Using the Spanish Verb ‘Tener’

‘Tener’ found in variety of idioms and used for indicating possession

Camel and tank in the desert
El dromedario no tiene sed. (The camel isn't thirsty.).

U.S. Army photo / Sgt. Marcus Fichti / Creative Commons

The everyday Spanish verb tener, usually translated as "to have," is particularly useful. Not only is it used to indicate possession, it is also used in a variety of idiomatic expressions to indicate emotions or states of being.

Note that when tener means "to have," it does so in the sense of meaning "to possess" or "to own." The equivalent of the English auxiliary verb "to have," as in "you have seen," is haber (as in has visto, you have seen).

Using Tener To Mean ‘To Have'

Most of the time, tener is used in much the same way as "to have" is in English. Depending on the context, it can also be translated using using synonyms such as "to possess" and "to own":

  • Tengo tres hijos. (I have three children.)
  • Tiene un coche casi nuevo con una garantía fuerte. (He owns an almost new car with a strong guarantee.)
  • Antes de la guerra, tenía tres casas. (Before the war, she possessed three houses.)
  • Tuvimos cuatro campeones en el mismo momento. (We had four champions at the same time.)
  • En 2016 Paulina no tenía carné de conducir. (In 2016 Paulina didn't have a driver's license.)
  • No tenemos suficientes bosques en el planeta. (We don't have enough forests on our planet.)
  • ¿Crees que tendremos una mujer presidente? (Do you believe we will have a female president?)

Tener can similar be used similarly as "to have" even when it is used figuratively or referring to nonphysical things:

  • Espero que tengas una buena excusa. (I hope you have a good excuse.)
  • Mi amigo tiene dificultad para pronunciar las palabras españolas. (My friend has difficulty in pronouncing Spanish words.)
  • Cada líder debe tener una visión de lo que podría ser. (Every leader should have a vision of what could be.)

Idiomatic Uses of Tener

Expressions using tener are also quite common. Many of them would not be understood by English speakers to indicate possession, although they often can be thought of as referring to to the having of various emotions and feelings. For example, tener hambre, would be translated literally as "to have hunger," although it would normally be understood as "to be hungry." The following listing, which is far from complete, shows some of the common expressions or idioms using tener:

  • tener ____ años (to be ____ years old): (Tiene 4 años. She is 4 years old.)
  • no tener antecedentes (to be unprecedented): La crisis venezolana no tiene antecedentes. (The Venezuelan crisis is unprecedented.)
  • no tener arreglo (to be beyond repair): Siento que esta semana no tiene arreglo. (I feel this week is beyond repair.)
  • tener calor (to be or to feel hot): ¿Tienes calor? (Are you hot?)
  • tener cuidado (to be careful): ¡Ten cuidado! (Be careful!)
  • tener dolor (to have a pain, to be in pain): Hay muchos excelentes remedios para dolor de cabeza. (There are many excellent remedies for a headache.)
  • tener la culpa (to be at fault): Mi madre dice que tengo la culpa. (My mother says it's my fault.)
  • tener efecto (to have an effect, to be in effect): La patente dejó de tener efecto antes de que el dispositivo comenzara a ser utilizado a gran escala. (The patent went out of effect before the device began to be used on a large scale.)
  • tener éxito (to be successful): Mi hermano tiene mucho éxito. (My brother is very successful.)
  • tener frío (to be or feel cold): Los exploradores tendrán frío. (The explorers will be cold.)
  • tener hambre (to be hungry): Los niños siempre tienen hambre. (The children are always hungry.)
  • tenerlo fácil (to have it easy): Los dos equipos no lo tienen fácil. (The two teams don't have it easy.)
  • tener miedo (to be afraid): El paracaidista no tenía miedo. (The parachute jumper wasn't afraid.)
  • tener prisa (to be in a hurry): Mi hija nunca tiene prisa. (My daughter is never in a hurry.)
  • tener que + infinitive (to have to): Tengo que salir. (I have to leave.)
  • tener razón, no tener razón (to be right, to be wrong): Tengo razón. No tienes razón. (I'm right. You're wrong.)
  • tener sed (to be thirsty): El camello no tiene sed. (The camel isn't thirsty.)
  • tener suerte (to be lucky): Los ganadores tenían suerte. (The winners were lucky.)

Conjugation of Tener

Like many other commonly used verbs, tener is irregular. Following are the conjugations for the most common indicative tenses. Irregular conjugations are indicated by boldface. The only other verbs that follow the same conjugation pattern as tener are verbs based on tener, such as mantener (to maintain) and sostener (to sustain). Note that these verb forms can be translated in other ways if the context calls for it.

  • Present tense: yo tengo (I have), tú tienes (you have), él/ella/usted tiene (he/she has, you have), nosotros tenemos (we have), vosotros tenéis (you have), ellos/ustedes tienen (they/you have).
  • Preterite tense: yo tuve (I had), tú tuviste (you had), él/ella/usted tuvo (he/she/you had), nosotros tuvimos (we had), vosotros tuvisteis (you have), ellos/ustedes tuvieron (they/you have).
  • Imperfect tense: yo tenía (I used to have), tú tenías (you used to have), él/ella/usted tenía (he/she/you used to have), nosotros teníamos (we used to have), vosotros teníais (you used to have), ellos/ustedes tenían (they/you used to have).
  • Future tense: yo tendré (I will have), tú tendrás (you will have), él/ella/usted tendrá (he/she/you will have), nosotros tendremos (we will have), vosotros tendréis (you will have), ellos/ustedes tendrán (they/you will have).

Key Takeaways

  • Tener usually means "to have" in the sense of "to possess," but not "have" when it is used as an auxiliary verb.
  • Tener is highly irregular, not using the same conjugation as any other verb other than those that derive from tener.
  • A wide variety of phrases use tener in which it frequently is used for indicating emotions and various personal feelings.
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Erichsen, Gerald. "Using the Spanish Verb ‘Tener’." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Using the Spanish Verb ‘Tener’. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Using the Spanish Verb ‘Tener’." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).