There are some words that are commonly misused by Spanish students. Entonces, luego, and después, for example, are easily confused as they can sometimes replace the other. However, they don't always mean the same. Today we'll be looking over the similarities and the differences between these words, as well as when and how to use them.
Entonces and luego allow us to link two actions in terms of cause-effect. For example:
Me siento mal, entonces/luego voy a ir al doctor.
I’m not feeling well, so/therefore I’m going to the doctor.
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the present, the future or the past. The important thing is the cause-effect connection.
Present: Lupe no me cae bien, entonces siempre la evito.
I don’t like Lupe, so I always avoid her.
Future: Voy a recibir una llamada importante, entonces por favor no hagan ruido.
I’m receiving an important phone call, so please be quiet.
Past: Ya no había comida en la casa, entonces fui al súper.
There was no food at home, so I went to the supermarket.
The thing is, luego is much more formal than entonces and almost no one uses it when speaking. It’s more of a written word that is mostly used by philosophers when drawing logical conclusions.
Pienso, luego existo.
I think, therefore I am.
Another expression that allows us to connect a cause with its effect is así que. It is very common to use it when speaking and it helps us sound natural and fluent.
Present: No me gustan los mariachis, así que nunca he ido a Garibaldi.
I don’t like mariachis, so I’ve never been to Garibaldi.
Future: Tengo prisa, así que no voy a irme a pie, sino en coche.
I’m in a hurry, so I won’t go on foot but by car.
Past: No tenía efectivo, así que fui al cajero.
I didn't have any cash with me, so I went to the ATM.
Expressing succession of events
The confusion between entonces and luego comes from the fact that the latter can also mean afterwards. In this case, it is very common to use luego when speaking.
Present: Los domingos corro en el parque y luego desayuno con mis papás.
On Sundays, I go jogging and I have breakfast with my parents afterwards.
Future: Juan va a ir a la oficina. Luego va a pasar a ver a unos clientes.
Juan is going to the office. Afterwards, he’s dropping in on some clients.
Past: José y Pedro vinieron a desayunar y luego fuimos al cine.
José and Pedro came for breakfast and we went to the movies afterwards.
To express this same succession of events we also have the word después.
Present: En las noches generalmente veo algo en Netflix y después leo un poco.
At night I usually watch something on Netflix and then I read a little bit.
Future: Voy a ver una película en mi casa y después voy a pedir algo para cenar.
I’m watching a movie at home and then I’m ordering out for dinner.
Past: Anoche a Federica le dolía mucho la cabeza, pero después se sintió mejor.
Last night Federica had a terrible headache, but then she felt better.
However, después can also mean after, like when in English we say “After having breakfast, I did this.“ or “After meeting with Juan, we did that.” Let’s have a look at the following examples:
Present: Siempre lavo los trastes inmediatamente después de comer.
I always do the dishes immediately after eating.
Future: ¿Vas a hacer algo después de ir al gimnasio?
Are you doing something after going to the gym?
Past: Después de ver Harry Potter, salí corriendo a comprar los libros.
After watching Harry Potter, I rushed out and bought the books.
So, while in English we use after followed by a verb ending in -ing, in Spanish we use después de followed by a verb in the infinitive form, but be careful! If our subject changes (“After I did this, you did that”), a different structure is needed.
Present: Siempre llueve después de que lavo mi coche.
It always rains after I wash my car.
Future: Hay que bañar a Roni después de que lo saques a pasear.
Let’s bathe Roni after you take him out for a walk.
Past: Decidí renunciar después de que me redujeron el sueldo.
I decided to quit after they reduced my salary.
As you can see, in these cases we have two different subjects in each sentence and the expression we use is después de que. The tense of the verb that follows, depends on the time we are referring to.
Present (indicative) for usual, regular actions.
Present (subjunctive) for future actions.
Preterite or imperfect (indicative) for past actions.
There is another expression that is useful and very common when talking about the succession of events: más tarde. This expression is somehow different from luego and después as it doesn't imply that the second action was done immediately after the first one. Something else may happen in between. Or not. We just don’t know.
Normalmente salgo de trabajar a las seis. A veces voy al gimnasio o salgo
con amigos. Más tarde ceno, reviso mis redes sociales y me duermo.
I usually get off work at six. I sometimes go to the gym or go out with friends.
Later, I have dinner, check my social media, and go to sleep.
Future: María y yo vamos a descansar un poco y más tarde vamos a ir por un café.
María and I are taking a short rest and later we are going out for a coffee.
Past: Ayer Lola perdió sus llaves, pero más tarde las encontró.
Yesterday Lola lost her key but she later found them.
Finally, I’d like to share with you one last helpful expression: al rato. Different from the others, this one has limited use as it only works when talking about the future.
Future: Felipe y Clara van a venir a mi casa al rato.
Felipe and Clara are coming later.
Alright, let's sum it all up. We have two different types of expressions. On one hand, there are those that show cause-effect - entonces, luego (in texts), and así que. On the other hand, we have those expressions that show a succession of events - luego, después, más tarde, and al rato. With the exception of the last one, all of them can be used to talk about general actions (using the present tense), the future, and the past.
So now you know. Next time you hesitate, just think: are you trying to express cause-effect? or are you talking about a succession of events?