Increase your Vocabulary: 23 Idiomatic Expressions with Tener


It’s very likely that one of the first Spanish Verbs that you learned was ‘Tener’. After all, it is one of our most important verbs since it allows us to build different structures and expressions. Although ‘Tener’ is the direct translation for ‘to have’, at this point, you probably know that just as other Spanish verbs, ‘tener’ is more complicated than it looks. To show you how powerful this verb is, we compiled a list of 23 idiomatic expressions with tener. Keep in mind that some of these phrases may not make much sense in English, so don’t try to translate them word by word. However, using these expressions not only will help you communicate better with native speakers, but you will also improve your fluency and your confidence when speaking Spanish.

1. Tener entre Ceja y Ceja – To have it in for

If you think this phrase is expressing that you have something between your eyebrows, you are wrong. Even if it seems that this idiomatic expression is talking about somebody’s face, actually, its meaning is very different. ‘Tener entre ceja y ceja’ means to feel antipathy or dislike for someone. If you wanted to translate this idiom into English, your best choice will be ‘to have/got it in for’.

La directora me tiene entre ceja y ceja. Siempre me grita. The principal has it in for me. She always yells at me.

This meaning can be completely different if you were talking about an activity or an idea. In this case, ‘Tener entre ceja y ceja’ means: to be obsessed about an idea or to have a purpose.

Tenemos una idea entre ceja y ceja We are obsessed with an idea

Tengo entre ceja y ceja la idea de aprender español I have the goal to learn Spanish

Take Note: Although it means the same, in some Spanish countries you can find that native speakers use this phrase with different verbs such as ‘traer’ or ‘meter’. You can also hear ‘tener entre las cejas’.

2. Tener Tacto – To be subtle

This is another idiomatic expression with tener that non-Spanish speakers tend to use with the verb ‘Ser’. ‘Tener tacto’ means to have the ability to talk to people without hurting their feelings. The direct translation in English will be ‘to be subtle’ or ‘to be tactful’. Although in this language you use the verb ‘Ser’, in Spanish you must use ‘Tener’ or otherwise your phrase won’t make sense.

Esa maestra tiene tacto con los niños That teacher is tactful with children

Trata de tener más tacto cuando hables con ella When talking to her try to be more subtle

3. Tener en la Punta de la Lengua – Have on the tip of your tongue

This idiomatic expression with tener should be a must on your vocabulary since is very used among native speakers. We use ‘Tener en la punta de la lengua’ when we want to say something but we are having issues to remember it. Fortunately, you have a direct translation for this expression: ‘have on the tip of your tongue’.

¡Espera! Tengo su nombre en la punta de la lengua Wait! I have her name on the tip of my tongue

Tiene la respuesta en la punta de la lengua She has the answer on the tip of her tongue

Notice that in Spanish the only thing that changes is the conjugation of the verb ‘Tener’, so make sure you keep the rest of the expression in the same way.

4. Tener … años – Saying your age

Although it can be considered as an idiomatic expression, this list wouldn’t be complete if you didn’t include ‘tener …años’. Even though new speakers learn how to tell their age in Spanish very soon, many of them make the mistake to forget that for this situation we use the verb ‘Tener’. There is no doubt that this structure might seem unnatural to you since you spend your whole life using other verb and structure. But when speaking Spanish, you should use the correct verb or otherwise not only you will sound funny, but also you wouldn’t improve your fluency.

Without a doubt, this is one of the structures with ‘tener’ that many people forget. If you want to make sure that you are not making any other common Spanish mistakes, you should read this post.

5. Tener los Nervios de Punta – Be a nervous wreck

As you can imagine, this idiomatic expression is related to ‘be nervous’. However, they are not exactly the same thing. ‘Tener los nervios de punta’ describes that a person is extremely worried or nervous about a situation. As a result, the direct translation for this phrase is ‘be a nervous wreck’.

