10 English-Spanish cognates with a twist

Learn how to handle these English and Spanish words that are similar, but not exactly the same.

Dec 12, 2019
  • Lesson
  • Podcast


The equivalence of words in two different languages is often easy to understand and replicate. For instance, the verb to eat is comer in Spanish, the noun guitar is guitarra, and the adverb sometimes is translated unequivocally as a veces.

However, there are some words whose direct translation can be tricky because their usage is similar, but not totally equivalent in both languages. This leads many students to use them incorrectly, sometimes with disastrous results!

To help you navigate these treacherous translations, here's our list of 10 words that are similar, but not exactly the same in English and Spanish.

Cancelar vs. To cancel

Just like in English, the verb cancelar in Spanish means to decide that something is no longer happening.

What most students don’t know is that this word has another meaning that can be very confusing: to pay the total amount of a debt.

This is good to know especially if you want to visit a Spanish speaking country and you want to pay at a restaurant or store, where the cashier would probably ask you:

  • Señor, ¿va a cancelar en efectivo o con tarjeta?
    Sir, are you paying with cash or card?

Desinteresado vs. Uninterested

True, desinteresado can be translated as uninterested; nevertheless, this adjective has another meaning that is actually more common in Spanish.

Desinteresado indicates that a person does something without ulterior motives or a hidden agenda, a person who gives without expecting anything in return, like the English word selfless.

  • Ella ayuda a sus amigos de forma desinteresada.
    She helps her friends selflessly.
  • Mi mamá es la persona más desinteresada que conozco.
    My mom is the most unselfish person I know.

If you want to say a person is uninterested, the most common way to do it is with the phrase no interesarle a uno (to not interest someone).

  • A ella no le interesa la situación del país.
    She’s uninterested in the situation of the country.

Prevenir vs. Prevent

El Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (our Spanish bible!) includes a definition for prevenir as a synonym of "to impede" or "to avoid", but this is just one definition of several, and arguably the least common.

We generally use the verb prevenir to express preparing for something in advance in order to avoid unpleasant surprises or problems.

There is a common saying in Spanish that says: "es mejor prevenir que lamentar", which is kind of like "better safe than sorry", demonstrating this particular use of prevenir.

  • Si usas bloqueador solar, previenes el cáncer de piel.
    If you use sunscreen you avoid skin cancer.

A more natural translation for "to prevent" as we use it in English is evitar or impedir.

  • A él le impidieron entrar al museo.
    He was prevented from entering the museum.

Permanente vs. Permanent

Besides describing something long lasting like in English, permanente in Spanish can also be used to describe a continuous or frequent action. For instance:

  • Los niños están bajo supervisión permanente.
    Children are under constant supervision.

So keep in mind that permanente can be used like the English word constant.

Discutir vs. Discuss

In English to discuss means to talk about a topic or issue. In Spanish, discutir can mean the same thing, but only if you explicitly mention the topic someone is talking about.

  • Ellos discutieron. las diferencias de ser y estar en clase.
    They discussed the differences between ser and estar in class.

If you use discutir without mentioning the topic of discussion, then it means to argue. For example:

  • Ellos están discutiendo en este momento. - We’re not saying about what.
    They are arguing right now.

You can explain the reason why someone is arguing by using the preposition por.

  • Ellos están discutiendo por dinero.
    They are arguing about money.

Regular vs. Regular

Regular is spelled the same in English and Spanish, and they can also both be used to express routine occurrence.

  • Nosotros hacemos ejercicio de forma regular. - It’s more common to say "regularmente", though.
    We exercise on a regular basis.

However, the word regular is more commonly used as an adverb of manner, whose closest equivalent in English is so-so (not good, not bad).

  • A: ¿Cómo te fue en el examen?
    How was the exam?
  • B: Um… Regular.
    Umm… so-so.

In English you can use regular to describe something normal or usual. In Spanish, this is more naturally expressed with habitual or de costumbre.

  • Fui a mi dentista de costumbre / habitual.
    I went to my regular dentist.

Ordinario vs. Ordinary

Both of these words technically share the same meanings, but in Spanish the most common interpretation is not the same as it is in English.

We hardly ever describe something normal or usual with this adjective. For this purpose we instead say normal, usual or común y corriente. When we say ordinario, we generally mean someone is rude, bad-mannered, or that something is lowbrow or mediocre.

  • Ella no es una chica común y corriente.
    She’s not an ordinary girl.
  • Él es demasiado ordinario.
    He is so rude!

Comprometer vs. To compromise

One of the meanings of to compromise is to reach an agreement, but the best way to express this in Spanish is with the verbs ceder or llegar a un acuerdo.

  • Tienes que ceder si quieres solucionar el problema.
    You need to compromise if you want to solve the problem.

Comprometer can be used the same way as in English when it means "to jeopardize". Let's see some examples:

  • Ella está comprometiendo su salud con su mal estilo de vida.
    She is jeopardizing her health with those bad habits.

Comprometerse, the pronominal form of the verb comprometer means "to commit" or "to get engaged".

  • Se comprometieron en enero de este año.
    They got engaged in January of this year.

Cínico vs. Cynic

Well, this is actually 100% a false cognate, but the reason why it's on our list is because if you look it up in your English-Spanish dictionary, it will probably look like cínico and cynic mean the same thing. Seriously! If you don’t believe us try it in Google translator. But this is not true.

In both languages, this word has a negative connotation, but their meanings couldn’t be more different. In English, cynical means someone distrustful of human sincerity or integrity. In Spanish, cínico describes a fake, shameless person, a cheater; ironically, the kind of person cynics are so afraid of!

So, the most accurate translation for the word cynic is desconfiado (distrustful). Never use cínico as a drop-in replacement for "cynic", no matter what your favorite dictionary says!

  • No seas tan desconfiado.
    Stop being so cynical!
  • ¡Eres un cínico!
    You’re a shameless person!

Último vs. Ultimate

Last but not least -por último- we have these two words. The adjective último means last or final in Spanish.

  • Esas fueron las últimas palabras que dijo antes de morir.
    Those were his last words before he died.

Although in English ultimate can sometimes be a synonym of last, that’s not the word's primary use in this language. When people say ultimate, they usually mean something is in the extreme: the best, the worst, the most important, the greatest; a meaning último doesn’t have at all in Spanish.

To express this meaning of ultimate in Spanish, we can use a superlative: el mayor, el más importante, el mejor, el peor, etc.

  • Graduarse era su mayor meta en la vida.
    Graduating was their ultimate goal in life.

Be sure to check out our podcast to hear Mike and Merly's thoughts on a few of these semi-cognates!

We're just getting started!
Make sure not to miss out on our new material by subscribing to our newsletter.
Copyright © 2020 Get Fluent Spanish