You understand what’s going on, sort of.
The most likely explanation is that you simply haven’t learned about basic Spanish sentence construction.
But isn’t it the same as in English? I hear you cry. Unfortunately not. If it were, life would be much easier, but then learning a new language would also be much less fun, and far less satisfying.
Why Learn the Basics of Spanish Sentences?
Once you get these simple rules down, you’ll be able to construct more complex sentences. Think of the language as a building. If you don’t construct the foundations properly, the whole thing will fall down. But once you’ve got a solid foundation, you’re free to build whatever you like on top.
And that thing about Spanish and English not being the same. Is that really true? Well, Spanish is similar to English in some ways. Its structure is not so different that you’ll have to totally rethink the way you see life to get your head around it, but there are some differences. As you’d imagine, it’s these differences that lead to most mistakes being made.
So pay attention, because you’re about to learn the building blocks for your future Spanish-speaking life.
5 Simple Rules You Must Learn to Build Basic Spanish Sentences
1. Every Spanish sentence needs a subject and a verb.
To make a normal, affirmative sentence, you need a subject and a verb. That’s it. If we imagine our subject is “Juan“—to use a typical Spanish name as is the way of most Spanish textbooks—and our verb is escribir (to write), we can then make the simple sentence: Juan escribe.
For more on forming the present tense, see this post.
And that’s all you need: subject and verb!
To make things even easier, it’s often possible to omit the subject once we know who we are talking about. So if we said “Juan escribe,” our next sentence could be, “Escribe bien” (He writes well).
Since the first sentence told us our subject is Juan, and the verb in the second sentence gives us information that we are talking about a he/she/it, we can assume we are still talking about Juan. We could also use a pronoun to replace the subject by writing, “Él escribe” (He writes). As long as we’ve mentioned our subject once, it’s fine to do this.
2. Adjectives come after nouns in Spanish sentences.
This is where English speakers are likely to make mistakes. Imagine that Juan has green eyes and we want to say so in Spanish. We need to write that he has “ojos verdes” (literally: eyes green) and not “verdes ojos.” Adjective after noun is one of the first rules Spanish learners have to get to grips with and its importance cannot be stressed enough.
This rule applies to other adjective and noun combinations, not just green eyes. If Juan has long hair, we’d say he has “pelo largo” (literally: hair long) and if it’s short, it would be “pelo corto.”
Just to make things even more confusing, you also need to remember to make your adjectives agree. So if the noun is plural, the adjective needs to be plural too. For example, since ojos (eyes) is plural, that’s why we paired it with verdes (green – plural) and not the singular verde. You can learn to get your head around that one in this post.
Note that in some cases, this rule is turned on its head. Some adjectives change their meaning depending on whether they are placed before or after the noun. But for now, just stick to the adjectives after nouns rule, you can worry about the exceptions later.
3. Adverbs function in Spanish like they do in English.
Like in English, Spanish adverbs are used to describe verbs.
For example, “Juan lee rápidamente” (Juan reads quickly). How does he read? He reads quickly, which describes the verb “reads.” Good for Juan.
Here’s another example: “Juan canta mal” (Juan sings badly). Not so good for Juan.
Spanish adverbs can also move around in the sentence, similar to how they can in English. We could say:
Juan escribe lentamente. (Literally: Juan writes slowly)
Lentamente escribe Juan. (Literally: Slowly writes Juan)
Either way, we would be saying that Juan writes slowly. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view.
To make most Spanish adverbs, just add “-mente” to the end of the adjective. If the adjective ends in “o” to describe a masculine noun, you’ll need to make sure that the letter before the “-mente” is “a” and not “o.“
- rápido/rápida, → rápidamente
- lento/lenta → lentamente
- perfecto/perfecta → perfectamente
If the adjective doesn’t end in o/a, you can simple add “-mente.” For example, difícil (difficult) becomes difícilmente. Not so difícil after all!
The addition of “-mente” in Spanish is similar to the addition of “-ly” to adjectives in English (“slow” becomes “slowly,” for example).
Unlike Spanish adjectives, Spanish adverbs do not convey gender and are the same whether we’re talking about a male or female.
Of course, there are also a few adverbs that don’t follow the “add -mente” rule. The most common irregular adverbs are:
bueno → bien
malo → mal
Remember those two and you should have no problem making basic sentences with adverbs.
4. To make a Spanish sentence negative, add “no” before the verb.
At some point, unless you are the most positive person in the world, you’re going to want to make your sentences negative.
The good news is that in Spanish negativity is really easy. Easier than in English.
Just add “no” before the verb. That’s it.
So “Juan escribe” (Juan writes) becomes “Juan no escribe” (Juan doesn’t write).
Why Juan doesn’t write isn’t clear in this instance, but that’s the good thing about the basics.
You can add to the sentence from your building block and say “Juan no escribe porque es un gato” (Juan doesn’t write because he’s a cat), or whatever other explanation for Juan’s lack of writing skills takes your fancy.
Unlike in English, it is possible in Spanish to use double negatives. For example, we could say “no me gusta nada,” which translates literally to, “I don’t like nothing,” but is completely correct grammatically in Spanish.
5. There are three ways to make questions in Spanish.
Unless your entire conversation is going to be one-sided (perhaps as you’re talking to Juan the cat), you’ll also likely want to ask questions. Again, this is easier to do in Spanish than it is in English, which is probably why Spanish speakers often find questions in English difficult to form.
Spanish-learners should have far less problems. Yay! There are several ways to make questions in Spanish:
Switch verb and subject.
The positive sentence “Juan cocina” (Juan cooks) becomes “¿Cocina Juan?” (Does Juan cook?). Don’t forget that in Spanish you also need an upside down question mark at the beginning of your question.
Add question marks and rising intonation.
An even easier way to make a question is simply to put question marks around a statement. So “Juan cocina” becomes “¿Juan cocina?”
This is fine in writing, but how do we know someone is asking a question when they talk if they’re using the same words as when they’re making an affirmative sentence?
The answer is that it’s all in the intonation. Go up at the end of your sentence and your listener will be able to tell that you’re asking a question. You’re probably used to rising intonation for questions in English. Or don’t you go up at the end of your sentences? If you read that last question out loud, you’ll probably see what I mean.
Add question tags.
The third and final easy way to make a question is Spanish is to add what’s called a question tag. This is when you say a normal sentence, but you add a question word after the sentence. You know, like in English, right?
Let’s use Juan and his cooking one final time. “Juan cocina” is our sentence, as you are all by now well aware. To make a question, we just add “¿no?” on the end, or “¿verdad?”
So our question is: “Juan cocina, ¿no?” or “Juan cocina, ¿es verdad?” This is like saying, “Juan cooks, doesn’t he?”
You’ve got all that, haven’t you?
So there you have it. Five simple rules to help you learn Spanish sentences. Now you’ve got the basics down, you can go forth and construct something a bit more complex. Happy building!
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