Word Order in Spanish Sentences

Subject doesn’t have to come first

book and flower
Diana escribió esta novela. (Diane wrote this novel.).

Miguel Ángel García / Creative Commons.

Compared with English, Spanish allows considerable latitude in the word order of sentences. Whereas in English, most simple sentences are formed in the pattern of subject, verb, then object, in Spanish any one of those sentence parts can come first.

Word Order in Simple Spanish Statements

As a general rule, it is almost never wrong to follow the common sentence structure of subject-verb-object (known to grammarians as SVO). Note,however, that in Spanish it also common for object pronouns to come before verbs or be attached to them if the verb is an infinitive or command. But while English allows variation primarily for questions and poetic effect, in Spanish ordinary statements can start with the subject, the verb or the object. In fact, starting a statement with the verb is very common. For example, all the following sentence constructions are possible as a translation of "Diana wrote this novel":

  • Diana escribió esta novela. (Subject comes first.)
  • Escribió Diana esta novela. (Verb comes first.)
  • Esta novela la escribió Diana. (Object comes first. In this construction, an object pronoun is often added to help avoid ambiguity. This sentence order is far less common than the first two.)

So do all those sentences mean the same thing? Yes and no. The difference is subtle (in fact, sometimes there is no substantive difference), but the choice of wording can be a matter of emphasis rather than something that might come across in a translation. In spoken English, such differences are often a matter of intonation (which also occurs in Spanish); in written English we sometimes use italics to indicate emphasis.

In the first sentence, for example, the emphasis is on Diana: Diana wrote this novel. Perhaps the speaker is expressing surprise or pride about Diana's accomplishment. In the second sentence the emphasis is on the writing: Diana wrote this novel. (Perhaps a better example might be something like this: No pueden escribir los alumnos de su clase. The students in his class can't write.) In the final example, the emphasis is on what Diana wrote: Diana wrote this novel.

Word Order in Simple Spanish Questions

In Spanish questions, the subject almost always comes after the verb. ¿Escribió Diana esta novela? (Did Diana write this novel?) ¿Qué escribió Diana? (What did Diana write?) Although it is possible in informal speech to phrase a question like a statement as can be done in English — ¿Diana escribió esta novela? Diana wrote this novel? — this is seldom done in writing.

Omitting the Subject in Spanish

Although in standard English the subject of a sentence can be omitted only in commands, in Spanish the subject can be omitted if it is understood from the context. See how the subject can be omitted in the second sentence here because the first subject provides the context. Diana es mi hija. Escribió esta novela. (Diana is my daughter. She wrote this novel.) In other words, it is not necessary in the second sentence to provide ella, the word for "she."

Word Order in Sentences Including a Relative Clause

A common word order that may seem unfamiliar to English speakers involves subjects include a relative clause—a sentence fragment that includes a noun and verb and typically begins with a relative pronoun such as "that" or "which" in English or que in Spanish. Spanish speakers tend to avoid placing verbs far away from the subject, forcing them to invert the subject-verb order. The tendency can best be explained with an example:

  • English: A cellphone that I had in order to make videos disappeared. (The subject of his sentence is "cellphone," which is described by "that I had in order to make videos." This sentence may seem somewhat awkward in English because of so many intervening words between the subject and verb, but there is no way to avoid the problem without making an even clumsier sentence.)
  • Spanish: Desapareció un móvil que yo tenía para realizar vídeos. (By putting the verb, despareció, first, it can come next to un móvil. Although it would be possible to roughly follow the English word order here, doing so would seem awkward at best to a native speaker.)

Here are three more examples that use similar patterns. The sentence subjects and verbs are in boldface to show how they are closer in Spanish:

  • Ganó el equipo que lo mereció. (The team that deserved it won.)
  • Obtienen trabajo las personas que ya muchos años de experiencia laboral. (Persons who already have many years of work experience get jobs.)
  • Pierden peso los que disfrutan de correr. (Those who like to run lose weight.)

Key Takeaways

  • A subject-verb-object word order is usual in both Spanish and English simple statements, but Spanish speakers are more likely to modify the word order as a way of changing emphasis.
  • In both English and Spanish questions, the verb typically comes before the subject.
  • Spanish speakers often place the verb of a sentence first when the subject includes a relative clause.