Ever look in the kitchen cupboard, see tons of ingredients and think “dang, there’s nothing to eat”?
Knowing a whole lot of Spanish words but not knowing the rules for constructing sentences can feel a little like that. You have everything you need to have a Spanish conversation (or a great meal)—you just don’t know how to put it all together!
Knowing how to put together a sentence in Spanish is as essential to the language as knowing how to breathe is to human survival: you can’t really do without it.
Unfortunately, too often we learn a smattering of random words in a new language first, without learning how to put them together in cohesive sentences.
Many people might know la cerveza is a beer, or hola means hello, but words by themselves won’t allow you to have meaningful conversations for very long.
Learning the basic rules of putting together a sentence and understanding them thoroughly means your Spanish will have a strong foundation. Chefs don’t learn to make fancy French desserts first—they might start with scones, or even an omelette!
If you don’t create a strong foundation to start with, you may learn many new words but you’re also going to confuse yourself (and those you’re talking to!) when you try to slap them together.
This guide will help you create or strengthen your foundational Spanish knowledge to make good, clear sentences.
Your Recipe Book for Cooking Up Easy Spanish Sentences
Basic Ingredients of Spanish Sentences
In order to put together a Spanish sentence you’ll need all the basic ingredients first. The good thing is that, just like cooking, you can practice on some easier recipes before you start making things complicated. It’s so important when you’re a beginner at a language to get the basics right. Otherwise, down the road, you’ll find yourself very confused!
There are four key ingredients you’ll need for a Spanish sentence:
Verb: A verb, as you probably know, is an action word like escribir (write) or escuchar (listen) or a being word like ser/estar. Verbs in Spanish have an infinitive mode which is kind of like the English equivalent of the phrasing, “to + verb.” In the infinitive mode, verbs are not conjugated to define the subject or time period of the action. They will all end in -ar, -er or -ir.
For example, in Spanish “to run” is correr. You usually then need to conjugate this verb to use it in a sentence—but we’ll talk about that later.
Subject: The subject is the “do-er” of the verb. It takes an active role in your sentence or is the key element or topic. A subject might be a person’s name, an animal or a machine.
Adverb: An adverb is used to describe a verb. You can remember this by thinking you “ad” (like add) them on to a verb. Some examples of adverbs are claramente (clearly) or perfectamente (perfectly). An easy tip is that in Spanish adverbs often end with “mente”! Keep an eye out for that ending.
Adjective: An adjective describes a subject or object. Some examples of adjectives are rojo/a (red) or alto/a (tall). You can see some more adjectives in action here.
Recipes for Spanish Sentences
Spanish sentences can be made with a few different recipes. As you progress you can begin to play with these but it’s important to first know the basic recipes for good, clear sentences. These formulas usually just involve two or three simple elements. A few basic formulas are:
Subject + verb
John escribe. (John writes)
John (subject) + escribe (verb).
Subject + verb + object
John escribe una carta. (John writes a letter.)
John (subject) + escribe (verb) + una carta (object).
Verb + infinitive verb
Queremos leer. (We want to read.)
Queremos (verb) + leer (infinitive verb).
In this sentence the verb querer ( to want) is conjugated. The following verb isn’t.
Subject + ser/estar + adjective
John es alto. (John is tall.)
John (subject) + es (being verb) + alto (adjective).
John está enfadado. (John is angry.)
John (subject) + está (being verb) + enfadado (adjective).
Verb + adverb
In any other recipes where you have a verb present, you may easily tack on an adverb.
John escribe claramente. (John writes clearly.)
John (subject) + escribe (verb) + claramente (adverb).
Queremos leer perfectamente. (We want to read perfectly.)
Queremos (verb) + leer (infinitive verb) + perfectamente (adverb)
Don’t forget that the order in these formulas can’t be changed around (much). You can play with order at times for extra emphasis, but first you’ll need to get a great sense for the basics.
Sometimes English speakers try to translate their sentences directly into Spanish, but the order we speak in isn’t always the same in Spanish. You can find out more about order here.
To form a question in Spanish you can often simply put a higher inflection in your voice at the end of what you’ve structurally formed as a sentence. This can change John es alto (John is tall), to ¿John es alto? (Is John tall?).
Prepping Your Spanish Sentence Ingredients
Just like with a recipe, your Spanish ingredients aren’t always ready to go straight into the mixing bowl. Sometimes words, especially verbs, need to be changed before we can use them in a way that makes any sense! It’s important to know how words need to be prepped to make sense in a sentence.
Two key rules to follow are:
Know your subject
You need to know the status of your subject—are they feminine or masculine? Are they singular or plural?
For example, is your subject simply John (singular, masculine) or is it a group of friends (mixed gender, plural). The answer will affect the verb and any adjectives you use.
Some tricky ones to watch out for are subjects like la gente (the people) or la familia (the family)—these subjects refer to many or multiple people but are considered singular subjects. Note that the article “la” in front of them is also singular. Any actions that these subjects do need to be conjugated as singular, third person. Watch this video to see more examples of subjects and matching verbs or adjectives.
Conjugate your verbs
It’s very important to conjugate your verbs. That means knowing the rules and exceptions for applying tenses to each verb. Remember to conjugate a verb according to the subject, the “do-er”. For example, John escribe, but I escribo. Knowing these conjugations can take time, so when you’re just starting out try to focus on knowing the present tense.
Just like with recipes, sometimes you can replace ingredients without changing the nature of the dish completely. You might make these changes to make a sentence shorter or clearer.
One easy change for beginners to make is replacing the subject with a pronoun. A pronoun is something like ella/él/ellos (she/he/they). For example, John escribe (John writes) would become él escribe (he writes).
Better yet, remove this pronoun altogether!
For example, you might say: John está enfadado. Escribe una carta. (John is angry. He writes a letter.)
It’s obvious in Spanish that you’re still referring to John, because the escribe is conjugated for the third person.
Get Baking: Watch Your Spanish Skills Flourish
Learning Spanish or any language is all about building up skills and then playing with them! You’ll be amazed how much you can say when you know 20 verbs, 20 subjects and 20 adjectives! Knowing how to say la casa es roja (the house is red), means also knowing the basic rules for saying el hombre es alto (the man is tall) and a million other useful statements.
Once you’ve gotten that down you can start adding in extra elements and having some fun!
Perhaps you want to qualify that adjective. You can say el hombre es muy alto. Or you might want to add some extra adjectives, la chica es alta, delgada y muy bonita (the girl is tall, skinny and very beautiful).
You can even merge some formulas together. For example, la chica delgada escribe perfectamente (the skinny girl writes perfectly) which is subject + adjective + verb + adverb!
The more you experiment with using extra words and new words, the easier you’ll find it to progress with Spanish.
As you improve, you’ll also learn more formulas for building advanced sentences. Just wait until you start learning different tenses so you can refer to past, present, future and “could have beens,” all with the same vocab!
Start with these foundations, and soon you’ll be serving up rich, delicious Spanish sentences on the regular.
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