2 Dozen Confusing Spanish Words and How To Use Them Correctly

Save yourself the embarrassment of these common mistakes

stove top for Spanish lesson
Cociendo la cena. (Cooking dinner.).

Daniel Lobo / Creative Commons.

Partly because Spanish and English have so many similarities, it's tempting to think you'll seldom find Spanish vocabulary confusing. But in fact, there are plenty of words that trip up Spanish students repeatedly. And they aren't all false friends, words similar to their English counterparts that don't mean the same thing. Some are homophones (two or more different words that sound alike), some are words that are closely similar, and some can be blamed on the rules of grammar.

If you want to avoid embarrassment or unnecessary confusion, here are some top candidates for words to learn:

Ano vs. Año

Ano and año don't sound alike. But those who don't know how to type an ñ (or are lazy) are often tempted to use an n instead in año, the word for "year."

Don't succumb to the temptation: Ano comes from the same Latin root as the English word "anus" and has the same meaning.

Cabello vs. Caballo

English speakers tend to be imprecise in their pronunciations, partly because some sounds, such as the "ai" in "fountain," can be represented in writing by any vowel. But Spanish speakers, although they tend to pronounce consonants softly, are usually distinct with their vowels. So words such as cabello (hair, but collectively rather than as a single hair) and caballo (horse) aren't thought of as sounding much alike.

Caro vs. Carro

It's easy for foreigners to mix up the r and rr — the former is usually a flap of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, while the latter is a trill. Usually, reversing the sounds won't cause misunderstanding. But the difference between caro and carro is the difference between something expensive and a car, respectively. And, yes, you can have a carro caro.

Cazar vs. Casar

While there may be some who have gone hunting for a spouse, cazar (to hunt) and casar (to marry) aren't related to each other even though they sound alike in Latin America.

Cocer vs. Coser

Another pair of verbs that sound alike in Latin America are cocer (to cook) and coser (to sew). Although they can both be homemaking tasks, they aren't related.

Día

Although there are dozens of words ending in -a that break the main gender rule and so are masculine, día (day) is the most common.

Embarazada

If you're embarrassed and female, avoid the temptation to say you're embarazada, as the meaning of that adjective is "pregnant." The most common adjective of embarrassment is avergonzado. Interestingly, embarazada (or the masculine form, embarazado) has been so often used as a mistranslation of "embarrassed" that that definition has been added to some dictionaries.

Éxito

Éxito is a word you'll come across frequently—but it nothing to do with an exit. It's the best translation for "success" and can be used in many contexts. For example, a hit song or movie can be called an éxito. An exit is a salida.

Gringo

If someone calls you a gringo (feminine gringa), you might take it as an insult—or you might take it as a term of affection or as a neutral description. It all depends on where you are and the context.

As a noun, gringo most often refers to a foreigner, especially someone who speaks English. But at times it can refer to any non-Spanish speaker, a British person, a resident of the United States, a Russian, someone with blond hair, and/or someone with white skin.

Inhabitable

In a sense, the Spanish inhabitable and the English "inhabitable" are the same word—both are spelled alike, and they come from a Latin word habitabilus, which meant "suitable for habitation." But they have opposite meanings. In other words, the Spanish inhabitable means "uninhabitable" or "not inhabitable."

Yes, that's confusing. But it's confusing only because English is confusing—"habitable" and "inhabitable" mean the same thing, and for the same reason "flammable" and "imflammable" have the same meaning.

The situation came about because Latin had two prefixes spelled in-, one meaning "inside" and the other meaning "not." You can see these meanings in words such as "incarcerate" (incarcerar) and "incredible" (increíble), respectively. So with inhabitable the prefix in English has the "inside" meaning, and the identically spelled prefix in Spanish has the "not" meaning.

Interestingly, once upon a time the English "inhabitable" meant "not habitable." Its meaning shifted a few hundred years ago.

Ir and Ser in the Preterite Tense

Two of the most highly irregular verbs in Spanish are ir (to go) and ser (to be). Although the two verbs have different origins, they share the same preterite conjugation: fui, fuiste, fue, fuimos, fuisteis, fueron. If you see one of those forms, the only way to know whether it comes from ir or ser is by context.

Lima and Limón

You may have been taught that limón is the word for lime and lima is the word for lemon—the opposite of what you might expect. While that is true for some Spanish speakers, the truth is that, depending on where you are, either Spanish term at times is used for either fruit. And in some areas, limas and limones are seen as two similar fruits, both of which may be called lemons in English. In some places, limes aren't commonly eaten (they're native to Asia), so there's no universally understood word for them. In any case, this is one word that you are likely to have to ask the locals about.

Mano

Mano (hand) is the most common feminine noun that ends in -o. In fact, it is only such word in everyday use if you exclude occupational names (such as el piloto or la piloto for pilot), proper nouns, and a few shortened words such as la disco (short for la discoteca) and la foto (short for la fotografía). Two other feminine nouns ending in -o are seo (cathedral) and nao (ship), but they get almost no use.

Marida

Most nouns ending in -o that refer to people refer to men, and the ending can be changed to -a to refer to women. So, of course, it makes sense that esposo, a common word for "husband," has the feminine form esposa, meaning "wife."

It would be just as logical to assume that another word for "husband," marido, would have corresponding term, marida, for "wife."

But, at least in standard Spanish, there is no noun marida. In fact, the usual phrase for "husband and wife" is marido y mujer, with mujer also being the word for "woman."

Although there may be some limited colloquial use for marida in some areas, its most common use is by foreigners who don't know better.

Molestar and Violar

To molest someone is a serious offense, but to molestar someone is merely to bother that person (although the phrase molestar sexualmente can have a meaning similar to the English word). An similar situation occurs with violar and "violate," but in the other direction. Violar and violación typically refer to rape, although they can have a less severe meaning. In English "violate" and "violation" usually have a mild meaning, although they can refer to rape. In both languages, context makes all the difference.

Papas and a Papá

Spanish has four types of papa, although only the first two below are widely used. The first papa comes from Latin, while the others come from indigenous languages:

  • A pope (the head of the Roman Catholic Church). The word normally shouldn't be capitalized except at the beginning of a sentence.
  • In most of Latin America, a potato, which can also be a patata.
  • In Mexico, a type of baby food or bland soup.
  • In Honduras, a foolish woman.

Also, papá is an informal word for "father," sometimes the equivalent of "daddy." Unlike the other papas, its stress or accent is on the second syllable.

Por vs. Para

There are perhaps no prepositions more confounding for Spanish students than por and para, both of which are frequently translated to English as "for." See the lesson on por vs. para for full explanation, but the way-too-short version is that por is typically used to indicate the cause of something while para is used to indicate a purpose.

Preguntar vs. Pedir

Both preguntar and pedir are usually translated as "to ask," but they don't mean the same thing. Preguntar refers to asking a question, while pedir is used in making a request. But don't feel bad if you get them mixed up: Spanish speakers learning English often get mixed up with "question" and "doubt" as nouns, saying "I have a doubt" rather than "I have a question." That's because the noun duda has both meanings.

Sentar vs. Sentir

In the infinitive form, sentar (to sit) and sentir (to feel) are easy to tell apart. The confusion comes when they're conjugated. Most notably, siento can mean either "I sit" or "I feel." Also, the subjunctive forms of one verb are often the indicative forms of the other. So when you come across verb forms such as sienta and sentamos, you'll have to pay attention to the context to know which verb is being conjugated.