Let’s get serious: Word order in Spanish

This is one the first things you need to get used to when learning Spanish. The common Spanish word order is… different. That is unless your native language happens to be Portuguese or Italian.

In Spanish, all you need is a subject and a verb. Many times the subject is implicit in the verb, because each person is conjugated differently. For example “hablé” or “hablamos” automatically indicate that I spoke and we spoke. Complements might take different places in a sentence, but usually you can follow the rule subject + verb + rest of the sentence. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • Ana trabaja en la escuela. (“Ana works at the school.”)

Here it would sound odd if we inverted the order, e.g. “en la escuela trabaja Ana” (in the school works Ana). We could also say “Trabaja Ana en la escuela” (Works Ana at the school), which again would be acceptable. In other cases, the order is almost irrelevant:

  • Los pasteles siempre le gustaron a Ana.  (“The cakes always were liked by Ana.”)
  • Siempre le gustaron los pasteles a Ana. (“Always were liked the cakes by Ana”)

These don’t make much sense in English. The correct sentence should be “Ana always liked cakes” but we can move “siempre” around the sentence and change the word order accordingly. However, if you keep in mind the subject + verb + rest of the sentence rule, it would become something like:

  • A Ana siempre le gustaron los pasteles. (“Ana always liked cakes.”)

But alas, Spanish is not as flexible as you might think. Some words have very strict places in each sentence, and these are the real rules that you should pay attention to.

  1. Pronoun + verb, not the other way around.

If you decide to use a pronoun - instead of settling for what the verb implies - it should always come before the verb. For example, “él dijo” (he said) or “Pedro dijo” (Pedro said).

  1. “No” always comes after the pronouns.

Making negative sentences doesn’t leave much room for improvisation. No needs to come before the verb and after the pronoun, e.g. “(Yo) no como carne” (I don’t eat meat).

  1. Direct object first, indirect object second.

Direct object pronouns always come after indirect object pronouns - in other words, people come before things. Let’s take an example in English:

  • Can you give me the WiFi password?
  • Yes, I can give it to you.

In the last sentence “I can give it to you”, it refers to the password and you to the other subject. Thus, “it” is the direct object pronoun (give what?) and “you” the indirect object pronoun (give to whom?). In Spanish, this would become “Sí, te la puedo dar”, where “te” is the indirect object pronoun (to you) and “la” is the direct object pronoun (the password). People always come before things.

  1. Never put anything between two verbs.

Sometimes, we use more than one verb in a conjugation - the first is an auxiliary verb and the second is main verb. This isn’t unique to Spanish, of course. English has similar structures, like “had begun” or “hadn’t thought”. The difference is that in Spanish nothing can come between those two verbs.

I had always lived in Madrid until I moved to Barcelona.

Siempre había vivido en Madrid hasta que me mudé a Barcelona.

  1. Adjectives after nouns.

Another golden rule in Spanish is that adjectives always come after nouns, not the other way around. Moreover, adjectives must match the number in number and gender. For example, we would say “los coches viejos” (the cars old, lit. translated) and not “los viejos coches” (the old cars). Although the latter is also correct, it sounds too poetic and is not common in everyday conversation. Note that because coches is a masculine noun in its plural form, we use “viejos” (the plural form of “viejo”, old; the feminine form would be “vieja(s)”.