Word Order: Keep your Spanish House in Order

Written by: Ronald Batchelor

Spanish Cortijo. Photo: Graeme Churchard via Creative Commons.

Cortijo Rosario. Photo: Graeme Churchard via Creative Commons.

Ronald Batchelor, author of A Reference Grammar of Spanish, explores the grammatical differences between English and Spanish.


Consternation for students of Spanish: that annoying subjunctive keeps bedevilling me.

When it’s optional, the consternation deepens. Little wonder that alarm bells are constantly ringing over the use of the Spanish subjunctive. Yet, these same bells sound even more strident when word order intervenes.

So variable is word order in Spanish that we could sink in constantly shifting sands: emphasis of a given idea, speaker’s choice, the personal “a”, pronouns, adverbs, tenses, mood… Words, or groups of words, seem to wander haphazardly across the sentence.

Spanish word order

Essentially, Spanish word order resembles its English counterpart in that the subject can precede the verb which is followed by a noun as object: “Veo la película”=I see the film. Nothing simpler. It fits the English pattern nicely. But, comparability with English word order almost ends here.

Convert the object noun “película” into a pronoun and we have, as all beginners know: “La veo”=I see it. Change “Veo” into an infinitive, and the pronoun is attached to the end of this infinitive: “Voy a verla”=I go to see it. Fine, thus far, and no real shifting sands yet.

Yet, the pronoun very often precedes the auxiliary verb: “La voy a ver”, with exactly the same meaning. If there are two auxiliary verbs+infinitive, the pronoun could even precede the first, and here we really are moving away, almost alarmingly, from the English model: “Te puedo ir a visitar”=I can come to visit you; “Lo espero poder hacer”=I hope to be able to do it. English “you/it” are at the end of the two English translations while Spanish “te/lo” are three verbs away, at the beginning!

Two pronouns together? The indirect one comes before the direct one: “Te lo puedo dar”=I can give it to you. Or: “Puedo dártelo” (Not to forget the written accent on the “a” to keep the tonic stress on the “a”.)

When a noun is repeated by a pronoun, inversion often occurs: “La crisis la generaron los políticos”=The politicians caused the crisis; “La solución la encontraron los ingenieros”=The engineers found the solution.

A more marked difference in word order between English and Spanish arises from the striking flexibility of verb+subject. One can just as easily say: “Viene Juan mañana/Viene mañana Juan” as “Juan viene mañana”, all meaning =Juan comes tomorrow.

The subject usually follows the verb when it is longer: “Se oyó un ruido ensordecedor”=You could hear a deafening noise; or when the verb is reflexive: “Cada día se complica más la trama y se hacen más graves las acusaciones”=The conspiracy gets more complicated every day and the accusations become more serious.

Verbs used impersonally dictate the same inversion: “Me duele una muela”=My tooth hurts; “Faltan dos cuchillos”=Two knives are missing; “Me gusta este pan”=I like this bread; “Sobran camas”=There are some beds left over. English subject at the beginning of the sentence, Spanish at the end.

Inversion of noun and verb occurs when a plural subject is used without the definite or indefinite article (el/los/un/unos). This often happens when the verb is intransitive or reflexive: “Corren conejos por todas partes”=Rabbits are running everywhere; “Llegan niños de muy lejos”=Children come from a long way away; “Se pone la basura en el bote/cubo”=The rubbish goes in the bin.

Placing of “bien” and “mal” with respect to the verb differs from the English: “Habla bien/mal el japonés”=She speaks Japanese well/badly. But if the adverb or adverbial phrase is a long one, we end up closer to the English: “Habla chino estupendamente bien”=She speaks Chinese marvellously well. All a question of balance.

Spanish adjectives

They told us at school that Spanish adjectives follow the noun. In some cases, text book and teacher are right. Those signifying colors (but when used metaphorically they can come before: “la negra suerte”=dark fate), nationality, religion, affiliation to a political party are such examples: “Una casa roja/ de nacionalidad mexicana/un carro francés/un estudio literario”=a red house/of Mexican nationality/a French car/a literary study. But that’s as far as it goes.

Some adjectives can precede or follow the noun and have the same value: “la semana próxima/la próxima semana”=next week; “la semana pasada/la pasada semana”=last week.

Some adjectives that precede or follow the noun carry a different weight: “Las hojas secas caen”/“Las secas hojas caen”=The dry leaves fall. In the first case, the suggestion is that some of the dry leaves fall whereas, in the second, all the dry leaves fall.

Meaning of adjectives can vary according to where they are before or after the noun. Two examples, among numerous adjectives varying in this way, are “cierto” and “diferente”: “indicios ciertos”=definite signs; “ciertas personas=certain people; “diferentes libros”=several books; “libros diferentes”=different books.

“Condenado” and “maldito” call for special attention: “condenado” before the noun=cursed/awful: “estos condenados zapatos”=these cursed shoes; but “an hombre condenado” won’t be wearing his “condenados zapatos” much longer=condemned man. Similarly: “estas malditas facturas”=these cursed bills, as against “Verlaine y Rimbaud, poetas malditos”=V. and R., cursed poets. The expensive French Pléiade edition of the “poetas malditos” could attract a “maldita factura”.

