Spanish Word Order Simplified for the Rookie Learner
Spanish is a very flexible language. The Spanish word order, they say, is far less rigid than its English counterpart. But that’s largely a misconception. It might seem chaotic and unruly but there’s always a method to the madness. On the surface, it might seem that the Spanish word order is not much different from the English one; both follow the subject-verb-object (SVO) format. This is what textbooks and classrooms insist on as you’re starting out with the language:
María tiene una bonita casa (Maria has a beautiful house).
El bebé bebió la leche (The baby drank the milk).
But once you start venturing out deeper into the wild, you run into sentences with a verb-subject-object (VSO) order like the following:
Compró Juan el libro (Juan bought the book).
Murió un hombre en el ataque (One man died in the attack).
It would be easy for such examples to slip past unnoticed. However, the more you explore, the more they start falling out of the woodwork, until one day you realize that they seem to outnumber the ones you might have considered regular up until now! And the worst part is that for reasons, I never quite understood, something this important happens to be almost universally ignored in the classroom. No grammar book or course touches upon the topic in a way that does justice to it.
Yes, they do discuss it in brief and they do tell you about the placement of adjectives. But mostly, that’s about where they stop. Nobody goes to the bottom of this and nobody discusses the more advanced aspects of something as critical as Spanish word order or sentence structure, if you will. Today, I attempt to address this elephant in the room and break down the most advanced of rules into bite-sized rookie-friendly chunks for you. Gear up, for this is going to be a very long read.
Spanish Word Order: Relevant Terminology
In order to begin discussing something as technical as Spanish word order, it is important that we first understand the terms the discussion would involve. I will try to keep it as layman-friendly as possible. But avoiding the boring grammatical jargon entirely might be difficult. But rest assured, these terms are not as morbid as they look. So let’s get them out of the way, shall we?
On face value, a determiner is something that determines or, rather, helps determine. Duh. That wasn’t much help, was it? Before getting technical, here’s a quick layman-friendly definition for you: Anything that qualifies a noun but isn’t quite a descriptive adjective is a determiner. This should be a wee bit easier to wrap your head around. Of course we can get more technical, and we will shortly, but this little mantra should help you easily recall the essence very organically. Consider the following noun phrases (a phrase involving a noun):
Un niño (a child)
Las vegas (The meadows)
Mis zapatos (My shoes)
Una cabra blanca (A white goat)
Esos hombres (Those men)
Mucha gente (Many people)
Otra cerveza (Another beer)
Each of the above phrase centers around a noun. And along with that noun, you have a word that tells you more about the specificity of that noun. Are we talking about just any child or a particular child? Is it shoes in general or my shoes in particular? People or many people? These words that serve to sort of narrow down the noun they tag along with are called determiners. These could be articles, demonstratives, possessives, etc. So you have un, las, una, esos, mucha, otra, and many more.
Determinerless Noun Phrase
Noun phrases need not always come with a determiner built in. You can run into what are called determinerless noun phrases too, and they are more often than you think. As the name implies, these are noun phrases with no determiner. The following sentence, for example, is one case in point:
No hay luz en la sala (There’s no light in the room).
Here, luz (light) is determinerless because there’s nothing that qualifies its specificity – no article, no demonstrative, no possessive. When to use a determiner, especially article, is a topic for another day. But for now, do understand that noun phrases without one are possible and aplenty. Check out a couple more examples and get a better feel of what they look like:
No tengo dinero (I don’t have any money).
Llevemos manzanas para comer durante el viaje (Let’s bring apples to eat during the trip).
Notice how dinero and manzana in the above examples don’t come with any determiner. Make sure you thoroughly understand the concept of determinerless noun phrases because they play a big role in how the Spanish word order works.
Definite and Indefinite Noun Phrases
When a noun comes with a definite article, it’s a definite noun phrase. When it comes with an indefinite article, it’s an indefinite noun phrase. That’s all there is to it. Although this is where I should cut this section short and move on with the next, I think it makes sense to briefly discuss articles while we’re at it. Not all of us remember or even need to remember such finer details of grammar as types of articles.
