Spanish Language Blog

Apenas Posted by on Jan 2, 2008 in Spanish Vocabulary


Apenas is an adverb frequently used in the Spanish language, and one that has a multiplicity of meanings and applications.It’s one of those words that require you to use the context to determine which meaning the speaker intends.My Spanish students would often complain about this phenomenon, until I reminded them how context-driven oral English is: just think of how confusing “two”, “too”, and “to” is!So, it is not my intention to confuse or frustrate you, but here are the four main meanings of the fickle yet utterly useful word apenas.

The first translation of apenas is “barely”, “hardly”, “just”, “scarcely”; used in a negative way to express limitation or nearly not doing or having something.My English-Spanish dictionary provides the apt synonym casi no: “almost not”. This seems like a good way to think about it.

Apenas alcancé el autobús. — I barely caught the bus. (I almost didn’t catch it.)

Apenas hay suficiente pizza para todos. —There’s just enough pizza for everyone. (Our supply of pizza is limited, we almost don’t have enough.)
Apenas podía oirte. — I could hardly hear you. (I almost couldn’t hear you.)

The second use of apenas is “just” in the sense of something happening recently. The time period you are referring to could vary in length.

Apenas subí al autobús. — I just got on the bus.

Apenas lo vimos hace una hora. — We just saw him an hour ago.

Similarly, you can use apenas to mean that something has just begun, and is currently in progress, “just” or “just now.”For example:

Apenas están saliendo del trabajo. — They’re just getting out of work.

Ya son las ocho, y apenas estamos comiendo. — It’s already 8 o’clock, and we’re

just now eating.”

The fourth meaning of apenas is “at the same time as” or “just as I (you, he, it, etc)…….something happened.”These constructions involve two actions, separated by y. For example:

Apenas salí de la casa y me llamaste por teléfono — Just as I was leaving my

house, you called me.

Apenas vi a Madonna y me desmayé. — As soon as I saw Madonna, I fainted.

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  1. Evan Quinlan:

    How do the various uses of “apenas” relate to the use of “acabar de,” the verb meaning “to have just [done something]?” When would you use one versus the other?

  2. David:

    The use of “apenas” in that sense is archaic and found mostly in literary language. In everyday Spanish, “apenas” means “barely”. Also bear in mind it’s not a very common expression, so you won’t come across it very often.

  3. rachel:

    It is widely used in Mexico that is what led me to search for the meaning and uses so I could understand what everyone is saying.

  4. Andres B:

    Actually apenas is widely used. I wouldn’t say its meaning is archaic when you refer to just having done something. Maybe not as recurrent but it’s still valid.

    An example of both uses.

    Apenas acabo de terminar mi tarea.
    (I just finished my homework)

    Ud. necesita apenas 50 centavos para comprar dulces.
    (You just need 50 cents to buy candy)

  5. david carmona:

    In the first example, “apenas” is completely redundant, since the meaning of “having just performed the action” is conveyed by “acabo de”. In that sense, “apenas” would be perceived as an archaic use in Spain, although I understand that in some Latin American countries it may be more acceptable, and used more frequently.
    In the second example there is also a difference in usage between Spain and LAm. “Apenas” would be perceived as archaic again, and the adverb “solo/solamente” would be used instead.
    Common usage of “apenas” in Castilian Spanish:
    -Hace apenas cinco minutos que se fue. (He left barely five minutes ago).
    -Apenas uso mi taladradora. (I barely ever use my power drill).

  6. Erica:

    I have lived in South America and Central America. Apenas is widely used and in no way archaic.

  7. david carmona:

    In the last comment I explained the differences in usage on both sides of the Atlantic. I also mentioned in my first comment that not all of the senses of “apenas” are archaic, and certainly not everywhere. Many expressions that have changed in Spain are still widely used in LAm. That is a common phenomenon in language evolution. Obviously, the communities that still use “apenas” in those senses cannot see any archaism in it, but it is important to note that it will be perceived and used differently depending on the linguistic region.
    It is also important to clarify when some uses, like the first example quoted by Andrés, are unnecessary.

  8. Jonathon Nazaroff:

    In recent comments, there were some examples of “apenas,” but none for “acabo de.” Can someone give me an example of how to use this properly in a sentence in Spanish (preferably Spanish commonly used in Mexico, but either way is fine)?

  9. david carmona:

    Acabo de levantarme de la siesta. (I just woke up from my nap).
    Acabo de ver una película. (I´ve just finished watching a movie.)

  10. Benjamin:

    This thread looks somewhat old, but i’ve been studying Spanish for quite some time now and figured i needed to know a little more about the adverbs which have multiple meanings like “ya” and, of course, “apenas”. This is why i stumbled upon this blog on Google. I was just wondering whether there is some other way of expressing the fourth signification shown in this post without using “apenas”, for instance: “Just as I walked in the door, you yelled at me from across the road” – “Apenas entré por la puerta y gritaste tras mí”. Is there any other way of expressing this? Would one use “conforme” instead?

  11. stevens:

    Me gusta su curso, pero, para mi hay un inconveniente : ¿por qué no formular explicaciones en español (en vez de inglés) Normalmente, yo hablo neerlandés y francés… pues…
    y soy profesora de neerlandés, francés y español

  12. C:

    Can you use apenas followed by an adjective. For example…

    Fue apenas triste