, or we’re pacing ourselves with something.
    • He ido ahorrando poco a poco y ya casi tengo el dinero completo para el viaje. (I have been saving little by little, and I almost have all the money for the trip.)
    • Estoy muy cansada, pero tengo mucho que hacer, así que iré poco a poco.  (I am very tired, but I have a lot to do, so I will go little by little.)

Quiz

Now, try using what you have learned to fill in the blanks in the following sentences:

  • Hay jugo _____ la nevera. (There’s juice in the fridge.)
  • Necesito que vayas ______ Zara a buscarme un paquete. (I need you to go to Zara to get a package for me.)
  • Publicamos un video ______ la semana. (We publish a video once per week.)
  • El próximo video sale ______ una semana. (The next video will be out in a week.)

“En” and “a” aren’t the only prepositions of place in Spanish. There are others such as de, sobre, and more. But don’t worry. If you learn these with chunks too, they become much easier to use.

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