Using the Spanish Verb ‘Tocar’

Meanings go beyond ‘to touch’

tocar el arpa
Tocar el arpa. (Playing the harp.).

Daniela Vladimirova / Creative Commons.

The core meaning of the Spanish verb tocar is "to touch." In fact, both words come from the Latin verb toccare.

Common Meaning of Tocar

Probably the most common meaning of both tocar and "touch" is to refer to physical contact between things or persons. Some examples of the word used this way in Spanish:

  • Tocó los dedos de su esposa, flojos y calientes. (He touched his wife's weak and warm fingers.)
  • Cuando el avión tocó tierra los pasajeros aplaudieron. (When the plane touched ground, the passengers applauded.)
  • No tocaron el estéreo. (They didn't touch the stereo.)

This meaning is sometimes figurative:

  • Los ciudadanos son más pobres y aún no han tocado fondo. (The citizens are poorer, and they still haven't hit bottom.)
  • Espera con paciencia su momento para tocar el cielo. (She is waiting patiently for her time to touch to the sky.)

As with the English "touch," tocar can be used as a euphemism to refer to sexual contact:

  • Él me decía que lo nuestro era platónico, y no me tocaba. (He would tell me that our relationship was platonic, and he didn't touch me.)
  • Desde niña me tocaba, y el repulsivo me ofrecía dinero para que me acostara con él. (Since I was a girl he touched me, and the creep would offer me money to sleep with him.)

Using Tocar With Indirect Objects

When tocar is used with an indirect object, it can refer to the turn or responsibility of the person who is the indirect object. The exact translation depends on the context:

  • ¿A quién le toca? (Whose turn is it? Whose job is it?)
  • El miércoles de esa semana me toca trabajar. (On Wednesday of that week it's my responsibility to work.)
  • Nos toca pagar. (It's our turn to pay. It's up to us to pay.)

The same can be done when tocar means to affect a person emotionally. In this way, tocar can behave much like the verb gustar.

  • El blues es la música que más me toca el corazón. (Blues is the music that most touches my heart. In this sentence, the direct object is el corazón, while me is functioning as an indirect object.)
  • La actriz digo que la realización de este film le tocó emocionalmente. (The actress said that the making of this film touched her emotionally.)
  • Le tocaba el alma la canción de Navidad. (The Christmas song touched his soul.)

Other Meanings of Tocar

The other meaning of tocar that is extremely common in Spanish is "to play" a musical instrument or similar item. For example:

  • La guitarra es uno de los instrumentos más fáciles de aprender a tocar. (The guitar is one of the easiest instruments to learn to play.)
  • Voy a darme un baño y luego tocaré el piano. (I'm going to take a bath and later I'll play the piano.)
  • A la muerte de Susana, se tocaron las campanas de todas las iglesias. (When Susana died, they rang the bells of all the churches.)

When referring to someone's speaking or writing, tocar can mean "to touch on."

  • El presidente no tocó el tema de Irak. (The president didn't touch on the subject of Iraq.)
  • Los Monty Python tocaron todos los géneros del humor. (Monty Python touches on all types of humor.)

Tocar can be used so that its subject represents something that is given to someone:

  • Le tocó la lotería. (He won the lottery.)
  • Le ha tocado un tiempo muy difícil. (He had been given a very rough time.)

Tocar also is used in some set phrases or idioms:

  • Por lo que a mí me toca (as far as I'm concerned)
  • ¡Toca madera! (Touch wood!)
  • Tocar de cerca (to have a close relationship with someone, or to be very familiar with a subject)
  • Tocarle a alguien bailar con la más fea (to be expected to do something very difficult or disagreeable)

Conjugation of Tocar

Tocar is conjugated irregularly in spelling but not pronunciation. The c is changed to qu when followed by the e. For example, the first-person preterite form is toqué (meaning "I touched"), and the present subjunctive forms follow the pattern of toque, toques, toquemos, etc.

Key Takeaways

  • The Spanish verb tocar comes from the same source as the English verb "touch" and often has that meaning. Among many other meanings, it is also used for "to play" a musical instrument.
  • When it means "to be emotionally touching" or to refer to taking turns, tocar is used with an indirect-object pronoun.
  • Tocar is conjugated regularly in terms of pronunciation, but the c of the stem changes to qu when it comes before an e in conjugated forms.