When to use ‘e’ vs. ‘y’ in Spanish

When to use ‘e’ vs. ‘y’ in Spanish

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated March 13, 2023

Ever read a sentence in Spanish with the word e in it? Andrea e Ignacio son amigos (Andrea and Ignacio are friends). Why is the word ‘and’ written as e instead of y? Whether you use e vs. y in Spanish depends on whether two vowel sounds are together and need to be separated. In most cases, the conjunctions y (and) and o (or) would seem relatively straightforward. But sometimes, these conjunctions fall before words that begin with the same vowel sound. Y and Ignacio both start with the same sound. We tend not to like two of the same vowel sounds together, and we solve this by inserting a different sound e

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Spanish. The insertion of the consonant between the two vowels feels more phonetically satisfying in almost every language. In English, for example, we say “an” apple and not “a” apple, because the latter sounds unpleasant to an English speaker’s ear. 

E vs. y follows a similar logic in Spanish. When vowels like y and o end up next to a twin vowel, e and u (respectively) must be used as a replacement.

In this article, we’ll review how to use e vs. y in Spanish. We’ll also go over some related points of grammar, such as o vs. u and when la changes to el in Spanish.

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When to use ‘y’ vs. ‘e’ in Spanish

To understand when to use the e vs. y in Spanish, it helps to know about a phenomenon called “epenthesis.” This describes the insertion of a consonant sound between two vowels when those two vowels are not allowed to be together. 

Recall how y is pronounced in Spanish. It makes a long /i/ sound, as in green or see. In Spanish, the letters i and y make an identical sound. There are a lot of words in Spanish that begin with i: impuesto, imagen, interes, ideal, irresponsible, infeliz, insoportable, etc.

When y + i end up next to each other in a sentence, the y will change to e.

Original phraseMust change to:
Tengo muchos pasatiempos y intereses.(I have many hobbies and interests.)Tengo muchos pasatiempos e intereses.

In the above example, the e has replaced y. The meaning remains unchanged; e means “and” in this sentence. But both the written sentence, as well as its pronunciation in spoken language, must change.

It sometimes takes a trained ear to distinguish when replacing the y with an e in Spanish. The pronunciation of y vs. e in Spanish is very similar. Listen carefully for when the double /i/ vowel combination occurs, then make the change. Note that this change is not based on spelling, but rather on pronunciation.

Many words that begin with the silent hi– often require the y to change to e, as well. Words like hijo, hilo, hinchar and higo.

Original phraseMust change to:
Me gusta el queso de cabra y higos.(I like goat cheese and figs.)Me gusta el queso de cabra e higos.
El tobillo está magullado y hinchado.(The ankle is bruised and swollen.)El tobillo está magullado e hinchado.

Some words that begin with hi- may not require this change. Words like hierro and hielo will not change because they make a different vowel sound, like /yero/ and /yelo/. These are dipthongs, or combined vowel sounds.

Original phraseMust change to:
El edificio está hecho de concreto y hierro. (The building is made from concrete and steel.)(no change)
Había nieve y hielo. (There was snow and ice.)(no change)

‘O’ vs.’u’ in Spanish

Another common conjunction in Spanish is o (or). When paired with the same vowel sound, the o will change to a u in both spelling and pronunciation. Look and listen for words that begin with the letters o or ho– in Spanish. These will be the ones to change.

OriginalMust change to:
¿Era él o otra persona?(Was it him or another person?)¿Era él u otra persona?
¿Estos muebles son para jardín o hogar?(Is this furniture for the garden or the home?)¿Estos muebles son para jardín u hogar?
Había siete o ocho personas.(There were seven or eight people.)Había siete u ocho personas.

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When ‘la’ changes to ‘el’

E/y and o/u are not the only examples of epentheses in Spanish. The article la will change to el when it ends up next to a word that starts with the /a/ vowel sound. This can confuse a lot of Spanish language learners when it comes to matching articles and gender.

Agua (water) is feminine in Spanish. So, the obvious choice for the article would be la: la agua. But that is not actually correct, because the /a/ vowels are together and need to be broken apart. So, la is changed to el even though it does not match the gender of the noun.

OriginalMust change to:
la agua(the water)el agua
la hambre(the hunger)el hambre
la águila(the eagle)el águila
la arpa(the harp)el arpa

Remember that some words can start with ha- because the “h” in Spanish is silent. 

‘E’ vs. ‘y’ in Spanish is all about the vowels

Knowing when to use e vs. y in Spanish is all about breaking up double vowel sounds when they occur. This means you have to have a good handle on pronunciation. Words like hielo (ice) and hierro (steel) have a diphthong that changes the pronunciation from /i/ to /ye/. E vs. y in Spanish and the other cases of double vowel sounds are good exercises to improve your listening and pronunciation skills.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.


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