Prepositions can be a real problem for learners of Spanish as they can be VERY hard to commit to memory. Verbs, nouns, and adjectives relate to a somewhat tangible or perceivable experience, but prepositions are often just random, empty words that we use to link one word to another.
To make matters worse, each language uses them in different and fairly arbitrary ways. The key is to study them thoroughly and be open to understanding systems that are different to the ones we know already.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at the various ways to say ‘on’ in Spanish!
‘En’ to say ‘where’ (like ‘on top’) and ‘when’ (referring to special days)
‘En’ indicates the position of something relative to the surface of another object or thing –
El libro está en la mesa.
The book is on the table.
La toalla está en el suelo.
The towel is on the floor.
Mi cellular está en la cama.
My cellphone is on the bed.
Erika’s note – notice that we use a conjugation of ‘estar’ (i.e., ‘ésta’) in all the above sentences because we’re referring to a temporary location.
It´s also used with *some* special days (birthdays, Christmas Eve, etc.) –
Conocí a Bruno en nochebuena.
I met Bruno on Christmas Eve.
Siempre como pastel en mi cumpleaños.
I always eat cake on my birthday.
Rupert´s top tip – note that we DON´T use ‘en’ with weekdays (Monday, Tuesday, etc.) or specific days (17th May, etc.). These are instead written with the article ‘el’.
‘Sobre’ as both ‘on’ (like ‘on top’) and ‘about’
‘Sobre’ can also be used to talk about the position of one object relative to another (again, like ‘on top of’). In this context, ‘sobre’ and ‘en’ are interchangeable.
Los libros están sobre la mesa.
The books are on the table.
La toalla está sobre el suelo.
The towel is on the floor.
‘Sobre’ is also used when explaining what a film, book, etc. is about –
Escribió un libro sobre la Guerra del Chaco.
She wrote a book about the Chaco War.
‘Encima’ vs ‘sobre’ vs ‘en’
I´ve already mentioned that ‘sobre’ and ‘en’ are interchangeable when used to indicate position (i.e., ‘on top of’).
Well, ‘encima‘ CAN sometimes be a synonym of ‘sobre’ or ‘en’ (in the sense of ‘on top’), but it works a little differently and is NOT always interchangeable with the other two. Also, ‘encima’ is an adverb, not a preposition.
Sometimes the 3 ARE interchangeable, though. For example –
¿Dónde está el cereal?
Encima de la mesa.
Where’s the cereal?
On the table.
Encima del mostrador había varias fotografías.
There were some photos on the counter.
But ‘encima’ can also be used to emphasize that an object covers something completely. We can also use ‘sobre’, but ‘sobre’ is ambiguous regarding whether the object below is completely covered or not.
For example –
La Catedral está encima de parte de las ruinas del Templo Mayor.
The Cathedral is on top of part of the ruins of the Main Temple.
So, we know the ruins are below the Cathedral, but we can´t see them. If we were to use ‘sobre’ in this sentence, it would be ambiguous as to whether some parts of the ruins are visible or not.
Using ‘sobre’ could mean some parts of the temple are still standing and that the cathedral was built on them, and we can see them, but the case is that the ruins are underneath, out of sight, so using ‘encima’ is more precise.
‘En’ doesn´t really work here. Using it would mean that the cathedral is surrounded by uncovered ruins or that somehow it was built inside the ruins.
‘Encima’ can sometimes have a note of annoyance to it.
So, when the fact that one thing is ON another annoys you, you use ‘encima’.
No pongas los pies encima de la mesa.
Don´t put your feet on the table.
No pongas tu ropa sucia encima de la mesa.
Don´t put your dirty clothes on the table.
In the above sentences you can also say ‘en’ or ‘sobre’, but ‘encima’ gives the phrases the angry tone they require.
As an adverb
As I mentioned before, ‘encima’ is an adverb and works in cases where ‘sobre’ and ‘en’ wouldn´t.
A Bernardo le cayó una piedra encima.
A stone fell on Bernardo.
¡Quítate de encima!
Get off me!
Me quitaste un gran peso de encima.
You’ve taken a great weight off my mind.
Tania se le echó encima a Noé.
Tania attacked / came at Noé. OR Tania was flirting with Noe in a way I don´t approve of.
To mean ‘on top off‘ or ‘in addition‘
We also use ‘encima’ to say ‘on top of’ meaning ‘in addition’, but in a bad way.
Creo que Viviana causó una mala impresión por ser molesta y, encima, grosera, pero en realidad es buena onda.
I think Viviana made a bad impression because she was annoying and, on top of that, rude, but she´s actually a cool person.
La comida era mala y, encima, muy poca.
The food was bad and, on top of that, there wasn´t enough.
To mean ‘above‘
Finally, ‘encima’ can also mean ‘above’.
In these instances it can be difficult to know whether the speaker means ‘on‘ or ‘above‘. You have to either guess what he/she means or ask for details.
Había un espejo encima de la mesa.
There was a mirror on / above the table.
‘Acerca de’ vs ‘Sobre’
‘Acerca de’ means ‘about’ when we’re talking about the subject of a text or conversation.
It’s basically interchangeable with ‘sobre’ in this context. If anything, ‘acerca de’ sounds a tad more serious.
Compré un libro acerca de los vikingos.
I bought a book on Vikings.
Mariana nos habló acerca de su proyecto.
Mariana told us about her project.
