Meet the 'Tener' Family

Set of Verbs Corresponds 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 license.

Tener is one of the verbs in Spanish that can be combined with several prefixes to form new verbs. Like many other common verbs, tener (which usually means "to have" in the sense of "to possess") is irregular; fortunately, all the verbs derived from tener are conjugated in the same way.

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.

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

  • abstener, abstenerse: to abstain, to abstain. Mi padre tiene que abstenerse del alcohol. (My father has to abstain from alcohol.)
  • atenerse: to observe, to abide by, to heed. Es importante que nos atenemos la ley. (It is important that we obey the law.)
  • contener: to contain. La jarra contiene dos litros. (The jug contains two liters.)
  • detener: to detain, to arrest, stop. La policía detuvo a once personas. (The police arrested eleven people.)
  • entretener: to distract, to entertain, to delay, 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: to (physically) support, to sustain, to maintain, to remain or keep. 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: to get, to obtain. Obtuve la firma del actor. (I got the actor's signature.)
  • retener: to retain, to hold back, to deduct, 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 keep in my head every place I have seen.)
  • sostener: to hold up, to defend. Los tres bloques sostienen la casa. (The three blocks hold up the house.) No puedo sostener mi opinión. (I can't defend 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)