Mi mamá tiene los nervios de punta desde su accidente My mom is a nervous wreck since her accident

Mañana es mi presentación. Tengo los nervios de punta. Tomorrow is my presentation. I’m a nervous wreck.

It’s very likely that at some point you hear this expression with the verb ‘Poner’. However, the meaning is slightly different: when saying ‘tener los nervios de punta’ you are practically saying that you are very nervous. But, if you use ‘poner’, the expression means that something or someone is making you nervous in a bad way. So don’t use it to say that a girl or boy is making you nervous. Unless they are creepy.

6. No Tener Pies ni Cabeza – No rhyme or reason

If you feel tempted to translate this expression, you will find that ‘not having feet and head’ doesn’t seem to have any sense. Nevertheless, this idiom is widely used in Spanish. ‘No tener pies ni cabeza’ means that something doesn’t make sense at all or that it’s not clear/easy to understand. The closest English idiom would be ‘make heads or tails of’ or ‘no rhyme or reason’.

Su mensaje no tiene ni pies ni cabeza There’s no rhyme or reason on her text

Lo que dices no tiene ni pies ni cabeza I can’t make heads or tails out of the things you are saying

Although you could simply say something like ‘tener sentido’, this idiomatic expression with tener will make you sound more natural and it ill improve your Spanish.

7. Tener el Sartén por el Mango – Have the upper hand

If you are learning idiomatic expressions with tener, there’s no doubt that you need to learn this one since it can be very useful in all Spanish speaking countries. Although its words may lead you to think about cooking or kitchen utensils, the truth is that we use this phrase to say that someone has the control, power or advantage over a situation. As you can imagine translating this idiom word by word wouldn’t make sense. However, in English, there are some phrases that are close in meaning such as ‘have the upper hand’, ‘be in the driver’s seat’ or ‘call the shots’.

Él sabe que tiene el sartén por el mango. No puedo hacer nada. I can’t do anything, he knows he has the upper hand

Aquí la que tiene la sartén por el mango es la maestra The teacher is the one calling the shots

Even though this idiomatic expression is very used in all the Spanish speaking countries, you should keep in mind a few things. First, in most Latin American countries the word ‘sartén’ is considered masculine, so you would hear ‘el sartén’. However, in Spain and other countries, you will hear ‘la sartén’, since they considered this word to be feminine.

Second: although the most common phrase is ‘Tener la Sartén por el Mango’, in some countries such as El Salvador, people may say ‘cacerola’ instead of ‘sartén’. These are small details that you can work on in order to improve your Spanish; however, you don’t need to worry too much since people will understand whether if you use ‘la/el sartén’ or ‘cacerola’.

8. Tener Entendido – It’s my understanding that

While many non-Spanish speakers may think this structure is grammatically incorrect, they are forgetting one thing: idiomatic expressions have more flexibility. It’s true that at first sight, this phrase might seem incorrect. However, native speakers use it and it doesn’t mean ‘yo he entendido’ (I have understood). ‘Tener entendido’ means to have some understanding or information about something, but you are not quite sure of it. As a result, there’s a huge difference between ‘yo he entendido’ and ‘tengo entendido’. In English, this idiom would be translated as ‘It’s my understanding that’.

Tengo entendido que el examen es mañana It’s my understanding that the exam is tomorrow

Teníamos entendido que el tequila es hecho en México It was our understanding that tequila is made in Mexico

‘Tener entendido’ is a very useful idiomatic expression with tener. Furthermore, you can use it in both informal and formal situations, just make sure you don’t confuse it with ‘yo he entendido’.

9. Tener Mundo – To be experienced

When it comes about idiomatic expressions, we have to forget the main meaning of the words and start thinking about them as a whole. ‘Tener mundo’ is an excellent example of why we shouldn’t think about the meaning word by word. Although it would be nice to own the world, this idiom is not talking about possession. It’s talking about a person’s life experiences. Hence, the English translation for this phrase would be ‘to be experienced’.

