What’s the Difference Between the Verbs ‘tocar’ and ‘jugar’?


There are many cases in Spanish when we have two or three different options for just one English word. As a result, many non-native Spanish speakers tend to use these words in an incorrect context. This is the case of the verb ‘to play’, which, depending on the context, would be ‘tocar’ or ‘jugar’ in Spanish. 

So what’s the difference between ‘tocar’ and ‘jugar’? ‘Jugar’ is the literal translation of the verb ‘to play’. However, when we are talking about music we always need to use the verb ‘tocar’. Furthermore, ‘tocar’ has many other uses whereas ‘jugar’ is used exactly as ‘to play’.

Knowing the difference between ‘tocar’ and ‘jugar’ as well as their uses will help you to develop your Spanish and to avoid common mistakes. In order to help you better understand the difference between these verbs, we prepared some examples of common situations and contexts for both ‘tocar’ and ‘jugar’. By the end of this post, you’ll have all the information you’ll need to avoid confusing these two similar Spanish verbs anymore. 

Difference Between ‘Tocar’ & ‘Jugar’: Identify when do you need one or the other

There are some very common mistakes that non-native Spanish speakers make when they are learning Spanish. One of them is using ‘jugar’ instead of ‘tocar’. However, in comparison with other mistakes, this one can be easily resolved. Even though using ‘jugar’ instead of ‘tocar’ doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, if you don’t use it correctly, your sentence won’t make sense. It’s exactly the same as if a Spanish speaker used ‘do’ instead of ‘make’. And although most times natives speakers are going to understand what you are trying to say, you should try to fix these little mistakes. 

Despite ‘tocar’ has many other uses, non-native Spanish speakers forget to use this verb as to ‘play’. As a result, many of them say something like this: 

Incorrect

Remember that even if the English translation is correct, in Spanish, this sentence doesn’t make sense. So, every time that you want to talk about ‘playing music’ or ‘playing an instrument’ you must use ‘tocar’. This is probably going to be weird for you if you are translating ‘tocar’ as ‘touch’. Just keep in mind that literal translation is not always reliable in this instance. 

Correct

As you’ll see in the rest of this post, the verbs ‘tocar and ‘jugar’ are quite different. So keep reading to learn how to use these verbs. 

When to use ‘tocar? ‘To play’ and different uses

As mentioned before, in Spanish, when talking about playing an instrument or playing music, we use the verb ‘tocar’. However, this is not the only use for this Spanish verb, but since we are talking about the difference between ‘jugar’ and ‘tocar’, we’ll focus on this use. 

Playing music or an instrument

Even though in English you use ‘to play’ for many situations and contexts, in Spanish, if you are talking about music and instruments you have to use the verb ‘tocar’. How would you do it?

Tocar (conjugated) + el/la/las/los + name of the instrument

¿Qué instrumento tocas? What instrument do you play?

María y Juan tocan la batería Maria and Juan play the drums

Mi papá me enseñó a tocar las maracas My dad taught me to play the maracas

Another way to use ‘tocar’ when talking about music is to ask or to talk about the type of genre that a person or a band plays. For instance:

¿Qué tipo de música tocan? What type of music do they play?

La banda de mi hermano toca jazz My brother’s band plays jazz

Furthermore if one of your friends plays an instrument and you want to ask him to play a song for you, you would also use ‘tocar’. 

¿Puedes tocar esa canción que me gusta? Could you play that song that I like?

El grupo favorito de mi mamá tocó puras canciones viejas My mom’s favorite band only played boring songs

Other uses of ‘tocar’

Tocar is a verb with multiple meanings, which makes it confusing for non-native Spanish speakers. Here are some of the most common ways you can use this verb. 

To express that it is your turn.

This expression is very common in a verbal conversation.

¡Me toca ver la televisión! It’s my turn to watch TV!

No, tranquila, todavía no nos toca entrar No, calm down, it’s not our turn yet

To talk about obligations.

When you share some chores with other people, sometimes you need to say who is going to do what. In those cases, you can use ‘tocar’ to talk about these obligations. 

Me toca lavar los trastes y a ti toca pasear al perro It’s my turn to wash the dishes and you have to walk the dog

As a synonym of divide up

Imagine the following situation: you go with your friends to a restaurant. When you finish and you have the bill and you are going to pay it together. As a result, you want to know how much money you need to pay. In this situation, Spanish speakers use ‘tocar’.

¿De cuánto me toca? How much money should I pay?

Now that we are talking about money, you can also ‘tocar’ in those situations where you need to divide up your money with somebody else. 

Somos los herederos del abuelo, ¿de cuánto crees que nos toque? We are my grandfather’s heirs, how much money do you think we’ll receive

When to use ‘jugar’? 

In the previous section, we defined when and how to use ‘tocar’ when it means ‘to play’. Since ‘jugar’ is the direct translation of ‘to play’, it’s time for you to see some of the most common uses for this verb. 

To talk about sports or games you play

Just as in English, one of the most common ways to use the verb ‘jugar’ is to talk about sports or games. For example:

Jugamos Monopoly toda la noche We play Monopoly the whole night

En México, muchos hombres juegan fútbol In Mexico, many men play soccer

However, keep in mind that you are not always going to be able to use ‘jugar’ to talk about sports. The following vocabulary contains some sports that we use with the verb jugar. 

Here some of the sports that we don’t use with ‘jugar’

In Spanish, the verb practicar is used to express that you do/practice a sport. In the following list, you would find some sports that need to go with the verb practicar.  Notice that some of the following examples are verbs, therefore, if you want to express that you play that sport, you just need to conjugate the verb. 

Yo practico judo I practice judo

Mi hermano practica gimnasia My brother does gymnastics

Carmen corre todas las mañanas Carmen runs every morning

To express that you are ‘playing with’ something or someone

This another way to use the verb ‘jugar’. However, as is the case in English, we need to add a preposition. This is how you should use it:

Jugar (conjugated) + con + person/object/pet

Mi hermanito juega con sus amigos todos los días My baby brother plays with his friends everyday

El gato juega con mis zapatos The cat plays with my shoes

El bebé juega con la guitarra de su papá The baby plays with his father’s guitar

Keep in mind that this structure can also have a negative meaning just as it does in English.

Carlos jugó con los sentimientos de mi hermana Carlos played with my sister’s feelings

Take Note: Notice that in this case, you can use ‘jugar’ to talk about an instrument. But do you see the difference? In this previous example, ‘jugar’ works with a preposition. As a result, the meaning is not the same. ‘Jugar con una guitarra’ means that the baby is having fun with the guitar, but he is not playing it. In other words, he is not making music with it. 

Wrapping Up

Deciding which verb to use can be very complicated for people learning Spanish. This is the case with ‘jugar’ and ‘tocar’. However, in this post, we discussed the differences between the two verbs as well as when and how to use them. Hopefully, by now you better understand these verbs. 

Related Resource

Jugar vs Tocar Quiz

Related Questions

Is jugar a reflexive verb? ‘Jugar’ does have a reflexive form. However, like many other reflexive verbs, its meaning is not going to be the same. ‘Jugar’ is to play. But the reflexive form ‘jugarse’ means ‘to gamble’ or ‘to risk’. 

Carlos se está jugando su casa Carlos is gambling his house

What is ‘tocar el timbre’? This expression means ‘to ring the bell’. You could also see it as ‘tocar la puerta’, which means ‘to knock the door.

Los niños de mi vecino siempre están tocando el timbre My neighbor’s children are always ringing the bell

Estuve tocando la puerta y nadie abrió I was knocking on the door and nobody answered

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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