Spanish Sentence Structure: A Beginner’s Guide
Spanish sentence structure can be baffling even for intermediate speakers.
The thing is, it’s essential to know to be able to communicate effectively. If you accidentally switch the order of the words, you can end up saying something completely different from what you’re thinking.
And while misunderstandings make for great sitcom material, we don’t want you in that position.
Here’s what you need to know, so you can go from situational comedy to fluency.
- Why Learn Spanish Sentence Structure?
- Learning the Basics of Spanish Sentence Structure
- Spanish Sentence Structure: A Brief “Theory of Chaos”
Why Learn Spanish Sentence Structure?
Sentence structure involves the word order in a sentence.
When you start learning a new language, you want to start speaking it right away, but you feel there is always something holding you back, making it impossible for you to make sense when you try to say something.
That something could very well be sentence structure, so we’ve got to learn it early. Why?
When you master the art of word order, you can put into practice all those vocabulary and grammar rules you have learned, and produce perfectly grammatical and native-sounding sentences with the exact meaning you had in mind.
Learning the correct structure for a sentence also opens up your communication possibilities, as you can then easily substitute words in certain sentence format to get a ton of different phrases.
And finally, learning Spanish sentence structure will save you from embarrassing mistakes, since you’ll be able to say what you actually mean to say.
So if you don’t want to end up with a coin in your hand like Michael, don’t leave yet. It’s high time you started learning a little bit about Spanish sentence structure.
Learning the Basics of Spanish Sentence Structure
Sentence structure can sometimes be daunting for a native speaker of a language, let alone for students. However, its bark is worse than its bite, and there are always some rules we can apply in order to bring some order to that chaos.
Like in English, changing the sentence structure in Spanish can lead to misunderstandings. We will see later that the typical word order in Spanish is SVO (Subject, Verb, Object), but I have good news for you! Spanish is a very flexible language, and most of the time you’ll be able to change that order without altering the meaning of the sentence or making it completely ungrammatical.
Have a look at the following example:
Mi hermano está leyendo un libro. (My brother is reading a book.)
We have a subject (Mi hermano), a verb form (está leyendo) and an object (un libro).
Now imagine I have gone mad and changed the word order of the sentence, like this:
Un libro está leyendo mi hermano. (Literally: A book is reading my brother.)
As you can see, the Spanish sentence is still grammatically correct, but the literal translation into English has become a little weird, to say the least.
Since it’s really odd seeing a book reading a person (isn’t it?), we would have to rearrange that English sentence if we want to keep the original meaning, and say something along the lines of, “It is a book that my brother is reading.”
From this example you can see that Spanish definitely has flexibility with its word order, but there are certain instances that offer no flexibility, which are really important to learn.
You can get a better understanding of Spanish sentence structure by seeing it in actual Spanish-language content.
For example, you can read a simple Spanish book and note key sentence structure elements. If it’s your book, you could literally mark it up, writing the part of speech, form, tense, etc. of each word in the sentence.
You can also use FluentU to hear spoken Spanish in authentic videos. Watch clips like movie trailers, music videos, news segments and other Spanish-language media.
You can easily follow along thanks to accurate subtitles and check the meaning and part of speech of any word with a click. Clicking on the word also shows you example sentences and video clips with the word in use, for even more help with sentence structure.
So sit back, relax and enjoy this journey through Spanish sentence structure. And watch out for turbulence!
Spanish Sentence Structure: A Brief “Theory of Chaos”
Spanish Word Order
As I mentioned in the introduction, word order is quite important in Spanish (as in any other language) because it can be a little chaotic and can lead to misunderstandings if you don’t keep to it.
Spanish and English have the same basic word order scheme, SVO (Subject, Verb, Object), but there can be big differences between the two languages, and we do not always use said scheme. In the following points you will learn how to master word order not only in declarative sentences, but also in questions and in negation.
You will also learn where to insert Spanish adjectives in the sentence, and how the meaning can be different if you make some little changes. Lastly, I’ll show you where to put Spanish adverbs in a sentence. Off we go!
Spanish Declarative Sentences
Declarative sentences are pretty straightforward because they tend to look the same both in Spanish and in English.
In order for a sentence to be grammatical, we need at least a subject and a verb. Then we can add an object or any other word category we may need. Example:
Yo leo. (I read.)
