Posted by: janecronin | February 4, 2018


“Tener” (to have) is a very basic verb and one of the first ones we learn in Spanish classes.  In fact, you will probably have learnt the form “tengo” (I have) and perhaps the formal “¿tiene?” (Do you have?) before you realised that it came from the infinitive verb “tener”.  I usually teach the more familiar question form “¿tienes?” (Do you have?) as well, as in so much spoken Spanish nowadays people address each other with these familiar “tú” verb forms.

“Tener” is what we call a root changing verb, which means that the “e” in the root becomes “ie” in several of its present tense forms: “tienes” and “tiene” as we have just seen, and also “tienen” (they have).  As with all root changing verbs, the first and second persons plural retain the infinitive root: “tenemos” (we have) and “tenéis” (you have, plural).  This verb is irregular in several other tenses.  The preterite or past simple tense is “tuve, tuviste, tuvo, tuvimos, tuvisteis, tuvieron” (I had, you had etc) and the future simple form is “tendré, tendrás, tendrá, tendremos tendréis, tendrán” (I will have, you will have etc.).  So, overall, as basic as it is, “tener” does have its difficulties.

In English the verb “to have” has a lot of different uses, so we must be careful not to assume that “have” is always translated with “tener”.  For example, “to have a shower” (ducharse), “to have dinner” (cenar) or “to have a drink” (tomar algo, OR tomar una bebida) do not involve the verb “tener”.  Likewise, when we are creating the present perfect, or recent past tense, as it “I have seen” or “they have written”, we do not use “tener” either.  Here the verb is “haber”: “he visto” (I have seen) and “han escrito” (they have written).

If you haven´t studied these things yourself they all might look very confusing, but if you think of “tener” as principally meaning “to have” in the sense of possession, this might help you to see the wood from the trees.

There are some interesting compound verbs that are formed from “tener”.  For example “contener” (to contain); “mantener” (to maintain); “retener” (to retain) “detener” (to detain, to arrest) “sostener” (to sustain).  Notice that in all these cases, the English translation is similar to the Spanish,and therefore rooted in Latin, whereas the basic word “to have” is of Germanic, Old English origin.  From a grammatical point of view it’s useful to realise that these compounds change in exactly the same way as the base verb “tener”. For example “contiene” (it contains); “mantengo” (I maintain); “la policía detuvo el ladrón” (the police arrested the thief) and so on.

I must admit, I really like making these connections.  The word “tenedor” which means “fork” also comes from the same root.  “Tenedor” can mean a “holder” or “bearer” of something, and what does a fork do? Well it holds, or bears, your food while you eat it!


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