Lesson 6: Sentence Structure (I). Sentence Building
Makeup of sentences.
Sentences in Spanish (and in English too) consist of verbs that
indicate an action or describe a state, nouns and pronouns
that show who or what performs and (sometimes) receives the action or is
in the state, modifiers that make the nouns or the verb more
specific, and linking words (prepositions and conjunctions)
that join the elements with each other. In order to understand the meaning
of any sentence, in English as well as Spanish, one must consciously or
unconsciously identify its parts and establish their relationship.
Problems with terminology. What is a verb?
The usual classifications of nouns, verbs, adjectives,
and so on describe Latin quite accurately, since they were created for
that language. In the case of Spanish the terminology is sometimes
misleading. In this lesson we will discuss what a verb really is.
- Conjugated verb forms.
Verb, as used in the first paragraph (something that "indicates
an action or describes a state"), means a conjugated verb
form. The conjugated verb form is one which has person and
number. Nonconjugated verb forms do not have person and number,
do not function as verbs in a sentence, and a case can be made that they
shouldn't even be called verbs. They are the infinitive, the gerund or
present participle (-ando for -ar verbs, -iendo
for -er/-ir verbs), and the past participle (-ado for
-ar verbs, -ido for -er/-ir verbs discussed
- Nonconjugated verb forms
(I): the infinitive.
- In English the gerund functions as a noun ("seeing is
believing"). Spanish uses the infinitive for this purpose; the
Spanish infinitive functions as a noun. It can carry out any noun
function (subject, object, object of preposition), and it can only
carry out noun functions. In fact, the infinitive is a noun.
- The Spanish infinitive is often translated with the English
gerund. After a preposition, the infinitive must sometimes be
translated into English with a conjugated verb.
- Infinitive as subject and predicate noun: Ver es creer.
(Seeing is believing.)
- Infinitive as verb object: Queremos comer. (We want
- As object of a preposition: Hasta llegar, estamos sin
comida. (Until we arrive, we are without food.)
- As seen in the sentences just given, It is common for a
conjugated form to be combined with a nonconjugated form, in this
case the infinitive. The infinitive functions as subject, object,
predicate noun or adjective, or object of a preposition
- Two special constructions with the infinitive:
- A form of ir + an infinitive: to be going to do
what the infiinitive expresses.
- Voy a descansar. (I'm going to rest).
- Hay que + infinitive: an impersonal expression
meaning it is necessary to do what the infinitive
- Hay que leer el periódico. (It is
necessary to read the newspaper.)
The simple Spanish sentence:
one conjugated verb form, one clause. A clause is a major
building block of a sentence. Clauses are defined by conjugated verb
forms. Each clause contains one and only one conjugated verb form, and
each conjugated verb form in turn implies a clause. A simple sentence
consists of a single clause:
- Estamos en casa. (We are at home.)
- Vamos a la tienda. (We are going to the store.)
To understand the meaning of a clause in Spanish,
one starts with the verb. From the
verb one identifies the object and subject, and then the modifiers are
associated with the items modified. Each verb has only one possible
- Position does not identify subject and object, as it does in English.
In Spanish, the subject frequently follows the verb.
- Dicen los españoles... (Spaniards say...; "los españoles"
is the subject.)
- There is a special preference for placing the subject at the end of
- Eso dicen ellos. (They say that, that's what they say. Since the
verb is plural, ellos is the subject. Eso, since it
cannot be the subject, can only be the object. Eso is the
special neuter form of the demonstrative ese, and is used to
refer to topics of discussion, abstractions, ideas, or concepts that
have not been described by a noun).
- Many clauses do not contain a noun or pronoun, and the subject is
implied by the verb ending. As long as the person and number of the verb
remain the same, the subject will continue the same from one clause to
another, until a new noun or pronoun indicates a change. Therefore, the
subject is often found in a previous sentence.
- Los franceses viven en Francia. Hablan francés. ("The
French people live in France. They speak French." The
subject remains the same as in the previous sentence.
- When the direct object is
a person, an untranslatable preposition a is placed before it.
The function of this preposition is to identify the object and, by
elimination, the subject. There can be only one possible subject.
- Pablo quiere a su novia. ("Pablo loves his girlfriend."
If the a were not there, one could not conclude that Pablo
was the subject.)
- A Pablo quiere su novia. (His girlfriend loves Pablo.)
- A before an indirect
object is the same as English (and is translated).
- Tiramos piedras a los rompehuelgas. (We throw stones at the
- Conclusion: anything with an a before it is not the subject.
In fact, a subject noun or pronoun is never preceded by any
Exercise 1 - Functions of infinitives.
Identify the function of the infinitive in each of the following
sentences, then translate the sentence.
- Es necesario estudiar en esta clase.
- No sabemos cómo llegar a su casa.
- Vamos a nadar esta tarde.
- Para (in order to) tener éxito, una buena personalidad es
- En mayo es deseable plantar el maíz.
Exercise 2 - Translation of simple sentences.
Find the object, predicate noun, or predicate adjective (if any), then the
subject, and then translate the sentence.
- Son muy altos los precios de estos cuadros.
- Está en el comité el profesor de catalán.
(Catalán = the language spoken in Cataluña.)
- No está en la fábrica.
- Vivimos Pedro y yo en una casa nueva.
- A los españoles no quieren los franceses.
- Los muchachos y las muchachas todos están felices.
- Mi amigo y yo tomamos cerveza.
- ¿Toman ustedes los exámenes mañana?
- ¿Van al museo los chicos?
- Viene a la fiesta toda la familia.
Click here for
answers to these exercises.
Direct and indirect objects.
The direct object is what the action of the verb falls directly
upon. In the sentence "I give the flowers to my girlfriend," "flowers"
is the direct object, they are what is being given. "Girlfriend"
is the indirect object: she receives the direct object, the
For more help with this topic, see the book English Grammar for
Students of Spanish, by Emily Spinelli, has been useful to thousand
sof Spanish students. It can be purchase for $12.95 plus shipping from the
edition is expected in 1998.
This page Copyright © 1998 Daniel Eisenberg. Please report errors
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