Is there a general structure for using tener in certain constructions in place of estar or ser?

For example:

Ser. For ' am 11 years old' we say:

Yo tengo once años


Yo soy once años

Estar. For 'I am interested in this house' we say:

Tengo interés en esta casa


Yo estoy interés en esta casa

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    You are starting from a false premise. "Tener" does not replace "estar o ser" in those examples. They are different constructions. "I am interested in this house" can be translated directly to "Estoy interesado en esta casa". "Tengo interés en esta casa" is an alternative construction ("I have interest in this house"). Same with "Yo tengo doce años (de edad)".
    – leonbloy
    Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 20:31
  • I can only explain how I have worked it out for myself, as someone for whom Spanish is an adopted language. I have a good appetite -> I have hunger, I have thirst. I have too much heat or cold. I have a certain number of years under my belt. I have curiosity. I have an inclination or an itch to do something (tengo ganas). I just came to feel that these expressions belong together. It will be interesting if someone has a technical explanation. Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 4:44
  • There are tons of things that have to be learned as you go along. Just take the Spanish at face value and don't try to get into the whys and wherefores until you have basically mastered it at least an intermediate level.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 16:58

5 Answers 5


As shown by the comment and the answer above, I think we can define a rule for the alternate use of "estar" and "tener" when predicating a state about the subject:

"tener" will be used with an abstract noun as direct object or as the magnitude (whether implicitly or explicitly stated) to which a certain measurement or dimension refers.

"estar" will be used with adjectives.

We thus have, apart from the examples with "interés" (noun) and "interesado" (adjective) above, the following:

  • Estoy hambriento. (adjective)

  • Tengo hambre. (noun)

  • Estoy confiado. (adjective)

  • Tengo confianza. (noun)

  • Estoy cansado/somnoliento. (adjectives)

  • Tengo cansancio/sueño. (nouns)

Whenever magnitudes, such as age, height, weight, width, depth, etc., are involved, we can use the verb "tener" or a more specific verb peculiar to the magnitude involved:

  • Tengo 50 años (de edad).
  • Mide 5 metros (de ancho/alto/profundidad). (I'd say "ancho" and "alto" are nominalized adjectives here.)
  • Pesa 100 Kg.

Notice that "estar" and even "ser" will appear whenever there are adjectives in the vicinity.

  • El niño es cinco años mayor (older, adjective) que su hermana.


  • El niño tiene cinco años (de edad) más que su hermana.

  • La niña está 10 Kg. más pesada de lo que correspondería.


  • La niña pesa 10 Kg. más de lo que correspondería (tiene 10 Kg. más que el peso que correspondería).

Note: This pattern where "idiomatic tener" is followed by a noun may not appear in grammar books for native speakers, who take it for granted, but is provided as a rule in books for speakers of other languages, as shown below:Idiomatic "tener"

In Spanish, "ser" and "estar" will appear with adjectives (or prepositional phrases) respectively denoting permanent or temporary states:

  • estar acalorado / con calor ("caliente" may be used to indicate sexual excitement or anger)
  • ser cuidadoso
  • ser exitoso
  • estar con frío
  • estar hambriento / con hambre
  • estar temeroso / con miedo
  • estar en lo cierto
  • estar sediento / con sed
  • estar somnoliento / con sueño
  • ser afortunado/una persona de suerte / estar con suerte
  • I've never noticed this pattern before, but it makes sense. Do you know if it appears in any grammar text? (I took a look when I saw the question and didn't find anything).
    – NotEvans.
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 10:43
  • 1
    @NotEvans. The pattern is there for us to discover. Not all patterns are explicitly stated in grammar books, because many things are taken for granted by native speakers. However, in doing contrastive analysis between both languages, some interesting conclusions can be drawn. See, for example, the parallel found by Isabel Cisneros when explaining this idiomatic use of "tener" in her book entitled "Spanish in three months", an excerpt of which I'm attaching to my reply above.
    – Gustavson
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 13:54

There is, to my knowledge, no general rule for predicting whether tener is appropriate in a given case to replace ser/ester, but rather the usage is idiomatic. There are many examples of this, though using tener ____ años is one which students learn very early when learning Spanish.

