Today we’re going to look at, what is in my opinion, one of the most difficult aspects of Spanish grammar: object pronouns. So, without further ado, let’s see if we can make this somewhat tricky subject seem a little more manageable.
There are two types of object pronoun: direct object
and indirect object.
Before we look at each type in more detail. Let’s briefly explain what direct and indirect objects are in relation to a sentence construction.
Previously, we have learnt that the subject
of a sentence is the person or thing that is doing something.
By contrast: the object
of a sentence is the person or thing being acted upon by the subject.
So, the subject
is the person or thing doing something, and the object
is having the said thing done to it.
As mentioned, there are two types of object: Direct and indirect.
Direct objects are the things that the subject acts upon. Whereas indirect objects are the recipients of the action.
Let’s look at an example construction in English:
gave the book
In this sentence, David
is the subject
as he is doing the action of giving. The book
is the direct object
as it is being given (and thus being acted upon), and María
is the indirect object
as she is the recipient.
By using pronouns, we can replace all the nouns in the sentence:
So far so good, right?
Let’s look at in a little more detail direct and indirect object pronouns found within Spanish, so we can begin to see how to use them in combination with verbs. Direct Object Pronouns
Returning to the six-form paradigm that verbs and subject pronouns observe. We may also group object pronouns accordingly: Direct object pronouns
| ||Singular ||Plural |
|1st Person ||me (me) ||nos (us) |
|2nd Person ||te (you) ||os (you all) |
|3rd Person ||lo, la (it, him, her, you formal) ||los, las (them, you all formal) |
Notice that in the third-person, we have masculine and feminine versions of the pronoun, which of course, must agree with the object.
Let’s see some example constructions where we will replace the direct object with a suitable pronoun.
|Original statement ||Meaning ||Using pronouns ||Meaning |
|David tiene el mapa ||David has the map ||David lo tiene ||David has it |
|Compraremos seis cervezas ||We will buy six beers ||Las compraremos ||We will buy them |
|María mira a David ||María looks at David ||María lo mira ||María looks at him |
|¡Llama a David y María! ||Call David and María ||¡Llámalos! ||Call them! |
It’s worth noting at this point: When referring to direct objects in the 1st or 2nd person. We almost always use pronouns. For instance, we can make statements like “He’s calling you and I
tomorrow”, but that is a strange construction, when we’d normally use an object pronoun: “He’s calling us
In English, direct object pronoun placement is fairly straightforward, as we simply swap out the noun for the appropriate pronoun. So “David has the keys
” becomes “David has them
In Spanish though, we have to work a little harder. The use of object pronouns usually require us to rearrange the word order a little. Typically meaning the pronoun precedes the verb. So, “David tiene las llaves
” becomes “David las
However, in cases where two verbs are used together, we have two options on pronoun placement. The pronoun may precede the first verb, or alternatively be appended to the end of the second verb when it is a gerund or an infinitive.
The only instance where the pronoun MUST be appended to the end of a verb is when we are using an affirmative imperative conjugation or the infinitive as a command.
Let’s see some examples of direct object pronoun placement:
|Spanish ||English |
|¿La llamó David? ||Did David call her? |
|David quiere llámarte ||David wants to call you |
|David te quiere llamar ||David wants to call you |
|David lo está llamando ||Dave is calling him |
|David está llamándolo ||Dave is calling him |
|¡Llámame! ||Call me! |
Furthermore, for many newcomers to Spanish, realising that words like “lo”, “la”, “los” and “las” can function to mean “he”, “she”, “it” or “them” and not just “the” can take a bit of getting used to. Confusing pronouns with articles can cause us all sorts of problems until we get used to seeing object pronouns in combination with verbs.
Some verbs require a direct object and others not. Verbs that do require a direct object are called transitive
Examples of transitive verbs are: dar (to give), comprar (to buy), llamar (to call) and so on.
For instance, if you said: “Compré” (I bought).
Whilst it makes a very basic sentence, it doesn’t really feel complete, and begs the question “Compraste qué?” (you bought what?)
. Once we add a direct object, it feels more complete. Thus: “Las compré” (I bought them). Indirect Object Pronouns
As we have mentioned already: an indirect object is considered the recipient of the action. Therefore, when we see sentences containing constructions like “to him”, “for them”, “to you”, “for us” and so on, we should be thinking of indirect objects.
We've already seen how we can use direct object pronouns to replace direct object nouns in a sentence. However, with indirect
object pronouns we have to think a little differently.
