Grammatical Differences Between Spanish and English

Knowing These Can Help You Avoid Making Common Mistakes

Costa Rican tree frog
Red-eyed tree frog seen near Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Vincent Poulissen/Creative Commons.

Because Spanish and English are Indo-European languages — the two have a common origin from several thousand years ago from somewhere in Eurasia — they are alike in ways that go beyond their shared Latin-based vocabulary. The structure of Spanish isn't difficult for English speakers to understand when compared with, for example, Japanese or Swahili.

Both languages, for example, use the parts of speech in basically the same way.

Prepositions (preposiciones) are called that, for instance, because they are "pre-positioned" before an object. Some other languages have postpositions and circumpositions that are absent in Spanish and English.

Even so, there are distinct differences in the grammars of the two languages. Learning them will help you avoid some of the common learning mistakes. Here are the major differences that beginning students would do well to learn; all but the last two should be addressed in the first year of Spanish instruction:

Placement of Adjectives

One of the first differences you're likely to notice is that Spanish descriptive adjectives (those that tell what a thing or being is like) typically come after the noun they modify, while English usually places them before. Thus we would say hotel confortable for "comfortable hotel" and actor ansioso for "anxious actor."

Descriptive adjectives in Spanish can come before the noun — but that changes the meaning of the adjective slightly, usually by adding some emotion or subjectivity.

For example, while an hombre pobre would be a poor man in the sense of one not having money, a pobre hombre would be a man who is poor in the sense of being pitiful.

The same rule applies in Spanish for adverbs; placing the adverb before the verb gives it a more emotional or subjective meaning. In English, adverbs can often go before or after the verb without affecting the meaning.

Gender

The differences here are stark: Gender is a key feature of Spanish grammar, but only a few vestiges of gender remain in English.

Basically, all Spanish nouns are masculine or feminine (there also is a less-used neuter gender), and adjectives or pronouns must match in gender the nouns they refer to. Even inanimate objects can be referred to as ella (she) or él (he). In English, only people, animals and a few nouns, such as a ship that can be referred to as "she," have gender. Even in those cases, the gender matters only with pronoun use; we use the same adjectives to refer to men and women.

An abundance of Spanish nouns, especially those referring to occupations, also have masculine and feminine forms; for example, a male president is a presidente, while a female president is traditionally called a presidenta. English gendered equivalents are limited to a few roles, such as "actor" and "actress." (Be aware that in modern usage, such gender distinctions are fading. Today, a female president might be called a presidente, just as "actor" is now often applied to women.)

Conjugation

English has a few changes in verb forms, adding "-s" or "-es" to indicate third-person singular forms in the present tense, adding "-ed" or sometimes just "-d" to indicate the simple past tense, and adding "-ing" to indicate continuous or progressive verb forms.

To further indicate tense, English adds auxiliary verbs such as "has," "have," "did" and "will" in front of the standard verb form.

But Spanish takes a different approach to conjugation: Although it also uses auxiliaries, it extensively modifies verb endings to indicate person and tense. Even without resorting to auxiliaries, which also are used, most verbs have more than 30 forms in contrast with the three of English. For example, among the forms of hablar (to speak) are hablo (I speak), hablan (they speak), hablarás (you will speak), hablarían (they would speak), and hables (subjunctive form of "you speak"). Mastering these conjugated forms — including irregular forms for most of the common verbs — is a key part of learning Spanish.

Need for Subjects

In both languages, a complete sentence includes at least a subject and a verb.

However, in Spanish it is frequently unnecessary to explicitly state the subject, letting the conjugated verb form indicate who or what is performing the verb's action. In standard English, this is done only with commands ("Sit!" and "You sit" mean the same thing), but Spanish has no such limitation.

For example, in English a verb phrase such as "will eat" says nothing about who will be doing the eating. But in Spanish, it is possible to say comeré for "I will eat" and comerán for "they will eat," to list just two of the six possibilities. As a result, subject pronouns are retained in Spanish primarily if needed for clarity or emphasis.

Word Order

Both English and Spanish are SVO languages, those in which the typical statement begins with a subject, followed by a verb and, where applicable, an object of that verb. For example, in the sentence "The girl kicked the ball," (La niña pateó el balón), the subject is "the girl" (la niña), the verb is "kicked" (pateó), and the object is "the ball" (el balón). Clauses within sentences also usually follow this pattern.

In Spanish, it is normal for object pronouns (as opposed to nouns) to come before the verb. And sometimes Spanish speakers will even put the subject noun after the verb. We'd never say something like "It wrote Cervantes," but the Spanish equivalent is perfectly acceptable: Lo escribió Cervantes. Such variations from the norm are quite common in longer sentences. For example, a construction such as "No recuerdo el momento en que salió Pablo" (in order, "I don't remember the moment in which left Pablo") is not unusual.

Attributive Nouns

It is extremely common in English for nouns to function as adjectives. Such attributive nouns come before the words they modify. Thus in these phrases, the first word is an attributive noun: clothes closet, coffee cup, business office, light fixture.

But with rare exceptions, nouns can't be so flexibly used in Spanish. The equivalent of such phrases is usually formed by using a preposition such as de or para: armario de ropa, taza para café, oficina de negocios, dispositivo de iluminación.

In some cases, Spanish has adjectival forms that don't exist in English. For example, informático can be the equivalent of "computer" as an adjective, so a computer table is a mesa informática.

Subjunctive Mood

Both English and Spanish use the subjunctive mood, a type of verb used in certain situations where the verb's action isn't necessarily factual. However, English speakers seldom use the subjunctive, which is necessary for all but basic converation in Spanish.

An instance of the subjunctive can be found in a simple sentence such as "Espero que duerma," "I hope she is sleeping." The normal verb form for "is sleeping" would be duerme, as in the sentence "Sé que duerme," "I know she is sleeping." Note how Spanish uses different forms in these sentences even though English does not.

Almost always, if an English sentence uses the subjunctive, so will its Spanish equivalent. "Study" in "I insist that she study" is in the subjunctive mood (the regular or indicative form "she studies" isn't used here), as is estudie in "Insisto que estudie.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "Grammatical Differences Between Spanish and English." ThoughtCo, Oct. 15, 2017, thoughtco.com/grammatical-differences-between-spanish-and-english-4119326. Erichsen, Gerald. (2017, October 15). Grammatical Differences Between Spanish and English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/grammatical-differences-between-spanish-and-english-4119326 Erichsen, Gerald. "Grammatical Differences Between Spanish and English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/grammatical-differences-between-spanish-and-english-4119326 (accessed January 21, 2018).