How to "Ask" in Spanish: Pedir, Preguntar and Beyond

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From Asking and Questioning to Pondering

The most fundamental of problems about deciding whether to use pedir or preguntar can be avoided in a way that works for many confusing verb pairs – by not translating them as ‘to ask’. Pedir is best translated as to request, to order (as in food) or to petition of something (like permission). Preguntar, on the other hand, is best translated as to ask a question or even simply to question (but not in the philosophical sense, as we’ll see in a moment). One way to get beginners to understand this distinction is to get them to visualize (by acting it out) preguntar by raising your hand and saying "¡pregunta!" – as in “I have a question!" Incidentally, this also helps model the healthy use of more Spanish in class.

Here are some finer points about pedir and preguntar that deal with the grammar needed to use them properly:

They almost inevitably require the use of indirect object pronouns – someone has to be asked or a request is made of someone. That someone is the indirect object.

Juan le preguntó al professor sobre la tarea (John asked the professor about the assignment).

Yo les pedí permiso a mis padres (I asked my parents' permission).

They may also be used with direct object pronouns or even double object pronouns.

Yo se lo pedí a mis padres (I asked it of my parents [e.g., permission]).

The use of the reflexive with preguntarpreguntarse -- is one of the ways to express one of the various nuances of “I wonder.”

Me pregunto si el correo está o no (I wonder if the mail is here or not).

Another synonym of preguntar is hacer una pregunta – it is a bit more graphic in the sense that it articulates the act of forming a question.

Ese chico me hace preguntas todos los días (That boy asks me questions every day).

When used with por, preguntar means to inquire after or about someone, or to ask for someone:

Si alquien pregunta por mí, dile que no estoy (If anyone asks for me, tell him I’m not here).

For more advanced students, it is very important to remind them that the subjunctive must be used with pedir if it is used in the sense of one person requesting that someone else do something (subordinated noun clauses).

But there’s more. Students need to expand their vocabularies – and so finding more verbs of expression (communication) and sensing needs to be stressed. A few of these are interrogar, rogar, indagar.

The philosophical verb for questioning is cuestionar. Hamlet would have said Ser o no ser – ésta es la cuestión. He would not have used la pregunta!


  • Author’s more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.

This post is part of the series: Spanish Usage

The articles in this series deal with various questions about the right choice of word or phrase when English may have one or two structures but Spanish has more. They often deal with prepositional issues.

  1. Spanish Usage Questions: “Above”
  2. Using “Actual” and “Actually” in Spanish
  3. A Problem Preposition: The Ways “About” is Expressed in Spanish
  4. The Many Spanish Faces of the English Verb “to Agree”
  5. Spanish Usage Questions: Ways to say “Again”
  6. Expressing the Many Meanings of After
  7. Spanish Usage Questions: How to Say “Ahead”
  8. Spanish Usage Questions: “Anyone” and “Anybody”
  9. Using “Anyway…” in Spanish
  10. Let’s Learn About How to Talk About Appointments & Dating
  11. What Do You Use for “Around” in Spanish
  12. The Spanish Verbs Meaning “to Ask” are Many!
  13. Beware of False Cognates! How to Express “Attend,” “Assist,” and “Help”
  14. Are You “Cool” or “Cold”? Explore the Nuances in Spanish
  15. The Difference Between “Why” and “Because” in Spanish
  16. The Temporal and Spacial Meanings of “Before”: How to Get it Right in Spanish
  17. Don’t Be Left in the Dust! Learn to Express the Meanings of “Behind” in Spanish
  18. Get the Low Down on the Preposition “Below” and Say it Right in Spanish!
  19. Understand Saying “Help” in Spanish
  20. Translating “Beside” & “Besides” into Spanish: Interesting Solutions!
  21. Not all Meanings of “But” Are Equal!
  22. Expressing the Various Meanings of the Preposition “By” in Spanish
  23. What Can the English Word “Can” Mean and How to Get it Right in Spanish
  24. Spanish Usage Questions: “Corner”
  25. The Word “Country” in Spanish
  26. The Various Meanings of “Outweigh” in English and How to Express Them in Spanish
  27. Expressing the Idea of “Ownership” in Spanish
  28. How to Express “Time & Distance” in Spanish
  29. Treat, Try, Attempt, Deal with… In Spanish, You Probably Need “Tratar”
  30. Spanish Usage Questions: “Having Fun”
  31. Even a Word Like “Even” Has Many Counterparts in Spanish
  32. Don’t Go Wrong When You Look for Ways to Express “to fail”
  33. Do You Mean “Fair” Weather, a “Fair” Game or a “Fair” Complexion? Learn How to Say Them in Spanish!
  34. Love, Desire and Wanting – Spanish Style!
  35. Discover the Right Spanish Verbs for Taking, Holding, Grabbing… and More
  36. You Have Nothing to Fear Except Not Knowing How to Say “Fear” in Spanish!
  37. Spanish Equivalents of the Common English Word “Find”
  38. Discover the Various Meanings of “Middle” and How to Say Them in Spanish
  39. Not All Spanish Words Meaning “Worker” Are Created Equal