“I’m not sure when to use afuera vs fuera and other combinations such as atrás vs detrás, can you please explain how to use these words?” — Real Fast Spanish Student.
Whenever you think of the English words in, out, forward, back, above and below, especially with movement and direction, you’ll need to make a choice between two possible options in Spanish.
You’ll have to decide between two forms for ‘in’, adentro vs dentro, two forms for ‘out’, afuera vs fuera, and a similar choice for forward, back, above and below.
In this article, you’ll learn how to pick between these Spanish adverbs including a few situations you’ll want to avoid and some regional differences.
The Spanish adverbs of position and direction
When it comes to position and direction, in Spanish, here is a list of adverbs you’ll likely need:
|In||Adentro vs Dentro|
|Out||Afuera vs Fuera|
|Forward||Adelante vs Delante|
|Back||Atrás vs Detrás|
|Above||Arriba vs Encima|
|Below||Abajo vs Debajo|
In the following sections, we are going to look at how to pick between these Spanish adverbs.
But first a word of caution about a direct translation from English…
Why you need to avoid direct transitions of these words
I really want you to try to learn when to use these Spanish adverbs based on the situation you are using them in and not a direct translation from English.
You should avoid looking for English translations because we can always find exceptions and sentences that reverse what you might expect.
For example, when considering afuera vs fuera, a student recently told me that he thinks that ‘fuera‘ is ‘out’ and ‘afuera‘ is ‘outside’.
But, we can easily find sentences that both agree with and reverse this pattern.
English: There is a bird outside my window.
Español: Hay un pájaro fuera de mi ventana.
English: Is Maya home?
Español: ¿Está Maya en casa?
English: No, she is out.
Español: No, ella está fuera.
English: There are lots of people out today.
Español: Hoy hay mucha gente afuera.
English: I’m going outside.
Español: Voy afuera.
Here you can see that there are situations where fuera is both ‘out’ and ‘outside’ and the same for afuera.
So what do we do instead?
We need to think about the situations and contexts that we are using these Spanish adverbs in as opposed to searching for equivalent English words.
So, with this in mind, the first situation we are going to look at is how to describe the position of something relative to something else using these adverbs…
Adverbs of position in relation to another object
Whenever two objects are stationary and you want to say that the first object is above the other, or below, or in front of or behind etc., then you’ll want to pick one of the adverbs without an ‘a‘ at the start.
All of the adverbs: dentro, fuera, delante, detrás, encima, and debajo are required in this context.
Moreover, you’ll need to follow each of these adverbs with the preposition ‘de‘ and then the item you are comparing them to.
English: There is something inside of this box.
Español: Hay algo dentro de esta caja.
English: My car is in front of yours.
Español: Mi coche está delante del tuyo.
English: I left a key below the plant.
Español: Dejé una llave debajo de la planta.
English: I’m going to put the towels on top of the washing machine.
Español: Voy a poner las toallas encima de la lavadora.
Note again, in all of these examples, the adverbs are followed by the preposition ‘de‘ and then the object we are comparing their position to.
That said, it is possible to drop the ‘de‘ and the second object if it is implied from context.
How to drop the second object and omit ‘de’
If two people are talking and the first person refers to an object in a question, the second person can omit the object and ‘de‘ from the response.
Take the example from earlier:
English: Is Maya home?
Español: ¿Está Maya en casa?
English: No, she is out. (of the house)
Español: No, ella está fuera. (de la casa)
Here we can drop the ‘de la casa‘ because it is obvious from the context of the question.
English: The water’s not clear, you can’t see what’s underneath. (the water)
Español: El agua no es clara, no puedes ver lo que hay debajo. (del agua)
Again, here we can drop the ‘del agua‘ after debajo because it is implied from context.
In contrast, if you can’t follow the adverb with a ‘de‘ either implied or not, then it’s likely you’ll need one of the adverbs starting with ‘a‘.
Let’s look at one of these situations next…
Adverbs of direction with movement
In contrast to the previous section, now we are talking about the movement of an object rather than the relationship between two stationary objects.
In almost all of these situations, you’ll want to use the adverbs starting with ‘a‘. E.g. adentro, afuera, adelante, atrás, arriba and abajo.
Moreover, often you can think of adverbs such as adentro and afuera as the contraction of ‘a‘ and ‘fuera‘ when you use them with verbs of movement such as ir and volver.
Voy + a + fuera -> Voy afuera.
