Spanish and English: 10 Must-know Differences Between the Two
Welcome to the land of Spanish language.
While Spanish may not be the most difficult second language for a native-English speaker to learn, there are definitely quite a few things that one might find strange, contrary or hard-to-grasp at first.
Here, we’ll give you a peek at some of those tricky and seemingly-absurd concepts with the top ten most important differences to know between English and Spanish.
- 1. Spanish nouns have a gender
- 2. Adjectives come after the noun
- 3. Negation is much simpler in Spanish
- 4. Possessive nouns don’t exist in Spanish
- 5. In Spanish, the subject of a sentence often doesn’t have to be stated
- 6. In Spanish, the verb “to have” is often used to express feeling
- 7. There are fewer prepositions in Spanish
- 8. The word “it” is often omitted
- 9. Capitalization and punctuation is slightly different in Spanish
- 10. Spelling is much easier in Spanish
1. Spanish nouns have a gender
What do an apple, your mom and and scissors have in common?
They’re all feminine nouns in the Spanish language.
While assigning gender to objects is something that is common in other languages, it’s almost unheard of in modern English. For native-English speakers, it can be a bit overwhelming at first.
In the Spanish language, every noun is considered to be either masculine or feminine, and the articles “the,” el (masculine) or la (feminine), will often accompany the noun to demonstrate which gender the noun is.
It sounds easy enough, but mastering gender gets much more complicated since it’s something that affects various parts of the sentence. In order to speak the language properly, there is much more to be learned than just the articles that precede the word. Relative pronouns, adjectives and more within the sentence must also be modified according to the specific gender of the subject.
Another possible difficulty of learning gender is simply remembering and recognizing what the gender of a word is. Usually words that end with the letter o are masculine, and words that end in the letter a are feminine, which is simple enough to remember. But of course, there are many words that have different endings and those that are irregular and unintuitive.
While there are still nine more items on the list, don’t worry—they’re not all as big as gender.
2. Adjectives come after the noun
Next on the list, we have adjectives, which bring forth several differences in use from Spanish to English.
For starters, in Spanish the adjective generally comes after the noun instead of before. For example, if you wanted to say “the black suit,” in Spanish, you’d say el traje negro (literally: the suit black).
Not too tricky, right?
Most all of the time, this will be the setup. But… sigh… of course, there are always a few exceptions to every rule. With select types of adjectives—such as quantifiers, for example—they come before the noun. So if you wanted to say “the only house,” it would have the same order as English, la única casa.
The most difficult part of mastering adjectives in Spanish could be remembering to correctly modify them. What is simple about English is that many parts of the sentence will stay the same despite the subject. In Spanish, however, if the subject is plural and feminine (for example), the article and adjective accompanying the subject must also be plural and feminine.
Let’s look at an actual example: To say “the red flowers,” in Spanish, we say las flores rojas. See how the article, noun and adjective all end in –s since it’s plural, and las and rojas end in –as since flor is feminine. If we only had “the red flower,” singular, it would be la flor roja. And if it were a masculine word like el gato (the cat), the plural would be los gatos rojos (the red cats).
Once you get the hang of it, this really isn’t so bad—and here are all the details you need to be a pro at Spanish plurals.
3. Negation is much simpler in Spanish
Is the word “unefficient,” “inefficient,” or “nonefficient”?!
In English, negation can be much more complicated than it has to be. The variety of prefixes—like “non-,” “un-,” “dis-,” “in-“—and many other trickster negative words are often required in order to properly negate a word. And when constructing sentences, we also must be careful to avoid using double negatives.
Luckily for you, in Spanish, it’s much simpler than this. In a sentence, usually just putting no before the verb will negate it, and there are fewer prefixes to confuse you.
When making Spanish sentences, double negatives are supposed to be used, rather than avoided. English requires that we mix negative and affirmative words, which may create confusion for non-native English speakers. In Spanish, it is far easier to determine what is being said since the words agree with each other.
For example, to say “I do not want anything” in Spanish, you would say “No quiero nada,” which translates literally to “I don’t want nothing.” It keeps the two negative words together (no, nada) rather than mixing a negative with a positive—so if you can just remember that, you’re golden!
4. Possessive nouns don’t exist in Spanish
In English, all you have to do is slap an apostrophe “s” to the end of a noun and presto, you’ve made it possessive: “Adam‘s jacket.”
This isn’t the case in Spanish; to specify belonging in Spanish, most often de is used to connect the possession to its owner. To say “Adam’s jacket,” for example, we would say la chaqueta de Adam, which translates literally to “the jacket of Adam.”
Not too difficult, right?
Luckily, learning the rest of the possessive words isn’t difficult either. Possessive adjectives and pronouns are also used in Spanish, and follow a very similar format to English.
5. In Spanish, the subject of a sentence often doesn’t have to be stated
So you spent weeks memorizing the countless conjugations of Spanish verbs, and are wondering “Why does this have to be so darn complicated?!”
Undoubtedly, they can seem stressful and overwhelming at first, but once you start forming sentences, you’ll see how much the rest of the sentence becomes simplified after.
