Spanish Set Phrases

Do you know what Spanish set phrases are?

Have you ever heard about set phrases/collocations? Perhaps it’s not a linguistic term you’re familiar with but if you’re a Spanish student there’s no doubt that at some point your teacher will have corrected the combinations of words you’ve somehow used incorrectly when it seemed perfectly okay to you. They might say, “in Spanish it’s just said like this”. Or maybe you’ve noticed that there are certain words that always seem to appear together, like two besties joined at the hip.

Well, your Spanish teacher was, of course, right and you’re very observant, because in Spanish there are some stable units of words and set word combinations that are used, instead of others which may seem more logical to you, to define a specific concept. These word combinations are called collocations or set phrases.

What can be tricky about using them is that they don’t normally adhere to specific rules and in a lot of cases they don’t literally translate into other languages. Therefore, it’s very important that students studying Spanish, including the lower levels, identify them and learn to avoid making mistakes and getting into bad habits. What’s more, knowing Spanish set phrases will really help to not only expand your vocabulary, but make it more accurate and natural.


Types of Spanish Set Phrases

There are different categories of word combinations, with verb + noun having the most lexical structures. Below, we’ve listed the most common word combinations and provided some examples:

Verb + noun

Cometer un error (not hacer un error) – to make a mistake

Surtir efecto (not tener efecto) – to take effect

Tomar una decisión (not hacer una decisión) – to make a decision

Sacar buenas notas (not haber/tener buenas notas) – to get good grades

Ganar/amasar una fortuna (not hacer una fortuna) – to make a fortune

Tocar un instrumento (not jugar un instrumento) – to play an instrument

Noun + adjective

Vino tinto (not vino rojo) – red wine 

Lluvia torrencial – torrential rain       

Error garrafal – blunder                                                                                                                      

Luna llena – full moon                                                                                                                           

Fumador empedernido – heavy smoker                                                                                                  

Cruda realidad – harsh reality

Verb + adverb

Amar incondicionalmente – to love unconditionally

Saludar efusivamente – to greet warmly

Discutir acaloradamente – to discuss heatedly

Confiar plenamente – to trust completely

Negar rotundamente – to reject outright

Adjective + adverb

Asquerosamente rico – disgustingly rich

Gravemente herido – seriously injured

Felizmente casados – happily married

Sobradamente conocido – well known

Noun + preposition + noun

Rebanda de pan – slice of bread

Trozo de pizza – slice of pizza

Porción de tarta – slice of cake

Loncha de queso – slice of cheese

Our advice is, any time you come across a Spanish set phrase, note down the combination of words and study it as a whole unit rather than separate words. Ask your teacher, or look up in a dictionary, to see if the set phrase can admit other types of words to create different meanings (for example: fumador social (social smoker) vs. fumador empedernido) or synonymous set phrases (albergar esperanzas, guardar esperanzas (keep hope alive)).

Spanish set phrases

Be careful not to confuse Spanish set phrases with idioms and figures of speech which, unlike set phrases, cannot have their meaning deduced from the individual words. If a native speaker is complaining and says he cometido un error, we can easily understand what is being said. On the other hand, if they use the expression meter la pata, we can’t infer the meaning from these words, it’s not obvious. Therefore, we have to familiarise ourselves with the specific expression in order to understand it.

Now it’s your turn: what are some other Spanish set phrases that you know? Do you have any doubts about what can or can’t be a Spanish set phrase? Let us know in the comments, and if you’d like to know more about Spanish set phrases or get some practice, we’re working on a quiz that will be featured on our new platform that will definitely help you out!

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