‘Terminar’ vs ‘Acabar’

In short – these two verbs are practically interchangeable and can both be translated as one of either ‘to end‘ or ‘to finish‘. There are, however, some small differences in meaning, most notably when used with the preposition ‘de‘.

Acabar + de + infinitive can mean ‘to have just done something‘, whereas terminar + de + infinitive always means to finish.

Terminar‘ / ‘acabar‘ in English

It’s important to note that there is no subtle distinction between ‘terminar‘ and ‘acabar‘ as there is between ‘to end‘ and ‘to finish‘ in English.

You wouldn’t say “I ended last in the race” in English, but you can indeed use both ‘acabar‘ and ‘terminar‘ in the Spanish equivalent.

Acabé / Terminé al último en la carrera.

I finished last in the race.

Similarly, ‘finish‘ can be used with a gerund (-ing) in English and ‘end‘ cannot, whereas there are no such differences between the use of ‘terminar‘ and ‘acabar‘ in Spanish.

Instead, both words need to be translated according to the context in which they are read / heard.

Terminar‘ vs ‘acabar

These are two words that are sure to come up frequently in even the smallest foray into the Spanish language.

For the most part, they’re almost entirely interchangeable, so no need to stress too much over which one to use!

Both ‘acabar‘ and ‘terminar‘ can be used in the following situations –

  • Ending / finishing (something)

  • Doing away with something entirely (used with ‘con‘)

  • Ending a relationship

  • Referring to the final part of something

  • As a way of saying ‘to kill’

  • As a way of saying ‘to come’ (in a sexual context)

  • As a way of saying ‘to end up’

Ending / finishing (something)

Any time you want to talk about finishing or ending something in Spanish, ‘acabar‘ and ‘terminar‘ will be your weapons of choice.

Let’s look at some examples –

Ya se acabó la película. / Ya se terminó la película.

The film has already finished.

Todavía no acabo de comer. / Todavía no termino de comer.

I still haven’t finished eating.

¿A qué hora termina la película? / ¿A qué hora acaba la película?

What time does the film finish?

Doing away with something entirely

This use of ‘terminar‘ and ‘acabar‘ is particularly interesting because it’s a little different to the equivalent structure in English; the best translations would either be ‘to do away with‘ or ‘to put an end to‘.

In Spanish the structure is as follows –

acabar / terminar + con + algo

¡El presidente logró acabar / terminar con la corrupción!

The president managed to do away with corruption!

¡Hay que acabar / terminar con la pobreza!

We need to put an end to poverty!

Ending a relationship

Both ‘terminar‘ and ‘acabar’ can be used when talking about ending a relationship. Both words can mean ‘to break up‘, ‘to be over‘ and ‘to end‘ (a relationship), depending on the context.

¡Ya terminé / acabé con Óscar!

I’ve broken up with Oscar!

¡Ya no puedo más! Carlos y yo hemos acabado / terminado.

I can’t go on! Carlos and I are over.

Erika’s top tip – the verb ‘cortar‘ also means ‘to break up‘, but is used slightly differently from ‘terminar‘ and ‘cortar‘.

¡Creo que voy a cortar a mi novia!

I think I´m going to break up with my girlfriend!

Referring to the final part of something

When referring to the “end part” of a physical object or even something intangible like a piece of music or a movie, both ‘acabar‘ and ‘terminar‘ can be used!

The Royal Spanish Academy has an excellent example of this –

La espada acaba / termina en punta.

The sword ends in a point.

¡La composición acaba / termina en un solo de guitara majestuoso!

The composition ends in a majestic guitar solo!

As a way of saying ‘to kill

Although there are better-known ways to say ‘to kill‘ in Spanish (take a bow, ‘matar‘), both ‘acabar‘ and ‘terminar‘ can be used in certain contexts, normally to mean ‘to finish someone off‘.

El guerrero acabó / terminó a su adversario con un puñetazo a la sien.

The warrior finished his adversary off with a punch to the temple.

¡Chale! Lo acabaron con un disparo en la cabeza,

Wow! They finished him off with a shot to the head.

As a way of saying ‘to come

Acabar‘ and ‘terminar‘ can both adopt sexual overtones when used in the bedroom.

¿Ya terminaste / acabaste?

Have you already had an orgasm?

¡Avísame cuando ya vas a terminar!

Tell me when you’re going to come!

Erika’s top tip – the literal translation of ‘to come‘ is ‘venir‘, which can also be used in Spanish (you’re really spoilt for choice)!

As a way of saying ‘to end up

This final use of ‘terminar‘ and ‘acabar‘ is super useful and is sure to be flying off the tip of your Spanish-speaking tongue in no time at all!