By using the proper conjugation in Spanish, you already know the tense and the subject without explicitly stating it. Because of this, it is more acceptable to leave out some parts of a sentence that we would normally state in English, such as the subject.
For example, to say “I sleep” in Spanish, it’s okay to just say duermo, rather than both the subject and verb, yo duermo.
6. In Spanish, the verb “to have” is often used to express feeling
In English, if a person were to say “I have 20 years,” we may think they were referring to a prison sentence.
Innocently enough though, when translated directly to Spanish, this would be the usual way for a person to express their age. In Spanish, there are several instances in which the verb tener (to have) is used to stay phrases that are expressed with “to be” in English.
Tener is often used when speaking about something that is attributed to us, or something that we are experiencing.
For example, age is stated with tener:
Tengo 20 años. (I’m 20 years old.) – Literally: I have 20 years
It’s also the verb that’s used to say “I’m hungry“: Tengo hambre (literally: I have hunger), tengo prisa (I’m in a hurry) or tengo miedo (I’m scared).
The list doesn’t end there, but now that you’re aware of this phenomenon, you can watch out for it as you progress with your Spanish.
7. There are fewer prepositions in Spanish
In, over, under, about, on, across, behind…
In English, we use dozens of prepositions to determine the exact location in time and space of an object.
Prepositions definitely play a much smaller role in Spanish, with fewer words, which may seem to leave ambiguity to an English speaker. For many cases in which we would use “in,” “on,” and “at” in English, we just use the word en in Spanish.
Here are a few examples to help you out:
La manzana está en el refrigerador. (The apple is in the refrigerator.)
Mi perro se sienta en la alfombra. (My dog sits on the carpet.)
Estoy en la fiesta. (I am at the party.)
The word de in Spanish can also take the place of many English prepositions. It may be used to mean “from,” “in,” “of” and in some cases even more.
Here are a few more examples:
Soy de Tejas. (I am from Texas.)
Los Estados Unidos de América (The United States of America)
Distinguishing which preposition to use and when may confuse some Spanish learners, but with the smaller pool of words to choose from, it shouldn’t take too long to master.
See, maybe learning Spanish isn’t so hard after all.
8. The word “it” is often omitted
It seems like it would be hard to speak without using the word “it,” right? I mean, I just used it three times in the previous sentence. When describing the weather, we say ”It’s cold outside,” and when chatting with others, “What is it?”
We use the word in these contexts every day in English, while in Spanish it’s found much less often. This is mostly thanks to the fact that #5 exists—subjects are inferred through the conjugated verb.
For example, going back to our first sentence, “it seems” can be translated to parece, and “it would be” as sería.
Here’s one more example: We’d say “it is big” in English, but in Spanish you only have es grande. The same suit is followed for many similar sentences.
9. Capitalization and punctuation is slightly different in Spanish
While much of the punctuation in Spanish writing and English writing stays the same for these two languages, there are a few slight differences to note.
In English, there is only punctuation at the end of a sentence, whereas in Spanish when asking a question or expressing excitement, punctuation is placed at both the beginning and the end of the sentence. An upside-down question mark or upside-down exclamation point will start the sentence, and a right-side up mark will end it. For example:
¡Qué suerte! (How lucky!)
¿Quieres cenar conmigo mañana? (Do you want to have dinner with me tomorrow?)
Secondly, in the Spanish language when writing out numbers, a period will separate numbers by the thousands instead of a comma, and a comma will separate whole numbers from decimals. For example, thirteen-thousand dollars and twelve cents would be written as $13.000,12 in Spanish.
Lastly, there are just a few simple differences in capitalization between the two languages. Days of the week, months of the year and languages aren’t capitalized in Spanish. There are more situations where Spanish doesn’t capitalize words that English does, but those are the first categories you’ll come across.
10. Spelling is much easier in Spanish
Why don’t “cough” and “dough” rhyme? And what’s with “gnat” and “knot”?
In the English language, we can have spelling bees because of how irregular, difficult and unintuitive spelling can be. In Spanish, usually spelling a word is so simple that it can almost always be accomplished just by sounding it out.
While in English, letters can sound long, short or even silent—creating over a dozen different vowel sounds—in Spanish, there are only five. Simply enough, each vowel in the Spanish language only has one unique sound.
This will come as a relief down the road in the learning process, but for starters, learning how to use the letters may be a bit difficult for non-native speakers. While we use the same letters, the way some of them are pronounced can sound rather different in the Spanish language, and additions like diaereses, accents and tildes must also be used.
The most trouble with spelling in Spanish for English speakers comes from the false cognitive sound of letters. For instance, in Spanish, the letter “v” is often pronounced like English “b,” and what sounds like an English “y” is actually a Spanish “ll.” To get a grasp on Spanish pronunciation, here’s your ultimate guide.
Another resource that can help is FluentU, a language learning program where you learn with authentic videos from real Spanish sources. The videos have interactive subtitles, so you can simultaneously listen to native pronunciation and compare Spanish and English structures in an immersive way.
No one ever said that English and Spanish were similar languages, but by knowing 10 main ways that they differ, learning will be that much easier.