Here are some examples:
English: I’m going back inside because it’s about to rain.
Español: Vuelvo adentro porque está a punto de llover.
English: I know you are tired but we need to keep moving forward.
Español: Sé que estás cansado, pero tenemos que seguir adelante.
English: If you are afraid of heights, don’t look down!
Español: Si tienes miedo a las alturas, ¡no mires abajo!
English: I’m going to head upstairs.
Español: Voy a dirigirme arriba.
Note with all of these examples there is some kind of movement happening.
An interesting example is ‘looking up’ or ‘looking down’ with ‘mirar arriba‘ or ‘mirar abajo‘, note the movement can be as simple as moving only your head or eyes.
Adverbs of orientation
This section is probably one of the hardest concepts I find in the whole Spanish language to teach!!!
With adverbs of orientation, instead of saying that one object is above or below another, we simply want to refer to ‘something below’ or ‘something above’ without reference to another object.
The simplest way I have found to teach this is again to focus on and think about the preposition ‘de‘.
In the above section for comparing the position of two stationary objects, the ‘de‘ goes after the adverb. For example:
English: My shoes are outside the door.
Español: Mis zapatos están fuera de la puerta.
In contrast, with adverbs of orientation, we generally put ‘de‘ before the adverb.
In this context, it can really help to think about possible English translations as ‘from above’, ‘from below’, or ‘from within’.
Here are some examples:
English: I heard a noise from below.
Español: Escuché un ruido de abajo.
English: This coincidence is a sign from above.
Español: Esta casualidad es una señal de arriba.
English: The company’s best talent comes from within.
Español: El mejor talento de la empresa viene de adentro.
In addition, we can also think of English phrases such as ‘something below’, ‘front door’, or ‘back room’ where the adverbs of orientation are behaving like adjectives.
English: I have to clean the back room.
Español: Tengo que limpiar el cuarto de atrás.
English: He likes to sit in the front seat.
Español: Le gusta sentarse en el asiento de adelante.
English: You need to speak with someone in the downstairs reception.
Español: Necesitas hablar con alguien en la recepción de abajo.
Note in all of the examples in this section the ‘de‘ goes before the adverb and there is no ‘de‘ that would come after.
Adverbs of position and movement — a few common mistakes
Up until this point, I have highlighted how important the position of ‘de‘ is when deciding which adverb to use.
Mistake #1 – Using the wrong adverbs before ‘de’
So, based on the previous sections, the first and most common mistake is to follow one of the adverbs starting with ‘a‘ with the preposition ‘de‘.
English: I’m going to hang the painting above the table.
Español: Voy a colgar el cuadro
arriba de la mesa. (incorrect)
Español: Voy a colgar el cuadro encima de la mesa. (correct)
English: The river runs below the city.
Español: El río corre por
abajo de la ciudad. (incorrect)
Español: El río corre por debajo de la ciudad. (correct)
Note that I’m going to discuss some regional considerations with this rule in the following section.
Mistake #2 – Using ‘a’ with adverbs starting with ‘a’
Another common mistake is to use one of the adverbs starting with ‘a‘ with another ‘a‘.
English: I’m going inside.
a adentro. (incorrect)
Español: Voy adentro. (correct)
English: He looked me up and down.
Español: Me miró
de arriba a abajo. (incorrect)
Español: Me miró de arriba abajo. (correct)
Mistake #3 – Using other prepositions of movement with the adverbs of movement
In addition to the preposition ‘a‘, we also want to avoid the combination of adverbs starting with ‘a‘ with the prepositions para and hacia.
This is because para and hacia also imply movement, so if we say ‘para adelante‘, that is kind of like saying in English ‘in the direction of towards the front’.
Here are some examples:
English: We have to look forward despite the uncertainty.
Español: Tenemos que mirar
hacia adelante a pesar de la incertidumbre. (Incorrect)
Español: Tenemos que mirar hacia delante a pesar de la incertidumbre. (Correct)
English: If you open the door, the smell will come in.
Español: Si abres la puerta, el olor va
para adentro. (Incorrect)
Español: Si abres la puerta, el olor va para dentro. (Correct)
In the following section we will look at one of the main sources for confusion with these Spanish words.
Adverbs of position and movement — regional variations
At Real Fast Spanish, do we teach the Spanish of Spain or Latin America?
This question comes up often, and the answer is: we teach international Spanish.
