How To Use the Spanish Preposition ‘De’

Meanings extend beyond ‘of’ and ‘from’

Salar de Uyuni
El salar de Uyuni en Bolivia es el mayor desierto de sal del mundo. The Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia is the world's largest salt flat.

Pedro Szekely / Creative Commons.

De is one of the most common prepositions in Spanish. Although it usually is translated as "of" and sometimes as "from," its use is far more versatile than the translation might suggest. In fact, in certain contexts, de can be translated not only as "of" or "from," but as "with," "by," or "in," among other words, or not translated at all.

One reason de is used more often than its equivalents in English is because the rules of English grammar let us use all sorts of nouns and phrases as adjectives. In that way, Spanish isn't as flexible. While in English we may say, "a nine-year-old girl," in Spanish that becomes una muchacha de nueve años or, literally, "a girl of nine years." Similarly, in English, we may say something like "a silver ring," using what is normally a noun, "silver," as an adjective. But in Spanish we have to say un anillo de plata, or "a ring of silver."

Keep in mind also that when de is followed by the article el, meaning "the," they form the contraction del. Thus los árboles del bosque is the equivalent of saying los árboles de el bosque ("the trees of the forest"). But no contraction is used for de él, where él means "him."

Following are some of the most common uses of de:

Using De for Possession

Possession or belonging, either physical or figurative, as indicated by an apostrophe plus "s" in English is almost always translated using de followed by the possessor in Spanish. So instead of saying the direct equivalent of "Amanda's cat," which isn't available in Spanish, we say the direct equivalent of "the cat of Amanda" or el gato de Amanda:

  • el carro de Matilda (Matilda's car)
  • la clase del Sr. Gómez (Mr. Gomez's class)
  • las esperanzas del pueblo (the people's hopes)
  • ¿De quién es este lápiz? (Whose pencil is this?)

Using De for Causation

Following an adjective, de can be used to indicate a cause. Used this way, de is often translated using "with," "of" or "by."

  • Estoy feliz de nuestra amistad. (I am happy with our friendship. The word following de indicates the reason for happiness.)
  • Está cansada de jugar. (She is tired of playing.)
  • ¿Por qué mi generación está tan aburrida de la vida? (Why is my generation so bored by life?)

Using De To Indicate Origin

Often translated as "from," de can be used to indicate the origin of a person or thing. The same construction is used to state that a person is a member of a group.

  • Soy de Arkansas. (I'm from Arkansas.)
  • Mi madre es de la India. (My mother is from India.)
  • Es la chica más inteligente de la clase. (She is the most intelligent girl in the class.)

Using De With Characteristics

When an object or person has characteristics (including contents or what something is made of) that are stated as a noun or infinitive, de is often used to show the relationship. It generally is not possible in Spanish, as it is in English, to use nouns as adjectives, also known as attributive nouns.

  • corazón de oro (heart of gold)
  • el tranvía de Boston (the Boston streetcar)
  • una casa de huéspedes (a guesthouse)
  • una canción de tres minutos (a three-minute song)
  • una casa de $100,000 (a $100,000 house)
  • una taza de leche (a cup of milk)
  • la mesa de escribir (the writing table)
  • una casa de ladrillo (a brick house)
  • jugo de manzana (apple juice)
  • una máquina de escribir (a typewriter, literally a writing machine)

Using De in Comparisons

In some comparisons, de is used where we would use "than" in English.

  • Tengo menos de cien libros. (I have fewer than 100 books.)
  • Gasta más dinero de lo que gana. (He spends more money than he earns.)
  • La vida te recompensa con mucha más felicidad de la que crees. (Life can reward you with much more happiness than you believe.)

Idioms Using De

De is used in many common idiomatic phrases, many of which function as adverbs.

  • de antemano (previously)
  • de cuando en cuando (from time to time)
  • de memoria (by memory)
  • de moda (in style)
  • de nuevo (again)
  • de pronto (immediately)
  • de prisa (hurriedly)
  • de repente, (suddenly)
  • de todas formas (in any case)
  • de veras (truly)
  • de vez en cuando (from time to time)

Verbal Expressions Requiring De

Many verbs are followed by de and often an infinitive to form expressions. There is no logic to which verbs are followed by de. The verbs need either to be memorized or learned as you come across them.

  • Acabo de salir. (I have just left)
  • Nunca cesa de comer. (He never stops eating.)
  • Trataré de estudiar. (I will try to study.)
  • Me alegro de ganar. (I am happy to win.)
  • Se olvidó de estudiar. (He forgot to study.)
  • Romeo se enamoró de Julieta. (Romeo fell in love with Juliet.)

Key Takeaways

  • De is one of the most common Spanish prepositions. Although it usually is translated as "of" or "from," it can stand for other prepositions as well.
  • One of the most frequent uses of de is to indicate possession, which English uses indicates by using an apostrophe followed by "s."
  • De is also often used to translate English attributive nouns, as nouns in Spanish are very seldom used that way.