Word Order

Spanish is more flexible than English is with word placement

Student reading in classroom
Roberto estudia. (Roberto is studying.). Tom Merton/Caiaimage/Getty Images

The subject of word order in Spanish can be quite complex, so this lesson should be considered merely an introduction. As you study Spanish, you will encounter a wide variety of ways of ordering words in a sentence, many of them ways that are impossible or awkward in English.

In general, Spanish is more flexible with its word order than English is. In both languages, a typical statement consists of a noun followed by a verb followed by an object (if the verb has an object).

In English, variations from that norm are used mostly for literary effect. But in Spanish, changes in the word order can be heard in everyday conversation or seen frequently in everyday writing such as that found in newspapers and magazines.

Typical Word Orders

The chart below shows examples of some common ways of ordering words. Note that in many sentences the subject can be omitted if it can be understood from the context. As a beginning student, you don't need to memorize these word-order possibilities, but you should be familiar with these common schemes so you don't trip over them when you come across them.

TypeOrderExampleComment
StatementSubject, verbRoberto estudia. (Roberto is studying.)This word order is extremely common and can be considered the norm.
StatementSubject, verb, objectRoberto compró el libro. (Roberto bought the book.)This word order is extremely common and can be considered the norm.
StatementSubject, object pronoun, verbRoberto lo compró. (Roberto bought it.)This word order is extremely common and can be considered the norm. Object pronouns precede conjugated verbs; they can be attached at the end of infinitives and present participles.
QuestionQuestion word, verb, subject¿Dónde está el libro? (Where is the book?)This word order is extremely common and can be considered the norm.
ExclamationExclamatory word, adjective, verb, subject¡Qué linda es Roberta! (How beautiful Roberta is!)This word order is extremely common and can be considered the norm. Many exclamations omit one or more of these sentence parts.
StatementVerb, nounSufren los niños. (The children are suffering.)Placing the verb ahead of the noun can have the effect of placing more emphasis on the verb. In the sample sentence, the emphasis is more on the suffering than who is suffering.
StatementObject, verb, nounEl libro lo escribió Juan. (John wrote the book.)Placing the object at the beginning of the sentence can have the effect of placing more emphasis on the object. In the sample sentence, the emphasis is on what was written, not who wrote it. The pronoun lo, although redundant, is customary in this sentence construction.
StatementAdverb, verb, nounSiempre hablan los niños. (The children are always talking.)In general, Spanish adverbs are kept close to the verbs they modify. If an adverb starts a sentence, the verb frequently follows.
PhraseNoun, adjectivela casa azul y cara (the expensive blue house)Descriptive adjectives, especially ones that describe something objectively, usually are placed after the nouns they modify.
PhraseAdjective, nounOtras casas (other houses); mi querida amiga (my dear friend)Adjectives of number and other nondescriptive adjectives usually precede the noun. Often, so do adjectives being used to describe something subjectively, such as to impart an emotional quality to it.
PhrasePreposition, nounen la caja (in the box)Note that Spanish sentences can never end in a preposition, as is commonly done in English.
CommandVerb, subject pronounEstudia tú. (Study.)Pronouns are often unnecessary in commands; when used, they nearly always immediately follow the verb.

 

Sample Sentences Demonstrating Spanish Word Order

The sentences below are examples of Spanish as it is most commonly ordered:

La atención a los recién llegados es un reto para las Fuerzas de Seguridad. (Attention to the recently arrived is a challenge for the Security Forces. Here the word order is almost to what you would find in English.)

Diagnostican por error una gripe a una joven y terminan amputándole la pierna. (They diagnosed the flu by mistake in a boy and ended up amputating his leg. Here the phrase por error, meaning "by mistake," is kept closer to the verb, diagnostican, than it would be in English.)

Un coche blanco será más fresco en verano. (A white car will be cooler in summer. The adjective blanco, meaning white, comes after the word for car, coche, not before.)

¿Dónde están las oportunidades? (Where are the opportunities? In simple questions, English and Spanish word order can be identical.)

Es importante que me diga con quién saliste. (It is important that you tell me who you left with. The pronoun object me, "me" in English, comes before diga, "you left," the reverse of English. And while the English sentence ends with the preposition "with," in Spanish con must come before the word here for "who," quién.)

Key Takeaways

  • Although word order in Spanish is often similar to that of English, Spanish can be more flexible.
  • Among the key differences are that descriptive adjectives usually follow nouns, and Spanish sentences cannot end in a preposition.
  • Spanish adverbs usually are placed next to or very close to the words they modify.