The structure is exactly the same as its English counterpart (thankfully!) –

acabar / terminar + gerund (-ing)

¡Acabé / Terminé haciendo toda su tarea!

I ended up doing all her homework!

¡Acabó / Terminó durmiendo en un granero!

She ended up sleeping in a barn!

Both verbs can also be used with the preposition por‘+ infinitive to mean the exact same thing (although obviously this structure departs further from the English)!

¡Terminé / Acabé por llamar al plomero!

I ended up calling the plumber!

Ways in which ‘acabar‘ and ‘terminar‘ are different

So, how are they different, I hear you ask!

Well, ‘acabar‘ is used differently when referring to the realm of ‘death‘ and ‘dying‘.

The first difference is the use of ‘acabar‘ to talk about the ‘gradual destruction‘ of a person / thing.

This can often translate to something along the lines of ‘to be the end of‘ –

¡Su esposa se lo está acabando con tantos problemas!

His wife’s problems are going to be the end of him!

Kill‘ can also be a decent translation –

¡Pa’ su mecha! Se te están acabando los cigarros. *

Holy cow! The cigarettes are killing you!

Acabar‘ is also a lesser-used synonym of ‘to die‘ (it’s faithful sidekick ´terminar´ can´t be used in this context) –

¡Se acabó después de una lucha dolorosa con el cáncer!

He died after a painful battle with cancer!

*Erika´s note – we’ve written a whole article about the Mexican expression ‘pa’ su mecha, so be sure to check it out!

Acabar / terminar de + infinitive (with examples)

The most notable difference between the two verbs arises when ‘acabar‘ is used with the preposition ‘de‘.

Acabar de‘ actually has two different meanings depending on the context and the verb used.

The first meaning is ‘to finish doing something‘ and ‘terminar de‘ is once again a synonym –

¡Acabé de comer el desayuno! / ¡Terminé de comer el desayuno!

I finished eating the chicken!

¡Tengo que acabar de escribir el ensayo! / ¡Tengo que terminar de escribir el ensayo!

I have to finish writing the essay!

The second meaning, however, is unique to ‘acabar‘. It can be translated into English as ‘to have just done something‘.

¡No vas a creer lo que acabo de ver!

You’re not going to believe what I just saw!

¡Acababa de cambiar de sudadera cuando empezó a llover a cantaros!

I’d literally just changed my sweatshirt when it started to pour with rain!

¡Acaban de ganar los Pumas!

The Pumas (a popular Mexican football team) have just won!

Erika´s top tip – when ‘acabar‘ means ‘to have just done something‘, it can actually be used in conjunction with its brother-in-arms, ‘terminar‘ –

Acabo de terminar el libro.

I’ve just finished the book.

Acabar‘ / ‘terminar‘ conjugation

Both verbs are regular ´-ar´ verbs and are conjugated as follows in the indicative:

yo  acaboacabéacababaacabaríaacabaré
él / ella / ustedacabaacabóacababaacabaríaacabará
ellos / ellas / ustedesacabanacabaronacababanacabaríanacabarán

él / ella / ustedterminaterminóterminabaterminaríaterminará
ellos / ellas / ustedesterminanterminaronterminabanterminaríanterminarán

Final thoughts

Both verbs mean ‘to end‘ or ‘to finish‘ and can be used pretty much interchangeably, with a few notable exceptions.

Just remember that ‘acabar + de‘ can also mean ‘to have just done‘ and you’ll be groovy!

Head on over to our article on comenzar‘, ‘empezar‘ and ‘iniciar for your next Spanish grammar fix!

Acabar de + infinitive practice

Choose the infinitive that best fits the gap –

1. Acabo de ___________ los trastes. (lavar / cocinar)

2. Acababa de ___________ que reprobó el examen, cuando le terminó su novia. (finalizar / enterar)

3. ¡Qué raro que no te está contestando! Me acaba de ___________. (escribir / comer)

4. Acaba de ___________ su tarea. (pesar / terminar)

5. El gobernador acaba de ___________ una nueva ley contra la corrupción. (fumar / pasar)

Answers –

1. Acabo de lavar los trastes.

2. Acababa de enterar que reprobó el examen, cuando le terminó su novia.

3. ¡Qué raro que no te está contestando! Me acaba de escribir.

4. Acaba de terminar su tarea.

5. El gobernador acaba de pasar una nueva ley contra la corrupción.

Rupert's lived in Mexico for nearly a decade and has been working as a Spanish teacher for even longer (over 10 years now, wow!). He specializes in simple (yet effective) explanations and is a veritable grammar-whizz.

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