Placing the Verb Before the Subject

Inverted Word Order Not Uncommon in Spanish

bare trees
¡Qué desnudos son los árboles! (How bare the trees are!). Tepena/Creative Commons.

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. In general, Spanish overall 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:

    Changing Word 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.

    • ¿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 tiene el hombre? What are chromosomes? How many does a human 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!

      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 phrases) comes before the verb.

      A few examples:

      • 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.)

      Verbs of Existence Often 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.)

      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.

      • 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.)

        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).

        Using 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.)
        • 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.)