Spanish grammar

''' Spanish (español, castellano) is a language originating in North-Central Spain which is spoken throughout Spain, most countries in the Americas, the Philippines and Equatorial Guinea.

It is an inflected language, with a two-gender system and about fifty conjugated forms per verb, but without noun declension and simplified pronominal declension.

Spanish was the first of the Romance languages to have a grammar, written in 1492 by the Andalusian linguist Antonio de Nebrija.

The Real Academia Española (RAE) traditionally dictates the rules of the Spanish language.

This article first describes the most formal and standard rules of modern Spanish, and then goes on to detail idioms and colloquialisms.

Formal differences between Peninsular and American Spanish are remarkably few, and someone who has learned the dialect of one area will have no difficulties using reasonably formal speech in the other. However, pronunciation does vary. Spanish Grammar is somewhat complex.


Main articles: Spanish verbs, Spanish conjugation and Spanish irregular verbs.

In some senses, employing Spanish verbs correctly is difficult for native speakers of English. There are seven indicative tenses with more-or-less direct English equivalents; for example present tense (I walk, I do walk), preterit (-ed or did, ie. I walked or I did walk), the imperfect (was, were, or used to), perfect (I have _____), future (will) and conditional (would). What is difficult in this area are the six different spellings for each tense; English grammar, in this respect, is simpler--in English, eat has two forms in the present tense (eat and eats), while in Spanish eat has six forms. In Latin American Spanish, Vosotros is usually replaced with Ustedes and the conjugation of that pronoun is the same as the third-person plural (i.e, ustedes comen, "You (plural) eat"). In Argentina, is generally replaced with vos, and is conjugated by replacing the infinitive -ar, -er, -ir with -ás, -és, -ís

(Yo) Como (Nosotros) Comemos
(Tú) Comes (Vosotros) Coméis
(Él, Ella, Ud.) Come (Ellos, Ellas, Uds.) Comen


Main article: Spanish adjectives

Generally speaking, Spanish uses adjectives in a similar way to English and most other Indo-European languages. However, there are three key differences between English and Spanish adjectives

  • In Spanish, adjectives usually go after the noun they modify. The exception is when the writer/speaker is being slightly emphatic, or even poetic, about a particular quality of an object (rather than the mundane use of using the quality to specifiy which particular object they are referring to).
    • Mi casa roja could either mean that there are lots of red houses in the world but I wish to talk about the one that I happen to own, or that I have many houses but am referring to the red one. Mi casa roja = My house, the red one.
    • Mi roja casa means that I am stressing how red is the house of mine that I am referring to (probably the only house I have). Mi roja casa = My house, which is obviously red.
  • In Spanish, adjectives agree with what they refer to in terms of both number (singular/plural) and gender (masculine/feminine). For example, taza (cup) is feminine, so "the red cup" is la taza roja.
  • In Spanish, it is perfectly normal to let an adjective stand in for a noun or pronoun—with (where people are involved) no implication of condescension or rudeness. For example, los altos means "the tall ones" or "the tall men". El grande means "the big one" or "the big man".

See the main article for further information.


Main article: Spanish determiners

Spanish uses determiners in a similar way to English. The main difference is that they "agree" with what they refer to in terms of both number (singular/plural) and gender (masculine/feminine).


Definite ones: used instead of "the". Indefinite ones: used instead of a/an, some.
ARTÍCULOS Definidos Singular Definidos Plural Indefinidos Singular Indefinidos Plural
Masculino El Los Un Unos
Femenino La Las Una Unas
Neutro Lo
mucho (mucha, muchos, muchas); poco (poca, pocos, pocas); otro (otra, otros, otras)...


Spanish has three kinds of demonstrative, whose use depends on the distance between the speaker and the described thing/person. The demonstrative equates to the English terms "this" and "that", although in Spanish the word used must agree for number and gender.
DEMOSTRATIVOS Corta (short) Media (middle) Larga (long)
Masculino singular Este Ese Aquel
Masculino plural Estos Esos Aquellos
Femenino singular Esta Esa Aquella
Femenino plural Estas Esas Aquellas
Neutro Esto Eso Aquello


The possessive words depend on the gender and number. The first one in the table is a possessive adjective, the second is a possessive pronoun.
POSESIVOS 1ª persona singular 2ª persona singular 3ª persona singular 1ª persona plural 2ª persona plural 2ª persona plural/3ª persona plural
Masculino Mi(s), el mío/los míos Tu(s), el tuyo/los tuyos Su(s), el suyo/los suyos Nuestro(s), el nuestro/los nuestros Vuestro(s), el vuestro/los vuestros Su(s), el suyo/los suyos
Femenino Mi(s), la mía/las mías Tu(s), la tuya/las tuyas Su(s), la suya/las suyas Nuestra(s), la nuestra/las nuestras Vuestra(s), la vuestra/las vuestras Su(s), la suya/las suyas

Other determiners

Indefinite quantity: poco (little), mucho (a lot), bastante (enough)...

Cardinals: un (one/a, an), dos (two), tres (three)...

Ordinals: primero (first), segundo (second), tercero (third)...

