16 Spanish Word Pairs Whose Meanings Trip Up English Speakers All the Time
Any language learner will tell you that no two languages can be directly translated into one another.
English and Spanish are no exception.
There are so many instances where one English word will have two or more Spanish translations, each one with slightly different meanings.
Take, for example, ser and estar. Both verbs translate to the English “to be.” But does that make them interchangeable in Spanish? Of course not!
If you don’t believe me, consult the difference between the phrases estoy aburrido (I’m bored) and soy aburrido (I’m boring).
So I’ve collected a list of word pairs which, to you, might have almost identical meanings. But in Spanish, they don’t.
Learning the subtle differences between these similar words can feel like a fun game—and it’s interesting to have to learn to think in a different way when speaking a different language.
Read on to learn 16 of the most useful Spanish word pairs which easily confuse English speakers.
How to Avoid Confusing Similar Words Between English and Spanish
The best way to avoid confusing similar Spanish words is to recognize the limitations of online translators like Google Translate. Sure, these tools are helpful and their results are instantaneous. But they can only help you go so far!
Take, for example, the words por and para. Google translates them as “by” and “for” respectively, but also offers more than ten other translations for each word. According to Google, both por and para can mean “for,” “to,” “by,” “at” or “as.” How could you possibly know when to use each word?
To get around this problem, look for help in more comprehensive—albeit more time-consuming—language resources. Look for conversations on the WordReference forums, where you can get native speakers’ insights on the subtle differences between words. The website Linguee also offers side-by-side translations of full sentences rather than just words, allowing you to see in what context words are actually used.
Finally, when in doubt, you can look up Spanish words on the website for the Real Academia Española, or check out a good old-fashioned Spanish-English dictionary.
16 Spanish Word Pairs That Are Especially Tricky for English Speakers
English Translation: to know
This verb pair commonly trips up English speakers learning Spanish. Think of saber as “to know (a specific fact or detail).”
¿Sabes a qué hora vas a llegar?
(Do you know what time you’ll arrive?)
Conocer, on the other hand, means “to be familiar with.”
No conozco nada de la política de la India.
(I don’t know anything about Indian politics.)
Conocer also has a few other useful meanings. Depending on context, it can mean “to meet (a person)” or “to know (a person).”
¿La conoces? (Do you know her?)
Sí, la conocí ayer. (Yes, I met her yesterday.)
Finally, to conocer a place means to have visited there.
Llevo mucho tiempo en Alemania, pero no conozco Berlín.
(I’ve been in Germany for a long time, but I’ve never been to Berlin.)
English Translation: to see, to look
Both of these verbs refer to perceiving something visually. However, there is a subtle difference in the meanings of these words.
It may be helpful to think of mirar as a translation of the English verb “look” and ver as a translation of “see.” Mirar implies actively focusing on something, whereas ver is a more passive verb that implies that you just happened to be looking at something.
Lucía me miró asombrada.
(Lucía looked at me astonished.)
Siempre veo a Jorge en la universidad.
(I always see Jorge at university.)
English Translation: time
These three words all take the place of the word English “time,” but they are by no means interchangeable.
Vez means “time” when talking about a moment or an instance.
He visto esa película mil veces.
(I’ve seen that movie a thousand times.)
Use hora to ask about the time of day.
¿Qué hora es?
(What time is it?)
Tiempo refers to a duration of time, or to the concept of time more generally.
¿Cuánto tiempo vas a estar en Hawaii?
(How much time will you spend in Hawaii?)
Mucho tiempo ha pasado.
(A lot of time has passed.)
Of course, to make everything more confusing, tiempo also has a few other meanings: weather, tempo, verb tense or a part of a sporting event.
English Translation: wall
The difference between muro and pared depends on size and function.
A muro generally refers to a larger wall that has bearing capabilities; the outdoor walls of a house or building, for example, are muros. A stand-alone wall, such as the Berlin Wall, is also a muro (el muro de Berlín, specifically).
A pared is a smaller wall. Generally, walls inside of houses (such as those that separate two rooms) are paredes.
English Translation: to ask/to ask for
The easiest way to differentiate between these two similar verbs is like this:
Are you asking a question? Use preguntar.
Are you asking for something? Use pedir, which also means “to order” or “to request.”
That’s why you preguntar a alguien sobre su familia (ask someone about their family) but pedir información (ask for information) or pedir perdón (ask for forgiveness).
And don’t forget about the false friend cuestionar, which is a less-commonly-used verb and loosely translates to “call into question” or “refute.”
English Translation: season
Estación refers to the four seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter.
However, to use the word “season” in almost any other context, you must use the word temporada. Temporada, for example, refers to a season of television, to fashion or to food being “in season” (de temporada). Any time you want to say that it is the “season for” something or the “season of” something, use temporada.
Mi estación preferida es la primavera.
(My favorite season is spring.)
Es la temporada de huracanes en Florida.
(It’s hurricane season in Florida.)
English Translation: corner
If you are talking about the corner of an object (a book, a table) or a street corner, use esquina. To talk about an inside corner of a room, or a metaphorical corner, use rincón.
Quedamos en la esquina al lado de tu casa.
(Let’s meet on the corner next to your house.)
La silla está en el rincón de la sala.
(The seat is in the corner of the living room.)
