Both of them, more or less, equate to the verb to have in English, but they aren’t interchangeable and have different uses

Once you start learning Spanish, you’ll soon come across both of these important verbs – tener and haber. Both of them, more or less, equate to the verb to have in English, but they aren’t interchangeable and have different uses. Let’s dive in and have a look at why and when we need to use these two words.

What’s the difference?

So, the answer to this question is fairly simple but you might need some examples to fully pillarlo (get it). In simple terms, tener is the verb to have when used as the main verb in a sentence and means possession or owning. On the other hand, haber is an auxiliary verb which we have to use when forming various verb tenses in Spanish. Have a look at these sentences to see if you can spot the difference.

Haber Tener
He comido una manzana esta mañana – I have eaten an apple this morning Tengo dos perros y un gato – I have two dogs and a cat
Habían practicado mucho para presentar una obra perfecta – They had practised a lot to be able to put on a great show Me dijeron que tienen mucho trabajo que hacer estos días – They told me they have a lot of work to do at the moment

In the table above you have an example of haber in the present perfect and the past perfect where it simply acts as the auxiliary for the main verb. The two examples of tener show you that the animals and the work are owned/possessed by someone.

Other uses of tener

Apart from the basics we’ve spoken about already, there are specific things which we need to use tener for in Spanish.

  • To talk about someone’s age
    • Tengo 16 años – I am 16
  • To express “have to + verb” as in obligation
    • Tenemos que estudiar para el examen – We have to study for the exam
    • Tiene que ser más comprensivo – He has to be more understanding
    • Tienen que limpiar la casa – They have to clean the house
  • To talk about emotions, feelings and certain states
    • Tenemos demasiado frío – We are too cold
    • Tenías razón – You were right
    • ¿Tenéis sed?Are you thirsty?
    • Tenía sueño – He was tired
  • In some idiomatic expressions
    • Tener lugar – To take place
    • Tener ganas de – To want to do something
    • Tener cariño – To be fond of
    • Tener cuidado – To be careful

As you can see in the English translations, a lot of these phrases are expressed with the verb to be in English. This is often confusing for learners of Spanish so try to start learning expressions rather than translating everything word-for-word.

Other uses of haber

Just like with our other verb, haber has a particular set of uses which we’ll look at below.

  • To translate the structure “there is/are”
    • Hay tres personas en la sala – There are three people in the room
    • Había unos soldados en la calle – There were some soldiers in the Street
    • No hay tiempo para ir al parque – There’s no time to go to the park
    • ¿Hay algún museo por aquí? – Is there a museum around here?
  • To talk about things you need to do with “haber + que + verb”
    • Hay que comprar papel higiénico – It’s necessary to buy toilet paper/We need to buy toilet paper
    • Mañana hay que terminar el proyecto – It’s necessary to finish the project tomorrow/We need to finish the project tomorrow
  • To talk about events which occurred in the past or future
    • Hubo un accidente en la autopista – There was an accident on the motorway
    • Va a haber un festival en el pueblo el fin de semana que viene – There’s going to be a festival in the town next weekend

Hopefully this quick guide to tener and haber will help you when speaking Spanish to be able to select the right verb to use. A good way to learn the differences is to read and listen to as much Spanish as possible so you see lots of ejemplos (examples).

Your profe (teacher) here at Hablamos will help you better understand all of the points above and you’ll be able to practise with people from all around the world. Hablamos - full-on Spanish!