This means we teach the Spanish that you can use in every Spanish-speaking country in the world and if you can only use something in one country (such as ‘vos‘ of Argentina or ‘vosotros‘ of Spain) then we exclude it from our courses.
That said, there are a few situations where we need to stop and talk about some differences.
And, on this topic, I actually recommend all students, including the students only interested in Latin American Spanish, focus on the use of the adverbs of position and movement in Spain because it makes these adverbs easier to get used to and understand.
Let’s look at a few examples to see why…
Afuera vs fuera, adentro vs dentro – Latin America vs Spain
To explain this, we can hear that it is acceptable to say ‘afuera de’, ‘adentro de‘ and ‘adelante de‘ in Latin America.
English: I’m going to put this table inside the shop.
Español: Voy a poner esta mesa dentro de la tienda. (Correct in Latin America)
Español: Voy a poner esta mesa adentro de la tienda. (Correct in Latin America)
Español: Voy a poner esta mesa dentro de la tienda. (Correct in Spain)
Español: Voy a poner esta mesa
adentro de la tienda. (Incorrect in Spain)
English: There is a pile of snow in front of the bus.
Español: Hay una pila de nieve delante del autobús. (Correct in Latin America)
Español: Hay una pila de nieve adelante del autobús. (Correct in Latin America)
Español: Hay una pila de nieve delante del autobús. (Correct in Spain)
Español: Hay una pila de nieve
adelante del autobús. (Incorrect in Spain)
Note that in Latin American the distinction doesn’t matter for the adverbs: afuera, fuera, adentro, dentro, adelante, delanate, atrás and detrás.
But, there are adverbs where it does matter.
Arriba vs encima, abajo vs debajo – Latin America vs Spain
If we look at the adverbs ‘arriba‘ and ‘abajo‘, then Spain and Latin America agree on their use.
Also, note that these are the two adverbs I used in the previous section on common mistakes because their usage is universal.
Plus they more likely to cause headaches for students focused on Latin American Spanish so they are worth spending some time on.
Here are some examples:
English: I live in the apartment above the restaurant.
Español: Vivo en el apartamento encima del restaurante. (Correct in Latin America and Spain)
Español: Vivo en el apartamento
arriba del restaurante. (Incorrect in Latin America and Spain)
English: I’m going to wait under the tree in the shade.
Español: Voy a esperar debajo del árbol a la sombra. (Correct in Latin America and Spain)
Español: Voy a esperar
abajo del árbol a la sombra. (Incorrect in Latin America and Spain)
Again, due to this regional word usage, I recommend that all students go for the use of adverbs in Spain because the word use there works perfectly well in Latin American and makes more sense in terms of grouping the adverbs.
This means that you can group the adverbs starting with ‘a‘ (afuera, adentro, adelante, atrás, arriba, abajo) and the adverbs not starting with ‘a‘ (fuera, dentro, delante, detrás, encima, debajo) based on how they behave when followed by or following the preposition ‘de‘.
The prepositions bajo and tras
To finish off this article, there are probably a few students that will want to know about the use of ‘bajo‘ and ‘tras‘ and how they fit into the picture.
Firstly, we need to keep in mind that ‘bajo‘ can also be the first person conjugation of the Spanish verb ‘bajar‘. For example:
English: I’m coming down!
But, then ‘bajo‘ can also behave as a preposition and replace the phrase ‘debajo de‘.
This means when you are trying to decide between bajo vs debajo, the following two Spanish sentences are completely interchangeable:
English: I found five dollars under my bed.
Español: Encontré cinco dólares debajo de mi cama.
Español: Encontré cinco dólares bajo mi cama.
Similarly, for tras vs detrás, the preposition ‘tras‘ can replace the phrase ‘detrás de‘.
Again, these two Spanish translations are completely interchangeable:
English: There’s a football field behind the church
Español: Hay un campo de fútbol detrás de la iglesia
Español: Hay un campo de fútbol tras la iglesia
Note that if you are going to use bajo or tras that you don’t need to use the preposition ‘de‘. But, it is possible to follow these prepositions with ‘de‘ in certain situations.
Like any topic, especially tricky topics like this one, the key to mastery is to practice what you have learned.
Pick one of the above uses, ideally one adverb of position and one adverb of movement, and then create a few sentences of your own.
Try them out on a Spanish friend or in your next Spanish conversation to make sure you have got them right.
How else can you use the Spanish adverbs afuera vs fuera, atrás vs detrás etc.?