Before we see why, let's take a look at the indirect object pronouns found in Spanish. As usual, grouping them into the six-form paradigm. Indirect object pronouns
| ||Singular ||Plural |
|1st Person ||me (to/for me) ||nos (to/for us) |
|2nd Person ||te (to/for you) ||os (to/for you all) |
|3rd Person ||le (to/for it, him, her, you formal) ||les (to/for them, you all formal) |
The first thing we should notice about indirect object pronouns is that they are very similar in form to direct object pronouns. The forms in the first and second persons are exactly the same. Only the third-person forms differ in “le” and “les”; making all indirect object pronoun forms gender common.
Now, let’s consider the following sentence:
“David gave the flowers to María
We can see that the indirect object is María
, as she is the recipient of the action of giving flowers. In English, we can replace the indirect object noun with a pronoun, giving us:
“David gave the flowers to her
Now let’s see the original statement again, but in Spanish.
dio las flores a María
” (David gave the flowers to María)
From our table of pronouns, we know we should be able to replace our indirect object “María” with “le”.
However, we can see that “le” already appears in this sentence. So, we appear to have an indirect object appearing twice in the same sentence. Why?
To be grammatically correct, Spanish makes use of redundant object pronouns
to indicate whom we are referring to. This is different to English, where we must either use a pronouns or the specific noun; but never both.
So in Spanish, even when you have clearly identified the person by name (in this case María), you must still use an indirect object pronoun.
If we remove the reference to María, we are left with:
dio las flores" (David gave the flowers to her
However, “David dio las flores a María
” is NOT correct. We still must use a redundant object pronoun, even though María is named.
Let's see some more examples of constructions using indirect object pronouns, so we can understand how indirect objects should appear in Spanish:
|Spanish ||Meaning |
|David le escribió a María ||David wrote to María |
|Les compramos un regalo a los niños ||We bought the kids a gift |
|Él me compró flores para mí ||He bought flowers for me |
|Dame algo de comer ||Give me something to eat |
|David nos muestra su coche a nosotros ||David shows us his car |
|David nos muestra su coche ||David shows us his car |
|¿Por qué no les hablas? ||Why don't you speak to them |
Rule of thumb: If there is an indirect object in the sentence, then there should be an indirect object pronoun.
The inclusion of prepositional phrases like “a María” or “para mí” are there for emphasis or clarification, thus can be optional. Remember, in Spanish it is allowed and often necessary to have both the pronoun and the named indirect object in the same sentence.
The placement of indirect object pronouns follow a similar rule to direct ones. Whereby they usually precede the verb or can be appended to the end of compound verb constructions using a gerund or an infinitive. However, we will look at pronoun placement in more detail shortly and see how direct and indirect objects pronouns function together. Using direct and indirect object pronouns together
We’ve already seen how both direct and indirect object pronouns can either sit directly in front of a verb or how they get appended to the end of an infinitive or compound construction using a gerund. But what happens if we have both a direct and an indirect object pronoun together?
To answer this, let’s look at a very simple construction which allows us the chance to replace all the objects with pronouns:
“David me dio las flores a mí” (David gave me the flowers)
Let’s remove the optional prepositional phrase (a mí), and replace the flowers with a direct object pronoun:
“David me las dio” (David gave them to me)
The indirect object pronoun always appears before the direct object pronoun. This is also true when the pronouns get appended to the end of the verb; the indirect object always appears first.
To illustrate this better, lets see a few variations on the above construction, so we can see how the pronouns get placed.
|Spanish ||Meaning |
|David me las dio ||David gave them to me |
|¿Me las estás dando? ||Are you giving them to me? |
|¿Estás dándomelas? ||Are you giving them to me? |
|¿Me las puedes dar? ||Can you give them to me? |
|¿Puedes dármelas? ||Can you give them to me? |
|¡Dámelas! ||Give them to me! |
One additional yet extremely important rule we need to be aware of when dealing with object pronouns is as follows:
If both direct and indirect object pronouns appear together and both begin with the letter L
. Then we must change the indirect pronoun from either “le” or “les” to become “se”.
This means, it is never correct to see constructions with “le las”, “les lo” or any other combination of pronouns both beginning with L
Let’s see some examples:
Conclusion | En conclusión
|Incorrect ||Correct ||Meaning |
|Le lo he dado a ella ||Se lo he dado a ella ||I've given it to her |
|Les lo quiero decir ||Se lo quiero decir ||I want to tell them it |
|Quiero decírleslo ||Quiero decírselo ||I want to tell them it |
|¡Dáleslo a ellos! ||¡Dáselo a ellos! ||Give it to them! |
I’m sure you’ll agree, we’ve covered an enormous amount of ground today, in what I personally consider to be one of the hardest areas of the Spanish language.
In the interest of keeping things as straightforward as possible, we’ve omitted to mention situations where direct objects and indirect objects seemingly get used in error, also known as leísmo
. But that’s a subject for another day!