Certain rules of Spanish word order hinge on whether the noun phrase involved is definite or indefinite. And that makes it imperative that we understand the nomenclature well. At least name-wise, articles in Spanish work the same way as their English counterparts. Definite articles serve to make the noun in question more specific whereas indefinite make it a tad generic. So when you say el libro (the book), you’re referring to a particular book, not just any. On the other hand, if you ask for un libro (a book), you don’t really care which book, any would do. That makes el a definite article and un indefinite.
In English, the only definite article we have is the. But in Spanish, we have a handful depending on gender and number: el, la, los, and las. They all mean the. As for indefinite, we have un, una, unos, and unas. While both un and una translate into a or an, unos and unas are more like some, but not interchangeable with algún which also means some. So that’s definite and indefinite noun phrases for you.
The kind of verb being used has also a big say in Spanish word order. In fact this is perhaps more central to the decision making process than any other. If the sentence uses a transitive verb, a different set of rules apply than if it had used a intransitive verb.
Again, if you’re already familiar with the terminology, feel free to skip over this and the following couple of sections and rest assured you won’t miss much. But if you’re like me and haven’t retained much of grammatical jargon since you learned them at school, this should be a good brush-up.
Luckily, there isn’t much ambiguity when it comes to telling a transitive verb from its intransitive counterpart. A verb that takes an object (more specifically, direct objects because indirect objects don’t count) is transitive and one that doesn’t is intransitive. Object is, of course a noun phrase that answers the what or whom of the action being described. Look at the following examples for illustration:
Tengo una camisa negra (I have a black shirt).
Sorprendimos a mi hermana (We surprised my sister).
Sólo comí una galleta (I only ate a cookie).
What do I have? Una camisa negra (a black shirt). Who did we surprise? Mi hermana (my sister). What did I eat? Una galleta (a cookie). Since these questions can be asked and answered in these examples, the verbs involved are all transitive. The answers themselves are direct objects for those transitive verbs. Hope that wasn’t too confusing.
As we already learned above, a verb that must take an object is transitive. Similarly, one that doesn’t or can’t have one is called intransitive. These rules of Spanish grammar exactly work the same way they do in English. There are hundreds of verbs that are transitive and hundreds that aren’t. Let’s look at a few situations involving intransitive verbs:
Corrí cada día (I ran every day).
Mañana vamos a la escuela (Tomorrow we’re going to school).
Quizás se durmió mientras la escribía (Perhaps she fell asleep while writing it).
You can’t ask what I ran. You can’t ask what we’re going. And you can’t ask what she slept. There’s no direct object in sight. Yes there are complementary phrases but they’re not the object of their respective verbs. That makes verbs like correr, ir, and dormir intransitive. At least in this context.
Now this one’s a slightly difficult beast. Mainly because English has largely abandoned any special treatment it once used to accord these verbs. Languages higher up in the family three, though, still have the distinction intact. So if you speak French or German, this should be a cinch for you.
The simplest possible definition of unaccusative verbs is verbs that represent events or happenings as opposed to deliberate actions. This includes most motion-verbs and verbs that express a change in state, such as appear, fall, melt, etc. You can also think of accusative verb as an intransitive verb whose subject is not the agent but rather the recipient of the action. The subject is the one getting affected by the action if the verb is unaccusative.
Back in the day, these verbs would take the verb be instead of have as the auxiliary in English perfect tense constructs. This goes back to the days of Shakespeare:
The wheel is come full circle. (King Lear, act 5, scene 3)
Today, you’d render the above sentence with a has instead of is. The be/have distinction is still maintained in German and French as of today. Take the following sentence:
The doctor has come.
Now see how the same translates into german, French, and Shakespearean English:
German: Der Arzt ist angekommen.
French: Le médcin est arrivé.
Shakespeare: The doctor is come.
Alright, sorry for this little linguistic excursion. I didn’t mean to digress this far but hope it helped. Identifying accusative verbs in Spanish or even Modern English could be a bit of a challenge at first and will need plenty of practice. But with time, I can assure you it becomes second nature. Don’t ignore this one, though, because it wields significant influence over Spanish word order rules.
