How To Use the Spanish Verb ‘Jugar’

Verb has multiple meanings, most translatable as ‘to play’

boy and grandfather playing with soccer ball
El muchacho y su abuelo juegan. (The boy and his grandfather play.).

Aldomurillo / Getty Images

Jugar is usually the equivalent of the English verb "to play" and is used in much the same way.

Using Jugar With Games

The most noticeable difference is that in standard Spanish the preposition a is used after jugar when jugar is used to refer to the playing of a specified game:

  • Me gustaría saber si en Belice juegan al fútbol. (I would like to know if they play soccer in Belize.)
  • Aprendemos a jugar al ajedrez. (We are learning to play chess.)
  • Los estudiantes jugaron a la bolsa y no ganaron nada. (The students played the market and didn't earn anything.)
  • El actor jugó a la ruleta rusa con una pistola totalmente cargada. (The actor played Russian roulette with a fully loaded pistol.)

In parts of Latin America, however, the a can be omitted when referring to athletic contests. The absence of the a is a regional variation and shouldn't be imitated in most areas.

Using Jugar With Con

When followed by the preposition con, jugar sometimes carries a meaning similar to "to manipulate" or "to play around with." The phrase sometimes suggests that someone isn't treating something (or someone) with due respect or diligence:

  • Los chicos de cuatro años juegan con las palabras e inventan palabras e historias disparatadas. (Four-year-old children play with words and invent words and silly stories.)
  • Jugaste con mis sentimientos, como juega el viento con la hoja. (You toyed with my feelings, like the wind toys with a leaf.)
  • No voy a jugar con mi salud cuando lo que quiero es mejorarla. (I'm not going to trifle with my health when what I want to do is make it better.)
  • Chávez dijo que los banqueros privados jugaron con el dinero del pueblo. (Chávez said the private bankers gambled with the people's money.)

Using Jugar With En

Most of the time, en following jugar simply means "in" or "on." However, jugar en can also mean to affect or have an influence:

  • El equipo juega en la División Atlántica. (The team plays in the Atlantic Division.)
  • Los futbolistas jugaron en el campo de béisbol. (The soccer players play on the baseball field.)
  • Debemos mirar el rol que las drogas juegan en la toma de nuestras decisiones. (We should look at the role drugs have in influencing how we make decisions.)
  • Busca entender cómo el miedo juega en todos nosotros. (I am looking to understand how fear affects all of us.)

Using Jugar Reflexively

In the reflexive form, if it doesn't mean "to play together," jugarse usually suggests gambling or taking risks:

  • Facebook y Twitter se juegan por lo más popular. (Facebook and Twitter are competing to be the most popular.)
  • Me jugué la vida porque tenía que triunfar. (I bet my life because I had to win.)
  • Ellos se juegan mucho más que nosotros. (They're risking a lot more than we are.)

Other Uses for Jugar

Standing by itself, jugar usually means simply "to play":

  • Jugaban todo el día. (They played all day.)
  • Jugaré para ganar, como siempre. (I will play to win, as I always do.)
  • Juegan todo el tiempo sin mí. (They play all the time without me.)

The phrase jugar limpio is used to mean "to play clean," that is, playing fairly, by the rules or otherwise in a commendable manner. The opposite, to play dirty, is jugar sucio.

Jugar is not used for the playing of a musical instrument. For that, use tocar.

Conjugation of Jugar

Jugar is conjugated irregularly in two ways. The u of the stem becomes ue when it is stressed, and the g of the them becomes gu whenever it is followed by an e.

Irregular forms are shown here in boldface:

Present indicative: yo juego, tú juegas, usted/él/ella juega, nosotros/nosotras jugamos, vosotros/vosotras jugáis, ustedes/ellos/ellas juegan.

Preterite indicative: yo jugué, tú jugaste, usted/él/ella jugó, nosotros/nosotras jugamos, vosotros/vosotras jugasteis, ustedes/ellos/ellas jugaron.

Present subjunctive: Present indicative: yo juegue, tú juegues, usted/él/ella juegue, nosotros/nosotras juguemos, vosotros/vosotras juguéis, ustedes/ellos/ellas juegan.

Affirmative imperative: (tú) juegas, (usted) juega, (nosotros/nosotras) juguemos, (vosotros/vosotras) jugad, (ustedes) jueguen.

Negative imperative: (tú) no juegues, (usted) no juegue, (nosotros/nosotras) no juguemos, (vosotros/vosotras) no juguéis, (ustedes) no jueguen.

Key Takeaways

  • Jugar most often means "to play."
  • Jugar is a stem-changing irregular verb.
  • When followed by the preposition con, jugar suggests playing around with or toying with.