Using 'A' To Mean 'In the Style Of'

Preposition Used To Form Adverbial and Adjectival Phrases

voting with raised hands
La votación se hizo a mano alzada. (The voting was done by a show of hands.). Photo by Congreso de la República del Perú; licensed via Creative Commons.

Although the Spanish preposition a usually has the meaning of the English preposition "to," and sometimes "at," it also is frequently used to form phrases that can explain how something is done or to describe nouns.

This 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. 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.

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 common used with geographical terms. There are also a few phrases beginning with "a lo."

  • 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.
  • 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).