How To Use Adverbial Phrases in Spanish

English adverbs don't always translate directly

Los españoles le aclaman con entusiasmo. (The Spaniards cheer enthusiastically.).  Michael Blann/Getty Images

Native Spanish speakers often prefer phrases that act like adverbs over the corresponding adverbs themselves.

Using Phrases That Function as Adverbs

Here's why: Adverbs can often be formed in Spanish by adding -mente to many adjectives, just as "-ly" can be used to form adverbs in English. But the creation of adverbs using -mente has its limits. For one, there are plenty of times where one needs an adverb (a word that modifies a verbadjective, other adverb or an entire sentence) when there's no adjective that will do as a root word. Also, sometimes for no apparent reason, some adjectives in Spanish simply aren't combined with -mente. Finally, many Spanish speakers tend to frown on the use of several -mente adverbs in one sentence, especially in writing.

The solution is one that is also used in English: use of an adverbial or prepositional phrase. These phrases are typically formed by using a preposition and a noun, sometimes including an article. For example, we might say "anduvo a la izquierda" for "he walked leftward" or "he walked to the left." In that case, a la izquierda and "to the left" are adverbial phrases. The difference is that in Spanish, there is no one-word adverb that can be used.

Adverbial phrases seem to be more common in Spanish than in English. In many cases, the same thought can be expressed using either an adverb or an adverbial phrase. Spanish tends to prefer the phrase, while English tends to prefer the simple adverb, even though both are grammatically correct. For example, it is possible to say either ciegamente or a ciegas for "blindly" or "in a blind manner." But Spanish more often uses the phrase, English the one word. Even so, in most cases there is no practical difference in meaning between a -mente adverb and a corresponding adverbial phrase, so they are freely interchangeable. In many contexts there's no distinguishable difference, for example, between perfectamente ("perfectly") and sin errores ("without mistakes").

What can be particularly confusing for Spanish students who have English as a first language is that the two languages frequently have similar phrases that use different prepositions. For example, the phrase for "on horseback" is a caballo, not the en caballo you might expect if translating the English "on" literally. Similarly, the phrase for "kneeling" or "on the knees" is de rodillas, not the en rodillas that might seem logical.

Common Adverbial Phrases

Spanish has countless adverbial phrases. Here are some of the most common, as well as some that are included simply because they're interesting or could be confusing for the beginner, or because they provide examples of alternative ways to translate English adverbs:

a bordo — on board
a caballo — on horseback
a carrera abierta — at full speed
a chorros — abundantly
a conciencia — conscientiously
a continuación — right afterward
a destiempo — inopportunely, at a bad time
a empujones — pushingly, intermittently
a escondidas — covertly, secretly
a gatas — on hands and knees
a la derecha — rightward
a la fuerza — necessarily
a la izquierda — leftward
a la larga — in the long run
a las claras — clearly
al fin — finally
al alimón — jointly, together
a lo loco — like a crazy person
a mano — by hand, manually
a máquina — by machine
a matacaballo — at breakneck speed
a menudo — frequently
ante todo — primarily
a pie — on foot
a quemarropa — at point-blank range
a regañadientes — unwillingly
a sabiendas — knowingly
a saltos — jumping
a solas — alone
a tiempo — on time, in time
a todas horas — continually
a veces — sometimes
bajo control — under control
bajo cuerda — underhandedly
con ansiedad — anxiously
con audacia — daringly
con bien — safely
con cuentagotas — stingily
con esperanza — hopefully
con frecuencia — frequently
con prisa — hurriedly
con valor — courageously
de buena gana — willingly
de continuo — continuously
de costumbre — customarily
de frente — head-on
de golpe — suddenly
de improviso — unexpectedly
de inmediato — immediately
de locura — foolishly
de mala gana — unwillingly
de memoria — by memory
dentro de poco — shortly
de nuevo — again, anew
de ordinario — ordinarily
de pronto — suddenly
de puntillas — on tiptoe
de repente — suddenly
de rodillas — kneeling
de seguro — certainly
de veras — truly
de verdad — truthfully
de vez en cuando — occasionally
en balde — pointlessly
en broma — jokingly
en cambio — on the other hand
en confianza — confidentially
en la actualidad — presently, now
en particular — particularly
en secreto — secretly
en seguida — immediately
en serio — seriously
en vano — vainly
en voz alta — loudly (said of speaking)
en voz baja — softly (said of speaking)
por ahora — for now
por cierto — certainly
por consiguiente — consequently
por fin — finally
por la puerta grande — in grand style
por lo contrario — on the contrary
por lo general — generally
por lo regular — regularly
por lo visto — apparently
por suerte — luckily
por supuesto — of course
por todas partes — everywhere
sin empacho — uninhibitedly
sin reserva — unreservedly
sin ton ni son — without rhyme or reason

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Erichsen, Gerald. "How To Use Adverbial Phrases in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). How To Use Adverbial Phrases in Spanish. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "How To Use Adverbial Phrases in Spanish." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).