‘I Love You’ in Spanish: ‘Te Amo’ or ‘Te Quiero’?

Choice of verb varies with context, region

Couple in Seville, Spain
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If you want to tell someone you love him or her in Spanish, do you say "te amo" or "te quiero"? Any decent dictionary will tell you that either amar or querer (and even some other verbs such as desear, gustar and encantar) can be translated in some contexts as "to love."

There's no simple answer to the question, as it depends on context as well as where in the Spanish-speaking world you are. In an appropriate context, neither te quiero nor te amo is likely to be misunderstand as a way of expressing love. But there can be some differences—some subtle, some not.

What Are the Differences Between Amar and Querer?

Beginning Spanish students are tempted to think that because querer is a verb that often means "to want"—you can go to a restaurant and tell the waiter that you want a coffee by saying "quiero un café"—that it isn't a good word for using to express romantic love. But that's simply not true: The meanings of words vary with context, and in a romantic setting "Te amo" simply does not refer to wanting in the same way that a person would want a cup of coffee. Yes, querer is a verb that can be used in casual contexts, but when said in a loving relationship it can be quite powerful.

Although usage can vary with locality, the fact is that querer can be used in all kinds of loving relationships (as can amar), including friendship and marriage and everything in between. And even though one its most common meanings is "to want," when said in the context of a relationship it doesn't have to have the sexual overtones that something such as "I want you" can have. In other words, context is everything.

Here's the problem with "Te amo": The verb amar is a perfectly good verb for "to love," but (again depending on the locality) it isn't used as much as querer in real life by most native speakers. It might come across as something someone might say in the subtitles of a Hollywood film but not something two young lovers would say in real life. It might be something your grandmother might say, or something that sounds, well, stuffy, or old-fashioned. Even so, it is frequently used in poetry and song lyrics, so it may not sound as off as the preceding may suggest.

Probably the best way to be certain about which verb is best where you are is to eavesdrop on the conversations of those you to emulate. But obviously that would seldom be practical.

In general, though, it can be said that the safer choice—say you're a native English speaker falling in love with an hispanohablante—is to use "Te quiero." It will be understood, it will sound natural, and it will sound sincere anywhere. Of course, under these circumstances, "Te amo" isn't going to be misunderstood, and nobody will fault you for using it.

Alternative Ways of Saying ‘I Love You’

Just as "I love you" in English is both the simplest and most common way of expressing affection, so are "Te amo" and "Te quiero" in Spanish. But there are other ways as well if you want to go beyond the simple. Here area four of them:

Eres mi cariño: Cariño is a common term of affection; common translations include "love" and "sweetheart," and it can also be used to refer to affection in general. It is always masculine (even when referring to a female) and conveys a feeling of warmth.

Eres mi media naranja: It may sound strange call your sweetheart a half orange, which is the literal meaning of this sentence, but think of how the two pieces of a split orange might fit together. This is an informal and friendly way of calling someone your soulmate.

Eres mi alma gemelo (to a male), eres mi alma gemela (to a female): This is a more formal way of calling someone your soulmate. The literal meaning is "You are my soul twin."

Te adoro: Translated literally as "I adore you," this is a lesser used alternative to the big two.

Key Takeaways

  • "Te quiero" and "te amo" are both very common ways of saying "I love you," and in a romantic situation neither is likely to be misunderstood.
  • Querer (the verb from which quiero is derived) can mean "to want," but in romantic contexts it will be understood more like "love."
  • Both querer and amar can be used for "to love" in nonromantic contexts, such as the love of a parent for a child.