Word order in Spanish

Flexibility in word order in Spanish

In Spanish there is a lot more flexibility when placing the different elements/words in a sentence compared to the generally more rigid order followed in English.

For both Spanish and English there is a standard order in simple sentences: 

Subject  + verb + object + extra information

Marta come chocolate.
Marta eats chocolate.

Mis padres vienen mañana.
My parents are coming tomorrow.

Mis amigos y yo vamos al parque a menudo.

My friends and I go to the park often.


More emphasis on a word

In spoken Spanish, a way to bring attention to a specific element of the sentence is simply stressing that word while saying it, the same way it's done in spoken English. But in written Spanish the placement of words is also a way to highlight these elements.

The information at the beginning of a sentence tends to be the topic that is known by the speakers, and what comes after is generally considered to be new information.

In many Spanish sentences there may not be a specific element to highlight, i.e. all elements are equally important. But sometimes the speaker/writer might want to put more emphasis on one particular element or word. In that case, in Spanish, there is a tendency to place this "more important" element near the end of the sentence, giving more attention to that particular detail, because it is new information to the listener. 

For example, someone could say:

Cristina me llamó ayer.Cristina called me yesterday.

Here Cristina is seen as a known topic, i.e. the general topic of conversation involves this person: Cristina.

The part that seems to be newer information for the listener is "when she called": ayer (we infer this because the speaker placed this information at the end). 

However, take a look at the order of this sentence:

Ayer me llamó Cristina.Cristina called me yesterday.

The speaker here is giving more emphasis/importance to the fact that it was "Cristina" who called. The fact that it was yesterday is not as relevant. 

If we now say:

Ayer Cristina me llamó.Cristina called me yesterday.

We can see very clearly here, by placing the verb at the end, which is quite different to the standard order, that the speaker is bringing attention to the fact that Cristina "called" - the new information is "what she did" (not who did it, nor when it happened), as if it's quite an unusual thing for Cristina to do, or it's a surprising fact.


Order of adjectives with nouns

Generally speaking we place adjectives after the noun they modify, but occasionally you will see them placed before. This has an emphatic purpose.

Los niños pequeños suelen ser un poco ruidosos.Small children are normally a bit noisy.

Esas tazas azules son muy bonitas.Those blue cups are very pretty.

La famosa actriz saludó amablemente a sus seguidores. (emphatic)The famous actress kindly greeted her fans.

For more detail on this adjective placement see Position of adjectives in Spanish


Emphasising direct and indirect objects in a sentence

When there are both direct and indirect objects in a sentence, the speaker may want to highlight one of them to specifically emphasise it. In the same way as before, they will place whatever they consider most the important information near the end:

This would be a standard sentence:

Cristina le dio dinero a Luisa.Cristina gave money to Luisa.

If the most important information here is the fact that it was "money" what was given, then the speaker would most probably change the order and say:

Cristina le dio a Luisa el dinero.Cristina gave the money to Luisa.

If for any reason the surprising fact is that the money was given "to Luisa" (and nobody else but her), then the speaker could change the grammatical order so that "to Luisa" is placed at the end:

El dinero se lo dio Cristina a Luisa.Cristina gave the money to Luisa.


Natural order with "indefinite" subjects

When we have a subject that is an indefinite pronoun, e.g. "algo" (something) or is using a noun with an indefinite article "un, una", the most natural order is to place these subjects after the verb, when it is a short sentence with no extra information. For example, we would say:

Pasó algo.Something happened. 

Llegó un camión grande.A big lorry arrived.

It would be much less common to hear or write it this way:

  • "Algo pasó." (??)
  • "Un camión grande llegó." (??)


Prepositions are never placed at the end in Spanish

Sentences that include a preposition never place that preposition at the end of a sentence. For example:

No me dijo para lo que quería el dinero.He didn't tell me what he wanted the money for.

Quiero saber con quién hablabas.I want to know who you were talking to.

This would be incorrect: 

  • No me dijo lo que quería el dinero para
  • Quiero saber quién hablabas con.


Placement of pronouns in Spanish sentences

There is a strict rule for where to place pronouns in Spanish sentences. When a sentence uses a direct, indirect or reflexive pronoun with a conjugated verb, the pronoun must be placed before the conjugated verb, not after. Observe the difference between Spanish and English in these examples:

Te compré un regalo.I bought you a present.

Yo me ducho por la mañana.I shower myself in the morning.

Lo llamaré después.I'll call him later.

If the verbal construction has a gerund or infinitive then the pronoun or pronouns can be placed either at the beginning of the verbal structure or at the end attached to the infinitive or gerund form:

Le estoy comprando un regalo.I am buying him a present.

Estoy comprándole un regalo.I'm buying him a present.

Te quiero comprar un regalo.I want to buy you a present.

Quiero comprarte un regalo.I want to buy you a present.

With an affirmative imperative you need to place them after and attached to the verb:

¡Cómprale un regalo!Buy him a present"

¡Cómpraselo!Buy it to him!



General word order in Spanish interrogative sentences

When we are using interrogative sentences with interrogative pronouns: cuándo, dónde, por qué, etc we start the sentence with these and then generally the verb follows (not the subject). For example:

¿Cuándo llegó Cristina?When did Cristina arrive?

¿Dónde fueron tus padres ayer?Where did your parents go yesterday?

¿Por qué llegó Sonia tan tarde?Why did Sonia arrive so late?

It would sound very unnatural to place the subject right after the pronoun: ¿Cuándo Cristina llegó? (???)

It's also important to remember that prepositions are never placed at the end of a question, even though in English you generally can:

¿Para quién trabajas tú?Who do you work for?

¿De qué trata la película?What's the film about?

¿A qué país vas?Which country are you going to?



With questions that require a yes / no  answer, the order is generally the standard:

¿subject + verb + extra information?

However,  sometimes if the person who is asking wants to put more emphasis on one part of the question, then the verb is normally placed at the beginning:

¿Carmen tiene dos hijas? Does Carmen have two daughters?

In the example above we are probably just asking for a confirmation of something said before.

¿Tiene Carmen dos hijas? Does Carmen have two daughters?

In this example we perceive that the person asking might be more interested in knowing that two is the exact number of daughters that Carmen has (not one, or three...) There is an element of surprise expressed in this question. 


Q&A Forum 1 question, 1 answer

CassandraB1Kwiziq community member

great article

thank you for this article. I learned many new things.

Asked 4 months ago
InmaKwiziq team member

Glad to hear you found it useful! 


Cassandra asked:View original

great article

thank you for this article. I learned many new things.

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