Interrogative (¿): qué (what), cuándo (when), cómo (how), quién (who), dónde (where), por qué (why), cuál (which).

The cardinal numbers greater than un and the interrogatives (except cuál) are indeclinable. The indefinite quantifiers, ordinals, un, and cuál are declined as adjectives.

See the main article for further details.


Main article: Spanish pronouns

Spanish has a range of pronouns that in some ways work quite differently from English ones. They include: yo, tú, usted (vos), él, ella, ello, nosotros, vosotros, ustedes, ellos, ellas, esto, eso, aquello etc. Personal pronouns are usually omitted due to context, but it is not rare to see one in written text or in the spoken language, whether be for emphasis or in cases where there may be some confusion between conjugations.

See the main article for further details.


Main article: Spanish prepositions

Spanish has a relatively large number of prepositions, and does not use postpositions. The following list is traditionally recited:

A, ante, bajo, cabe, con, contra, de, desde, durante, en, entre, hacia, hasta, mediante, para, por, pro, según, sin, so, sobre, tras.

Lately, two new prepositions have been added: "durante" and "mediante", usually placed at the end.

This list includes two archaic prepositions (so and cabe), but leaves out two new Latinisms (vía and pro) as well as a large number of very important compound prepositions.

Prepositions in Spanish do not, as in English, change a verb's meaning. For example, to translate "run out of water" "run up a bill" "run down a pedestrian" "run in a thief" into Spanish requires competely different verbs, and not simply the use of "correr" ("run") plus the corresponding Spanish prepositions.

See the main article for further information.



The conjunctions y ("and") and o ("or") change form depending on the first syllable sound of the word they precede:

Y is replaced by e if the next word begins with an i or hi (generally any i sound). Thus, Fernando y Isabella becomes Fernando e Isabella. In this way Spanish avoids having to insert a hiatus between the two otherwise identical vowel sounds. However, there are two enmiends:

1) The word beginning with i or hi has a diphthong at beginning -- for instance, Leche y hierro.

2) Such y has emphasis ("acento fónico"). For instance: ¿Y Inés?

O is replaced by u if the next word starts with an o or ho (again, generally any o sound). Thus, Sujeto o objeto becomes Sujeto u objeto. [Note the cacophony in the o sound if o is used]

In a purely pragmatic construction, o takes an accent (ó) only when placed between two numbers so as to clarify between the conjunction o and the number zero. So, Desean 2 ó 3 más instead of Desean 2 o 3 más. However, if it's clear due to typography used, there's no need to put such a graphic accent.

Cleft sentences

A cleft sentence is one formed with the copular verb (generally with a dummy pronoun like "it" as its subject), plus a word that "cleaves" the sentence, plus a subordinate clause. They are often used to put emphasis on a part of the sentence. Here are some examples of English sentences and their cleft versions:

  • "I did it." → "It was I who did it." or colloquially "It was me that did it."
  • "You'll stop smoking through willpower." → "It's through willpower that you'll stop smoking."

Spanish does not usually employ such a structure in simple sentences. The translations of sentences like these can be readily analyzed as being normal sentences containing relative pronouns. Spanish is capable of expressing such concepts without a special cleft structure thanks to its flexible word order.

For example, if we translate a cleft sentence such as "It was John who lost the keys", we get Fue Juan el que perdió las llaves. Whereas the English sentence uses a special structure, the Spanish one does not. The verb fue has no dummy subject, and the pronoun el que is not a cleaver but a nominalising relative pronoun meaning "the [male] one that". Provided we respect the parings of "el que" and "las llaves", we can play with the word order of the Spanish sentence without affecting its structure - although each permutation would, to a native speaker, give a subtly different shading of emphasis.

For example, we can say Juan fue el que perdió las llaves ("Juan was the one who lost the keys") or El que perdió las llaves fue Juan ("The one who lost the keys was Juan"). As can be seen from the translations, if this word order is chosen, English stops using the cleft structure (there is no more dummy "it" and a nominalising relative is used instead of the cleaving word) whilst in Spanish no words have changed.

Here are some examples of such sentences:

  • Fue Juan el que perdió las llaves. = "It was John who lost the keys."
  • Son sólo tres días los que te quedan. = "It is only three days that you have left."
  • Seré yo quien se lo diga. = "It will be I/me who tells him."
  • Son pocos los que vienen y se quedan. = lit. "It's not many who come and stay"

Note that it is ungrammatical to try to use just que to cleave such sentences as in English, but using quien in singular or quienes in plural is grammatical.

