Sentence Structure

What is a sentence?

A sentence (una oración) is a grammatical unit consisting of a subject and a predicate. The subject is always a noun and never a preposition. The heart of the predicate is a verb, which can be conjugated in a simple or compound tense or can be part of a verbal periphrasis.

Like in English, Spanish sentences always begin with a capital letter and finish with a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark.

Statements, clauses and phrases

  • A statement (un enunciado) is a sequence of words that provide information. Statements can consist of one word, one clause or several clauses.
Example:
¡Enhorabuena, campeones!Congratulations, champions!
  • A clause (una oración) is a grammatical structure consisting of a subject and a predicate. Each clause can only have one main verb and each main verb can only refer to one subject. This means that if a statement contains several verbs it contains several clauses.
Example:
Me llamo Carlota. → one statement, one clauseMy name is Carlota.
Me llamo Carlota y tengo diecisiete años. → one statement, two clausesMy name is Carlota and I am 17 years old.
  • A proposición is a clause that has a coordinating or subordinate relation to another. These are known as coordinating clauses, main clauses and subordinate clauses.
Example:
Me llamo Carlota y tengo diecisiete años. → a sentence consisting of two coordinating clauses
  • A phrase (una frase) is a statement without a verb.
Example:
¡Cuánto tiempo, Carlota!It’s been a while, Carlota!
literally: Long time, Carlota!

Types of sentences

Spanish sentences can be personal or impersonal.

Personal sentences

Personal sentences communicate information from a speaker, who is the subject of the sentence. The subject and verb always agree in number and gender.

We can classify personal sentences according to the attitude of the speaker: they can confirm, question, order, reject etc. From this perspective, we can determine the following types of sentences:

  • Declarative sentences (oraciones enunciativas o declarativas): the speaker confirms or denies something. These are divided into affirmative sentences and negative sentences. They begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop (.).
Example:
Tengo hambre. (affirmative)I’m hungry.
No tengo hambre. (negative)I’m not hungry.
  • Interrogative sentences (oraciones interrogativas): the speaker formulates a question with the purpose of receiving information. These sentences can be direct or indirect. Direct questions begin and end with question marks (¿…?) while indirect questions take the form of a declarative sentence.
Example:
¿Qué hay para comer? (direct)What is there to eat?
Me pregunto qué hay para comer. (indirect)I wonder what there is to eat.
  • Exclamatory sentences (oraciones exclamativas): the speaker confirms or denies something in an impassioned way. These sentences begin and end with exclamation marks (¡…!)
Example:
¡Qué hambre tengo!I’m so hungry!
  • Imperative sentences (oraciones imperativas): the speaker expresses a command, request or suggestion. The verb is conjugated in the imperative mood.
Example:
Lávate los dientes después de comer.Brush your teeth after eating.
¡Vamos a la playa esta tarde!Let’s go to the beach this afternoon!

Impersonal sentences

Impersonal sentences have no subject: they communicate information independent of a speaker. In these sentences the verb is always conjugated in the third person singular.

Example:
Para comer hay tortilla de patatas.There is Spanish omelette to eat.

How to identify impersonal sentences

One trick to identify impersonal sentences is to change the nouns in the sentence to their plural form. If the verb can remain in the third person singular even when the nouns are plural it is an impersonal sentence; if the verb is forced to change to agree with the nouns it is a personal sentence.

Examples:
Para comer hay tortilla de patatas.There is Spanish omelette to eat.
Para comer hay tortillas de patatas y calamares. → impersonal sentenceThere is Spanish omelettes and calamari to eat.
En este restaurante se come comida tradicional.In this restaurant traditional food is eaten.
En este restaurante se comen platos tradicionales. → personal sentenceIn this restaurant traditional dishes are eaten.

Simple sentences and compound tenses

Aside from the intention of the speaker, we can also classify Spanish sentences into simple or compound sentences.

Simple sentences (oraciones simples) consist of a subject and a predicate.

Example:
Todas las noches ceno un vaso de leche o un yogur. Every night I have a glass of milk or a yoghurt for dinner.

Compound sentences (oraciones compuestas) consist of two or more clauses that are connected by juxtaposition, coordination or subordination:

  • Juxtaposing clauses (oraciones yuxtapuestas): clauses connected by punctuation (comma, semi colon, colon).
    Example:
    Todas las noches ceno un vaso de leche o un yogur: no me gusta ir a dormir con la barriga llena.Every night I have a glass of milk or a yoghurt for dinner: I don’t like going to bed on a full stomach.
  • Coordinating clauses (oraciones coordinadas): clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction.
    Example:
    Todas las noches ceno un vaso de leche o un yogur y me voy a dormir temprano.Every night I have a glass of milk or a yoghurt for dinner and I go to bed early.
  • Subordinate clauses (oraciones subordinadas): are also known as dependent clauses in English because they can’t form a sentence without a main clause. These clauses are connected by a subordinating conjunction.
    Example:
    Todas las noches ceno un yogur para no irme a dormir con la barriga llena.Every night I eat a yoghurt so that I don’t go to bed on a full stomach.