This might seem like object at first but it actually isn’t. Compliments are basically expressions or clauses that complete a sentence, hence the name. Mostly they happen to be adverbial phrases and explain how the action was performed or give more information on the event in question. Instead of defining it, I’ll let some real-world examples do the talking:
Neil Armstrong fue a la luna (Neil Armstrong went to the Moon).
Pónlo debajo de la cama (Put it under the bed).
Se oyeron disparos en la noche (Gunshots are heard in the night).
In these examples the phrases a la luna (to the Moon), debajo de la cama (under the bed), and en la noche (in the night) are all complements. They tell you when, how, or where the event occurred. A complement need not always be a phrase, it could also be just a single adverb if so needed.
Postverbal and Preverbal
Two terms I would like to introduce at this point are postverbal and preverbal. Don’t let me intimidate you with new jargon, this is just so you could understand the rules that follow better. A postverbal format or structure is where the subject comes after the verb, hence the term post. A preverbal, on the other hand, is where the subject comes in front of the verb as most regular sentences in English, hence the term pre.
Lloró el bebé.
El bebe lloró.
In the last two examples, both of which translate into the baby cried, the first one is postverbal because el bebé (subject) is coming after lloró (verb). However, the second one is an example of the preverbal format because el bebé comes first. That’s all there is to these two terms. The two formats lend completely different interpretations to the sentence and the difference could range from mild to drastic. That’s what we’ll explore in the following section.
Spanish Word Order with Intransitive Verbs
Now that we have the essential jargon down, the groundwork is done. Finally we are ready to take the Spanish word order bull by the horns. In the interest of sanity and order, I’ve broken down the entire discussion into sections. This one is dedicated to sentences involving intransitive verbs. Basically, two different structures are possible in this case depending on the kind of noun phrase in use. But let’s step back a little. It’s important to appreciate the importance of word order in Spanish against the prevalent rhetoric that Spanish is flexible when it comes to sentence structures. Look at the following sentences:
No es bueno el libro.
El libro no es bueno.
You grammar book would tell you that the above two sentences both mean the same thing, the book isn’t good (no pun intended!). While that’s true to an extent, there does exist a subtle difference in interpretation between the two constructs. Always. the first one emphasizes the book while the second one, the fact that it isn’t good. Not exactly the same thing, no? Now, you won’t be crucified for mixing the two up because the differences might not be big enough. However, there do exist cases where you just can’t swap the order without being grammatically wrong. Drastically.
Intransitive Verb with Determinerless Noun Phrase
Remember determinerless noun phrase we discussed above? Well, here’s the reason we discussed it. These are, by the way, also known as bare noun phrases for obvious reasons. The accepted practice with this combo is to almost always go postverbal. There, of course, may be exceptions but it’s best that you pick them up organically as you progress. For now, this rule of thumb should suffice:
Intransitive verb + no determiner = postverbal
Check out the following simple, no-brainer examples to round up your learning:
Sale agua por debajo de la lavadora (Water is coming out from under the washing machine).
Ya se venden manzanas en los supermercados (Apples are already on sale in the supermarkets).
Entra luz por la ventana (Light is coming in through the window).
Viven lobos en aquellas montañas (Wolves live in those mountains).
Need I explain more? Now go ahead, write as many sentences of this type as you can. Practice, practice, and practice. That’s the only viable way to consolidate your learning when it comes to Spanish word order or any other grammar-related topic in any language.
Intransitive Verb with Definite Noun Phrase
We talked about intransitive cases where the noun phrase doesn’t have a determiner. But what if it does have one? When a noun phrase comes with a determiner, it becomes a tad more specific or definite than it would’ve been without one. Even if the determiner in question is an indefinite article. The same level of specificity also comes with proper nouns even though they come without determiners.
Both postverbal and preverbal orders are possible with this combination and the choice depends on what you want to emphasize in your sentence. The rule of thumb is to place the emphasized clause or word toward the end of your sentence.
So if it’s the subject that carries the emphasis or focus, the structure of choice becomes postverbal because you’ll need to place the subject toward the end, i.e. after the verb:
Llora el bebé (The baby is crying).
Bailó María en el club (Maria danced at the club).
Corrían las vacas por la finca (The cows were running through the field).
Who cried? The baby. Who danced at the club? Maria. Who was running across the field? The cows. See the whole idea of focus?
