Using 'Contar' in Spanish

Verb Usually Means 'To Tell' or 'To Count'

Child counting
Ya sé contar. (I already know how to count.). Photo by Ckmck; licensed via Creative Commons.

Although contar is a cognate of the English verb "to count," it has a wide variety of meanings, some of which seem more closely related to the variety of meanings of "account."

Perhaps the most obvious meaning of contar is "to count" in the sense of "to add up":

  • Quiero encontrar un programa que cuenta las palabras de que se compone una web. I want to find a program that counts the words that make up a web page.
  • Es posible perder peso sin contar calorías. It is possible to lose weight without counting calories.
  • Contamos las horas para estar con ustedes. We are counting the hours until we are with you.

At least as common is using contar to mean "to tell" (as in "to give an accounting of"):

  • Contó la historia de un chico que decidió grabar todo en una cámara de vídeo. He told the story of a boy who decided to record everything on a videocamera.
  • El amor de mi vida no me ha contado que es casado. The love of my life hasn't told me that he's married.
  • No se lo cuentes a nadie. Don't tell it to anybody.

When it is followed by a time period, contar can often be translated as "to have": Cuenta 10 años de experiencia en montañismo. He has 10 years of experience in mountaineering.

Another meaning is "to take into account": Cuenta que esto no es todo. (He is taking into account that this isn't everything.) The phrase tener en cuenta also is frequently used for that meaning.

Contar occasionally means "to count" in the sense of "to matter": La corte ha declarado que este error no cuenta. The court has ruled that this error is immaterial.

The phrase contar con usually means "to count on" or "to rely on":

  • Para ese trabajo conté con los expertos mexicanos. For that work I counted on the Mexican experts.
  • Gracias a la nueva ley, contaremos con un sistema de pensiones. Thanks to the new law, we will count on a pension system.
  • Cuento contigo. I'm counting on you.

Sometimes, contar con has the same basic meaning but is best translated in a weaker fashion, depending on the context:

  • Contamos con una legislación que norme el uso del ADN humano. We're expecting a piece of legislation that would set standards for the use of human DNA.
  • Cuento con los derechos de reventa de este producto. I have the resale rights for this product.

Occasionally, contar con can be translated directly as "to count with": Conté con los dedos de mi mano. I counted with my fingers.

Con esto no yo contaba. I wasn't expecting that. In question form, contar can be used as a friendly way of showing interest in what a person is doing: ¿Qué cuentas? (What's happening?) The reflexive form can be used in the same way: ¿Qué te cuentas?

In reflexive form, contarse often can be literally translated as "to count oneself" or otherwise to indicate the concept of inclusion:

  • Muchos escritores escriben por impulso, y me cuento entre éstos. Many writers write on impulse, and I count myself among them.
  • Los medios españoles se cuentan entre los mejores del mundo. The Spanish media are among the best in the world.

Keep in mind that is conjugated irregularly.

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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Using 'Contar' in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 27). Using 'Contar' in Spanish. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Using 'Contar' in Spanish." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 7, 2023).

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