In Spanish 1 & 2 I was taught expressions such as tener frío, and tener sueño. Some of the English phrases to be + adj are tener + noun in Spanish.

I have noticed that many English adjectives ending in -y that have a nominal complement are used in such expressions: thirsty (thirst), hungry (hunger), sleepy (sleep), happy (happiness), gloomy/glum (gloom, sadness) -- with the exception of hurriedness (hurry).

I understand that Latin does not have a verb meaning "to have," so I assume that tener carries with it a meaning slightly different than what an English speaker would expect.


What extra meaning, if any, does the construction carry by using tener instead of ser or estar? (N.B. I know the uses of ser and estar and when to use each.)

3 Answers 3


This is indeed a question about something that Spanish speakers take for granted without stopping to think why that is so.

The verb tener comes from Latin tenere. If you search that verb in a Latin dictionary, the meaning is just sostener, mantener, agarrar (to hold). In fact, if you search the verb tener in the DRAE, the first meaning is precisely that:

1. tr. Asir o mantener asido algo.

But the verb has 24 other meanings, and the extra meaning you are seeking is number 12:

12. tr. experimentar. Tener vergüenza, miedo, hambre, calor, nervios.

The definition of experimentar includes the following meaning:

2. tr. Notar, echar de ver en uno mismo una cosa, una impresión, un sentimiento, etc.

So basically, if you say tengo hambre, what you are really saying in Spanish is something like estoy experimentando la sensación de hambre.

Now another question could be when the verb tener got this extra meaning. It seems something relatively recent. Searching the expression in Ngram the matches start in the XVIII or XIX centuries, depending on the search term. Just think that we can also use other expressions such as estoy hambriento or estoy gélido that indeed use the verb estar. But I'm sure there are people here that can answer that part much better than me.

By the way, in English you can also use the verb to have to indicate that you are experiencing a feeling: please, have fun!

  • 1
    Tener is experimentar. Experimentar means to experience something. Therefore, the extra meaning from tener is basically to experience hunger, cold, etc.
    – Lambie
    Jul 29, 2018 at 21:46

You're right, the verb 'tener' does have a slightly different meaning than 'to have' in English. Well, the meaning is the same but it is a much more diverse word in Spanish and can be used to express more things, often where in English we would simply use 'to be + adjective'.

The thing about 'tener' is that it not only displays the meaning of 'to have' but has a much wider range of uses and meanings than the word 'have' in English.

tener frío (to be cold) Olvidé mi suéter y ahora tengo mucho frío. (I forgot my sweater, and now I am very cold.)

tener calor (to be hot) Los chicos están sudando. Seguramente tienen mucho calor. (The boys are sweating. They must be very hot.)

tener hambre (to be hungry) ¡Mira los perritos! Tienen hambre. No han comido nada. (Look at the dogs! They are hungry. They have not eaten anything.)

tener sed (to be thirsty) No he tomado agua todo el día. ¡Tengo mucha sed! (I haven’t drank water the whole day. I’m so thirsty!)

This post has a lot of examples of common expressions where the verb 'tener' is used: https://www.clozemaster.com/blog/spanish-tener-expressions/

Hope that helps :)

  • 1
    Welcome to the Spanish Language forum. Please notice that you are not really answering the question; the original poster (OP) says that he knows when to use each construction, but wants to know if they carry different meanings.
    – Gorpik
    Jul 12, 2018 at 8:41
  • Undeleting so you can perform the same good changes you did to the rest of your answers!
    – fedorqui
    Jul 13, 2018 at 7:56

Let me address one more thing, you've got the clue in your first paragraph.

English uses to be + Adj whereas Spanish uses tener + noun.

The issue would be different if it were "tener + Adj". Then you should definitely wonder why the verb changes.

However, you actually can use to be + Adj in Spanish. The thing is that it is not common.

You can say

I am thirsty = Estoy sediento

I am hungry = Estoy hambriento

I am sleepy = Estoy somnoliento

and many others.

However, the other structure is just more common. HEre, tener means to have, in the sense of "to suffer".

Tengo sed = I suffer from thirst

Tengo hambre = I suffer from hunger

Tengo sueño = I suffer from sleepyness

And so on

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