The Several Uses of the Spanish Verb "Tratar"

Page content

The Faces of “Tratar”

Many native speakers use this verb incorrectly.

The expression se trata de should be followed by a noun. That noun can refer to a person, thing or a matter or topic at hand. Note that since it is an impersonal construction, that noun (person, thing or topic) is not the subject of tratarse. It’s roughly equivalent to saying It’s about… or It has to do with… Note that in English the word it is the grammatical subject – and Spanish has no equivalent for it as a subject.

Se trata de una persona desamparada (It has to do with a homeless person).

It would be incorrect Spanish to say, instead of the above: La persona se trata de una desamparada. Instead, it should be, if it is important to make persona the grammatical subject: La persona es desamparada.

Many native speakers also confuse the use of tratarse de with that of tratar de. The former was explained above. The expression tratar de is used to tell what something is about. Note that since libro (book) is the grammatical subject, the construction ought not be reflexive and so se is not to be used:

¿De qué trata el libro? (What is the book about?)

It is possible to use tratar in a few other ways. It can mean to deal with or treat (people), in which case either the preposition a is used (personal a) or tratarse can be used – with con, meaning to have dealings or association with someone:

Ella trata bien a su esposo (She treats her husband well).

Juan se trata con Alberto (Juan has dealings with Alberto).

Another option for the second example is Juan tiene trato con Alberto. The noun trato can also mean a deal, as in the common expression, followed by a handshake: trato hechoit’s a deal. The expression Tiene buen trato means, roughly, He/she has a good way with people – as in, a good touch when dealing with people.

When tratar is used with de and followed by an infinitive, it means to try and is an equivalent of intentar plus an infinitive:

Juan trata de aprender inglés (Juan is trying to learn English).

Juan intenta aprender inglés (Juan is trying to learn English).


  • Based on the 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