When learning Spanish, many people know that apenas is the direct translation of ‘barely’ or ‘hardly’. However, they get confused by its meaning when they hear this word applied in different contexts and situations. This is because ‘apenas’ doesn’t just mean ‘barely’, as a result, we can use it in different situations.
How to use apenas in Spanish? ‘Apenas’ expresses a shortage of something or difficulties to perform an action. Additionally, it is used to talk about present, past, simultaneously, and future actions. Depending on the context, it means:
- Just / Only just / About to
- As soon as / Just as
Due to its multiple meanings, ‘apenas’ can be a challenging word to use in Spanish. However, it’s commonly used in normal, daily conversations. Therefore, you need to learn when and how to apply it correctly.
In the following sections, we’ll provide you with some examples as well as some of the most common contexts where you can use ‘apenas’.
1. Talking about Recent Past Events or Actions – Only just / Just
One of the most common ways to use ‘apenas’ in Spanish is to express that an action or event took place very recently. In this context, ‘apenas’ means ‘just’ or ‘only just’. Here are some of the most common structures that you can use for this situation:
Apenas + [verb in past tense]
¿Apenas se terminó la película? Pues, ¿cuánto duró?
Did the movie just end? Well, how long was it?
Tim apenas comenzó a estudiar español este semestre.
Tim only just started studying Spanish this semester.
Hola, mamá, apenas llegué a la casa, ¿necesitas que caliente la cena?
Hi, mom, I just arrived home, do you need me to heat dinner?
¿Apenas comenzaste a preparar tu maleta? ¡Nos vamos en cinco minutos!
Did you just start preparing your suitcase? We’re leaving in five minutes!
2. Talking about Actions Taking Place in the Present – Just
Another common way to use ‘apenas’ is to discuss actions that we’re currently performing. In this situation, ‘apenas’ will also be translated as ‘just’. Depending on the context, you could use ‘apenas’ to:
- Talk about actions that are happening right now.
- Talk about the length of time you have been doing an action (an action that started in the past but continues in the present).
Here is how you do it:
¿Ya viste que Clara y Tim apenas están estudiando para el examen?
Did you see that Clara and Tim are just starting to study for the test?
Tienen diez minutos, apenas estoy calentando la comida.
You have ten minutes, I’m just starting to heat the food.
¿Apenas estás haciendo la tarea? ¡Es para mañana y es un montón!
Are you just doing your homework now? It’s for tomorrow and it’s a lot!
If instead of emphasizing an activity that is happening right now you want to talk about the length of time that you have been performing an action, you’ll need to use the following phrase structure:
Apenas + [verb conjugated] + [number]
Apenas tengo dos meses viviendo en España.
I have just been living in Spain for two months.
¿En serio apenas llevas un mes estudiando Español? ¡Hablas muy bien!
Have you just been studying Spanish for a month? Seriously? You speak very well!
Related Resource: How to Use Llevar in Spanish
3. Talking about Future Actions – About to / Just
One use of ‘apenas’ that not many Spanish learners know is to talk about actions that are about to happen. In this situation, ‘apenas’ could be translated as ‘about to’ or ‘just’. In order to keep this meaning, you will need to conjugate your verbs using a Spanish future conjugation.
Apenas + [verb in future tense]
Todavía no he ido al banco, apenas iré.
I haven’t gone to the bank yet, I’m about to go.
¿Apenas vas a hablarle al doctor? ¡Has estado enfermo por una semana!
Are you just about to call the doctor? You’ve been sick for a week!
¡Voy a llegar tarde al trabajo! Son las ocho y apenas voy a tomar el camión.
I’m going to be late for work! It’s eight and I’m just about to take the bus.
Take Note: When using ‘apenas’ to talk about future events, we’re implying that this action was supposed to be done at some point in the past, but for some reason, it couldn’t happen until now.
For instance: if we use ‘apenas’ to explain that we’re about to take the bus, people may understand that there was an external factor that prevented us from taking the bus earlier.
4. Describing Simultaneous Actions – Just as / As soon as
In formal Spanish, ‘apenas’ can also be used to express that two actions are taking place either at the same time or one right after the other. As a result, in this situation, ‘apenas’ could be translated as ‘just as’ or ‘as soon as’. This meaning of ‘apenas’ is quite common among elderly people, books, news, and movies (formal situations), so don’t be surprised if in this context you hear other phrases.
Mándame un mensaje apenas llegues.
Send me a message as soon as you arrive.
El teléfono empezó a sonar apenas me senté.
The phone started ringing just as I sat down.
Apenas lleguemos a México, iremos a comer tacos.
As soon as we get to Mexico, we’ll go to eat tacos.
Take: ‘En cuanto’ is a popular and standard synonym that you can use to replace ‘apenas’ in this context.
5. Expressing a Shortage or Lack of Something – Barley
‘Apenas’ as a synonym of ‘barely’ is one of the meanings that Spanish learners are more familiar with. In this situation, we use ‘apenas’ to talk about a quantitative shortage of food, objects, time or something else. In this context, ‘apenas’ could also mean ‘just’ or ‘barely’.
Here is the phrase structure you need as well as some examples:
Apenas + [verb conjugated] + [object]
Apenas me va a alcanzar el dinero para esta semana.
I barely have enough money for this week.
Necesitamos ir al super, apenas tenemos comida para hoy.
We need to do groceries, we barely have food for today.
No te puedo ayudar, Omar, apenas tengo tiempo para terminar mi trabajo.
I can’t help you, Omar, I barely have time to finish my work.
6. Expressing that an Action is Difficult to Accomplish – Barely / Hardly
Another way you can use ‘apenas’ is to express that an activity is difficult or challenging to complete or perform. Therefore, in this situation, ‘apenas’ also means ‘hardly’ or ‘barely’.
Here is the phrase structure you will need as well as some examples of how to apply this meaning:
Apenas + [verb conjugated]
¡Ally, habla más fuerte! Apenas puedo oírte.
Ally, speak louder! I can hardly hear you.
Este libro está muy aburrido, apenas llevo dos hojas.
This book is so boring, I barely read two pages.
¡Me duelen muchísimo las piernas! Apenas puedo caminar.
My legs hurt so much! I can barely walk.
Take Note: Since in this context ‘apenas’ is talking about the capability of performing an action, it’s very common to use the verb ‘poder’ (can) in these sentences.
‘Apenas’ is a very rich and common Spanish adverb that we can use in different situations. In this article, we discussed that ‘apenas’ can be used to talk about past actions or events that took place recently, events or actions that are happening right now, and future actions that are about to happen.
We also learned that ‘apenas’ expresses a lack of or shortage of something as well as difficulties to perform an action. In formal contexts, this Spanish adverb can be used to talk about simultaneously occurring events or immediate actions.
Depending on the context, ‘apenas’ could be translated as:
- About to
- Just as / As soon as
- Just / Only just
Now, you’re ready to start including ‘apenas’ into your conversations like a pro!