Ese hombre tiene mucho mundo. Es muy intersante. That man is very experienced. He’s very interesting.

Despite adding the adverb ‘mucho’ is optional, you have to be careful when saying ‘poco mundo’ since it will mean that that person is inexperienced.

Esa chica es muy joven, se nota que tiene poco mundo That girl is too young, it’s obvious that she is very inexperienced

Even though being experienced includes many aspects of human life, ‘Tener mundo’ only talks about those life experiences that make a person smarter, educated and sophisticated. In other words, all the experiences that make a person interesting.

10. Tener Cabida – To have place in

As mentioned before, some of these idiomatic expressions with tener not only are useful in an informal context, but also in more formal situations. This is the case of the expression ‘tener cabida’. You could find this phrase in English as ‘to be acceptable’ or ‘have a place in’.

Tus sugerencias tienen cabida en este lugar Your suggestions are acceptable for this place

Although we use this phrase in its affirmative form, it’s very likely that you’ll hear more often ‘no tener cabida’. In this case, the English translation would be ‘have no room for’.

Los celos no tienen cabida en una relación sana In a healthy relationship there’s no room for jealousy

La gente negativa no tiene cabida en esta institución There’s no room for negative people in this institution

11. Tener Agallas – To have guts

Although ‘agallas’ is a part of a fish, ‘tener agallas’ is a very popular expression in Spanish and it doesn’t have anything to do with fishes. ‘Tener agallas’ is an idiom that we use when we want to describe that someone is very brave or that has courage. The closest phrase in English will be ‘to have guts’.

Ten las agallas de hablar con ella Have the guts to talk to her

Depending on the context and the tone of the conversation, ‘tener agallas’ could also mean ‘to have the nerve’.

¿Tienes las agallas de venir aquí? You have the nerve to come here?

Tuvo las agallas de pedir un ascenso. Es el peor empleado. He’s the worse employee and he had the nerve to ask for a raise.

12. Tener Lugar – To take place

At this point, you might have noticed that most of the time you can’t expect that an English verb would be the same in Spanish. For instance, in English you would say ‘to take place’ and in Spanish, we would say ‘tener lugar’. The good news is that both phrases express the same thing: that something happened or occurred.

El concierto tuvo lugar en el bar The concert took place in the bar

Su examen tendrá lugar mañana Your exam will take place tomorrow

Esta historia tuvo lugar hace varios años This story took place some years ago

In some situations, we could also use it as a synonym of ‘tener cabida’. As a result, in these cases, it would mean ‘to have room for’.

La gente negativa no tiene lugar en esta institución There’s no room for negative people in this institution

Although in English you can use ‘take place’ with friends and formal situations, in Spanish ‘tener lugar’ is a very formal expression. As a result, it’s very appropriate to use in school, news, work, writing a paper and other formal environments. But if you are with your friends or family probably you wouldn’t want to use it.

13. Tener en Ascuas – To keep you in suspense

Sometimes it can happen that a story, a book, an episode or even a situation keep you in suspense. When something like that happens, we use the Spanish idiom ‘Tener en ascuas’ and as mentioned before, this phrase means to ‘keep you in suspense’. This slang phrase would be perfect for those times when you are waiting for your friend to tell you a juicy story:

¡Cuéntame! Me tienes en ascuas Tell me! You keep me in suspense

Of course, you could say the same thing about a book or TV show:

La serie que estamos viendo nos tiene en ascuas The show we are watching is keeping us in suspense

Using this idiomatic expression in your conversation can make a huge difference in how your Spanish sounds. It wouldn’t definitely make your conversations more fluent and, believe or not, communicating exactly what you want to say would be much easier. Don’t miss this list of Spanish idioms that will improve your vocabulary.

