How To Use the Spanish ‘Cuando’

Common word can function as conjunction, adverb, or preposition

Windmills of La Mancha, Spain
Windmills of La Mancha, Spain. Jon Bower at Apexphotos / Getty Images

The Spanish word cuando usually the equivalent of the English "when," although its use is far more versatile than the English word. It can serve as a preposition, conjunction, or adverb, and it frequently is used in situations where "when" doesn't work as a translation.

Cuando as a Conjunction

Cuando is used most often as a conjunction, a type of word that in this case connects two clauses, a sentence-like statement that includes a subject (which may be implied) and a verb. Although the conjunction cuando can often be translated as "when," cuando doesn't always indicate that a time element is at play. In those situations, context sometimes makes it better to think of cuando as meaning a condition such as "if" or "since."

Here are some examples of cuando meaning "when":

  • Siempre voy al mercado cuando estoy en la ciudad. (I always go to the market when I am in the city. Here cuando joins the two clauses "siempre voy al mercado" and "estoy en la ciudad.")
  • Su padre era drogadicto cuando ella era una niña. (Her father was a drug addict when she was a girl. Cuando joins "su padre era drogadicto" and "ella era una niña.")
  • Cuando llegó al aeropuerto me puse en la fila equivocada. (When I arrived at the airport, I got in the wrong line. As this sentence shows, a conjunction can link two clauses even when it comes at the beginning of the sentence rather than between the clauses.)

If the action of the verb after cuando took place in the past, is ongoing, or takes place in the present, the verb is in the indicative mood. But if it takes place in the future, the subjunctive is used. Note the difference between these two sentences.

  • Cuando la veo, siempre me siento feliz. (When I see her, I always feel happy. The action of siento is ongoing, so it is in the indicative mood.)
  • Cuando la veo mañana, me sienta feliz. (When I see her tomorrow, I will feel happy. The action of the verb happens tomorrow, so the subjunctive mood is used.)

Here are examples of where a translation other than "when" might be used for cuando:

  • Vamos a salir cuando esté tarde. (We are going to leave if he is late. Depending on the context, this sentence doesn't necessarily suggest that the person will be late.)
  • Cuando brilla el Sol, podemos ir a la playa. (Since the sun is shining, we can go to the beach. "Since" works better than "when" in translation if it is known to the speaker and listener that the sun is shining.)

Cuando as an Adverb

When it appears in questions before a verb, cuándo functions as an adverb and receives an orthographic accent.

  • ¿Cuándo vienes? (When are you coming?)
  • ¿Cuándo van a llegar al hotel? (When will they are arrive at the hotel?
  • ¿Cuándo compraron el coche? (When did they buy a car?)
  • No sé cuándo se resolverá mi futuro. (I don't known when my future will be determined. This is an example of an indirect question.)

Cuando also functions as an adverb when it follows a form of ser. "When" is almost always a suitable translation.

  • Era cuando yo estaba más vulnerable. (It was when I was most vulnerable.)
  • Mi mentira favorita era cuando me decías, "te amo". (My favorite lie was when you told me, "I love you.")
  • La parte difícil es cuando se tienen cuatro o cinco actores en la misma escena. (The difficult part is when there are four or five actors in the same scene.)

Cuando as a Preposition

When used as a preposition, cuando can often be translated as "during" or "at the time of." Often the sentence using cuando in this way cannot be translated word for word but must be loosely translated to indicate that something happened during the time of the prepositional object.

Some examples:

  • La escribió cuando estudiante. (She wrote it when she was a student. Note that there are no words in Spanish that directly say "she was," but that meaning is implied. A word-for-word translation would be "when student," but that doesn't make sense.)
  • Así fue cuando la Revolución Francesa. (That's how it was during the French Revolution.)
  • Cuando las inundaciones yo era muy chica. (At the time of the floods I was very young.)
  • Yo era enfermizo cuando muchacho con asma, (As a boy with asthma I was sickly.)

Key Takeaways

  • Although cuando can be thought of as the Spanish word for "when," it can also be used in other ways.
  • A common use of cuando is as a conjunction combining two clauses.
  • When cuándo means "when" as an interrogative adverb in a question, the first syllable receives an accent mark.