Tocar vs Jugar: What’s the Difference Between these Spanish Verbs?
Have you ever wondered what’s the difference between tocar and jugar? I ask because these two Spanish verbs can get tricky for native English speakers sometimes, and the reason for that is the double meaning of the English verb “to play.”
You can play a game, but also a piano. In Spanish, you have two verbs to express those two different actions. And that’s why we have a tocar vs jugar argument.
What does tocar and jugar mean? What are their different meanings and variances? When to use one or the other? Keep reading to find out the answers to these questions, get examples set in real-life situations, and learn the main conjugations of both tocar and jugar.
Tocar vs Jugar: to Play vs to Play
In Spanish, when you want to say that someone is “playing” a musical instrument you have to use the verb tocar:
Pedro toca la guitarra.
Pedro plays the guitar.
But then, when you want to express that someone is “playing” a game you have to use the verb jugar:
María juega con la pelota.
María plays with the ball.
This is another case of an English verb that has two different translations in Spanish, just as the verb “to ask” which I discussed in Ordenar vs Pedir: What’s the Difference Between these Spanish Verbs.
These types of verbs can become a headache for Spanish learners, as they struggle to differentiate when to use each of the Spanish translations. To avoid this, let’s dig deep into the definition, meaning, and subtleties of both verbs: tocar vs jugar in Spanish.
Tocar: Meanings and Variances
In the example above about “playing the guitar,” I used the verb tocar correctly. However, that’s just one of the many uses and meanings that tocar has. Let’s learn all of them!
Tocar comes from the Latin verb “toccare,” which signals the verb original meaning: “to touch,” which also derives from the same Latin word. In this context, tocar refers to physical contact between persons or things. You can tocar your mom’s hand with your fingers, but also a car’s tire can tocar the street pavement.
Me tocó con sus manos frías.
He touched me with his cold hands.
La pelota tocó el suelo.
The ball touched the floor.
¿Ya tocaste el agua para ver si está caliente?
Have you touched the water to see if it’s already hot?
To Play (an instrument)
For some obscure reason lost in centuries past, when someone plays a musical instrument you have to use the verb tocar. If you think about it, you can find a certain logic in saying that someone is “touching” the piano with his fingers, however, this logic doesn’t consider the fact that I can “touch” the piano without actually “playing” it.
Anyway, when referring to musical instruments use the verb tocar in Spanish.
Miguel toca el saxofón.
Miguel plays the sax.
Ayer toqué la batería en la escuela.
Yesterday, I played the drums at school.
In Spanish, the bells of a church or a doorbell are considered the same as a guitar or a piano, as you also have to use the verb tocar for them.
¿Quién tocó las campanas de la iglesia?
Who rang the bells of the church?
Yo toqué el timbre.
I rang the doorbell.
To Knock (the door)
Keeping with the logic of “touching something to make noise,” in Spanish you use tocar when someone “knocks the door.”
Toca la puerta para ver si están en casa.
Knock on the door to see if they’re at home.
¿Quién toca la puerta?
Who’s knocking at the door?
To Touch On
Although not physically, you can also “touch on” a subject when speaking or writing. For this situation, in Spanish, you also use the verb tocar.
El profesor tocó el tema del cambio climático.
The teacher touched on the subject of climate change.
Gabriel García Márquez tocó muchos géneros literarios.
Gabriel García Márquez touched on many literary genres.
This meaning is the hardest to explain as it implies several different English verbs. You can also use tocar to say that it’s someone’s turn at something, or that someone received something, a task, a present, etc. It’ll get clearer once you read the next couple of examples:
¿Qué turno te tocó?
What number did you get?
Te toca lavar los platos.
It’s your turn to wash the dishes.
¿Qué te tocó en la rifa de la oficina?
What did you get in the office raffle?
Tocar Conjugation Set
Tocar behaves like a regular verb, however, you have to change the c of the stem to qu when before a letter e.
|yo toco||I touch|
|tú tocas||you touch|
|él/ella toca||he/she touches|
|nosotros tocamos||we touch|
|ustedes tocan||you touch|
|ellos/ellas tocan||they touch|
|yo toqué||I touched|
|tú tocaste||you touched|
|él/ella tocó||he/she touched|
|nosotros tocamos||we touched|
|ustedes tocaron||you touched|
|ellos/ellas tocaron||they touched|
|yo tocaré||I will touch|
|tú tocarás||you will touch|
|él/ella tocará||he/she will touch|
|nosotros tocaremos||we will touch|
|ustedes tocarán||you will touch|
|ellos/ellas tocarán||they will touch|
Jugar: Meanings and Variances
Jugar, on the other hand, is a much more straightforward verb than tocar. The confusion that jugar produces comes more from the double meaning of the English verb “to play,” than from different connotations or meanings conveyed by jugar itself.
Jugar means to play games or juegos, or sports; to play with toys, to play with other kids, and basically, to play to have fun. Take off your mind the English meaning of the verb “to play” which implies “playing a musical instrument” and you have understood what jugar means.
Carlos juega fútbol por la tarde.
Carlos plays football in the afternoon.
Ayer jugamos a las escondidas con tus primos.
Yesterday we played hide and seek with your cousins.
¿Dónde jugarán los niños?
Where will the children play?
¿Quieres jugar con mis muñecas?
Do you want to play with my dolls?
Jugar Conjugation Set
Jugar is a unique irregular verb as it’s the only verb in Spanish that changes the u in the stem for ue. It also changes from g to gu in some forms to keep with the guttural sound of g before a letter e.
|yo juego||I play|
|tú juegas||you play|
|él/ella juega||he/she plays|
|nosotros jugamos||we play|
|ustedes juegan||you play|
|ellos/ellas juegan||they play|
|yo jugué||I played|
|tú jugaste||you played|
|él/ella jugó||he/she played|
|nosotros jugamos||we played|
|ustedes jugaron||you played|
|ellos/ellas jugaron||they played|
|yo jugaré||I will play|
|tú jugarás||you will play|
|él/ella jugará||he/she will play|
|nosotros jugaremos||we will play|
|ustedes jugarán||you will play|
|ellos/ellas jugarán||they will play|
If you want to learn more about the verb jugar and check out its complete conjugation set, you can read Jugar Conjugation: Free Spanish Lesson, Exercises, and PDF.
Advanced Spanish Verbs Quiz
Test your new advanced Spanish verbs skills with this free interactive quiz!
Fill in the blank:
1. ¿Cuándo _____ el piano por última vez?
2. Ayer Erika me _____ la mano.
3. Mañana _____ videojuegos en mi casa.
4. ¿Ya _____ la puerta?
5. El presidente no _____ el tema del desempleo.
6. El próximo año ______ béisbol en el estadio de la ciudad.
7. El sacerdote _______ las campanas de la iglesia.
8. ¿Quieres _____ ajedrez?
9. Ayer me _____ levantarme temprano.
10. _____ el agua con la punta del pie.
Tocar, Jugar, Aprender
“To touch, to play, to learn.” With these two verbs on the fold now, you keep growing your mystery of tricky Spanish verbs that can be used in different ways and with more than one meaning. Just remember that tocar is more like “to touch,” and that jugar is an almost literal translation of “to play,” except when it refers to playing a musical instrument.
Sign up for a free class to practice these and many other verbs with one of our certified, native Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala. They provide one-on-one Spanish instructions in real-time and teach over 24,000 different students each month. The schedules are flexible and the lessons can be tailored to your needs.
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