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Expressing Desire, Obligation, and Age with the Spanish Verb Tener

Tener is an extremely versatile Spanish verb. It works by itself the way other verbs do, but it also forms special verb structures to express age or a desire or obligation to take action. In short, you can get a lot of mileage out of this unassuming verb.

Conveying desire and obligation

You can use tener to create additional verb structures that express desire or obligation. The following instructions explain how to create each verb structure:

  • To express desire, or say that someone feels like doing something, take the form of tener that agrees with the subject of your sentence and then add ganas de + infinitive.

    • Yo tengo ganas de ir de compras. (I feel like going shopping.)

    • Ella tiene ganas de cantar. (She feels like singing.)

  • To express obligation, or say that someone has to perform an action, take the form of tener that agrees with the subject of your sentence and then add que + infinitive.

    • Ellos tienen que estudiar. (They have to study.)

    • Él tiene que trabajar hoy. (He has to work today.)

Telling your age

In Spanish, it’s not about how old you are but how many years you have. When someone asks you how old you are, tener can help you answer the question. Take the correct conjugated form for whomever you are describing and then give the correct number of years that that person has (or as you’d say in English, “is”). The following examples should help you phrase your answer to questions about age:

  • Yo tengo veinte años. (I am 20. [I have 20 years.])

  • Ella tiene treinta y cinco años. (She is 35. [She has 35 years.])

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