'Tener' Used To Express Emotions, States of Being

Idioms of the Form "'Tener' + Noun"

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Mi hermana tiene miedo a los serpientes. (My sister is afraid of snakes.). Geoff Gallice/Creative Commons.

In Spanish, you can "have" it all.

That's because tener, the verb meaning "to have" in the sense of "to possess" (haber is the equivalent of the English auxiliary verb "to have") is frequently used in idioms to refer to a wide range of emotions and other states of being. While we may say in English that you are hungry or a person is thirsty, in Spanish we say the equivalent of you have hunger or someone has thirst. Thus "tienes hambre" means "you are hungry" and "tiene sed" means "he/she is thirsty."

Tener Phrases Often Preferred to Adjectives

Most of the "tener + noun" idioms aren't hard to learn, as they generally make sense as long as you know what the noun part of the phrase means. What can be challenging is learning when their use is preferred. For example, you may be aware that there is an adjective, hambriento, that means "hungry." But you're unlikely to hear a sentence such as estoy hambriento (just as you aren't likely to hear a native English speaker say, "I have hunger," even though the sentence would be understood and grammatically correct).

Usually, the "tener + noun" idioms are translated using the English verb "to be" followed by an adjective. Following are some of the most common such uses of tener.

  • tener cabeza (para), to have a mind (for): Tu hermana tiene cabeza para los negocios. (Your sister has a mind for business.)
  • tener calor, to be hot: Siempre tienes calor. (You're always hot.)
  • tener cariño, to be fond: Pablo tiene cariño a María. (Paul is fond of Mary.)
  • tener celos, to be jealous: Tengo celos a mi hermana. (I'm jealous of my sister.)
  • tener claro, to be clear or sure: Tenemos claro que podemos ayudar a mejorar nuestra sociedad. (We're sure that we can help improve our society.) 
  • tener complejos, to be mentally insecure: Tengo complejos con mi estilo de vida actual. (I'm insecure about my current lifestyle.)
  • tener cuidado, to be careful: Espero que tengas cuidado con el libro. (I hope you're careful with the book.)
  • tener la culpa, to be guilty or at fault: Mi padre dijo que tengo la culpa. (My father said it's my fault.)
  • tener derecho, to have the right: Tengo derecho de votar. (I have the right to vote.)
  • tener efecto, to have an effect: La hipnosis tiene efecto en el cerebro. (Hypnosis does not have an effect on the brainl)
  • tener éxito, to be successful: El jefe tiene un gran éxito. (The boss is very successful.)
  • tener frío, to be cold: Hace viento. Tengo frío. (It's windy. I'm cold.)
  • tener ganas de + infinitive, to be in the mood for, to feel like doing something: Tengo ganas de comer una hamburguesa. (I feel like eating a hamburger.)
  • tener hambre, to be hungry: No ha comido. Tiene hambre. (He hasn't eaten. He's hungry.)
  • tener ilusión, to be enthusiastic: Tiene ilusión por viajar a California. (He's enthusiastic about traveling to California.)
  • tener miedo a + noun, to be afraid of: Mi hermana tiene miedo a los serpientes. (My sister is afraid of snakes.)
  • tener miedo de + infinitive, to be afraid of: Tiene miedo de nadar. (He's afraid of swimming.)
  • tener prisa, to be in a hurry: Tengo prisa. El teatro comienza a las ocho. (I'm in a hurry. The play begins at 8.)
  • tener razón, to be right: El cliente siempre tiene razón. (The customer is always right.)
  • tener sed, to be thirsty: He trabajado mucho. Tengo sed. (I've worked a lot. I'm thirsty.)
  • tener sueño, to be tired or sleepy: No has dormido. Tendrás sueño. (You haven't slept. You must be tired.)
  • tener suerte, to be lucky: Mi hijo ganó la lotería. Tiene mucha suerte. (My son won the lottery. He's very lucky.)
  • tener vergüenza, to be ashamed: Maté a mi amigo. Tengo mucha vergüenza. (I killed my friend. I'm so ashamed.)

Because tener is used so often to indicate mental states, it can be used by itself to ask someone how he or she is doing, especially if you suspect something is wrong: ¿Qué tienes? What's up with you?

Note that the adjective mucho or mucha can be used with the noun portion of the idiom to indicate degree as is expressed by "very" in English: Tengo sed, I'm thirsty. Tengo mucha sed, I'm very thirsty.

Note also that tener is irregular in its conjugation.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "'Tener' Used To Express Emotions, States of Being." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/tener-used-to-express-emotions-3078346. Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). 'Tener' Used To Express Emotions, States of Being. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tener-used-to-express-emotions-3078346 Erichsen, Gerald. "'Tener' Used To Express Emotions, States of Being." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tener-used-to-express-emotions-3078346 (accessed June 8, 2023).