When you learn Spanish, grammar rules can overwhelm you, but the process of learning it doesn’t have to be a headache!
Yes, all languages have their grammatical guidelines, and Spanish is no exception.
Still, if you know some basic Spanish grammar, you’ll be able to sound more natural and keep incorporating those rules little by little.
So, what are the 10 essential rules of basic Spanish grammar? Are you ready? ¡Aquí vamos!
Rule #1: Spanish Uses Gender
In English you use the pronoun “the” to name every noun… and that’s it.
Basic Spanish grammar quickly becomes tricky when you discover that Spanish is a gendered language: nouns have one of them. And the surrounding pronouns, articles, and adjectives reflect it.
Words in Spanish can have two genders: masculine and feminine. This may sound strange, but la cocina (the kitchen) is a feminine noun, and el baño (the bathroom) is a masculine one.
Why? Well, it has to do with the evolution of language. And it’s not unusual at all; in fact, some languages have three, four, and even five genders!
So, how do you know if a word is masculine or feminine? In general, you can tell by looking at its ending:
- If it ends with an -o, it’s most likely masculine (el abogado, “the masculine lawyer”)
- If it ends with an -a, it’s most likely feminine (la abogada).
Of course, there are exceptions (many of them, actually).
Many words end with an -a and are masculine, such as el problema (the problem), or el cura (the priest). And, in this case, it’s super important because it allows us to differentiate it from la cura (the cure).
But don’t worry about this. As we said, the important thing is that you know the basics; then, you can go to a dictionary if you have doubts about a particular noun.
Also, by using the StoryLearning method and reading books in Spanish, you'll pick up common nouns that don't follow the pattern quickly and easily. So don't let the grammar villain put you off learning basic Spanish grammar.
Rule #2: Verbs Are Divided Into 3 Conjugations
Verbs are those words we use to express actions, processes, or states that affect people and objects.
In English, you use verbs all the time, and in Spanish the same thing happens. But not all verbs are the same, nor are all verbs conjugated with the same logic.
There are three main types of Spanish verb conjugation:
- First conjugation: verbs ending in -ar, like cantar (to sing) or amar (to love).
- Second conjugation: verbs ending in -er, like comer (to eat) or beber (to drink).
- Third conjugation: verbs ending in -ir, such as partir (to leave).
Rule #3. Verbs Have Modes
Verbal modes indicate a certain position of the person who speaks regarding what is said.
There are three defined modes:
- Indicative. You use this mode to express actions that are happening right now, happened before or will happen: concrete actions. For example, Hoy es un día muy bonito (Today is a beautiful day), Ayer fui al parque (Yesterday I went to the park) or Mañana daré un importante examen (Tomorrow I will have an important exam).
- Subjunctive. It's used to express desired or possible actions: Espero que no llueva mañana (I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow), or Desearía que estuvieras aquí (I wish you were here).
- Imperative. It's used to express orders or requests: Dile a María que mañana la llamaré (Tell Maria that I will call her tomorrow), Trabaja duro y recibirás tu recompensa (Work hard and you will receive your reward).
Rule #4. There Are Many Past Tenses In Spanish
In Spanish, there are multiple ways to use the past tenses:
- The pretérito indefinido is used to express an action of the punctual past; that is, an action that happened and ended at a certain time. For example, Me casé en 2020 (I got married in 2020).
- The pretérito imperfecto is an action from the past that doesn’t have such established limits. For example, Cuando era niño, jugaba mucho con mis primos (When I was a child, I played a lot with my cousins).
- The pretérito perfecto is used for actions close to the present, such as Últimamente no he hecho mucha actividad física (I haven't been doing much physical activity lately).
- The pretérito pluscuamperfecto is used to express an action completed before another action in the past: Él ya se había marchado cuando yo llegué (He had already left when I arrived).
Still confused about the Spanish past tense? Check out this post on the difference between Spanish preterite and imperfect tenses.
Rule #5 You Don’t Need To Use The Subject In Every Sentence
If you want to sound more natural in Spanish, don’t use pronouns in every sentence.
In Spanish, the verb conjugations have so much information that you can avoid saying the pronoun.
- I write a book: Escribo un libro (implied subject: Yo).
- He/she draws a tree: Dibuja un árbol (implied subject: Él or ella).
