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Spanish Proposition 'A' Has Multiple Uses

Lesson 25 in the 'Real Spanish Grammar' Series



Photo of meat stew taken at a restaurant in Zaragoza, Spain.

Photo by Flickr user Mover el Bigote used under terms of Creative Commons license.

See the three ways in which the preposition a is used in this selection.

Excerpt from a news feature: Imagine que unos amigos le invitan a su casa a cenar. El plato principal es un estofado de carne que huele fenomenal y está delicioso. Mientras lo disfruta le pregunta a sus anfitriones por la receta. "Coges un kilo de carne de Golden retriever, marinada desde la noche...", le contesta su amigo. "¿¿Golden retriever??" Si usted es como la mayoría de las personas que viven en Occidente, probablemente se sentirá mal ante la idea de estar comiéndose un perro cocinado. Incluso sentirá asco, "porque los perros no se comen".

Source: El Mundo, a Madrid newspaper. Dateline Dec. 15, 2013.

Suggested translation: Imagine that some friends invite you to their house for dinner. The main dish is a meat stew that smells phenomenal and is delicious. While you enjoy it you ask your hosts for the recipe. "You take a kilogram of golden retriever marinated overnight ..." your friend answers. "Golden retriever?" If you are like the majority of persons who live in the West, you probably would feel bad facing the idea of eating a cooked dog. You would probably even feel nauseous, "because dogs aren't eaten."

Key grammatical issue: This paragraph shows three distinctive uses for a. Although "to" is the most common translation for a, it often isn't the most suitable.

In the first instance (le invitan a a su casa, meaning "they invite you to their house"), a is functioning in its most common way, as a preposition indicating direction toward. This is the use that will seem most straightforward to English speakers.

In the second instance (le invitan ... a cenar, which could be translated literally as "they invite you ... to dine"), the a is following a common pattern in which it comes between a verb and an infinitive. Invitar is one of those verbs — and there's no set rule about which verbs this includes — that usually need an a when an infinitive follows. Other examples of this usage include "Te invitamos a cantar" (We invite you to sing) and "Le invitaron a hablar" (They invited him to speak). Note that in the English translations, "to" doesn't indicate motion toward but rather is used to help form the infinitive. Common verbs that behave similarly and are followed by a when coming before an infinitive include comenzar (to begin), ir (to go), venir (to come) and volver (to return).

(In the suggested translation, "a cenar" was translated as "to dinner" rather than "to dine" in order to maintain a similar voice or level of formality in the two languages.)

Finally, the third instance (le pregunta a sus anfitriones meaning "you ask your hosts") shows the use of the personal a. Generally, when a verb (in this case pregunta) has a person or persons as an object, the preposition a must come before the object. As in this case, the personal a usually is left untranslated in English.

Other notes on vocabulary and grammar:

  • Imagine is the formal or usted imperative form of imaginar, to imagine.
  • Although it may seem contrary to the usual rules about the use of the subjunctive mood, imaginar que is typically followed by a verb in the indicative mood, as it is here. (In the negative form, no imaginar que, however, the subjunctive would follow.)
  • Le here is an indirect object pronoun meaning "you." In Spanish, the person being invited is treated as an indirect object. The same is true later in the passage with contestar, where the person answered is also an indirect object.
  • Estofar is an uncommon verb meaning "to make stew." Its past participle, estofado, takes on the function of a noun here.
  • Huele is a form of the irregularly conjugated oler, which means "to smell."
  • The verb estar can be used with delicioso to indicate that a particular item tastes good. The use of ser, as in "El estofado es delicioso" suggests that a particular type of food, in this case stews in general, tastes good.
  • When asking for something, the preposition por is used.
  • "Desde la noche" literally means "since the evening." The translation of "overnight" is used in accord with common English usage.
  • In Spanish, unlike standard written English, it is acceptable to use up to three consecutive question marks as a means of emphasis.
  • As it does here, ante often is used figuratively to suggest that a person is facing or considering a concept or situation.
  • Comiendo could have been used here instead of the reflexive form comiéndose with little translatable difference in meaning. As written, the verb, which in a progressive form, places a bit of emphasis on the act of eating.
  • Incluso is an intensifier that usually adds emphasis to an entire sentence.
  • Note that in the final sentence, the closing period comes outside the quotation marks, a difference from the rule in American English.
  • The sentirá in the final sentence shows how the future tense of Spanish can be used to show likelihood rather than something happening in the future. The phenomenon is sometimes known as the suppositional future.
  • The final words, no se comen, form an example of the passive use for the reflexive.

Note: To avoid confusion, the use of quotation marks in the sample paragraph was altered slightly from the original because one of them appeared to be a typographical error.

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