Yo leo libros. (I read books.)
There are, however, a couple of situations when a declarative sentence in Spanish can be a little different from its English translation:
1. In Spanish you do not need to add a subject, except if used for emphasis:
Leo libros. (I read books.)
Yo leo libros (It is me who reads books, not you, not him.)
2. Because of this, you will always have a conjugated verb in a Spanish sentence, and it needs to agree in person and number with the omitted subject:
(Yo) Compro manzanas. (I buy apples.)
(Tú) Compras manzanas. (You buy apples.)
(Ellos) Compran manzanas. (They buy apples.)
3. Insert pronouns directly before the verb, not after it:
Las compro. (I buy them.)
Lo leo. (I read it.)
Se la enviamos. (We send it to her.)
4. There are times when you can put the verb in front of the subject! This is true especially when dealing with passives:
Se venden libros. (Books for sale.)
Se habla español aquí. (Spanish is spoken here.)
5. Thanks to Spanish being a very flexible language, many times you will be able to change the word order without making the sentence ungrammatical. As a result, you will have different sentences with practically the same meaning. Use this technique only when you want to put emphasis on a specific sentence constituent:
(Yo) leo libros.
(I read books.)
Libros leo (yo).
(Literally: “Books I read.” Meaning: It is books that I read, not magazines.)
Leo libros (yo).
(Meaning: I read books, I don’t sell them, I don’t burn them, I just read them).
However, bear in mind that you will not be able to do this every time (like with adjective placement, as we’ll see in a bit). Try to follow the basic scheme and the rules above so that you always have it right.
Negation in Spanish
Spanish negation is really, really easy. Basically, what you have to do is add “no” before the verb:
No compro manzanas. (I don’t buy apples.)
No leo libros. (I don’t read books.)
If you have a pronoun in the sentence, add “no” before it:
No las compro. (I don’t buy them.)
No los leo. (I don’t read them.)
This is also true when you have two pronouns:
No se los leo. (I don’t read them to him.)
If the answer to a question is negative, you will probably need two negative words:
¿Lees libros? (Do you read books?)
No, no los leo (No, I don’t.)
(Note: While in Spanish we need to use the verb in the answer, in English you can just use the auxiliary.)
The only tricky part in Spanish negation is probably the double negation, but even this is easy.
First of all, have a look at this list of negative words:
ningún, -o, -a, -os, -as (any, no, no one, none)
ya no (no longer)
todavía no (not yet)
There are two ways of using these negative words in a sentence:
1. You can use them alone before the verb (Remember not to use “no” in that case!).
Nunca leo. (I never read.)
Nadie ha comprado manzanas. (Nobody has bought apples.)
2. You can use “no” before the verb, and add the negative word after the verb.
No leo nunca. (I never read.)
No ha comprado nadie manzanas. (Nobody has bought apples.)
Unlike English, in Spanish you can even find three negatives:
No leo nada nunca. (I never read anything.)
And even four! Have a look:
No leo nunca nada tampoco. (I never read anything either.)
Questions in Spanish
Asking questions in Spanish is way easier than in English because you don’t use auxiliary verbs to make questions. The only thing you have to bear in mind is whether you are asking a yes/no question or are expressing incredulity.
Expressing incredulity is the easiest. Just add question marks at the beginning and the end of the declarative sentence and you are ready to go:
María lee libros. → ¿María lee libros?
(Maria reads books. → Really? Maria reads books? How surprising!).
If you are expecting a real answer, just invert the subject and verb:
¿Lee María libros? Sí, lee cada mañana.
(Does María read books? Yes, she reads every morning.)
When we have a question word (qué – what, cuándo – when, por qué – why, quién – who, dónde – where, cómo – how, cuál – which, cuánto – how much, etc.) we normally use inversion:
¿Por qué lee María?
(Why does María read?)
¿Cuánto cuestan las manzanas?
(How much do the apples cost?)
Indirect Questions in Spanish
An indirect question is a question embedded in another sentence. They normally end up with a period, not a question mark, and they tend to begin with a question word, as in English.
Indirect questions work very similarly in English and in Spanish. You will have the beginning of a sentence, and inside you’ll find the indirect question embedded. Have a look at the following examples:
No sé por qué María lee.
