The dictionary says both mean "to burn". Obviously there must be some difference, subtle or otherwise. What are they?


First of all note that burn means different things in English:

  1. Catch fire.
  2. Be consumed by fire.
  3. Make something to burn.

Quemar is just burn, in with meaning 3. Meaning 2 will be quemarse or arder.

Prender, however, means to catch fire (meaning 1), put in flame, that is, the act of start burning. It is sometimes used redundantly: prender fuego.

For example, you can say:

La madera mojada no prende bien. - Wet wood doesn't catch fire easily.

But if you say

La madera verde no arde bien. - Green wood doesn't burn easily.

The meaning is subtly different: the former means that it is difficult to start a fire with wet wood; the latter means that wet wood does not give great flames.

But with the following phrase:

¡Los pirómanos quieren prender fuego al mundo! - Pyromaniacs want to burn down the world.

¡Los pirómanos quieren quemar el mundo! - Pyromaniacs want to burn down the world.

The meaning is practially the same.

Note that prender, as is, without fuego following may require some context, because this word has a lot of different meanings.

The meaning of prender as turn on an electrical device sounds regional, from America, I think.

  • "La madera verde no arde bien. - Green wood doesn't burn easily."...what is "arde"?
    – TheLearner
    May 28 '14 at 20:23
  • 1
    @AmitSchandillia: Oh, sorry. Arder is to get burn. Synonim with quemarse. Quemar is to make burn, if I explain myself... In English, if I burn a match, the matches burns. In Spanish, yo quemo/prendo/enciendo una cerilla, la cerilla arde/se quema. I'll add this to the answer.
    – rodrigo
    May 28 '14 at 20:27
  • Wow, that's a new word I learned today! And you explained it really well. Thanks!
    – TheLearner
    May 28 '14 at 20:41
  • You have two options To burn the fire or To turn on the fire... which one would you choose?
    – dockeryZ
    May 29 '14 at 21:03
  • @dockeryz: Do you mean in English? I would say to burn the house, to turn on the light, but to start the fire.
    – rodrigo
    May 30 '14 at 7:34

You can use quemar and prender for the verb "to burn".

However, prender is used to "turn on" something, like:

Prender la luz - To turn on the light
Prender el horno - To turn on the oven

Besides, you can use encender; so you can

Encender la luz
Encender el horno

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.