If, however, you want to focus on the action instead of who did it, you go with preverbal:
El bebé llora.
María bailó el el club.
Las vacas corrían por la finca.
All these preverbal sentences place the spotlight on the event. What happened? The baby cried. What did the baby do? He cried. What did María do at the club? She danced. What did the cows do in the field? They ran across it. This is how the Spanish word order influences the interpretation of your sentences. Get the drift?
Spanish Word Order with Unaccusative Verbs
Almost all instances involving unaccusative verbs call for a postverbal arrangement. This is particularly true for cases that also involve an indefinite or determinerless noun phrase. Of course, there are exceptions but they’re far and few in between. Don’t bother with the exceptions for now, they’ll grow on you as you are exposed to more and more Spanish.
If the verb is used reflexively or intransitively, it’s most likely an unaccusative verb. And that will make the subject go after the verb. Basically, these sentences have no one to accuse but themselves (the subject) for the outcome of their actions. Nice trick, don’t you think?
Barring exceptions, a preverbal structure here would not only be wrong but also sound jarring to native ears. They are rare, very rare. Here are some examples of sentences involving unaccusative verbs:
Aparecieron unas vacas sobre el risco (Some cows showed up over the ridge).
Murieron más de cuarenta personas (More than forty people died).
Se nos ha cortado la luz (The electricity has gone down).
To appear, to die, to cut-off (reflexively) – all these verbs represent actions that affect the one performing them. All of them involve either motion or a change in state. And that makes them unaccusative. If you notice, cut isn’t unaccusative since it can use an object. But when used reflexively, the doer becomes the affected making the verb unaccusative. So a good rule of thumb to remember is that if the verb is used reflexively or intransitively, it’s most likely an unaccusative verb. And that will make the subject go after the verb. Basically, these sentences have no one to accuse but themselves (the subject) for the outcome of their actions. Nice trick, don’t you think?
Spanish Word Order with Complements
For the most part, you would just do what the situation demands, i.e. place the complement at the end if that’s the bit that needs emphasis, otherwise elsewhere. There’s no other rule governing their placement in a sentence. However, depending on where you place the complement, you have certain constraints around where your subject goes. Oh and we’re talking prepositional complements here – Those that begin with a preposition such as por, para, a, de, hasta, desde, sobre, entre, etc. Also, the verb for our purposes here is intransitive or unaccusative.
The rule of Spanish word order is simple: The subject and the prepositional complement, if any, cannot be on the same side of the verb. That is, if the verb is intransitive or unaccusative. Look at some examples for illustration; these are all cases where you need focus on the fact or action or the prepositional complement:
Mi papá trabaja en esta fábrica (My dad works in this factory).
Su libro va de eso (Her book is about that).
Me refiero a eso (I am referring to that).
Where does my dad work? In this factory. What’s her book all about? That. What am I referring to? That. Like I said above, the emphasis is on the fact or the complement to the fact here which is why the complements hold a postverbal position.
Now check out some preverbal situations where the focus shifts to the subject:
En esta fábrica trabaja mi papá.
De eso va su libro.
A eso me refiero.
Who works in this factory? My dad. About that is what (I know this question sounds weird)? The book. Who is referring to that? I am. Just notice how subject and complement swap places. They just cannot be on the same side. Period.
Spanish Word Order with Transitive Verbs
This one should be the least troublesome if you approach it with a little logic. Remember what we talked about emphasis and focus? The same rule applies here. Whatever needs the focus, goes toward the end of the sentence, i.e. after the verb.
So if you are just stating a fact with either no emphasis in particular or emphasis on the action in question, you go with the preverbal format, i.e. SVO. That means the subject goes before the verb. This is the plain-vanilla structure you’re all too familiar with:
Juan comió tu bocadillo (Juan ate your sandwich).
María se ha comprado una nueva casa (Maria bought herself a new home).
Roberto vio a su hermana en el calle (Roberto saw his sister in the street).
Each of the above is a matter-of-fact statement following the preverbal structure. No specific focus here on either the doer or the affected. Just the action. Now look at these:
Comió Juan tu bocadillo.
Tu bocadillo lo comió Juan.
Se ha comprado María una nueva casa.