14. Tener Fama de – To be known for

Although this another common idiomatic expression with the verb tener, you can use this phrase in both formal and informal contexts. In English, ‘tener fama de’ means ‘to be known for’. Even though you can translate that English phrase into Spanish word by word, using this idiom will make you sound more natural among native speakers.

Gustavo tiene fama de mujeriego Gustavo is known for being a womanizer

Ese bar tiene fama de organizar las mejores fiestas That bar is known for organizing the best parties

Just as in English, you can use this idiomatic expression to express negative or positive things people are known for.

15. Tener Presente – To keep in mind

If you are looking for expressions you can use in formal situations, this one it’s perfect for you. Although we can’t translate ‘tener presente’ word by word, in English this phrase would be ‘to bear, keep or have in mind’. Even if in English you can use ‘to keep in mind’ in both formal and informal contexts, tener presente is only used in formal situations.

Espero que tenga presente mis sugerencias I hope you keep in mind my suggestions

Tengan presente que no habrá otra oportunidad Bear in mind that there won’t be a second chance

It’s very likely that instead of ‘tener presente’ you have heard ‘tener en mente‘. Both phrases mean the same and the only difference between them is that ‘tener presente’ is slightly more formal.

Tengan en mente que no habrá otra oportunidad Keep in mind that there won’t be a second chance

There’s no doubt that these expressions would be very useful in a formal situation. However, when they are among friends and family, native Spanish speakers use ‘Tener en cuenta’. Don’t forget that the only difference between these three phrases is their degree of formality.

Vamos, pero ten en cuenta que no tengo dinero Let’s go, but keep in mind that I have no money

16. No Tener Nombre – Be unspeakable

If you’re thinking this phrase means that somebody doesn’t have a name, you are wrong. In Spanish, we use ‘no tener nombre’ to describe that an action is not acceptable. The direct translation will be ‘be unspeakable’ or ‘be out of order’.

Lo que le hizo a tu padre no tiene nombre What he did to his father is unspeakable

Las cosas que me dijiste no tienen nombre The things you told me are out of the order

Notice that this expression always goes in its negative form. Furthermore, the verb ‘tener’ has to match the actions: for instance, in the second example ‘the things’ are plural; as a result, the verb ‘tener’ has to be plural too.

17. No Tener Remedio – Be incorrigible

This another idiomatic expression with tener that we always use in its negative form. In addition to this, we can use it to talk about people or situations. ‘No tener remedio’ means that something is ‘incorrigible’ or that it ‘can’t be fixed’.

¿Otra vez? Tú de plano no tienes remedio Again? You are really incorrigible

Mis amigos terminaron otra vez. No tienen remedio My friends broke up again. They are incorrigible

Esta televisión no tiene remedio, voy a comprar otra This TV can’t be fixed, I’ll buy another one

You should also be aware that native speakers also use ‘no tener remedio’ with another meaning: have no choice but‘. However, in these situations, the idiomatic expression is going to change a little bit.

No tengo más remedio que vender mi coche I have no choice but to sell my car

No tuvimos más remdio que caminar de regreso We have no choice but to walk all the way back

Both forms of ‘no tener remedio’ are widely used in all Spanish speaking countries. Although they may seem similar, keep in mind that ‘no tener remedio’ means ‘to be incorrigible’ or ‘can’t be fixed’. And ‘no tener más remedio que…’ is ‘have no choice but’.

18. Tener Atole en las Venas – Be passive

Although this is exclusively a Mexican expression, you’ll find that some countries have their own version of this idiom. This figurative expression is used to describe that a person is too slow to do things or to react. In English, you could say that this person is ‘passive’.

Parece que tiene atole en las venas, no hace nada He’s so passive, he doesn’t do anything

‘Tener atole en las venas’ is also used to describe apathetic people who don’t care about what’s happens.

Este país tiene atole en las venas, nadie pelea por sus derechos This country is so apathetic, people don’t fight for their rights

As mentioned before, this expression would vary depending on the Spanish country you are. For instance, in Spain it’ll be ‘tener sangre de horchata’ and in Argentina ‘tener sangre de pato’.

