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English:

I have seen the Spanish preposition en used in various ways in my studies. For example:

Ella pone la ropa en la cama. (She puts the clothes on the bed)

or

Tengo gozo en mi corazon. (I have joy in my heart.)

Now consider this sentence:

El gusano está en mi manzana. (The worm is in/on my apple) ??

Where is the worm?! Because depending on the usage, I can still eat my apple. (If I wash it first.)

Can "en" be used interchangeably for "in" and "on"? Are there any special rules about "en"?

Español:

He visto la preposición en utilizada de diversas maneras en mis estudios. Por ejemplo:

Ella pone la ropa en la cama. (She puts the clothes on the bed)

o

Tengo gozo en mi corazon. (I have joy in my heart.)

Ahora considere esta frase:

El gusano está en mi manzana. (The worm is in/on my apple) ??

¿Dónde está el gusano?! Porque dependiendo del uso, todavía puedo comer mi manzana. (Si la lavo primero.)

Puede en se utilizan indistintamente para "in" y "on"? ¿Hay una reglas especiales sobre en?

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2  
As the answers have explained there is no difference between in or on in spanish, just like there is no difference between "ser" and "estar" in english. Try to translate this spanish phrase "No es lo mismo ser que estar." –  YoMismo Aug 1 at 11:04

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

en works just fine for most situations to say in or on. Sometimes though, you might say differing that's ambiguous or contrary to the normal interpretation. For example, if I say something is en la mesa, generally we're going to presume its on the table. But if I really mean to say inside the table (maybe, a hidden compartment, or special wiring, who knows), then I'll pretty much need to use a more specific word.

To distinguish in these cases, use dentro de for in, and encima de for on.

If someone else says en and you feel there's ambiguity, just ask for clarification.

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TL;DR: If it's a container or can contain something, its in, else it's on. If you want to be specific, maybe because it's not where you would expect it to be, use dentro for the first case and encima for the second, as guifa suggests.

Why we do that? For the main rule of languages: economy. In English there is no difference in effort to say either in or on, so you don't win anything by being less specific, but compare en with encima or dentro and you'll see why be find easier to let the listener decide where to expect the object we're talking about. We can also use this ambiguity to build false expectations, create surprise or play with words.

It's also practical in some contexts. Suppose you have a desk with a drawer, and you want someone to pick up a letter you wrote, but you don't remember if you leaved it on the desk or in it's drawer. You can safely tell him:

Traeme la carta, está en mi escritorio.

Bring me the letter, it's in/on the desk.

And the sentence will be correct either way. If he doesn't find it on the desk, he'll know it must be in the desk.

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This is actually a hard time when spanish speaking people is learning english. When to say "on" and when to say "in"? If I am "en la playa" why should I be "on the beach"? If I say I am "sobre la playa" it means I'm in an helicopter or plane.

This happens because in english "in" and "on" are strictly delimited, to mean "inside of" and "above", while in spanish "en" has the complete meaning of being at one place, whatever that implies being over it, inside it, or none of them. Spanish are

  • en la playa
  • en la casa
  • en Trafalgar Square
  • en 2014
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When I started learning Spanish I also thought this one was a bit tricky, so I found a different way of thinking about it. In English we can often be quite lazy and people will still understand but not always this is the same in Spanish.

Think of using the words sobre and dentro instead.

El gusano esta dentro de la manzana - The worm is inside the apple. This makes it pretty clear.

El gusano esta sobre la manzana - The worm is on (about the surface of) the apple.

Generally speaking I hardly ever hear anyone say that something in en la mesa almost always they say tal cosa esta sobre la mesa

However you probably wouldn't need to say Tengo un dolor dentro del estomago because you don't need to be as specific. Here en will suffice.

How I see it, based on my experience...

sobre - about / on the surface of

encima de - Also about the surface of but can refer to slightly above the surface or something that covers swathes of the surface

en - In , On

Adentro de - Towards the inside of

Dentro de - Inside and Within (Like within the space of a time frame)

Final note: If you say hay un gusano en mi manzana everyone is going to understand that the worm is inside the apple.

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You don't use adentro de to mean just inside. In all your examples, the right word would be dentro instead of adentro. Usually, adentro is used without de to mean not just inside, but far from the outside. –  Gorpik Aug 1 at 12:03
    
Thanks for the comment :) This is based on two years living in Mexico so maybe there are some regional differences. I think you're right as we use it more for movements though I have heard it used interchangeably. –  Adam Brown Aug 1 at 12:44
    
To me, at least, encima always has the connotation of being directly on top of (as in, on the surface of), whereas sobre can be anywhere in the general space above. Looking on Google, "en la mesa" gets 125M ghits, "encima de la mesa" gets 34M ghits, "sobre la mesa" gets just 125K ghits. Result counts aren't pinpoint accurate, but two-order-of-magnitude differences are relatively reliable to judge uses. So if you're sure that encima de for Mexico is used for things slightly above (it may be, I'm not familiar with Mexican Spanish), then there's definitely a major regional difference. –  guifa Aug 1 at 14:42
    
There always is :) Quite a difference. The main source for that definition is an extended conversation I had with Mexican friends when I was learning Spanish. They were pretty clear to point out that it will always be tiene chocolate sobre la cara y no tiene chocolate encima de la cara because they felt encima de didn't imply connection. But this Google study is not going to work, for me its 15M encima de la mesa and 46.7M sobre la mesa. Thanks for the comment –  Adam Brown Aug 1 at 15:10
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Ah, but that's different. In Spanish, encima always means vertically on top. If you have chocolate on your face, it is not vertically on top, so we would not say encima de. We would just say en. –  Gorpik Aug 1 at 16:14

I wouldn't say Ella pone la ropa en la cama ever, but Ella pone la ropa sobre la cama.

I'd say En la cama is more typical if you say Ella esta en la cama, so we understand she is under blankets

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protected by Flimzy Aug 5 at 13:18

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