In, On, and By: A Beginner’s Guide to Spanish Prepositions
Someone once said, “If size mattered, the elephant would be the king of the jungle.” When it comes to learning Spanish, the bigger words, like verbs, often steal the show. However, the smaller ones—like prepositions—are just as important. There are dozens of Spanish prepositions, but we’ll just start with the basics today: how to say “in”, “on”, and “by.”
Prepositions in Spanish
Before we delve into specific prepositions in Spanish, let’s review what exactly they are. According to Oxford Languages, a preposition is
“An unchanging word that is used to establish a dependency relationship between two or more words; the one that follows the preposition functions as the object; the type of relationship that is established depends on the preposition.”
“Palabra invariable que se utiliza para establecer una relación de dependencia entre dos o más palabras; la que sigue a la preposición funciona como complemento; el tipo de relación que se establece varía según la preposición.”
In other words, prepositions create a unique relationship between two other words. Look at how the sentences change with the prepositions:
The book is on the table.
The book is under the table.
The book is next to the table.
The book is by the table.
“In” vs “On” in Spanish
These two words are some of the most common prepositions. Believe it or not, they are actually the same word in Spanish. Yes, both “in” and “on” translate to en. Let’s see some examples.
My phone is on the bed. – Mi teléfono está en la cama.
My phone is in my backpack. – Mi teléfono está en mi mochila.
Now, if you’re wondering how Spanish speakers know whether an object is “on” or “in” something, you’re not alone! It’s often easy to determine which meaning of en is being used based on the context. For instance, en la mesa must mean “on the table” because you can’t put something in it. Likewise, en la gaveta means “in the drawer” because you can’t put something on a drawer.
However, for other objects, just using en is unclear.
El perro está en la caja.
This could mean either “the dog is in the box” or “the dog is on the box.”
Está en la maleta.
This could mean either “it is in the suitcase” or “it is on the suitcase.”
For many situations, the meaning of en can be ambiguous and cause confusion. Luckily, there are more specific prepositions in Spanish to help avoid misunderstandings.
Additional Prepositions in Spanish for “On”
To specify that something is literally on top of another object, you can use encima de or sobre.
El regalo está en la cama. – The gift is on the bed.
El regalo está encima de la cama. – The gift is on (top of) the bed.
El regalo está sobre la cama. – The gift is on the bed.
To help differentiate these extra prepositions, encima de means specifically “on top of,” while sobre means “on” or “over.”
However, sobre can also mean “about” or “envelope,” depending on the context. To practice saying “on” in Spanish, start with en and encima de. Once you’re ready, try adding sobre into the mix.
Additional Prepositions in Spanish for “In”
To be more specific about an object that is inside something, use dentro de.
El regalo está en la caja. – The gift is in the box.
El regalo está dentro de la caja. – The gift is in(side) the box.
As you can see, dentro de can be translated to “in” or “inside.” Just like we use “in” and “inside” virtually interchangeably in English, en and dentro de are synonyms in Spanish.
There is one more word in Spanish that you may hear for “in” and “inside,” which is adentro (de). However, this one has a specific use; only use it with verbs describing a directional action.
El regalo va adentro de la caja. – The gift goes inside the box.
Tengo frío. Voy para adentro. – I’m cold. I’m going inside.
Again, start with just en and dentro de so you don’t get overwhelmed with so many Spanish prepositions.
How to Say “By” in Spanish
The most common way to say “by” in Spanish is por. Yes, that por which is commonly confused with para. This tiny word has many meanings (by, for, because of, etc.), but it is the simplest way to say “by.”
The phone is by the window. – El teléfono está por la ventana.
The book was written by my best friend. – El libro fue escrito por mi mejor amiga.
She sent me the invitation by email. – Ella me envió la invitación por correo electrónico.
I walked by the school. – Caminé por la escuela.
If you would like to specify an object’s location, you can also use the following prepositions in Spanish.
El teléfono está al lado de la ventana. – The phone is next to the window.
El teléfono está junto a la ventana. – The phone is beside the window.
Al lado de literally means “to the side of,” and junto a means “together to.” Both of these prepositions mean “by,” or more specifically “beside” or “next to.”
Wow, that was a lot of prepositions! The difference between each preposition in Spanish can be hard to understand at first, but with practice, you’ll soon be a master. Take a look at this chart to better understand the specific use of each preposition.
|En||On||El lápiz está en la mesa.|
|Encima de||On, on top of||El lápiz está encima de la mesa.|
|Sobre||On, over||El lápiz está sobre la mesa.|
|En||In||El lápiz está en la caja.|
|Dentro de||In, inside, within||El lápiz está dentro de la caja.|
|Adentro (de)||In, inside, indoors (used with directional verbs)||El lápiz va adentro de la caja.|
|Por||By||El lápiz está por la computadora.|
|Al lado de||By, next to||El lápiz está al lado de la computadora.|
|Junto a||By, next to, beside||El lápiz está junto a la computadora.|
Although on, in, and by have multiple translations in Spanish, you can start out simply by using en and por. If you just use those prepositions, native speakers will understand. Once you’re ready, try including more variety to specify an object’s location. Keep your ears peeled for how native speakers use these words in conversation. Finally, don’t get discouraged or bogged down with all the prepositions in Spanish! The differences between them can be confusing even to native speakers.
Continue on Your Spanish Journey!
Navigating the world of prepositions in Spanish can be confusing. How do you know when to use each one correctly? What if you don’t quite understand the meaning of a preposition used in conversation? These are great things to consider, and Homeschool Spanish Academy has just the right solution to give you confidence when using prepositions in Spanish: live, interactive classes with a native Spanish speaker!
Try a free class with HSA today from the comfort of your own home! You can ask them any question you may have about prepositions in Spanish, and they will give you examples, exercises, and real-life conversational practice. Sign up today and see for yourself! ¡Estudia español en línea!
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