19. Tener un As Bajo la Manga – To have an ace up your sleeve

Just as in English you would use ‘have an ace up your sleeve’ when having a secret advantage you can use in the right moment, in Spanish we use ‘Tener un as bajo la manga’. This idiomatic expression with tener is very common in Spanish speaking countries, so it wouldn’t hurt you to add to your vocabulary.

No te preocupes, Alex siempre tiene un as bajo la manga Don’t worry, Alex always has an ace up his sleeve

20. Tener Manos de Mantequilla – Be a butterfinger

We all have that clumsy friend who is always dropping all the things that come across in his / her way. In Spanish, we will use ‘tener manos de mantequilla’ to describe this person. This expression is the same as ‘be a butterfinger’.

No le des tu celular, tiene manos de mantequilla Don’t give her your phone, she’s a butterfinger

As mentioned before, sometimes you are going to find that some countries make slight changes to the same phrase. This one is no different. Depending on the country you are, you may hear ‘tener manos de manteca’ or ‘tener dedos de mantequilla’.

¿Rompiste la taza? Tienes dedos de mantequilla Did you break the cup? You are a butterfinger

No matter what option you choose, the good news is that the changes are so small, that native speakers won’t have any issues understanding what you want to say.

21. No Tener Donde Caerse Muerto – Not have a penny to one’s name

We use this idiomatic expression with tener to describe that somebody is extremely poor. In English, this phrase would be ‘not have a penny to one’s name’ or ‘to be down and out’.

Ha sido un año difícil, no tengo donde caerme muerto. It’s been a rough year. I’m down and out.

Este mes no me han pagado, no tengo donde caerme muerto This month I haven’t get paid. I don’t have a penny to my name.

It’s also important to keep in mind that sometimes native speakers use this expression in a derogatory way.

Dice que tiene dinero, pero no tiene donde caerse muerto He says he has money but he doesn’t have a penny to his name

22. Tener Atravesado a Alguien – Can’t stand someone

There are many phrases that we use to say that we don’t like somebody, but one of the most common is ‘tener atravesado’. However, when using this idiomatic expression, you have to keep in mind that is stronger than ‘I don’t like you’. ‘Tener atrevesado’ means ‘can’t stand’ or ‘not to be able to stand’. As you can see, this idiom expresses a lot of antipathy for a person.

No invites a María, la tengo atravesada Don’t invite Maria, I can’t stand her

Tus amigos son muy groseros, los tengo atravesados Your friends are very rude, I’m not able to stand them

This phrase is perfect to use in informal situations. If you want to review how to say I like you in Spanish, check this post.

23. Tener Pájaros en la Cabeza – Be away with the fairies

This is the Spanish idiom for ‘day-dreamer’ or ‘be away with the fairies’. Just an English, this expression is used to describe an unrealistic person.

Marta tiene pájaros en la cabeza, pero tiene que enfocarse Marta is away with the fairies, but she needs to focus

Although ‘day-dreamer’ is the most common meaning, it’s very likely that you find that some countries use it to express that someone is very distracted.

Wrapping Up

When learning a new language, you’ll notice that some verbs are more used than other ones. ‘Tener’ is a very important Spanish verb and, as you may know already, we use it to talk about our age and to express some emotions. However, as we saw in this post, we use ‘tener’ in a lot of idiomatic expressions. As soon as you start using these phrases, you’ll notice that your Spanish is more natural and that native speakers understand you better.

Daniela Sanchez

¡Hola! Soy Daniela Sanchez, I’ve taught Spanish in Mexico to a wide array of foreigners. From students and tourists to doctors and soldiers who’ve moved and visited here over the years. During the day I’m a freelancer and marketer, while at night I’m here writing for students of the world wide web looking to learn Spanish. I hope you find what you’re looking here during your journey into Español 🙂 Read More About Me

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