Posted by: janecronin | June 26, 2016

Word Order

One of the hardest things about learning a foreign language is coming to terms with differences in word order. This is particularly difficult for those of us who were brought up as monolingual.  Given that our thinking processes are conducted in our own language, it is logical that our thoughts should follow the same sequence as words do in our speech.  When we come across a sequence of words in another language which is different from our own, this can produce a sort of mental paralysis.  If the words don´t follow the same order as the way we think, where on earth do we start?

Some of the examples of this phenomenon in Spanish are well known, for example the fact that adjectives usually follow nouns rather than precede them.   The example often quoted is a “beer big” (cerveza grande) rather than a “big beer”.  However normal the English version seems to us, I’m inclined to think that it makes more sense to name something first and describe it afterwards: “the car … big and green” (el coche grande y verde) is possibly more logical than “the big, green …. car”, if you see what I mean.

Another difference that can create a stumbling block is that in Spanish we do not split verbal phrases by placing other words between them.  For example, in English we can say “What is your friend doing?” whereas in Spanish the word order is “What is doing your friend?” (¿Qué está haciendo tu amigo?): we cannot split the verbal structure “is doing”.

There are other more complex grammatical structures that require us to practically think backwards.  For example, a sentence like: “Me lo dijiste ayer”, if we were to say it in the same order in English, would be “To me it you said yesterday”.  If you happen to be learning these wonderful things at the moment, namely direct and indirect object pronouns, please take heart that you are not the only one who has ever had major problems with them.  The logic is relatively straightforward, once it has been explained clearly several times, but the fact that the word order is so different from English creates a big stumbling block for most of us at first.

Many years ago I did a short course in Esperanto, an artificial language invented in the nineteenth century by a Polish ophthalmologist.  I always thought it was brilliant and still regret the fact that it was never adopted as the international language of communication instead of English.  One of the best and most intelligent things about Esperanto is that words can go in any order and still make sense.  Thus, it can be spoken by people of different languages in the order of their own thoughts.



  1. Our word sequences and thought processes. Yes, as I struggle to read, listen, understand and interpret Spanish I am very aware of these challenges!

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