A whole series of adjectives have fixed positions with respect to the noun: “un mero trámite”=a mere formality; “el libre albedrío”=free will; “¡Feliz Aniversario!”=Happy Birthday! But when this expression is sung in celebration, we hear: “¡Aniversario Feliz!”, in order to fit the rhythm of the words and music; “temporada alta/baja”=high/low season; “cuenta corriente”=checking/current account.

How do we arrange the position of more than one adjective defining the noun?? The most distinctive one occurs at the end of the phrase. Such an arrangement invests this adjective with most weight: “la política contemporánea mexicana”=contemporary Mexican politics; “la opinión política popular”=popular political opinion

When you expect adjectives to come after the noun, and they come before, we enter a more written, literary mode. If the two adjectives in the following expression switch positions, i.e. from after the noun to before it, they evoke an elevation in the value of the expression. Thus, “una amenaza persistente e inaguantable” =a persistent and unbearable threat, rises in the register range if the two adjectives precede the noun: “una persistente e inaguantable amenaza.” The same comment applies to three adjectives, which leads to “une fuerte, crónica e incesante inflación”= a steep, chronic and unending inflation.

Numbers and Dates

You can’t fail with the following: numbers+“primero” and “último”. Praise be! Both positions work!: “Los dos primeros/últimos años”=”Los primeros/últimos dos años”=The first/last two years.

Don’t get caught out by dates. Only one possibility here with respect to the definite article: “El martes 13 de agosto”=Tuesday, August the 13. “Martes 13” allegedly brings bad luck in Spanish-speaking countries, so don’t dwell too long on this example. You are safe in these countries with: “El viernes 13”, although not so in French and English-speaking countries.

Just as in English we say “knife and fork” and not the other way round, it hardly needs stressing that Spanish follows specific, time-honored patterns, too: “blanco y negro”=black and white. “Blanco” also means “target” in English, so try to hit the bull’s eye here. Other examples: “padre e hijo”=father and son, as in Padres e Hijos, novel by Turgenev; “pobres y ricos”=rich and poor; “nubes y claros”=clouds and bright periods; “esposo y esposa”/“marido y mujer”=man and wife; “La vida tiene sus risas y lágrimas, momentos buenos y malos”=Life has its laughter and tears, good and bad moments. It would sound un-Spanish to reverse the word order in these expressions.

Doubtless inherited from Latin where inflexions are the determining factor in the position of words, and this means you can put words or groups of words pretty well anywhere and it still makes sense, the striking elasticity of Spanish word order can entail a whole range of possibilities (four variants in the first example below!) where the meaning stays the same: “Las maniobras militares terminaron sin incidencias”/ “Terminaron las maniobras militares sin…”/“Terminaron sin…las maniobras militares”/ “Sin…terminaron las maniobras militares”=The military maneuvers ended without incidents; “Intervinieron varios factores en mi decisión”/“Varios factores intervinieron en mi decisión”/ “En mi decisión intervinieron varios factores”=Various factors affected my decision.

The use of ‘Se’

One further topic defies rational explanation, and certainly has no equivalent in any other language, to the writer’s knowledge. The most mystifying construction in Spanish word order for an English speaker, and for any other speaker foreign to Spanish for that matter, is the use of the impersonal “se”, a dominant and widespread feature of the Spanish language. How to describe it? Not easy but here goes.

“Se” used in this way is an independent speech element of impersonal character, referred to by Spanish speakers as “pasiva refleja”. The literal translation “reflexive passive” is of little help. Furthermore, the “se” here is not the subject of the sentence, even though it frequently appears at the beginning of the sentence, or close to the beginning. Since the use of “se” is unique, a number of examples are a helpful guide, moving logically from apparently simple examples to the complex: “Se les/las ayudó a las víctimas”=The injured were helped; “Se le vio al hombre”=The man was seen; “Se les pidió socorro”=They were asked for help; “Se les reconoció esta posibilidad a los jóvenes”=This possibility was admitted to the young people.

The construction with the impersonal passive reflexive “se” generates irreducibly complicated patterns, albeit in the more elevated, but common, style of writing, when allied to the prepositon “a”: “A todos los miembros se les pidió que contribuyeran más dinero”=All the members were asked to contribute more money; “Al autor se le alabó por su nueva novela”=The author was praised for his latest novel.

Finally, such a construction, facilitated again by the initial preposition “a”, would have appeared labyrinthine had the whole sentence been included. We offer only the basic sentence : “Al conde, un pícaro que se ganó el favor de la nobleza europea se le atribuyó una extraña profecía”=A strange prophesy was ascribed to the count, an Italian rake who gained the favor of European nobility. The “pasiva refleja”, involving the passing of “extraña profecía” from the end of the Spanish sentence to the beginning of the English equivalent, illustrates how far removed the English counterpart is from the Spanish construction.

The above remarks display, to a very limited extent, the ways in which Spanish word order differs sharply from its English counterpart. A much more detailed, indeed comprehensive, discussion of the topic appears in my A Reference Grammar of Spanish, pp.442-450.

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About the Author: Ronald Batchelor

Dr Ronald Batchelor is the author of A Reference Grammar of French (2011). He taught French and Spanish for forty years in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Nottingham. He has published many books on French and Spanish language, often with sec...

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