Spanish Word Order Basics

Imagine hearing someone in English say:

“I not him have seen”

That’s what we risk sounding like in Spanish when we don’t use the right word order. Order is important.
Because this is a common misstep for many English speakers learning Spanish, we’ve developed 5 key rules of reference to help you remember which order things go in.

Rule #1:

Put personal pronouns first … if you use them

Personal pronouns: Yo, tú, él, ella usted, nosotros, vosostros, ellos, ellas, ustedes

 

Personal pronouns simply tell us who the sentence is about.  It’s typically one of the first lessons you learn in Spanish. As you probably remember, personal pronouns are not obligatory in Spanish. You can either say:

Yo compro un libro
or
compro un libro 

It’s all the same. The thing to remember is if you’re going to use it, put it first thing.

Rule #2:

Then, just say no 

 

After the personal pronoun, if you are going to negate the sentence, here is where you place the NO. The ‘no‘ is important and needs to be in front. If you can remember that you won’t be tempted to put it in a strange place or get it mixed up with the upcoming rules.

For example:
Yo no compro un libro
no compro un libro

Rules #3 & #4:

First people, then things

Indirect (people): me, te, le (se), nos, os, le (se)
Direct (things): me, te, lo/la, nos, os, los/las

 

Direct object pronouns typically represent objects and sometimes people. Indirect object pronouns always represent people. Both are used to replace the name of  an already-known noun. For example, find the direct and indirect pronouns in the following English sentance:

I give it to you

it =
the direct object pronoun
you = the indirect object pronoun

Rewriting the sentence in Spanish uses the same pronouns but changes the order:

Yo te lo doy =I give it to you

There are two important rules regarding the object pronouns:

1. The indirect object pronoun goes before the direct object pronoun when both are in the sentence; people before things. This is the reverse from English.
2. Both direct and indirect object pronouns go after the personal pronoun and any negation, but before the conjugated verb.

In the following examples we convert the first sentence into a second using direct and indirect object pronouns:

Ella dijo la verdad a nosotros = She told us the truth
Ella
 nos la dijo
= She told it to us

Nosotros no compartimos el secreto a ellos = We didn’t share the secret with them
Nosotros
no se lo compartimo
s = We didn’t share it with them

El trae el periódico a mi = He brings the newspaper to me
me
lo trae
= He brings it to me

Ella debe enviar la carta a sus amigas = She must send the letter to her friends
Ella
se la debe enviar
= She must send it to them

Rule #5:

Finally, conjugate verbs together

At the end comes the conjugated verb.

Sometimes we have more than one part to a verb conjugation. For example, the perfect tense is created by combining two verbs (haber + past participle).

(Yo) he hecho – I have done
(Él) había dicho  – He had said

The most important thing to remember is:

Never put anything between 2 conjugated verbs

This is also true of any compound conjugation.  For example when using the infinitive:

debo vivir – I must live

A common mistake made by Spanish students is to put pronouns or other words in between the perfect tenses.  See the incorrect and correct example below:

wrongno he lo hecho bien

correctno lo he hecho bien

 

Additional examples:

¿Tu has dicho a Roberto la verdad? – Have you told Robert the truth?
 yo no se la he dicho –  I haven’t told it to him

Summary

These five rules are basic reference when you are not sure which word order to use.  The following is a visual summary of the five rules.

Visual Summary of Spanish Word Order Rules

Spanish word order diagram pronouns negation direct indirect object pronoun verb conjugation

An exception to the rule

There is one exception to the rule. We won’t detail it here but simply note it for advanced students and our Happy Hour subscribers can learn more in Lesson 23 – Direct + Indirect Pronouns.

It is possible to attach the direct and/or indirect object pronouns to the end of a verb; but the verb must be conjugated in either the affirmative imperative or the infinitive. Also note, the rule still applies that says people before things. So for example:

Lo tráe =  Tráelo = Bring it

Ella se la debe enviar = Ella debe enviarsela = She must send it to him

¡Ahora tú! Can you put the words in the correct order?

Give it a try with this 5 question quiz on Spanish word order!

How did you do? Let us know in the comments.

For subscribers:

Review grammar lessons on direct and indirect object pronouns:
Lesson 11 direct object pronouns
Lesson 16 indirect object pronouns
Lesson 23 direct+indirect
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