What are periphrasis in Spanish?

Learn to identify and use periphrasis in Spanish!

If you study Spanish, it is likely that you have heard of periphrasis, and definitely used them as part of your linguistic repertoire, without even knowing it. In Spanish, there are more than 130 different periphrasis that we use as much in oral conversation as we do in writing, to specify meanings and clarify what we want to say. Ready to learn a little more about this grammatical content, and practice what you’ve learned? Go for it!

Verbal periphrasis are constructions formed by two different verbs, but act as a single unit, and therefore have a single meaning. That is to say, although we are dealing with two verbs, there are not two meanings but only one meaning derived from the combination of both verbs. In said combination, the first verb is always an auxiliary verb that has lost its usual meaning, and is conjugated (agreeing with the subject or non-finite verb). The second verb, however, can only appear in the non-finite verb; in the infinitive, gerund, or participle. These forms are called ‘non-finite’ verbs as they are not conjugated with any person or subject.


periphrasis in Spanish


Look at the following sentence about the periphrasis in Spanish:

  1. Carlos lleva estudiando toda la tarde para su examen del miércoles (Translation: Carlos has been studying all afternoon for his exam on Wednesday)

In this example, we find the periphrasis llevar + the gerund (lleva estudiando)

We identify this periphrasis because:

  1. We face a construction of two verbs in which the first (llevar) loses its usual meaning, for example llevar gafas (to wear glasses.)Instead, it acts as an auxiliary verb. Also, notice that it appears conjugated in the third person singular (él/he) form. 
  2. The main verb that provides the meaning (estudiar) appears in the non-finite gerund form (estudiando). 
  3. The combination of both verbs results in a single meaning; the duration of the action of studying, which began in the past, and continues in the present. 

However, in the following sentence: 

(b) A Carlos le gusta estudiar para su examen del miércoles (Translation: Carlos likes tostudy for his exam on Wednesday

We do not find the periphrasis here, as:

  1. The verb gustar (to like) does not lose its usual meaning, and consequently
  2. The combination of both verbs does not have a sole meaning, as two meanings are found in the sentence: that of studying, and that of liking. 

Often, the combination of verbs can also incorporate a conjunction (que, or that”), or several prepositions:

(c) Carlos tiene que estudiar para el examen del miércoles (Translation: Carlos has to study for the exam on Wednesday)

(d) Carlos va a estudiar para el examen del miércoles (Translation: Carlos is going to study for the exam on Wednesday)

As we explained above, periphrasis are widely used in Spanish, since they provide nuances of unique meanings and much more precise information that the speaker shares, which generally cannot be expressed in simpler verb forms. Look at the following two examples and the nuances of their meaning: 

(e) Miguel cuenta mentiras sobre nosotros (Translation: Miguel tells lies about us)

(f) Miguel anda contando mentiras sobre nosotros (Translation: Miguel is telling lies about us)

In both cases, we understand that the subject (Miguel) is talking about two people (nosotros/us) and saying things that are untrue; however, in the example (f), it specifically states that Miguel tells lies repeatedly, in different places, with a clear intention of propagation.

Regarding the types of periphrasis that exist in Spanish, those statistically most common are listed below, with an example of their use in a sentence:

  • ir a + infinitivo (Maria va a dejar su trabajo) 
  • to go to + infinitive (“Maria is going to quit her job”)

  • Estar + gerundio (Cristina está haciendo mucho deporte últimamente)
  • to be + gerund (“Cristina is doing lots of sport lately”) 

  • Poder + infinitivo (Lo siento, no pude devolverte la llamada ayer)
  • to be able to + infinitive (“I’m sorry, I could not return the call yesterday”)

  • tener que + infinitivo (Tuvimos que salir rapidísimo del cine porque Marta se puso de parto)
  • to have to + infinitive (“We had to leave the cinema quickly because Marta went into labour”)

However, there are more than 130 possible combinations of periphrasis organised into different categories, with their respective restrictions of use. 

Would you like to learn more about periphrasis in Spanish?

At Entrelenguas, we have prepared a Spanish online course on Periphrasis: Theory and Practice (level B2-C1), with which you can learn more about the different types of constructions that exist, how to identify them, and when to use them correctly. In addition, it includes a multitude of exercises to test everything you learn. You can do it at your own pace, without time restrictions, and with a teacher on the other side of the screen who will give you a hand if you have questions or concerns related to the subject. Sounds good, right? Well, take a look at the link and discover more at the entrelenguas HUB!

The pictures we used for editing this post are from @Daniellajardim . Thanks a lot for sharing your work!

Mar Rodríguez

Mar Rodríguez

Spanish Teacher in Entrelenguas

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