Why is writing in Spanish and translating from English or English from Spanish so baffling to learners of either language? The structure and word order of Spanish often does not correspond to the sentence structure and word order of English.
Knowing the Rules
Ever try writing letters in Spanish or preparing a report, essay or composition without knowing the rules for writing in Spanish? How about using one of those online “translation" programs to convert a paper written in English to Spanish? I f you really want a hoot, try using an online translation program to convert a Spanish text into English. You are likely to come up with a nonsensical mish-mash that will make “Jabberwocky" look like Nobel-prize-winning prose.
Computer-based translations of some languages are a snap, so why all the problems with Spanish to English translations and writing in Spanish? Despite the apparent “relationship" between Spanish and English, there are a myriad of differences grammatically which show that English and Spanish are not, in fact, closely related. Spanish is a true Romance (Italic / Latin) language family group language along with Italian, Portuguese, French, Provencal, Catalan, and Romanian. Yes, Romanian! English on the other hand, is a de facto relative of the Germanic (Low German) language family which includes modern-day Low German, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and Afrikaans. Add High German into the mix and the Yiddish language comes into play as well. Knowing the linguistic roots of Spanish and the origins of English, you’d hardly expect the languages to be similar at all. It’s no wonder the sentence structures of the two languages can be so dissimilar.
To better understand how to structure a sentence in Spanish, let’s look at some practical examples of just how sentence structure in the two languages works. First, we’ll examine the use of word order.
English: The student is intelligent.
This word order of: article, subject noun, verb and adjective (complement) is pretty straightforward in English.
Now though, let’s look at how you can write this in Spanish.
Spanish: El estudiante es inteligente.
Here, we duplicate the original sentence structure of English. So far, so good. But now we come to the payoff. The following are also correctly structured sentences in Spanish – but some would not work in English.
Spanish: Es inteligente el estudiante.
The word order here is verb, adjective, article, subject noun.
Es el estudiante inteligente.
The word order here now is verb, article, subject noun, adjective.
Inteligente es el estudiante.
The word order found here is adjective, verb, article, subject noun.
Placing the verb first in a sentence usually indicates the formation of a question or interrogative, although this may not necessarily be true in Spanish as it may also indicate a conclusion.
Word order in a sentence can be used to shift emphasis from one grammatical element to another, especially as the sentence complexity increases by the use of additional words and lexical phrases. In Spanish then, several different word orders are usually possible, but may or may not convey a slight shift in meaning.
Word Order Shifts Emphasis
Let’s look at another example of using word order for writing in Spanish to shift emphasis in a sentence.
English: Juan Jose sang a song for his Mother.
The word order here is: subject, verb, article, direct object, prepositional phrase.
Spanish: Juan José canto una canción para su madre.
Once again, we have the same word order in both languages for this sentence. Again, we can alter the word order of writing in Spanish, as illustrated by these examples. Note the changing placement of the prepositional phrase in Spanish, in particular.
Canto Juan José una canción para su madre. Juan José canto para su madre una canción. Para su madre canto Juan José una canción.
In addition to these possibilities, there are still more which are possible. It’s certainly less of a surprise now why there can be such confusion between writing in Spanish and English.
More on Altering Word Order
Word order in Spanish can be altered for:
- A change of meter and rhyme as in poetry
- Dramatic effect
- Altering meter of the sentence or phrase as in a song
- Establishing other poetic effects
- Altering the emphasis of the sentence elements
Thinking about these aspects of writing in Spanish will help you to learn Spanish with less confusion and fewer errors. Spanish language learners should not think of Spanish as only having the structure of the English language. Instead, they should be open to the increased possibilities obtainable through the use of changes in Spanish word order. Many of the rules for writing in Spanish transfer to and are valid for other linguistic family language members, making the learning and use of these rules a valuable tool.