Una nueva casa se lo ha comprado María.
Vio Roberto a su hermana en la calle.
A su hermana la vio Roberto en la calle.
Same sentences but slightly different structures. Just one thing to keep in mind here though: The direct object generally comes after the verb. And if you choose to move it to the front, i.e. before the verb, you must leave behind some kind of a marker (clitic) right before the verb. This marker is either lo or la depending on the direct object it’s proxying for. Think of it as a placeholder. That’s why you’ll see a lo in the second example above serving for bocadillo and a la in the last one serving for hermana.
Placement of Adjectives
One of the most unsettling aspect of Spanish word order for rookie learners is the placement of adjectives. You mostly place them after the noun. But that’s mostly, not always. It always depends on the context. Here we’ll discuss a couple of quick tricks to help you with the decision.
Placement of Non Descriptive Adjectives
Before all else, we need to be able to distinguish between two groups of adjectives. One consists of adjectives that describe a noun’s quality, characteristic, or state. Some examples of this would be triste (sad), blanco (white), grande (big), pobre (poor), etc. These are descriptive adjectives. Let’s call what’s left, non-descriptive adjectives. These include numbers, possessives, demonstratives, etc.
So the first rule of thumb is pretty straightforward: All non-descriptive adjectives go after the noun they associate with. No exception. So, this woman is esa mujer, never mujer esa. Two flowers is dos flores, never flores dos. Getting my drift?
Placement of Descriptive Adjectives
So far as non-descriptive adjectives go, their placement rules are pretty unambiguous. No such luck with their descriptive friends though. You see, Spanish word order is largely an exercise in contextual interpretation. And context plays a big role in deciding where the descriptive adjective goes in a sentence. The rule is that the adjective goes after the noun only if it’s describing an inherent, non-subjective quality of the noun independent of what the speaker thinks. Otherwise, it comes before the noun.
So let’s take the example of viejo (old). Paired with amigo (friend), it could be viejo amigo or amigo viejo. What do you pick? Remember, if the adjective comes after the noun, it describes an innate quality. So amigo viejo means the friend in question is a person who is old. He is old regardless of who speaks of him. But a viejo amigo is old only as a friend. He could be a teenager but has been the speaker’s friend for a long time. Here, viejo only describes the person as an amigo, not as a person.
The Who-Is Trick
A very handy trick I use is to see if you can render old friend as friend who is old. If yes, you go with amigo viejo. Otherwise, viejo amigo. Similarly, consider dark night. Will it be noche oscura or oscura noche? If you could render it as the night that’s dark, it’s noche oscura. But that doesn’t sound good because there is no night that isn’t dark. All nights are dark so dark here is rather rhetorical (for added effect) which is why I’d go with oscura noche. I call this the who-is trick. Just like you can jury-rig hacks for vocabulary, you can jury-rig hacks for grammar too!
Let’s now consider poor man. Do you mean a man who is poor? If yes, poverty is his inherent quality and the adjective will go after the noun, hombre pobre. But if you mean poor man as a subjective or rhetorical description in the sense of him being wretched, you’d go with pobre hombre. Now try the same trick with grande. When you say hombre grande, it’s a man who is big. Clearly this sounds like we’re referring to his size. But if you say grande hombre, it’s more like a big man in the sense of him being great. This quality, greatness, is subjective. I might find him great, others might not.
Wrapping It All Up
We discussed almost everything there is to Spanish word order. From verbs to complements and from adjectives to subjects, we’ve seen it all now. But merely learning and understanding the concepts is far from enough. You ought to practice if you want these rules to stick. There’s no workaround. Pick one rule at a time and write as many example sentences as you can think of, applying that rule. How many is totally up to you but I wouldn’t do any fewer than 50. That right, 50! I know it sounds like a lot of work but the rewards are totally worth the pain.
Once you’ve hit that number, move on to the next rule. If you still feel you’re not confident enough after writing 50 sentences, write more. Go crazy practicing. Oh and read. Pretty please read! The more you read, the more examples you’ll stumble upon in the wild and the better they’ll register. Got a smarter idea? Do share it with the rest of us in a comment below! Noticed a nifty pattern that could help us further shorten the learning curve with Spanish word order? Spill it out.