Syntax in Spanish vs. English: Similarities and differences

Syntax in Spanish vs. English: Similarities and differences

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated February 10, 2023

One of the first things you’ll notice when learning Spanish is that the syntax in Spanish vs. English is not identical. Syntax, or word order, often differs between languages. This is thanks to grammatical rules that require words with certain semantic roles (nouns and adjectives, for example) to appear in certain locations within a sentence. The adjective comes before the noun when we say “delicious food” in English, but it comes after the noun when we say comida deliciosa in Spanish. Same meaning, different syntax.

Spanish and English aren’t wildly different, though. You’ll see many similarities in their syntax as you learn how Spanish words combine to form simple, compound and complex sentences. For example, the simple English sentence She kicks the ball shares the same syntax as its Spanish equivalent (Ella patea la pelota). 

So, is Spanish syntax the same as English? Yes and no. Read on to learn more about the key similarities and differences.

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How are English sentences structured?

Before we compare syntax in Spanish vs. English, let’s start with a basic review of how sentences are formed in both languages.

English has four basic types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex

A simple sentence follows the structure [subject + verb + object]. It is an independent clause that can stand on its own. An example: She kicks the ball.

A compound sentence joins two or more independent clauses with a conjunction, such as “but,” “and” or “or.”An example: She kicks the ball and the ball hits him in the head.

A complex sentence joins an independent clause and a dependent clause with a subordinating conjunction, such as “although,” “because,” “so” or “that.” An example: She kicks the ball, so that she can score a goal.

A compound-complex sentence combines elements of compound and complex sentences, but that’s all you really need to understand for the time being. Now, let’s look at how basic Spanish sentences are formed.

How are Spanish sentences structured?

So, what’s the syntax of Spanish? 

As in English, the basic Spanish sentence structure is [subject + verb + object]. An example: Los chicos no bailaron en la fiesta divertida. (The guys didn’t dance at the fun party).

In Spanish, an adjective typically follows the noun it modifies. In our example sentence, fiesta divertida means “fun party.” The adjective (divertida) comes after the noun (fiesta).

Questions in Spanish are distinguished only by question marks. For example, the sentence Ella come comida picante (She eats spicy food) becomes a question just by adding punctuation: ¿Ella come comida picante? (Does she eat spicy food?)

Now, let’s compare syntax in Spanish vs. English using these structures.

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Comparing syntax in Spanish vs. English

Spanish is not a difficult language to learn for English speakers because syntax in Spanish vs. English is generally similar.

Three similarities of syntax in Spanish vs. English

In both Spanish and English, you can form simple, compound and complex sentences. This is an important similarity between the two languages, as we’ll demonstrate below.

1. Simple sentences

Spanish and English follow the same structure to form simple, independent clauses: [subject + verb + object]. 

The flight was terrible.El vuelo era horrible.
This shop is the worst.Esta tienda es lo peor.

2. Compound sentences

Spanish, like English, has conjunctions such as pero (but), y (and) and o (or). These are used to form compound sentences.

The flight was terrible, but we arrived on time.El vuelo era horrible pero llegamos a tiempo.
This shop is the worst and it’s expensiveEsta tienda es lo peor y es cara.

3. Complex sentences

Spanish also forms complex sentences using subordinating conjunctions such as que (that), porque (because), como (like/as/since) and aunque (even though).

I’m not taking the flight that’s always late.No voy a tomar el vuelo que siempre está retresado.
Let’s go to that shop even though it’s expensiveVamos a esa tienda aunque es cara.

Three differences of syntax in Spanish vs. English

With that said, syntax in Spanish vs. English can be quite different depending on the sentence or the idea you’re trying to express. Here are a few situations where this happens.

1. Adjective location

English speakers will notice right away that the Spanish adjective comes after the noun.

Delicious foodComida deliciosa
Red shoesZapatos rojos
Friendly peopleGente amable
Cool glassesLentes chidos (slang from Mexico)

2. Subject location

The location of the subject in a Spanish sentence changes in different situations.  

In Spanish, the subject is often completely omitted. For example, “She arrived on time” can be expressed as Llegó a tiempo (literally, “arrived on time”). The subject ella (she) has been omitted completely and is implied by the verb conjugation or context of the conversation.

The subject sometimes appears after the verb in Spanish. Normally, we would say Alison llegó a tiempo (Alison arrived on time). But you can also say Llegó Alison a tiempo. The meaning is exactly the same.

3. Double negatives

You’ll often hear double negatives in Spanish, while in English double negatives are considered grammatically incorrect. 

For example, consider this sentence: “I do not want to drink anything.”

In English, it only has one negative word: not. In Spanish the same sentence requires two negative words: No quiero tomar nada (literally “I do not want to drink nothing”).

Here, no and nada are both negatives. They are both required for the sentence to be correct in Spanish.

Learn the correct word order in Spanish

If you’re an English speaker struggling to learn Spanish, the good news is that the syntax in Spanish vs. English is fairly similar. Both follow the general structure of [subject + verb + object]. Beyond that, a more complicated sentence structure is formed using similar conjunctions in both languages. 

Still, there are some key differences. Spanish sentence structure can vary from English in terms of the location of adjectives, the omission of subjects, and the existence of double negatives. Fret not! Spanish syntax isn’t difficult — and you can start learning Spanish grammar at your own pace with Lingoda.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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