Escuchamos una conferencia acerca de la influencia árabe en el Renacimiento italiano.
We listened to a conference on the influence of Arab culture on the Italian Rennaisance.
‘On Saturday’, ‘On Friday’, etc. in Spanish
We NEVER say things like ‘on Mondays’ or ‘on the 9th of July’; in Spanish we use articles (‘el’ and ‘los’) NOT prepositions before the days of the week and with specific dates.
In short, definitely don´t go translating the ‘on’ in ‘on Saturday’ to ‘en’ or ‘sobre’!
Hago yoga los jueves.
I do yoga on Thursdays.
Voy a ver a Nora el viernes.
I’m going to see Nora on Friday.
Conocí a Jane el 24 de febrero de 2017.
I met Jane on 24 February 2017.
Mi cumpleaños es el 4 de junio.
My birthday is on the 4th of June.
We DO use ‘en’ with *some* special days though –
Hablé con Sarah en Año Nuevo.
I talked to Sarah on New Year’s Eve.
Conocí a Alberto en Navidad.
I met Albert on Christmas.
Buuuut not with others …
Hicimos una fiesta el Día de Muertos.
We had a party on the Day of the Dead.
Mi cumpleaños es el Día del Trabajo.
My birthday is on Labour Day.
Rupert´s top tip – the special days that DON´T take ‘en’ have the word ‘día’ in their names!
‘At the weekend’ / ‘On the weekend’ in Spanish
‘At / On the weekend’ works in a similar a way to days and dates. We use an article (‘el’ or ‘los’) instead of a preposition.
Juego tenis los fines de semana.
I play tennis at the weekend.
Vi a Juan el fin de semana.
I saw Juan on the weekend.
‘On the left’ / ‘On the right’ in Spanish
In Spanish we use the preposition ‘a’ to say ‘on the right’ or ‘on the left’, NOT ‘en’ or ‘sobre’.
¿Dónde está la biblioteca? – Junto a la cafetería, a la izquierda.
Where’s the library? – By the cafeteria, on the left.
Pointing at people in a photo
Este es Bruno y a la derecha está Bernardo.
Señalando a gente en una foto
This is Bruno and Bernardo is on the right.
‘On’ used to mean when (‘on arriving back …’, etc.)
In English we use ‘on’ with nouns or gerunds to say when something happened (i.e., ‘On finishing the match …’).
In Spanish, however, we use the preposition ‘a’ and an infinitive instead!
Al terminar su carrera, se mudó a Francia.
On finishing her degree, she moved to France.
El senador estaba muerto al llegar al hospital.
The senator was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Al terminar la conferencia, por favor pasen a cenar.
On finishing the conference, please join us for dinner.
Verbs that go with ‘on’ in English (‘turn on’, ‘come on’, etc.)
‘Turn on’ can be translated both as ‘encender’ and ‘prender’ when it is about turning on a mechanism and only as ‘prender’ when referring to arousal.
¿Ya intentaste apagarla y prenderla otra vez?
Have you tried turning it off and on again?
Enciende la luz.
Turn on the light.
A Pablo le prenden las fotos de pies.
Feet photos turn Pablo on.
‘Come on’ meaning an invitation to movement or action could be translated as ‘vamos’ –
¡Vamos! Es hora de irse.
Come on! It’s time to go!
When it´s a plea, it could be translated as ‘ándale’ –
Ándale, vamos a cenar. No quiero cocinar.
Come on, let’s go eat out. I don´t want to cook.
When it´s used to show disapproval, it could be translated as ‘por favor’ –
Cortándose las uñas en la mesa.
Clips nails on the table.
‘Rely on’ could be translated as ‘depender de’ or ‘contar con’ –
Nuestro trabajo depende del flujo de turistas.
Our jobs depend on the flow of tourists.
Puedes contar con nosotros, aquí estaremos para ayudar.
You can rely on us, we’ll be here to help.
And there are loads more! Your best bet with verbs such as these is to look them up in a dictionary. Definitely don´t translate them to ‘verb + en’ or ‘verb + sobre’!
Transportation (for example, ‘on the bus / train / etc.’)
Here the prepositions we use vary depending on the method of transportation.
Let´s have a look at a few examples –
Puedes llegar a la tienda a pie.
You can get to the shop on foot.
Los mensajeros vienen a caballo.
The messengers are coming on horseback.
Me fui en avión.
I got there by plane.
Estaba en el autobús.
I was on a bus.
Dormimos en el tren.
We slept on the train.
Clothing (‘to have on’ / ‘to put on’ / ‘to try on’)
When we talk about clothes in Spanish, we normally don´t use prepositions (unlike in English).
Hace frío. Voy a ponerme un suéter.
It’s cold. I’m going to put on a sweater.
Llevaba un sombrero blanco.
She had a white hat on.
Quiero probarme estas camisas.
I want to try these shirts on.
There are many more uses for ‘on’ in English and the equivalent prepositions in Spanish (‘en’, ‘sobre’ and ‘acerca de’) have some other uses, but I think I´ve covered all the most important uses and contexts.
Next time you read a text underline all the occurrences of a certain preposition and try to discover the rules it follows.
I also recommend that you always try to learn word chunks rather than individual words, that way you can better memorize which prepositions follow which nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Songs and poetry work great to achieve that.
Oh, and if you’re still in the mood for Spanish grammar, why not mosey on down to our article on ‘su‘ vs ‘sus‘!
¡Hasta la próxima!