When to use "a" in Spanish
Let's see all of the different situations we must use the preposition a in Spanish:
When we have a movement action and there's a destination and we use a.
These wil happen with all verbs of movement: ir, llegar, volver, venir, conducir, caminar, viajar,...
Voy a la oficina por la mañana - I go to the office in the morning.
Llegaste al médico tarde - You arrived late to the doctors.
Volvemos a Italia pronto - We go back to Italy soon.
¿Viajas a Europa mucho? - Do you travel to Europe a lot?
You might already know we use para for purposes. Well, you can use a as well but only after ir or venir.
Vengo a recoger los papeles / Vengo para recoger los papeles - I come to pick up the papers.
Voy al pueblo a hacer recados / Voy al pueblo para hacer recados - I go to town to do errands.
Other verbs don't suit this combination so much. Besides, llegar and volver with an infinitive have a different meaning (see section about verbs with preposition below), we wouldn't see this case with these two, as it would be confusing.
Vuelvo para ducharme - rarely we see vuelvo a ducharme because I can translated as "I shower again", not "I come back to shower".
Same with llego a + infinitive, can be translated as "to become" or "get to be".
A la una, a las dos, a las cuatro.... this is the only time we translate a as "at".
¿Te recojo a las cuatro de la tarde? - Do I pick you up at 4 in the afternoon?
Nadie come a la una - Nobody eats at 1.
Voy a/iba a ...
The periphrasis with ir, which is, for example near future with ir, like "Voy a bailar" (I'm going to dance) need that a between the two verbs.
¿Vas a ir al cumpleaños? - Are you going to go to the birthday?
Van a mudarse de casa - They're going to move house
Voy a descansar mañana - Tomorrow I'm going to rest.
This also happens in its past version (iba a bailar - I was going to dance).
Iba a salir pero no me siento bien - I was going to go out but I don't feel well.
¿Ibas a llamar? - Were you going to call?
Íbamos a casarnos pero apareció el coronavirus - We were going to get married but coronavirus showed up.
When we use vamos a it can also be translated as "let's do something", for example:
¡Vamos a cantar! - Let's sing!
or "shall we...?" to suggest an activity:
¿Vamos a la playa hoy? - Shall we go to the beach?
Voy a / voy para ...
We put an a between the verb and a person right after in the sentence.
This happens both when a person is a direct object (when the a is not translated) and indirect (in which case we see the a translated to "to")
I see my mom - Veo a mi madre
It's a direct object, no translation of the a.
I tell stories to the kids - Cuento historias a los niños
The a is translated to "to".
Verbs with preposition
Some verbs need a preposition, like a right after.
check out this table and post where you have a lot of verbs of movement, some that need the a before a person (both those cases are explained here) plus some other ones that need the "a" just because.
A few common ones are the following, when they have another action after: Verb + a + infinitive:
empezar a (to start to), aprender a (to learn to), tender a (to tend to..), volver a (to do again/go back to doing), llegar a (to get to do).
Also, jugar a (to play) + sport
¿Dónde aprendiste a tocar la guitarra? - Where did you learn to play the guitar?
Jugamos al fútbol - We play football.
Empiezan a trabajar a las 3 - They start to work at 3.
Tiendo a pensar demasiado - I tend to think too much.
¿Vuelves a comer carne? - Are you going back to eating meat? / do you eat meat again?
Llegó a ser el alcalde de su pueblo - He go to be/became the mayor of his town.
When we don't use a
A common mistake is using a instead of en.
When we talk about "being in a space/place" we use en. Except for saying the time, there's no "at" in Spanish, just "in" or "on".
I work at the museum - we say "I work in the museum"
Trabajo en el museo
I've never been to Cuba - we say "I've never been in Cuba"
Nunca he estado en Cuba
Someone is at the door - we say "someone is in the door"
Alguien está en la puerta
Notice where we use the a in these situations and try to see why. Sometimes there's more than one a!!
- Voy a llegar un poco tarde - I'm going to be a bit late
- El teatro termina a las once - The theater finishes at 11.
- Empezamos a salir hace tres años - We started to go out/date three years ago.
- Doy un regalo a mi mejor amiga cada año - I give a present to my best friend every year.
- Quedamos todos a las diez - We all meet at ten.
- Conducen a Francia cada año - They drive to France every year.
- Ayudan a sus vecinos a menudo - They help their neighbours often.
- Iban a venir pero no encontraron niñera - They were going to come but they didn't find a nanny.
- ¿Ves a tu familia mucho? - Do you see your family a lot?
- ¿Vienes a casa a cenar? - Do you come home for dinner? /are you coming home for dinner?
- Voy a la ciudad a ver a mi madre - I go to the city to see my mom.
and finally, why not here?
Nunca hemos estado en Australia - We've never been to Australia.
¡Perfecto! Hope that was helpful,
¡Hasta la próxima!¡Chao! :)