The Spanish verb tocar is fascinating because you can use it in a number of unusual contexts.
Apart from the idea of literally touching something, we can use tocar to talk about playing a musical instrument, skimming over a topic, being affected by something, and winning the lottery.
Tocar is also not technically a regular verb, but it should be. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment.
In this post, you’ll learn about tocar in detail, including how to use this important Spanish verb in some of its most useful contexts.
But, before we get to the different contexts of tocar, let’s take a closer look at the irregular verb conjugation.
The irregular verb conjugation of tocar
Tocar only has one irregular verb conjugation in the past simple.
In other words, the only conjugation that separates tocar from other regular ‘ar’ verbs is the following:
This is the first person singular form of tocar in the past simple tense. And, it could mean ‘I touched’ or ‘I won’ or ‘I played’ (or other options which we will discuss in more detail below).
But, if you examine closely the pattern of how to form the first person singular conjugations for other ‘ar’ verbs, you’ll see that typically you take off the last two letters of the verb and add an é.
Here are a few examples:
Hablar → Hablé (I spoke)
Pasar → Pasé (I passe)
Dejar → Dejé (I left)
Noticed that all of these conjugations end in the sound of é combined with the preceding consonant: …lé, …sé and …jé.
In contrast, if you were to combine é with the last consonant of tocar (minus the last two letters), c, you would get the letters …cé which would sound like ‘theh’ in the Spanish of Spain or ‘seh’ in the Spanish of Latin America.
But, phonetically ‘toh-theh’ or ‘toh-seh’ doesn’t match the pattern of the other first-person past conjugations.
The main problem is the letter c. Whenever a c goes next to an e or an i it sounds quite different from when it appears next to an a, o or u.
To get around this issue, and arrive at a sound that behaves like the other first-person past simple conjugations, the spelling becomes:
This same rule applies to other Spanish ‘ar’ verbs with a c before the last two letters such as practicar, buscar, sacar and explicar. The first person conjugations of these verbs in the past simple tense are:
Practicar → Practiqué (I practiced)
Buscar → Busqué (I searched for)
Sacar → Saqué (I took out)
Explicar → Expliqué (I explained)
Although this explanation may seem a little convoluted, try to sound out the words.
Hopefully, you will see that the sounds that you are pronouncing follow the pattern of other regular ‘ar’ verbs.
In other words, ‘tocar‘ sounds like a regular verb, as opposed to other irregular verbs that can change both sounds and spelling quite a lot from regular verbs.
Next, let’s look at the different uses of tocar.
Use 1. To literally touch something
The first use of tocar is the most natural translation of the English verb ‘to touch’. Here are a few examples:
English: Be careful! If you touch the grill, you will burn yourself.
Español: ¡Ten cuidado! Si tocas la parrilla, te quemarás.
English: ¡Don’t touch anything!
Español: ¡No toques nada!
English: Do not touch the wall, wet paint.
Español: No tocar la pared, pintura húmeda .
These last two examples are fairly difficult and require a little explanation.
The second last example is a negative imperative command. I have only briefly spoken about the imperative mood on the blog so far. This is because it isn’t that important unless you really need to order someone around. If you want something from someone, you can always ask with ¿Puedes…?. If you are raising Spanish-speaking children, then sure you will probably need it. But, if you aren’t, you will only really need this mood with a few specific verbs that include this one.
‘Don’t touch!’ is an important idea, and one that you will want to watch out for.
In the last example, you may notice the verb in its infinitive form. Often when you see a sign warning you of things such as wet paint or wet concrete, in Spanish the sign isn’t written in the imperative command form but in the infinitive form. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but it could be because no one is specifically telling you not to touch the wall, it is simply a non-personal public warning.
Use 2. To play a musical instrument
The next use of tocar is very unusual for English natives. In English, we play instruments and music. In Spanish, they tocar or ‘touch’ instruments.
In fact, the best translation of tocar in this context is probably ‘how to play’. Here are a few examples:
English: How long does it take to learn how to play the piano?
Español: ¿Cuánto tiempo se tarda en aprender a tocar el piano?
English: Do you know how to play any instrument?
Español: ¿Sabes tocar algún instrumento?
English: My son plays the guitar very well.
Español: Mi hijo toca la guitarra muy bien.
Use 3. To touch on a topic
This third use of tocar is common in English as well. The idea of briefly touching a topic without going into depth explains how this verb is used in Spanish in this context.
English: You shouldn’t touch that subject again.
Español: No deberías volver a tocar ese tema.
English: The politicians passed over the topic quickly without really touching it.
Español: Los políticos pasan sobre el tema rápidamente sin tocarlo realmente.
English: We can’t touch this topic today, we don’t have time.
Español: No podemos tocar este tema hoy, no tenemos tiempo.
Use 4. To affect
We can also use tocar like the English verb ‘to affect’.
As a side note, it is perfectly acceptable to use afectar in place of tocar.
These examples are here to simply show you that it is not uncommon to hear tocar used in this way.
English: Climate change affects us all.
Español: El cambio climático nos toca a todos.
English: The song was very moving, it touched my heart.
Español: La canción era muy emocionante, me tocó el corazón.
English: We have been affected a lot by the changes in the region.
Español: Nos han afectado mucho los cambios en la región.
Use 5. To win the lottery
The last context of tocar is again very unusual for English natives.
In Spanish you don’t ‘win’ the lottery, you are ‘touched by it’. Here is how you might talk about the lottery in Spanish:
English: We’ve won the lottery. (The lottery has touched us)
Español: Nos ha tocado la lotería.
English: How much did you win (has touched you) in the lottery?
Español: ¿Cuánto te ha tocado en la lotería?
English: If you do not buy your entrance, you cannot win (it can’t touch you) the lottery.
Español: Si no compras tu participación, no te puede tocar la lotería.
You maybe be thinking to yourself that you aren’t likely to use these last few phrases but you might be surprised at how embedded the lottery is in Spanish culture. At least in Spain, the lottery is incredibly popular and reaches a crescendo at Christmas when everybody gets their decimo de loteria (lottery entrance) in the Loteria de Navidad (Spanish Christmas lottery).
If some of the uses of tocar are new to you, then after reading this post see if you can go out and use them in a Spanish conversation.
See if you can weave in a story about playing a musical instrument—maybe you played an instrument as a child, or you have a desire to learn a new instrument?
Alternatively, you could try sparking up a conversation with a Spanish native about their family tradition around the Loteria de Navidad.
How else can you use tocar in a Spanish conversation?