  • *Fue Juan que perdió las llaves. (incorrect)
  • Fue Juan quien perdió las llaves. (correct)

When prepositions come into play, things become complicated. Structures unambiguously identifiable as cleft sentences are used. The verb ser introduces the stressed element and then there is a nominaliser. Both of these are preceded by the relevant preposition. For example:

  • Fue a mí a quien le dio permiso. = "It was me that he gave permission to", lit. "It was to me to whom he gave permission.")
  • Es para nosotros para quienes se hizo esto. = "It's us that this was made for", lit. "It's for us for whom this was made"
  • Es por eso por lo que lo hice. = "That's why I did it", more literally: "It's because of that that I did it", or completely literally: "It's because of that because of which I did it."
  • Es así como se debe hacer = "It's this way that it must be done", lit. "It's this way how it must be done" (como replaces longer expressions such as la forma en que)

This structure is quite wordy, and is therefore often avoided by not using a cleft sentence at all. Emphasis is conveyed just by word order and stressing with the voice (indicated here within bolding):

  • Me dio permiso a . = "He gave permission to me"
  • Se hizo esto para nosotros. = "This was done for us"
  • Por eso lo hice. = "I did it because of that"
  • Se debe hacer así = "It must be done this way"

In casual speech, the complex cleaving pronoun is often reduced to que, just as it is reduced to "that" in English. Foreign learners are advised to avoid this.

  • Es para nosotros que se hizo esto.
  • Es por eso que lo hice.
  • Fue a mí que le dio permiso. (preferred: a quien)
  • Es así que se debe hacer (preferred: como)

In the singular, the subordinate clause can agree with either the relative pronoun or with the subject of the main sentence, though the latter is seldom used. However, in the plural, only agreement with the subject of the main sentence is acceptable. Therefore:Singular

  • Yo fui el que me lo bebí = "I was the one who drank it" (agreement with subject of main sentence)
  • Yo fui el que se lo bebió (preferred form with same meaning, agreement with el que)
  • La que lo soy yo = "I'm the one who knows" (agreement with subject of main sentence)
  • La que lo sabe soy yo = (preferred form with same meaning, agreement with la que)Plural
  • Somos los únicos que no tenemos ni un centavo para apostar = "We're the only ones who don't have even a cent to bet" (agreement with subject of main sentence) (from dialogue of Gabriel García Márquez novel)
  • Vosotras sois las que lo sabéis = "You girls are the ones who know" (agreement with subject of main sentence)

Dialectal variations

Forms of address

The use of usted and ustedes as a polite form of address is fairly universal. However, there are variations in informal address. Ustedes replaces vosotros in much of Andalusia, the Canary Islands and Latin America, except in the most liturgical or poetic of styles. In some parts of Andalusia, the pronoun ustedes is used with the standard vosotros endings.

Depending on the region, Latin Americans may also replace the singular with usted or vos. The choice of pronoun is a tricky issue and can even vary from village to village. Travellers are often advised to play it safe and call everyone usted.

A feature of the speech of the Dominican Republic and other areas where syllable-final /s/ is completely silent is that there is no audible difference between the second and third person singular form of the verb. This leads to redundant pronoun use, for example, the tagging on of ¿tú ves? (pronounced tuve) to the ends of sentences, where other speakers would say ¿ves?.


Vos was used in medieval Castilian as a polite form, like the French vous and the Italian voi, and it used the same forms as vosotros. This gave three levels of formality:

  • Tú quieres
  • Vos querés (originally queredes)
  • Vuestra merced quiere (today usted)

Whereas vos was lost in standard Spanish, some dialects lost , and began using vos as the informal pronoun. The exact connotations of the use of vos depend on the exact dialect. In most places it is associated with low socio-economic levels. In Argentina, however, it is used by everyone and is fully accepted. Argentinian voseo uses the pronoun vos for , but maintains te as an object pronoun and tu and tuyo as possessives. Verbs corresponding to vos are formed by removing the final R from the infinitive and adding an S, while maintaining the stress on the final syllable: vos hablás, vos temés and vos partís. There are only two irregular verbs in the vos form: ir (vos vas) and ser (vos sos).

Other combinations are possible. Chileans may use standard vosotros endings for vos.

Vosotros imperative: -ar for -ad

Colloquially, the infinitive is used instead of the true imperative for vosotros. Not to be imitated by learners.

  • ¡Venir! for ¡Venid!
  • ¡Callaros! for ¡Callaos!
  • ¡Iros! for ¡Idos!

Superfluous -s on form

A centuries-old tendency in uneducated speech throughout the Spanish-speaking world is the addition of an -s to the second person singular of the preterite or simple past. For example, lo hicistes for lo hiciste; hablastes tú for hablaste tú. This is due to the fact that this is the only tense in which the form does not end in an -s. This solecism removes this irregularity.

Ladino has gone further with hablates.

The imperfect subjunctive

The two forms of the imperfect subjunctive are largely interchangeable. The use of one or the other is largely a matter of personal taste and dialect. Many speakers only use the -ra forms. Many only use the -ra forms in speech, but vary between the two in writing. Many, especially in Castile, may spontaneously use either, or even prefer the rarer -se forms.






External links


  • A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish — ISBN 0-340-58390-8
  • Diccionario essential Santillana de la lengua española — ISBN 84-294-3415-1
  • Manual de dialectología hispánica — ISBN 84-344-8218-5
  • Cassell's Contemporary Spanish — ISBN 0-02-595915-8
  • Hablar y escribir correctamente. Gramática normativa del español actual. Leonardo Gómez Torrego — ISBN 84-7635-653-6

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