As an English speaker learning Spanish, I was always a little confused that it smells and tastes "to" something rather than "of" something:

  • Huele a humo.
  • Sabe a ajo.

I would think of "a" as implying that the smell or taste goes from you to the object where "de" would better describe it going from the object to you. How do Spanish speakers think about this preposition? Is it simply "the way things are" or is there an intuitive way of understanding it? Can any other prepositions be used with these verbs, or must it be "a" exclusively?

  • 1
    Mostly to differentiate between the verbs knowing and tasting. Sabe ajo = (know ajo). Sabe a ajo (tastes like ajo). Sorry I didn't make an elaborate answer no time now. Hope this helps though.
    – Jose Luis
    Jul 3, 2012 at 22:08
  • I've just learned in English is "taste of" instead "taste to". For me at least it is "the way things are".
    – JoulSauron
    Jul 3, 2012 at 22:10
  • @JoulSauron: Actually I guess the most common in English (informal American English at least) would be "tastes like."
    – jrdioko
    Jul 4, 2012 at 0:04
  • @jrdioko In Spanish we use "sabe como a" (yes, again "a") when the taste is similar, and this is how I use "tastes like", maybe I'm not that right.
    – JoulSauron
    Jul 4, 2012 at 7:30
  • "Taste like" and "taste of" are slightly different. "Taste of" sort of implies a hint of a certain flavor or implies a small sample. "Taste like" in a way refers to the general taste of the entire dish.
    – Aprendedor
    Jun 19, 2015 at 0:39

6 Answers 6


From DRAE a2:

prep. Precede al complemento de nombres y verbos de percepción y sensación, para precisar la sensación correspondiente. Sabor a miel. Huele a chamusquina.

It's just a preposition without any specific meaning used to indicate the actual sensation in these verbs.

If you want to introduce uncertainty with "como", you still need the "a":

Huele como a fresas.

So, as you can guess from the definition, there isn't a special understanding, it's "the way things are".

You might use the "de" when you want to refer to a sensation noun like "sabor" of a thing.

El sabor de la miel no me gusta.

But in this case, you are talking about a property of honey rather that the act of tasting as you may say "el color de la miel no me gusta", it's not related to perceptions or sensation, so the case and use is different.


The use of prepositions is very idiomatic, both in English and Spanish; by that I mean that as a native speaker they just sound right to you, but when you're learning the language, often they don't make sense or seem arbitraty (at least, this has happened to me). And, well, I guess they are.

Anyway, "a" is not the only preposition used with "oler" and "saber". In fact, "de" is also used.

El olor de las rosas (The smell of roses).

El sabor del brócoli no me gusta (I don't like the taste of broccoli)

I've also heard "como" (as in "huele como ajo"), but it sounds a bit Spanglish to me ears (like a too literal translation of smells like garlic); perhaps it's just me, though.

However, another option could be "huele como a ajo", "como" feels right (it adds there's a different nuance, some uncertainty to the statement).

  • In Spain you could use "sabe como a ajo". But using "como" will make it more dubitative, while without it is more certain. So "sabe como a ajo" will mean something like "probably tastes like garlic", will saying "sabe a ajo" means "definitely tastes like garlic". Jul 4, 2012 at 13:41
  • @Miyamoto Akira. Yes, that's exactly what I was saying. Jul 4, 2012 at 14:01
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    Not that your post was that long and I still managed to not read correctly the last sentence. Jul 4, 2012 at 14:13
  • Well, re-reading it, I realize I could have written it more clearly. Jul 4, 2012 at 14:27

Prepositions have different range of meanings in English and Spanish. An English preposition has its meaning spread across multiple Spanish prepositions and, conversely, a Spanish preposition has its meaning spread across multiple English prepositions. Usually the translation of the most used meaning is the one learned first, but you can't always make a direct mapping between both. I had the same problem when I learned English. Don't try to learn prepositions based on translating the meaning, but learn them on their Spanish meanings, without thinking about English translations.

The full range of meanings for "a" is given in the RAE dictionary entry

  • I think he already knows that. He is asking what you are saying, if "a" has a meaning or not.
    – JoulSauron
    Jul 4, 2012 at 13:31
  • On this specific case, the translation is "like": - Smells like smoke - Tastes like garlic Jul 4, 2012 at 13:35
  • One thing is if "a" is translated as "like" we know that. But "a" doesn't mean "like".
    – JoulSauron
    Jul 4, 2012 at 15:52

I think there is a difference of emphasis in English and Spanish.

In English, the focus is on what something smells OF. Este huele de humo. This smells of smoke.

But in Spanish, the emphasis seems to be on the organ that something smells to. Este huele a [la nariz], humo.

The part about la nariz is understood, and is therefore left out of the sentence.

Or sabe a ajo really "means" (in this context), "sabe a [la lengua] ajo."

It tastes, TO [THE TONGUE], garlic. (Words in brackets are "understood.")

  • I think it's more like "parece a" (seems like). Jul 21, 2019 at 19:06

Supplementary answer

The VOX Diccionario de uso del español de América y España entry for oler includes:

5 v. intr. Despedir [algiuien o algo] cierto olor: si comes ajo, olerás a ajo; algunas flores huelen muy bien; hueles mucho a colonia; la habitación olía a cerrado.

8 v. impersonal Haber cierto olor en un lugar: aquí huele a tabaco, ¿quién ha fumado?; (fig) ya huele a primavera.

In other words, emitting a smell is expressed with oler a [noun or adjective].


a, ante, bajo, cabe, con, contra, de, desde, durante, en, entre, hacia, hasta, mediante, para, por, según, sin, so, sobre, tras, versus y vía.

All of the bove are spanish prepositions. These words are auxiliaries to describe a number of situations that would make a sentece have the right meaning..

In your example, "Sabe a Ajo" Sabe (taste) is the adjective that describe the flavor and ajo (garlic) is the descriptive portion of it. the sentence is describing that a certain item has the have a peculiar or predominant flavor to that bulb.

The prepositions usually have a meaning by themselves, but they will help better describe what you are trying to say, same cases with the English language.

The meeting is between 2 and 3 o'clock. (La reunión es entre las 2 y 3 en punto)
That tomato is between ripe and rotten. (El tomate está entre maduro y podrido)
The remote is under the couch. (El control remoto esta bajo el sofá)
The bird flies to the sunset. (El ave vuela hacia el ocaso)
That store does't opperate during the day (Aquella tienda no opera durante el día)

And so forth.

Hope it helped.

  • 1
    I understand the point of your answer, but probably it's too vague and there are too many examples about prepositions.
    – JoulSauron
    Jul 4, 2012 at 16:27

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