English Translation: free
I remember once hearing a foreign friend in Spain talking about how he loved getting “comida libre” along with his beer at bars. I knew what he meant—free food—but a few of the Spaniards in the group seemed puzzled.
Libre and gratis both translate to the English word “free.” However, libre refers to the state of being free, as in not restricted. Gratis, on the other hand, means free as in not costing any money.
Therefore, you can describe America as un país libre (a free country) or tell someone to siéntete libre (feel free), but “free food” is comida gratis.
English Translation: to move
The difference between the two reflexive verbs mudarse and moverse is very straightforward.
Moverse means to move one’s body.
Las tortugas se mueven lentamente.
(Turtles move slowly.)
Mudarse specifically means to change your house.
Me he mudado a España este año.
(I moved to Spain this year)
English Translation: to try
Both of these verbs mean to try, but in different situations. Generally, use probar to talk about trying something new, such as a food or an activity you’ve never done. You can also use probar to talk about trying on clothing, which is why fitting rooms in stores are called probadores.
On the other hand, intentar means “try” in the sense of attempting to do something.
¿Me dejas probar tu sopa?
(Will you let me try your soup?)
Voy a intentar llegar a las 8.
(I’m going to try to arrive at 8.)
English Translation: next
The words próximo and siguiente both translate to the English word “next,” but context determines when you use each one.
If you are talking about a time in the future, use the word próximo.
Marta vendrá el próximo jueves.
(Marta will arrive next Thursday.)
If, however, you are talking about something that happened in the past, use siguiente.
Joaquín suspendió su primer examen, pero aprobó el siguiente.
(Joaquín failed his first exam, but he passed the next one.)
English Translation: to play
These two words commonly confuse English speakers. Jugar means “to play,” and you can jugar con tus amigos (play with your friends) or jugar al fútbol (play soccer). But you can’t jugar la guitarra unless you have a very creative imagination.
The correct verb to use when talking about playing musical instruments is tocar, as in tocar el piano (play the piano).
You will also hear tocar in a variety of contexts; it also means “to touch.” You can also use the verb tocar with an object pronoun to talk about it being someone’s turn: ¿A quién le toca? (Whose turn is it?)
English Translation: to bring, to take
This word pair is the bane of my existence; even though I now fully understand the distinction between the two words, I still mix them up in everyday speech.
In colloquial English, when talking about a group dinner, you could say “I’m going to bring a pie to the dinner,” regardless of your physical location when speaking and the physical location of the party.
In Spanish, this is not the case.
If you want to talk about somebody bringing something to the location where you currently are, use traer. For example, while you are sitting at your table, you could say:
El camarero me trae un vaso de agua.
(The waiter brings me a glass of water.)
However, if you are talking about bringing something to a location where you are not currently, use the verb llevar. In the previous dinner party example, you could have to say:
Voy a llevar una tarta”.
(I’m going to bring/take a pie.)
Unless, of course, you were currently at the location where the dinner party is to be held—in which case you would use traer.
English Translation: to support
These three words are especially tricky because they all have a number of different meanings! However, the meaning that they all have in common is “to support.”
First, apoyar refers to support of a metaphorical or emotional nature. You might apoyar an argument with facts, or apoyar your friend in their latest business venture.
Mi amiga siempre apoya mis decisiones.
(My friend always supports my decisions.)
Soportar, on the other hand, means to physically support something, as in supporting the weight of something.
El puente no soportó el peso del camión.
(The bridge couldn’t support the weight of the truck.)
Finally, mantener means to support financially, to provide money, food and resources. Mantener means support in the way that parents financially support their children.
Mis padres me mantienen.
(My parents [financially] support me.)
15. Divertirse/Pasarlo Bien
English translation: to have fun, to have a good time
This word pair is the odd one out on this list: divertirse and pasarlo bien are actually synonyms. Both mean to have fun or to have a good time. The difference lies in their grammatical structure.
Divertirse is a reflexive verb, so it might be helpful to think of it as similar to the English phrase “to enjoy oneself.”
Nos divertimos mucho en la fiesta.
(We enjoyed ourselves at the party.)
Pasarlo bien literally translates to pass it well, but it also means to have fun or enjoy oneself.
Lo hemos pasado muy bien en la fiesta.
(We had a really good time at the party.)
Remember: “to have fun” is a phrase that definitely does not translate directly into Spanish. Tener divertido does not make sense in Spanish.
English Translation: to remember, to remind
Acordarse and recordar can be used almost interchangeably to mean “to remember.” The only difference is the verb form. Acordarse is a reflexive verb and needs to be accompanied by the preposition de. Recordar stands on its own.
No me acuerdo de tu nombre.
(I don’t remember your name.)
No recuerdo tu nombre.
(I don’t remember your name.)
Although the verbs are interchangeable in this sense, recordar also has a second meaning: to remind. Acordarse does not share this second meaning. So, you can tell someone, “Recuérdame que tengo que ir al banco” (Remind me that I need to go to the bank) or “Tú me recuerdas a mi hermano” (You remind me of my brother), but you cannot use acordarse in these situations.
Word pairs like the ones listed above cause English speakers to trip up all the time. But keep at it, and eventually differentiating between rincones and esquinas, or between estaciones y temporadas, will feel like second nature. Soon, you might even find yourself wishing the English language had some of the word distinctions that only exist in Spanish!