Spanish Syntax  

Advanced Spanish Grammar

One aspect of syntax is the order in which words appear in a sentence. Spanish word order is fairly flexible; however, it is best to use the more common patterns of putting words together to form sentences, as given below. These patterns, for the most part, are simply illustrations of a few generalizations:

Normal word order in a Spanish declarative sentence: [declarative— referring to a statement, as opposed to a question]

    SUBJECT (“doer“) + PREDICATE (“action”) + OBJECT (“recipient”)

The subject comes first, if expressed; often it is incorporated into or at least suggested by the verb ending.

The predicate is the next primary element. This is composed of at least one verb, often accompanied by object pronouns and by a negative or other adverbial expressions.

Complements follow the verb; these include predicate nouns (after ser ), or direct and indirect object nouns or noun phrases.

subject   neg.    verb       direct object 
Juan      nunca   levanta    la mano.

As regards direct and indirect object pronouns: They are normally attached to the end of:
1) affirmative commands:

    ¡Dámelo! - Give it to me!

2) infinitives:

    después de bañarme... - after taking a bath...

3) gerunds ( -ndo forms):

    levantándose... - getting up...

They normally precede conjugated verb forms. If the verb is a combination of a conjugated form and an infinitive or gerund, the object pronouns may be placed in either the pre- or post-position.

  • ¡No me lo des! [negative command]
  • Lo hacemos a menudo. [conjugated verb]
  • Estoy diciéndotelo. OR [conjugated verb plus an -ndo form]
  • Te lo estoy diciendo.
  • Voy a hablarles. OR [conjugated verb plus an infinitive]
  • Les voy a hablar.

Indirect object pronouns precede direct object pronouns.

  • Te lo envié ayer.
    I sent it to you yesterday.

Normally in a Spanish interrogative sentence the order of the subject and verb is reversed: [interrogative— referring to a question, as opposed to a statement]

  • Usted habla italiano.
    You speak Italian. [declarative]
  • ¿Habla usted italiano?
    Do you speak Italian? [interrogative]

When an interrogative word or expression (e.g., cómo, cuándo, dónde, adónde, por qué, quién, cuál, cuánto) appears in a question it normally occurs at the beginning:

  • ¿Por qué hablan los colombianos tan rápido?
    Why do Colombians speak so rapidly?
  • ¿Cuándo viene Margarita a verme?
    When is Margarita coming to see me?
Specific patterns of word order

Linking verb (e.g., ser & estar ):

Declarative sentences:

subject      (neg.)     linking verb   predicate noun/predicate adj. 

(Nosotros)   (no)       somos          estudiantes de español. 
(Ella)       (no)       está           cansada. 

Interrogative sentences:

(neg.)     verb     subject     predicate noun or adjective 

¿(No)      es       usted       el señor Montalbán? 
¿(No)      estás    (tú)        lista? 

Intransitive verb (no direct object):
Declarative sentences:

subject     (neg.)     intransitive verb     (adverb) 

(Yo)        (no)       hablo                 (bien). 

Interrogative sentences:

(neg.)     intransitive verb      subject      (adverb) 

¿(No)      leen                   (ustedes)    (rápidamente)? 

Transitive verb, no object pronouns:
Declarative sentences:

subject      (neg.)      transitive verb     direct object   (adverb) 

(Yo)         (no)        hablo               español         (bien). 

Interrogative sentences (transitive verb, no object pronouns):

(neg.)   transitive verb   subject   direct object 

¿(No)    traen            (ustedes)  la cerveza? 

Transitive verb, with object pronouns:

Declarative sentences:

subject (neg.) (IO pronoun) (DO pronoun) verb (DO phrase) (IO phrase) 

(Usted) (nunca)  le           da un     regalo      (a Juan). 
(Usted) se       lo           da                    (a él). 

Interrogative sentences:

(neg.) IO pronoun DO pronoun  verb  subject (DO phrase) (IO phrase) 

¿(Nunca)             le        da    (usted)  un regalo  (a Juan)? 
¿Se                  lo        dan   (ustedes)           (a él)? 

Interrogative sentences:

In general, in interrogative sentences —questions— the order of subject and verb reversed (compared to their order in a declarative sentence).
Yes/no questions (that is, questions which expect the reply “yes”or “no”) have already been given in the previous sections.

linking verb subject predicate noun or adjective

¿Es               usted       protestante? 
¿Estamos         (nosotros)   listos? 

Information questions expect some information to be given in the answer, not a simple “yes” or “no”. Ordinarily these sentences begin with an interrogative expression such as cómo (how), cuándo (when), dónde, (where) adónde (where to), por qué (why), quién (who), cuál (which), or cuánto (how much, how many).

  • ¿Por qué hablan los colombianos tan rápido?
    Why do Colombians speak so rapidly?
  • ¿Cuándo viene Margarita a verme?
    When is Margarita coming to see me?
interrogative     (neg)     verb     subject     object 

¿Quién            (nunca)   trae                 la cerveza? 
¿Qué                        quiere   ella? 
¿Por qué                    dicen    ellos        eso?


In commands the verb usually comes first, followed by the subject (if expressed). If the subject is tú or vosotros, it is included only for contrast or emphasis. Usted and ustedes are frequently included for reasons of courtesy and clarity.

  • Yo me siento aquí. Siéntate tú allí. [contrast]
  • Venga usted mañana a las siete.

Object pronouns are attached to the end of affirmative commands, and precede the verb in negative ones.

  • ¡No me lo digas! [negative]
  • ¡Dímelo! [affirmative]

Special case #1: Verbs like gustar.

In standard declarative word order, subjects come before the verb and indirect object phrases are placed after it. The order of these two elements is normally switched with the verb gustar (to please, used —with subject and indirect object switched— in the sense of “to like”). Similar verbs include:

importar      - to matter, be important
parecer       - to seem, appear
encantar      - to enchant, delight, to like very much 
interesar     - to interest, to be interested
resultar      - to result, turn out
faltar        - to be lacking, to lack 
hacer falta   - to be necessary, to need
molestar      - to bother, irritate, to be irritated
(des) agradar - to please/displease,to like/not like 
doler         - to hurt, ache
quedar        - to remain, to have left

ind. object phrase

ind. object  pronoun  verb     subject
A mí         me       gustan   las manzanas. 
  =  I like apples. 
A ellas      les      encanta  el regalo. 
  =  They love the gift. 
Nos                   falta    la paciencia.
  =  We lack (the) patience. 

Special case #2: Direct object preceding the verb

Sometimes for emphasis or special effect the direct object noun or noun phrase is given before the governing verb. When this happens, a direct object pronoun is used with the verb, and the subject, if expressed, is often placed after the verb. In other words, the order of the subject and direct object is switched, and a direct object pronoun is added, one which agrees in gender and number with the direct object.

  • Carlos compró mis libros. [normal word order]
  • Mis libros los compró Carlos. [preceding direct object]

(Both sentences mean: Carlos bought my books.)

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