When To Place the Verb Before the Subject in Spanish

Inverted word order more common than in English

eating and using cellphones in Mallorca, Spain
¿Son amigos o desconocidos? (Are they enemies or strangers?).

  Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

As in English, the most common word order in Spanish for the main parts of a sentence is for the main verb to follow the subject, that is, the noun that performs the action of the verb. For example, the following sentences follow the normal pattern:

  • El hombre canta. (The man sings. In this sentence, hombre/"man" is the subject noun, and canta/"sings" is the verb.)
  • El año fue especialmente cálido. (The year was especially hot. Año/"year" is the subject noun, and fue/"was" is the verb.)

However, in Spanish it is much more common than in English for that word order to be reversed, for there to be an inversion. In general, Spanish is more flexible in where parts of the sentence can be located. This lesson deals specifically with placing the subject after the verb.

Here are those most common cases where this phenomenon appears:

Inversion of Subject-Verb Order in Questions and Exclamations

When a question begins with an interrogative word, also known as a question word, a verb typically comes next, followed by the noun. This pattern is common in English as well, but not as common as in Spanish.

  • ¿Dónde pueden encontrar información los diabéticos? (Where can diabetics find information? Diabéticos/"diabetics" is the subject of the sentence, while the compound verb is pueden encontrar/"can find.")
  • ¿Cuándo va él al médico? (When is he going to the doctor?)
  • ¿Qué son los cromosomas? ¿Cuántos tenemos los humanos? (What are chromosomes? How many do we humans have?)

When an interrogative word begins an exclamation, the subject also follows the verb:

  • ¡Qué desnudos son los árboles! (How bare the trees are!)
  • ¡Cuántos errores cometió él! (What a lot of mistakes he made!)

When a question doesn't include an interrogative pronoun, and the verb isn't modified by an object or an adverbial phrase the standard word order typically is retained:

  • ¿Se graduó en la universidad? (He graduated from the university?)
  • ¿Va a tener un bebé? (She is going to have a baby?)

But if the verb isn't modified by an object or phrase, the inverted order is typically used:

  • Son amigos o desconocidos? (Are they friends or strangers?)
  • Desaparecieron tus primos? (Did your cousins disappear?)

Changing Word Order Because of Adverbs

Because Spanish likes to keep adverbs close to the verbs they modify, the noun can be placed after the verb when the adverb (or adverbial phrase, as in the third example below) comes before the verb.

  • Siempre me decía mi madre que en la vida se recoge lo que se siembra. (My mother always told me that in life you reap what you sow. In the first part of the sentence, the subject "mi madre" follows the verb "decía," which is kept close to the adverb siempre.)
  • Así era la Internet en la década de los 90. (That's how the Internet was in the '90s.)
  • Cuando era niño me maltrataron muchísimo mis padres. (When I was a boy my parents mistreated me a lot.)
  • Con permiso salió la mujer con el coche de mi padre. (With permission, the woman left with my father's car.)

Verbs of Existence Usually Go First

The verbs haber (when it isn't used to form a perfect tense) and existir can be used to indicate that something exists. They are nearly always followed by the subject:

  • Existen muchos mitos alrededor del sida. (There are many myths surrounding AIDS.)
  • Solo hay dos opciones. (There are only two choices.)
  • Una vez había tres hermanos que vivían juntos. (Once there were three brothers who lived together.)

Inverting Word Order To Indicate Who's Speaking

In English, you can say either "'It's difficult,' Paula said" or "'It's difficult,' said Paula," although the former is more common. In Spanish, the latter variation — "'Es difícil', dijo Paula" — is nearly always used. The inverted order is also used with verbs other than decir that indicate what a person is saying or thinking.

  • Eso está muy bien, contestó el presidente. (That's very fine, the president answered.)
  • Es sólo un sueño, pensó la niña. (It's only a dream, the girl thought.)
  • —¡Bueno, bueno, basta ya! —gritaba el hombre. ("Good, good, that's enough now!" the man was shouting.)

Using Verbs Such as Gustar

Gustar is an unusual verb in that it is used almost exclusively in sentences that follow an "indirect object + gustar + subject" pattern. Thus in "Me gusta la manzana" (usually translated as "I like the apple" rather than the more literal "the apple is pleasing to me"), the verb gusta is followed by the subject "la manzana." Similar verbs include faltar (to be lacking), importar (to be important), encantar (to delight), molestar (to bother), doler (to cause pain), and quedar (to remain).

  • A las vacas les gusta la música de acordeón. (Cows like accordion music. Although "cows" is the subject in the English translation, música is the subject in Spanish.)
  • Ya no me importa el dinero. (Money still isn't important to me.)
  • Me duele la cabeza solo en el lado derecho. (My head aches only on the right side.)

Inverting Word Order for Emphasis

It is seldom grammatically wrong in Spanish (although it can be awkward) to place almost any verb before its subject noun. When done, it is usually for emphasis or some kind of effect.

  • De repente me escuchó mi madre. (At once my mother listened to me. Here the speaker may be placing emphasis on the listening. It is also possible that the speaker is emphasizing the suddenness of the verb's action, so the adverbial phrase de repente comes first and is kept close to the verb. )
  • Aprendimos de ellos y aprendieron ellos de nosotros. (We learned about them and they learned about us. Here the speaker may be subconsciously avoiding the awkwardness of "ellos y ellos," which would be the normal word order.)
  • Un año más tarde, el 8 de abril de 1973, falleció Picasso. (One year later, on April 18, 1973, Picasso died. The subject often follows forms of fallecer and the synonym morir in journalistic writing.)

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish, like English, usually places the subject of a sentence before its verb. In Spanish, however, is is more common to change the order for reasons that include both meaning and style.
  • Perhaps the most common reason for changing to a verb-subject word order is to form questions that use an interrogative pronoun.
  • Sometimes the verb is placed before the subject to give the verb added emphasis.