Spanish has at least three verbs that can mean "to happen," and all three of them — pasar, ocurrir and suceder — are fairly common. Although pasar is the most common and can be used in both formal and informal contexts, many times the three verbs are interchangeable.
Pasar: As indicated in the lesson on pasar, pasar has a variety of meanings, including "to pass" in various senses. Here are some examples of where it can be translated as "to happen":
- ¿Qué ha pasado con el robo de datos en PlayStation Network? What has happened with the data theft on the PlayStation network?
- Lo que pasó, pasó. What happened, happened.
- Yo no sé lo que me pasó. I don't know what happened to me.
- Tememos lo que pasará a nuestro alrededor. We fear what will be happening to our vicinity.
- Es el lugar donde nunca pasa en tiempo. It's the place where nothing happens on time.
Ocurrir: Ocurrir is a cognate of the English "to occur" and has much the same meaning, although the synonym "to happen" is a more common translation. Some examples:
- Esto nunca ocurrirá. This will never happen.
- Espero que ocurra lo que les dice el horóscopo de hoy. I hope what today's horoscope is telling you happens.
- ¿Qué ocurrió en el accidente del Challenger? What happened in the Challenger accident?
- Lo mejor que puede ocurrir es que tengo mi día en corte. The best that can happen is that I have my day in court.
- Me ocurrió un problema similar. A similar problem happened to me.
Suceder: Suceder also is often used to mean "to happen." Note that while suceder is related to the English verb "to succeed," it never has the meaning of "to have success," although it can mean "succeed" in the sense of "to take the place of" as in "suceder al trono," "to succeed to the throne." Here are some examples of where it means "happen":
- "It Happened One Night" es conocida en castellano como "Sucedió una noche." "It Happened One Night" is known in Spanish as "Sucedió una noche."
- No debo pensar que a mi nunca me sucederá algo malo. I shouldn't think that nothing bad will ever happen to me.
- Hay diez cosas que seguro que nos sucedieron a todos. There are 10 things I'm sure have happened to all of us.
- ¿Qué sucede con Fernando? What's happening with Fernando?
- En el camino de la vida, muchas cosas suceden. On the road of life, many things happen.
Etymology: Pasar comes from the Latin verb passare, "to pass."
Occurir is from the Latin occurrere, "to occur." In addition to the meaning of "to happen," in the reflexive form ocurrirse can, like "occur," also mean "to bring to mind": Nunca se me ocurrió que iba a ser actor. It never occurred to me that I was going to become an actor.
Suceder comes from the Latin succedere, "to follow" or "to take the place of." Suceder has come to mean "to happen" in the same way that English speakers give the same meaning to "to take place." The shift in English of "succeed" to mean "having success" occurred after the verb's meaning was established in Spanish.
Sources: As is the case with most lessons on this site, sample sentences are adapted from a variety of sources written by native Spanish speakers. Among the sources consulted for this lesson were: Cubaweb, Daddy Yankee, es.Wikipedia.com, Flickr.com, Fotolog.com, Intereconomia.com, Lacomunidad.as.com, Metroflog, Mixshe, Muyinteresante.es, Softonic.com, Taringa.net, Vadejuegos.com.