Using the Spanish Preposition 'En'

Most common meanings are 'in' and 'on'

Renfe trains for Spanish lesson on "en."
Llegamos por tren en una hora. (We arrive by train in one hour.). Eldelinux/Creative Commons.

If you were told that en is a Spanish preposition and were asked what it means, you most likely would guess "in" or "on." And you'd be right in both cases. But en can also be translated as "at," "about," "by," "on top of," "upon," "inside of," and other ways, so its use isn't as straightforward as it may appear.

Fortunately, when en doesn't mean "on" or "in," you can usually tell by the context what is meant. Like some other prepositions, en can seem quite versatile to the foreigner. Here are the most common uses:

Using En for Locations and Meaning 'In'

When it is used in describing locations, en can mean "in" or "inside of." As in the third and fourth examples here, en can also be used this way figuratively.

  • El dinero está en la caja. (The money is in the box.)
  • Vivo en España. (I live in Spain.)
  • La crisis sólo está en la mente de las personas. (The crisis is only in the minds of people.)
  • Hay cien cantavos en un dólar. (There are 100 cents in a dollar.)

Using En in Time Expressions

En can be used in time expressions much as it is in English with periods of time other than days of the week.

  • Llegamos por tren en una hora. (We arrive by train in one hour.)
  • Trabajaré en el verano. (I will work in the summer.)
  • Esperan aprobar la ley en dos semanas. (They hope to pass the law in two weeks.)

With days of the week, a preposition isn't needed: Llegamos el lunes. (We arrive on Tuesday.)

Using En for Locations and Meaning 'On'

En is frequently used to meet "on" in the sense of meaning "on top of" or "placed on."

  • El dinero está en la mesa. (The money is on the table.)
  • Fijó los carteles en la pared. (He put the posters on the wall. Note that the preposition a also could have been used here: Fijó los carteles a la pared.)
  • Las manchas en la cara pueden aparecer por diversos motivos. (Blemishes on the face can appear for various reasons.)

Using En in Expressing Values

Although not particularly common, en is sometimes used instead of por when referring to costs or similar values:

  • Vendió el carro en $2.000. (He sold the car for $2,000.)
  • Compró el móvil en un buen precio. (She bought the cellphone for a good price.)
  • Tenemos el cojín ideal para ti en sólo $349.00 pesos. (We have the ideal cushion for you for only 349 pesos.)

En in Miscellaneous Expressions

Numerous phrases or idioms use en. Most of these need to be learned as phrases rather than simply translating word for word:

  • en broma, as a joke
  • en busca de, in search of
  • en cambio, on the other hand
  • en casa, at home
  • en español, in Spanish
  • en honor de, in honor of
  • en la actualidad, presently
  • en la radio, on (the) radio; en la televisión, on (the) television
  • en lugar de, instead of, in place of
  • en secreto, in secret
  • en seguida, immediately
  • en serio, seriously
  • en todas partes, everywhere
  • en vez de, instead of
  • en vilo, anxiously awaiting
  • en vista de, in view of
  • en vivo, live (as in live TV)
  • en voz alta, in a loud voice; en voz baja, in a soft voice.

Using En With Certain Verbs

When used with many verbs, en is translated as "in" or "on":

  • ayudar en algo, to help in doing something
  • competer en, to compete in
  • concentrarse en, to concentrate on
  • concurrir en, to concur in
  • confiar en, to trust in; creer en, to believe in; esperar en, to trust in
  • empeñarse en, to persist in;
  • insistir en, to insist on
  • intervenir en, to participate in
  • persistir en, to persist in
  • reflejar en, to reflect on
  • resultar en, to result in.

But it can have other translations as well:

  • actuar en consecuencia, to act accordingly
  • adentrarse en, to get into
  • advertir en, to notice
  • aplicarse en, to devote oneself to
  • caerle en suerte, to get lucky
  • coincidir en que, to agree that
  • comprometerse en, to get involved with
  • concurrir en, to meet at
  • consentir en, to agree to
  • consistir en, to be composed of
  • convenir en, to agree to
  • convertir(se) en, to change into
  • equivocarse en, to be mistaken about
  • extenderse en, to spread over
  • fijarse en, to notice
  • ingresar en, to be admitted to
  • inscribirse en, to register for
  • juntarse en, to meet at
  • molestarse en, to bother by
  • pensar en, to think about
  • quedar en que, to agree that
  • reparar en, to notice
  • vacilar en, to hesitate to.

Key Takeaways

  • The Spanish preposition en frequently means "in" or "on" when referring to physical locations.
  • En can also be used to mean "in" in certain time expressions.
  • En also is used in phrases and following certain verbs with translations that aren't always predictable. The idioms and verb phrases need to be learned individually.