Spanish is often described as putting focused constituents at the end of the sentence, leading for instance to VOS word order in sentences with a focused subject. (For instance, Maria Zubizarreta's 1998 book Prosody, Focus, and Word Order describes this as the standard way of focusing a subject — and the author's a native Spanish speaker, so I trust her intuition.)

So for instance, according to the descriptions I've read, the normal answer to a question like (1) would be (3), and (2) in that context would be infelicitous.

  1. ¿Quien compró el diario?
  2. MARÍA compró el diario.
  3. Compró el diario MARÍA.

Today I found out that a friend of mine from Peru has exactly the opposite intuitions. For him, the normal way to answer a question like (1) would be (2), and (3) in that context would be infelicitous.

So now I'm wondering about the broader geographical distribution of these two word orders. In what parts of the (Spanish-speaking) world is (2) the default way of answering a question like (1)? In what parts is (3) the default?

  • 2
    I would be very interested to know the answer myself. Although I'm sure you know this from your own experience, information structure properties are tricky things to learn about via elicitation/introspection; are there any corpora of naturalistic Spanish?
    – user483
    Mar 8, 2012 at 2:49
  • @jlovegren -- There are definitely Spanish corpora out there. The trouble is that it's difficult to find information-structural patterns in a corpus automatically. If all you have are the raw words, or even syntactic trees, it's hard to tell an S O V clause from an all-new S O V one (using boldface to represent focus here). That would turn an investigation of this into a real research project and not just a quick search. Mar 13, 2012 at 14:32
  • makes sense. I was in fact quite pleased with the answer @MarkBeadles gave after I posted my comment.
    – user483
    Mar 13, 2012 at 15:10
  • 2
    It doesn't seem common to me to say María at the end, however in my dialect, Andaluz, we frequently put pronouns at the end even if the emphasis is slight. "Compré el diario yo." "Iba a apagar la luz, ahora la apagas tú." "¿Quieres que le cambie el aceite? - No, lo voy a hacer yo." Mar 16, 2012 at 6:05
  • @DanVelleman I made a survey for your question once, but I see it has been solved. The survey didn't get many answers anyway.
    – Alenanno
    Jun 1, 2012 at 22:55

4 Answers 4


Gabriel in On Focus, Prosody, and Word Order in Argentinian Spanish [PDF] did follow-on work to Zubizarreta which does look at the cross-dialectal question. The most relevant quote from his paper is:

[Buenos Aires dialect] data differ from the cross-dialectal data analyzed in Gabriel (2007) insofar as there is at least some evidence of VO[FS]. In the [Patagonian dialect] data, by contrast, not a single occurrence of VO[FS] was attested.

(I.e., in Porteño Spanish, "MARÍA compró el diario" and "compró el diario MARÍA" were both found, while in Patagonian Spanish, "compró el diario MARÍA" was never found.)

Of course this is limited to two Argentinian dialects, but it shows there is dialectal variation of focusing strategies.

Interestingly it is also a bit different than what you say are Zubizaretta's original results. In your example above you say that [FS]VO was infelicitous to Zubizaretta; but your South American friend found the opposite, in accord with Gabriel's results. So that may be yet another dialectal variation; I don't have access to Zubizaretta's book to know.

Also: Gabriel says that contrastive focus is treated differently than informational focus, and that phonetic stress is as important as movement for focusing constituents. Your examples above exhibit informational focus.

  • Fantastic. This is just the sort of thing I was looking for. Mar 13, 2012 at 14:29
  • 1
    I think you’ll find that with a clitic pronoun, the other ordering will appear. That is, Lo compró María. That sounds perfectly normal to my Iberian-trained ear.
    – tchrist
    Aug 4, 2012 at 20:39

User tchrist made an excellent point in a comment to an answer by Mark Beadles, which probably deserves to be expanded into a separate answer:

In many spoken varieties of Spanish, (3) will never be naturally produced (though it will be understood). But there will be focal contrasts such as:

(2)' MARÍA lo compró.

(3)' Lo compró MARÍA.


(4) María está.

(5) Está María.

My impression is that the focal contrast (2)'-(3)' and (4)-(5) is present in virtually all contemporary dialects of Spanish. Certainly it is in the dialect I am most familiar with: "standard" Colombian Spanish (i.e. the Bogotá dialect).

EDIT: To be clear, (4) would be the most natural default response (in Colombian Spanish) to a question, "María está allí?", and (5) would be the default response to a question such as, "Quién está allí?".


María compró el diario would be the normal answer to the question. I have spoken Spanish all my life, and can't think of anyone ever answering a question like (1) with (3).

  • 2
    Spanish of course has many dialects; the question is about how dialects may differ. So in your dialect (whichever that may be) you'd think one thing, but maybe someone from a different place would think something else. Mar 9, 2012 at 17:55
  • @Rafael -- For what it's worth, I agree with you. (3) sounds very strange to me too! And yet I've found that some people prefer it -- including the authors of some books on Spanish grammar. Mar 13, 2012 at 14:43
  • Also, out of curiosity -- where are you from? Mar 13, 2012 at 14:43
  • 3
    I'm not a native Spanish speaker, but my experience from Spain is that people would prefer (3). It's even more clear to me if "el diario" is replaced with "lo". "Lo compró MARÍA" (in this context) sounds more natural to me than "MARÍA lo compró".
    – dainichi
    May 17, 2012 at 7:44
  • @dainichi Agreed. Lo compró María sounds very natural, and puts the emphasis at the end.
    – tchrist
    Aug 4, 2012 at 20:39

I am not a native speaker of Spanish, I am Brazilian, but I speak Spanish as well. In my opinion, answer (2) would be the natural answer for (1), however (3) would be understandable.

It would be the same in Portuguese: (1)' Quem comprou o jornal? (2)' MARIA comprou o jornal.

Sentence (3)' would be odd. (3)' Comprou o jornal MARIA.

  • Spanish works differently than Portuguese for topic/focus marking. Sep 30, 2018 at 1:20

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