Using the Spanish ‘A’ for Reasons Other Than Indicating Motion

Common meanings include ‘in the style of’

voting with raised hands
La votación se hizo a mano alzada. (The voting was done by a show of hands.).

Congreso de la República del Perú / Creative Commons

Although the Spanish preposition a is usually used to indicate motion toward and thus often translated as "to," it also is frequently used to form phrases that can explain how something is done or to describe nouns as well as in time expressions.

Using A to Mean ‘In the Style Of’

One common use of a is similar to its use in a few English phrases, such as "a la carte" and "a la mode" that come to us via French. This use indicates the way in which something is done or, less commonly, forms a phrase that functions as an adjective. Spanish phrases using a in this way usually can't be translated word for word, although it is often useful to think of a as meaning "in the style of."

Here are some examples of a being used in adverbial phrases (phrases that act like adverbs):

  • Amar no es nada más que andar a ciegas. (Love is nothing more than walking blindly.)
  • Imágenes de televisión muestran a un soldado ejecutando a quemarropa a una madre. (Television images show a soldier executing a mother at point-blank range.)
  • La actriz se casó a escondidas. (The actress was secretly married.)
  • La votación se hizo a mano alzada. (The voting was done by a show of hands.)
  • El zumo y la leche se vende a galones. (Juice and milk are sold by the gallon.)
  • El bebé andaba a gatas, descubriendo el mundo. (The baby is walking on all fours, discovering the world.)
  • El sentido del olfato es a menudo el primero en advertirnos acerca de un peligro que somos incapaces de ver. (The sense of smell is often the first to warn us of a danger that we are unable to see.)

A similar construction can used to form adjectival phrases (phrases that describe nouns):

  • Walter conoció a Nadia en una cita a ciegas que le ha organizado su hermano. (Walter met Nadia on a blind date that his brother set up.)
  • Nunca entre a una casa con un niño a solas. (Never enter a house with a child alone.)
  • Era el viaje a caballo más largo de la historia. (It was the longest horseback ride in history.)

‘A La’ Phrases

It is common to form adverbial (and sometimes adjectival) phrases by using "a la" followed by noun that has the form of a feminine adjective. These phrases typically of the meaning of "in the _____ style" and are most iften used with geographical terms. There are also a few phrases beginning with "a lo" followed by a masculine adjective or noun.

  • Las papas fritas a la francesa se llaman chips en Inglaterra. (French-fried potatoes are called "chips" in England.)
  • Hoy en Europa es imposible un liberalismo a la americana. (Today in Europe, an American-style liberalism is impossible.)
  • Se sirve un desayuno a la mexicana. (They serve a Mexican-style breakfast.)
  • A la moderna, optaron por no casarse. (In the way things are done today, they chose not to marry.)
  • El cantante dijo adiós a lo grande. (The singer said goodbye in style.)
  • Se lava a lo gato. (He washes himself like a cat (i.e., while barely getting wet).

Using A for ‘At’

A can also be used to indicate how often something occurs or indicate relationships in much the same as as the English "at" when it isn't being used in the context of a location.

  • ¡Un paso a la vez! (One step at a time!)
  • Venden a dos pesos el kilo. (They sell at two pesos per kilo.)
  • El encontrar calidad en un producto a un precio bajo puede crear más satisfacción. (Finding quality at a product at a low price can create more satisfaction.)
  • Le agencia aceptará a 10 por ciento de aspirantes a licenciatura. (The agency will accept applicants for licensing at a rate of 10 percent.)

Using A in Time Expressions

Many time expressions use a much like "at" and sometimes "per" is used:

  • Patricia y yo salimos a las 9:30. (Patricia and I are leaving at 9:30.)
  • Comienza a las cinco de la tarde. (It begins at 5 in the afternoon.)
  • Muchos trabajamos 40 horas a la semana. (Many of us work 40 hours per week.)
  • ¿Es posible amar a dos personas a mismo tiempo? (Is it possible to love two people at the same time?)

Key Takeaways

  • Although the common Spanish preposition a usually means "to," it can be used in ways that don't refer to motion or location.
  • An abundance of phrases beginning with a can function as adverbial or adjectival modifiers.
  • A is also often used in time expressions, usually to mean "at."