Meet the ‘Tener’ Family of Spanish Verbs

Verbs correspond to English verbs ending in ‘-tain’

Sign that says in Spanish: Attention. Do not enter.
Es importante que nos atenemos la ley. (It is important that we obey the law.).

Photo by Flickr's oSiNaReF / Creative Commons.

Tener is one of many verbs in Spanish that can be combined with several prefixes to form new verbs. Although tener doesn't have a cognate (an equivalent word with a common ancestor) in English, the verbs derived from it do, and they are among the English verbs ending in "-tain." Thus detener has the same origin as the English "detain," mantener is related to "maintain," and so on.

But just because English's "-tain" words are related to Spanish's -tener verbs doesn't mean that they are exact matches. For example, detener and retener are often interchangeable in Spanish as their meanings can be quite similar, but the English verbs are less likely to be used synonymously. Similarly, the meanings of "to hold something up" and "to defend a viewpoint" can both be expressed in Spanish with sostener and mantener, while the English verbs tend to have less overlap in meaning.

The Nine Verbs

Here are the nine most common Spanish verbs derived from tener along with some of their most usual meanings and sample sentences:

Abstener

Abstener is usually used in its reflexive form abstenerse and typically means to deliberately refrain from something. It is usually followed by de.

  • Mi padre tiene que abstenerse del alcohol. (My father has to abstain from alcohol.)
  • Me abstengo de pensar en las cosas malas que han pasado. (I refuse to think about the bad things that have happened.)
  • El presidente fue interrumpido por su abogado para que abstuviera de atacar a su rival política. (The president was interrupted by lawyer so that he would keep from attacking his political rival.

Atener

Atener refers to keeping within some figurative boundaries, such as by heeding instructions or obeying the law. In more general usage, it can refer to merely paying attention to or dealing with a situation. As in the first two examples below, it is often used in the reflexive.

  • Es importante que nos atenemos la ley. (It is important that we obey the law.)
  • Pero no puedo atenerme a ella todo el tiempo. (I can't attend myself to her all the time.)
  • Las autoridades no atienen el problema. (The authorities aren't dealing with the problem.)

Contener

Contener has two categories of meaning: to control or restrain, and to contain or include.

  • La jarra contiene dos litros. (The jug contains two liters.)
  • Muchas veces contuvo su enojo. (She often controlled her anger.)
  • Los champús de limpieza profunda contienen un ingrediente ácido como vinagre de manzana. (The deep-cleaning shampoos include a high-acid ingredient such as apple vinegar.)

Detener

Detener usually means to stop something or detain someone, such as by arresting.

  • La policía detuvo a once personas. (The police arrested eleven people.)
  • Es importante que detengas todo ese caos. (It is important that you stop all this chaos.)

Entretener

Meanings of entretener include to distract, to entertain, to delay, and to maintain.

  • Se entretuvieron buscando un coche. (They got distracted looking for a car.)
  • No ha entretenido su coche. (He has not maintained his car.)
  • Se entretenía por tocar el piano. (She entertained herself by playing the piano.)

Mantener

Mantener can refer to maintaining in the broad sense of the word, such as by physically supporting, sustaining, remaining, and keeping.

  • Los precios se mantuvieron estables. (Prices remained stable.)
  • Mantenga limpia España. (Keep Spain clean.)
  • Roberto se mantiene con caramelos. (Roberto keeps himself going with candy.)
  • Se ha mantenido como nuevo. (It has been maintained like new.)

Obtener

Obtener is the cognate of "obtain" but is used more informally and frequently than the English word. It is often translated as to get.

  • Obtuve la firma del actor. (I got the actor's signature.)
  • Quiere obtener dos archivos de audio. (She wants to get two audio files.)

Retener

Retener has most of the meanings of to retain, such as to retain, to hold back, to deduct, and to keep.

  • Retenieron el avión presidencial por una deuda. (They held back the presidential plane because of a debt.)
  • Muchas empresas retienen impuestos. (Many businesses deduct taxes.)
  • Retengo en la cabeza todos los lugares que he visto. (I retain in my head every place I have seen.)

Sostener

Like "sustain," sostener refers to supporting something.

  • Los tres bloques sostienen la casa. (The three blocks hold up the house.)
  • No puedo sostener mi opinión. (I can't support my position.)

Related Words

Here are some words that are derived from or otherwise related to the above verbs along with some common meanings:

  • abstemio (teetotaler), abstención (abstention), abstencionismo (abstentionism)
  • contenedor (container), contenido (contents)
  • detención (arrest, a halt)
  • entretenido (entertaining), entretenimiento (entertainment, pastime)
  • mantenimiento (maintenance, upkeep)
  • obtención (an obtaining)
  • retención (detention, deduction, retention)
  • sostén (a support), sostenido (sustained)

Conjugation of the ‘-tener’ Verbs

All of the verbs based on tener are conjugated irregularly in the same way that tener is. For example, the first-person singular indicative is of tener is tengo, so the same form of the other verbs are abstengo, atengo, contengo, etc.