There are three Spanish words you can choose when translating the English word ‘time’: tiempo, hora and vez.
To complicate matters you can also use tiempo to talk about the weather.
In this post, you’ll learn all you need to know about discussing time in Spanish including asking for the time, referring to ‘a time’ and giving a quantity of time. You’ll also learn a few important false friends that pop up around the idea of time in Spanish.
Tiempo vs tiempo
The place I’m going to start to help you explore ‘time’ in Spanish is with the multiple contexts of tiempo.
In several different situations, tiempo aligns with the idea of time in English but in one context it means ‘weather’.
If you want to know if tiempo is referring to the weather, listen or look for a combination with hacer and bueno or malo.
English: The weather here is good.
Español: Hace buen tiempo aquí.
English: Last month the weather was bad.
Español: El mes pasado hizo mal tiempo.
Quick warning: you need to be extra careful when translating the idea of weather from English. Spanish students often make mistakes by translating sentences similar to the above as follows:
English: The weather is really dry in the south.
El tiempo es muy seco en el sur.
Whenever you want to say ‘the weather is…’ you either need to start with the verb hacer as above or start the sentence with el clima (the equivalent of climate).
English: The weather is really dry in the south.
Español: El clima es muy seco en el sur.
English: The weather here is awful.
Español: El clima aquí es horrible.
Another warning: hacer in combination with tiempo can also mean a few things completely unrelated to weather. You’ll see one of these in the next section and another in the section on false friends with time below.
Tiempo vs Hora vs Vez
Try think of tiempo vs hora vs vez as ‘quantity of time’ vs ‘clock time’ vs ‘moments in time’ respectively.
Of course, that’s not the full story but it is a short, easy to remember summary.
1. Tiempo – Quantity of time.
The first use of tiempo is for describing a quantity of time. Here are a few examples:
English: I’m sorry, I don’t have any time.
Español: Lo siento, no tengo tiempo.
English: It’s been a while since we have seen each other. (Long time no see).
Español: Hace mucho tiempo que no nos vemos.
Here you can see another combination with hacer and tiempo. And, to distinguish this from the case about with ‘weather’, consider that mucho goes with ‘a quantity of time’ because the idea of ‘a lot of weather’ is a little strange.
2. Tiempo – Arriving on time.
The next use of tiempo is for talking about a deadline. Here are a few examples:
English: We hope to arrive on time.
Español: Esperamos llegar a tiempo.
English: You do not want to do it early.
Español: No quieres hacerlo antes de tiempo.
3. Tiempo – Talking about an era.
You can also use tiempo to discuss a period of history. Just like in English, for this context, you need to use the plural los tiempos:
English: In Roman times, there was much wealth.
Español: En los tiempos de los romanos, había mucha riqueza.
English: Love in the time of cholera.
Español: El amor en los tiempos del cólera.
This last example is the title of a famous book by Gabriel García Márquez. Here is a link to the book. I haven’t read it yet but it’s on the list!
Hora – Clock Time.
An incredibly easy mistake to make is using tiempo to ask for ‘the time’. If you want to know about the time on a clock you need to use hora. This first example, for obvious reasons, is worth practising until it is deeply embedded in your long term memory:
English: What time is it?
Español: ¿Qué hora es?
English: What is the time in Seville right now.
Español: ¿Qué hora es en Sevilla ahora mismo?
If you want to know how to answer these questions, check out this podcast episode.
Vez – A moment in time.
A helpful way to think about the word vez is to consider it the translation of ‘occasion’ or ‘moment’ (although both of these words do exist directly translated into Spanish).
English: This time it will be better.
Español: Esta vez será mejor.
English: When was the last time we saw each other?
Español: ¿Cuándo fue la última vez que nos vimos?
A few tricky false friends around time
There were two false friends that came straight to mind when I was in the process of writing this post.
The first is used when you are busy but you will ‘make time’ for someone or something. The temptation is to use hacer but that applies to the next false friend example.
English: I am very busy but I’ll make time in order for us to see each other.
Español: Estoy muy ocupado pero voy a sacar tiempo para vernos.
When you ‘make time’ for someone in Spanish you use the verb sacar. In another situation, you can use this verb for ‘withdrawing’ money from the bank. So when it comes to this false friend you can think of it as withdrawing time from your schedule to see or help someone.
In contrast, when you say hacer tiempo in Spanish you are actually filling time when you are a bored or waiting for someone.
English: I have to find a good way to fill the time while I wait.
Español: Tengo que encontrar una manera buena de hacer tiempo mientras espero.
Here is another use of hacer and tiempo in combination to create yet another meaning. The homework for this post should probably be to practice all three combinations of hacer and tiempo until you are comfortable with them.
A few useful phrases with time
To round out this article, here are a few useful phrases around time that will come in handy (from time to time).
At the same time – Al mismo tiempo.
Similar to English, this phrase can be used both literally and figuratively.
English: They spoke at the same time and it wasn’t understood what they said.
Español: Hablaban al mismo tiempo y no se entendía lo que decían.
English: The script of that movie was horrible but at the same time the actions scenes were amazing.
Español: El guión de esa película era horrible, pero al mismo tiempo las escenas de acción eran increíbles.
In addition, you can also use a la vez as an alternative translation of ‘at the same time’. You can use this for making an innocent plan, such as:
English: Let’s jump at the same time (at once).
Español: Saltamos a la vez.
By the way, it’s probably obvious, but this phrase inspired the photo for this post. Use this phrase whenever you need to take the quintessential tourist shot.
If you work full time or part-time these are expressed as follows:
Español: Tiempo completo. Jornada completa.
Español: Tiempo parcial. Jornada parcial.
English: Shift work.
Español: Trabajo a turnos.
Note the use of jornada, this word is equally used for talking about a working schedule.
As you can see the uses of tiempo and the translation of ‘time’ into Spanish is far from straightforward.
But, like most challenges with language learning, a little bit of deliberate practice makes perfect.
Choose some examples from today’s article, particularly around the uses of hacer in combination with tiempo, and try them out in your next Spanish conversation.
How else can you use tiempo, hora and vez?