(I don’t know why Maria reads.)
Dime cuánto cuestan las manzanas.
(Tell me how much the apples cost.)
As you can see, indirect questions look exactly the same as a declarative sentence; there’s no inversion nor any other further changes.
There are two types of indirect questions. The first type contains a question word, as in the examples above. The second type requires a yes/no answer, and instead of using a question word, you will have to use “si” (if, whether):
Me pregunto si María lee.
(I wonder if Maria reads.)
Me gustaría saber si has comprado manzanas.
(I would like to know if you have bought apples.)
You can also add “o no“ (or not) at the end of the indirect question:
¿Me podría decir si María lee o no? (Could you tell me whether María reads or not?)
Spanish Adjective Placement
When you start studying Spanish, one of the first rules you’ll have to learn is that adjectives usually come after the noun in Spanish.
El perro grande (the big dog)
El libro amarillo (the yellow book)
El niño alto (the tall child)
However, this rule is broken quite often. It is true that you should put the adjectives after the noun. In fact, sometimes it is not correct to put them before the noun. Still, there are some adjectives that can take both positions. Bear in mind, though, that the meaning of the sentence changes depending on the position of those adjectives!
Here you have some of them:
When used before the noun, it changes to gran, and it means great: un gran libro (a great book).
When used after the noun, it means big: un libro grande (a big book).
Before the noun it means old-fashioned or former: un antiguo alumno (a former student).
After the noun it means antique: un libro antiguo (an antique book).
Before the noun it means “the same”: el mismo libro (the same book).
After the noun it means itself, himself, herself, etc.: el niño mismo (the child himself).
Before the noun it means recently made: un nuevo libro (a recently made book).
After the noun it means unused: un libro nuevo (an unused book).
Before the noun it means one’s own: mi propio libro (my own book).
After the noun it means appropriate: un vestido muy propio (a very appropriate dress).
Before the noun it means poor, in the sense of pitiful: el pobre niño (the poor child).
After the noun it means poor, without money: el niño pobre (the poor, moneyless child).
Before the noun it means only one: un solo niño (only one child).
After the noun it means lonely: un niño solo (a lonely child).
Before the noun it means the only one: el único niño (the only child).
After the noun, it means unique: un niño único (a unique child, but ser hijo único means to be an only child).
Spanish Adverb Placement
Adverb placement is pretty flexible in Spanish, although there is a tendency to put them right after the verb or right in front of the adjective:
El niño camina lentamente.
(The boy walks slowly.)
Este tema es horriblemente difícil.
(This topic is horribly difficult.)
You can place adverbs almost everywhere in the sentence, as long as they are not far from the verb they modify:
Ayer encontré un tesoro.
(Yesterday I found some treasure.)
Encontré ayer un tesoro.
(I found yesterday some treasure*) Still correct in Spanish!
Encontré un tesoro ayer
(I found some treasure yesterday).
If the object is too long, it is much better to put the adverb directly after the verb and before the object. For example, the following:
Miró amargamente a los vecinos que habían llegado tarde a la reunión.
(He looked bitterly at his neighbors who had arrived late to the meeting.)
is much better than:
Miró a los vecinos que habían llegado tarde a la reunión amargamente.
You can create an adverb from most Spanish adjectives. In order to do that, choose the feminine, singular form of the adjective and add the ending -mente (no need to make any further changes):
rápido → rápida → rápidamente (quickly)
lento → lenta → lentamente (slowly)
claro → clara → claramente (clearly)
cuidadoso → cuidadosa → cuidadosamente (carefully)
amargo → amarga → amargamente (bitterly)
When you have two adverbs modifying the same verb, add -mente only to the second one:
El niño estudia rápida y eficientemente.
(The boy studies quickly and efficiently.)
Mi hermano habla lenta y claramente.
(My brother speaks slowly and clearly.)
On the other hand, there are some adverbs that do not end in -mente. These simply have to be learned by heart, including:
mucho (a lot)
And with that, you’ve now taken many steps further into your Spanish learning, while replacing chaos with harmony. You’ve improved your Spanish writing, speaking and overall language skills.
Practice will make all these concepts familiar and instinctive over time. Soon enough, the mystery of Spanish sentence structure will be dispelled, and you’ll be hopping into conversations with grace and confidence!
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.