If you consider the literal translation of tengo once años, you're actually saying I have 11 years, it makes sense, even in English, though we don't usually say it in this way.

Many other phrases in Spanish take this form, using tener in place of what we (as English speakers), would expect to take ser/estar.

To give a few examples:

  • To be hungry in Spanish translates to tener hambre, literally, to have hunger
  • To be confident in Spanish translates to tener confianza, literally, to have confidence.
  • Otros ejemplos aparecen en todas partes y a veces reemplazan haber como "tiene que ver con"=it has to do with. Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 3:05
  • I think it is a really bad idea to say that tener replaces ser and estar. There is no replacement at all in Spanish. It is not English.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 17:00

Although the answers given so far are correct and useful, I think, as pointed out in one of the comments, this is just starting from a wrong premise. Tener, ser and estar are three very different verbs, the last two much more semantically close to each other, but in the end each one having an awful lot of meanings and usages. These have to be learned as part of the logic of Spanish, not as translations from their supposed English equivalents.

Phrases employing tener that cannot be translated literally to English include tener hambre, tener sueño, tener [x] años. These are idiomatical, but note that for conditions like hunger or sleepiness the alternative with estar + adjective is also valid, as in English: estar hambriento, estar somnoliento, only rarer in actual use. It's much more common to find the structure estar con + noun: estar con hambre, estar con sueño. This has no parallel in English, but in fact phrases meaning "being with" or "being next to" something/someone are understood as possessives in many languages.

In Spanish you can also say, in the same vein, estar con problemas "to have problems", estar con muchas cosas para hacer "to have a lot of things to do".

  • 1
    I was about to include prepositional phrases like "con hambre" or "con sueño" and then forgot. Prepositional phrases are both semantically and syntactically closer to adjectives than to nouns, and that accounts for the use of "estar" rather than "tener". "estar con problemas" would be close to "estar complicado". Idiomaticity is of essence, but I think the adjective-noun distinction is useful for Spanish learners to have a rule to fall back on when it comes to deciding between "estar" and "tener".
    – Gustavson
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 1:36
  • 1
    Good point, "not as translations from their English equivalents". Spanish didn't evolve from English. Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 11:04
  • @WalterMitty Spanish and English do have many things in common (while Latin is the main root of Spanish, it also strongly influenced English while Britain belonged to the Roman Empire and then via French under the Normans). However, my main point here is that, similar or dissimilar as they may be, translation can be of help to find analogies and differences, and this can in turn help learners of both languages.
    – Gustavson
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 13:43
  • @Gustavson That's true of course. My point was about literal translations and trying to make sense of quirks in one language using the other one.
    – pablodf76
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 13:46
  • Translation is not about equivalence per se. It is about equivalent meaning: So the meaning of Tengo hambre is rendered by I am hungry. I agree the premise of the question is wrong.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 16:56

It is perhaps worth pointing out for the benefit of other learners that the position is even more complicated than the OP suggested as sometimes hacer is used to translate "is". This is true for statements about the weather like Hace frio for the English "It is cold". The moral of the story is, as others suggested in answers and comments, that idioms just have to be accepted as they are without attempt to translate them.


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!)

tener tos (to have a cough) Esteban está enfermo. Tiene tos. (Esteban is sick. He has a cough.)

This post has heaps of examples of uses of 'tener' when it would normally not be used in English:.https://www.clozemaster.com/blog/spanish-tener-expressions/

  • 2
    Welcome to the site! Please note that link-only answers are discouraged here. You should copy here the most relevant parts of the page cited, so that the answer will still be valid even if the link breaks in the future.
    – Charlie
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 8:32
  • Hi Charlie, thanks for the heads up. I have added some more detail now. I hope that works. Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 22:44

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