- You have a beautiful house: Tienes una casa hermosa (implied subject: Tú).
Rule #6. Spanish Uses English Word Order
You don’t have to worry too much about word order when forming a sentence, because the syntactic structure of Spanish is the same as that of English: SVO (Subject + Verb + Object):
- Mi hermana es doctora (My sister is a doctor).
- Yo viajo alrededor del mundo (I travel around the world).
However, as I already said, sometimes it isn't necessary to make the subject explicit: Es doctora ((She) is a doctor); Viajo por el mundo ((I) travel around the world).
Finally, consider that Spanish is a little more flexible than English in this regard, and sometimes the SOV model (Subject + Object + Verb) can be used too, especially when we already know the object: Él cantó una canción (He sang a song) could be Cantó la canción ((He) sang it).
Rule #7. Questions Have The Same Structure As Statements In English
Many times, the difference between a statement and a question in Spanish is only marked by the context and the intonation you use.
This means that you don’t need to change the order of the sentence structure, as is the case in English.
- Te vas a comer esa naranja (You're going to eat that orange).
- ¿Te vas a comer esa naranja? (Are you going to eat that orange?).
- El mar está tranquilo hoy (The sea is calm today).
- ¿El mar está tranquilo hoy? (Is the sea calm today?).
Rule #8. Not All Countries Use The Pronoun Tú
In English, the second person singular pronoun is simple: it’s always you, regardless of whether we are addressing someone close, such as a friend, or someone to whom we must show some respect, such as a professor.
But in Spanish there are two second person singular pronouns you’ll use depending on the context: tú and vos.
Let’s see an example with the sentence “You have a job that you love”:
- Tú is used in informal contexts: (Tú) tienes un trabajo que amas.
- Usted is used in formal contexts: (Usted) tiene un trabajo que ama.
The “problem” is that not just the pronoun changes, but also the conjugation of many verbs that accompany it, especially those in the present tense:
- Tú tienes (You have) becomes Vos tenés.
- Tú haces (You do) becomes Vos hacés.
- Tú quieres (You want) becomes Vos querés.
Rule #9. Adjectives Are Placed After The Noun
In English, adjectives always are before the noun they accompany: “a red dress”, “a round table”, “a beautiful day”.
But Spanish adjectives usually come after the noun, especially when they express:
- Colour: ¿Te gusta mi camiseta roja? (Do you like my red shirt?).
- Shape or size: Me compré un auto enorme (I bought a huge car).
- Type: Tengo un teléfono inteligente (I have a smartphone).
- Condition: En este barrio, hay muchas casas viejas (There are many old houses in this neighbourhood).
- Origin: Me encanta la comida argentina (I love Argentine food).
If you’re wondering if adjectives can sometimes come before the noun, the answer is yes, especially in a more formal or even literary register:
- Escuché una bonita canción (I heard a nice song).
- Sus bellos ojos eran azules (Her beautiful eyes were blue).
Rule #10 Spanish Uses Accent Marks
The accent marks, known as tildes in Spanish, are widely used above the vowels.
They're indispensable: that little line can completely change the meaning of a word, or even a sentence. Do you want to see a real example of how important accent marks are?
Here we go:
- El bebé (The baby).
- Él bebe (He drinks).
And now, let’s see when to use the accent mark in Spanish:
- Agudas words. The accent is on the last syllable: canción (song), limón (lemon), or señor (sir). Only those that end with a vowel, an N or an S have an accent.
- Grave words. The stress is placed on the penultimate syllable: árbol (tree), gato (cat), or azúcar (sugar). They only have the accent mark if they DON’T end with a vowel, an N, or an S.
- Esdrújula words. They have the accent on the antepenultimate syllable: murciélago (bat), cartílago (cartilage) or lágrima (tear). They ALWAYS have the accent mark.
Final Thoughts On Basic Spanish Grammar
Well done – you've reached the end of this guide to the essentials of basic Spanish grammar.
There are many more rules, and some of them are quite hard, but little by little you’ll be able to incorporate them all!
If you are looking for a practical and entertaining way to continue improving your Spanish, try the StoryLearning method.
Through stories, you are going to listen to new vocabulary, learn grammar and discover accents from a lot of Spanish-speaking countries.