Subordinate clauses

In order to make sense, subordinate clauses depend on an element within the main clause (antecedent) or on the main clause itself. They are introduced by conjunctions or relative pronouns and adverbs.

  • Relative clauses (oraciones de relativo): these are subordinate clauses that provide additional information about something in the main clause. Relative clauses are introduced by pronouns, determiners or relative adverbs that act as the link between the relative clause and the main clause.
    Example:
    Me gustó mucho la paella que comimos el otro día en aquel restaurante.I really liked the paella that we ate in that restaurant the other day.
  • Conditional clauses (oraciones condicionales): these are a type of subordinate clause that indicate a condition that must be fulfilled in order for the action in the main clause to happen. Conditional clauses are introduced by the conjunction si (if).
    Example:
    Cuenta conmigo si vuelves a ir a ese restaurante.You can count on me if you ever go to that restaurant again.
  • Clauses with the infinitive, participle and gerund (oraciones de infinitivo, participio y gerundio): these are subordinate clauses that express the same content of a personal clause in a shorter way.
    Example:
    Habiendo probado muchos restaurantes, creo que ese es el mejor.Having tried many restaurants, I think that one is the best.

In general, subordinate clauses follow the main clause on which they depend. If they come before the main clause the two are separated by a comma.

Types of subordinate clauses

Subordinate clauses can be categorised according to the function they serve in relation to the main clause.

Noun clauses

Noun clauses (subordinadas sustantivas), also known as content clauses, perform the function of a noun in a compound sentence.

  • They can act as the subject of the sentence;
    Examples:
    Es verdad que he llegado tarde. → Eso es verdad.It’s true that I’ve arrived late. → That’s true.
    Me alegra que te guste el trabajo nuevo. → Eso me alegra.I’m happy that you like your new job. → That makes me happy.
  • They can also act as the direct object of a sentence;
    Examples:
    Deseo que deje de llover. → Lo deseo.I wish that it would stop raining. → I wish for that.
    El joven me preguntó dónde estaba la oficina de correos. → El joven me lo preguntó.The teen asked me where the post office was. → The teen asked me that.
  • noun clauses can also act as objects that are preceded by a preposition (complemento de régimen).
    Examples:
    Confío en que le gustará el regalo. → Confío en ello.I trust that you will like the present.
    Entérate de si mañana es festivo. → Entérate de ello.Find out if tomorrow is a holiday.

Adjective clauses

Adjective clauses (oraciones adjetivas) act as an adjective in a compound sentence; they describe a noun.

These clauses are also known as subordinate relative clauses. They can be defining or non-defining.

Examples:
Los platos que usamos ayer en la cena son un regalo de mi hermano. → definingThe plates that we used for dinner yesterday were a gift from my brother.
Los platos, que aún están sin lavar, son un regalo de mi hermano. → non-definingThe plates, which are still dirty, were a gift from my brother.

Adverb clauses

Adverb clauses (subordinadas adverbiales) play the role of an adverb in a compound sentence: they express the way in which the action of the main clause occurs.

Examples:
He llegado tarde porque perdí el autobús. → adverb clause for reasonI’m late because I missed the bus.
He ido al médico para que me dé una receta. → adverb clause for purposeI went to the doctor to get a prescription.
Hemos quedado donde nos conocimos. → adverb clause of place (allí)We met up where we met.
He preparado la tarta como dice la receta. → adverb clause of manner (así)I made the cake like the recipe said.
Te llamo cuando llegue a casa. → adverb clause of time (entonces)I’ll call you when I get home.

Only the adverb clauses of place, manner and time can be replaced by an adverb.

Types of predicates

Another way of categorising clauses is according to the type of predicate they contain. A predicate is the part of the sentence that modifies the subject; it always contains a verb and may contain extra elements. The predicate is determined by the nature of the verb, which means we can identify three types of clauses from this perspective: transitive, intransitive and copulative.

  • Transitive clauses (oraciones transitivas): contain a direct object (complemento directo (CD)).
    Example:
    Mi hermana habla japonés y alemán.My sister speaks Japanese and German.
  • Intransitive clauses (oraciones intransitivas): never contain a direct object.
    Example:
    Nací en diciembre de 1988.I was born in December 1988.
  • Copulative clauses (oraciones copulativas): these are clauses formed with the verbs ser, estar and parecer. These verbs do not have their own meaning, they only act as a link between the subject and the predicate, the latter of which is usually an adjective or a noun that describes the subject in some way. This adjective or noun is known as an attribute (atributo).
    Examples:
    La habitación es grande.The room is big.
    Mi hermano es pintor.My sister is a painter.
    El cielo está soleado.The sky is sunny.
    El conductor del autobús parece cansado.The bus driver seems tired.

Direct and indirect style

Direct speech refers to statements that are made in the first person or statements that are repeated word for word within quotation marks. Indirect speech is when the words of another person are reported using a reporting verb.

Example:
Me gusta mucho este restaurante. → direct speech in the first personI really like this restaurant.
Laura exclamó: «Me gusta mucho este restaurante». → quote in quotation marksLaura exclaimed, "I really like this restaurant!"
Laura dice que le gusta mucho ese restaurante. → indirect speechLaura said that she really liked the restaurant.