Making Sense of the Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns in Spanish

June 2, 2017
<p>Mastering the difference between direct and indirect objects is an unavoidable rite of passage on your way out of intermediate purgatory. It's not always as straightforward as grammar books make it out to be, but learning it will give you the key to the secret lives of verbs.</p><p>In this article, we'll talk about the job of <strong>direct objects</strong>, the fear of missing out of <strong>indirect objects</strong> and the games of musical chairs that <strong>object pronouns</strong> like to play. I hope you come away with better mental tools and a greater ability to fend for yourself out in the streets of the Spanish-speaking world.</p><h2><a name="direct_object"></a> The direct object</h2><p>Naming elusive things is the first step to get better at noticing them, so let's start with a definition:</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>A <strong>direct object</strong> is a way to <strong>focus the verb</strong> on a <strong>specific</strong> something or someone.</p></blockquote><p>If that feels too abstract, take your verb and see if it passes the <strong>plug test</strong>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">De todas las cosas o personas que podrías {VERBEAR}, estás {VERBEANDO} {OBJETO-DIRECTO}</span><br><span class="en">Of all the things or people you could {VERB}, you are {VERBING} {DIRECT-OBJECT}</span></p></div><p>If that sentence makes sense when you plug your verb in it, you can assume it has a direct object. Let's try it on a real sentence with the verbs <span class="sp">ir</span> and <span class="sp">llamar</span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><strong>Voy</strong> a mi casa para <strong>llamar</strong> a mi madre.</span><br><span class="en">I'm going home to call my mother.</span></p></div><ul><li><span class="sp">De todas las cosas que podrías <strong>ir</strong>…</span> (<span class="en">Of all the things you could go…</span>) ❌ (this makes no sense, no direct object)</li><li><span class="sp">De todas las personas que podrías <strong>llamar</strong>, estás <strong>llamando a tu madre</strong></span> (<span class="en">Of all the people you could call, you are calling your mother</span>) 👍 (this makes sense, so the direct object must be: <span class="sp">a tu madre</span>)</li></ul><p>The job of the direct object is to narrow the meaning of the verb so it can point to a specific thing or person.</p><p>The plug test only works when you're dealing with noun phrases. If the verb is <strong>accompanied by pronouns</strong> instead, try to expand them into their corresponding noun phrase:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Mi madre <strong>me</strong> está llamando.</span><br><span class="en">My mother is calling me.</span></p></div><p>Let's replace <span class="sp">me</span> with <span class="sp">a su hijo</span>:</p><ul><li><span class="sp">De todas las personas que mi madre podría <strong>llamar</strong>, está <strong>llamando a su hijo</strong></span> (<span class="en">Of all the people mi mother could call, she is calling her son</span>) 👍 (this makes sense, so the direct object must be: <span class="sp">me</span>)</li></ul><p>In theory, the only valid direct object pronouns are: <span class="sp"><strong>lo</strong>, <strong>la</strong>, <strong>los</strong>, <strong>las</strong>, me, te, se, nos, os</span>. However, in Spain you'll often hear two versions of this sentence:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Su padre <strong>lo</strong> está esperando en el aeropuerto.</span><br><span class="en">His dad is waiting for him at the airport.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Su padre <strong>le</strong> está esperando en el aeropuerto.</span><br><span class="en">His dad is waiting for him at the airport.</span></p></div><p><span class="sp"><strong>Le</strong></span> is an indirect object pronoun (as we'll see in the next section), but so many people in Spain use <span class="sp">le</span> instead of <span class="sp">lo</span> that it's no longer considered a mistake when talking about people. The fact that <a href="">leísmo</a> is a thing is proof that you're not the only one who gets confused by these pronouns—even natives mix them up sometimes.</p><p>What's the point of knowing what the direct object of a verb is, anyway?</p><p>Good question. Arguably, the most important split in the family of Spanish verbs is the difference between those that allow direct objects and those that don't, or—as the grammar nerds like to say—the difference between <strong>transitive</strong> and <strong>intransitive</strong> verbs.</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>A verb is behaving in a <strong>transitive</strong> way when it allows the presence of a <strong>direct object</strong>. Otherwise, it's behaving in an <strong>intransitive</strong> way.</p></blockquote><p>This is where the confusion starts: some verbs can behave in both transitive and intransitive ways (with slightly different meanings). This is especially true for verbs with embedded pronouns (pronominal verbs)—the regular version is usually transitive version and the pronominal is intransitive. For example:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Fernando <strong>levanta</strong> la mano.</span><br><span class="en">Fernando raises his hand.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Fernando <strong>se levanta</strong> muy temprano.</span><br><span class="en">Fernando wakes up very early.</span></p></div><p>Let's do the plug test on <span class="sp">levantar</span> and <span class="sp">levantarse</span>:</p><ul><li><span class="sp">De todas las cosas que Fernando podría <strong>levantar</strong>, está <strong>levantando la mano</strong></span> 👍 (this makes sense, transitive)</li><li><span class="sp">De todas las cosas que Fernando podría <strong>levantarse</strong>…</span> ❌ (this makes no sense, intransitive pronominal)</li></ul><p>In the next article, we'll talk about pronominal verbs and the fact that <span class="sp"><strong>se</strong></span> is often not an object pronoun, but simply part of the verb. Meanwhile, try to find out if the pronominal verbs that confuse you are behaving in a transitive or an intransitive way. Once you're comfortable doing that, you can dedicate more brain cycles to noticing more subtle patterns.</p><h2><a name="indirect_object"></a> The indirect object</h2><p>The indirect object indicates who the <strong>receiver</strong> of the consequences of the verb is, but that definition can sometimes overlap with that of the direct object. To avoid getting these mixed up, <strong>look for the direct object first</strong>. Once you've found it, look for either:</p><ul><li>an indirect object pronoun (<span class="sp"><strong>le</strong>, <strong>les</strong>, me, te, se, nos, os</span>), or</li><li>a noun phrase starting with <span class="sp">"a"</span>. </li></ul><p>For example:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Explica <strong>a tu madre</strong> por qué voy a llegar tarde.</span><br><span class="en">Explain to your mother why I'm going to be late.</span></p></div><p>The verb is <span class="sp">explicar</span>. The plug test shows that the direct object is <span class="sp">"por qué voy a llegar tarde"</span>, and the only thing that remains is a noun phrase that starts with <span class="sp">"a"</span>, which is the indirect object: <span class="sp">a tu madre</span>.</p><p>If we changed it to a pronoun, the outcome would be the same:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Explíca<strong>le</strong> por qué voy a llegar tarde.</span><br><span class="en">Explain to her why I'm going to be late.</span></p></div><p>Probably the most confusing aspect of the indirect object pronoun is the fact that <strong>it often appears along with the noun phrase it should be replacing</strong>. Isn't this duplication completely redundant?</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Explíca<strong>le</strong> <strong>a tu madre</strong> por qué voy a llegar tarde.</span><br><span class="en">Explain to your mother why I'm going to be late.</span></p></div><p>Think of the indirect object pronoun as a good friend with serious FOMO. Anytime one of your verbs uses an indirect object, <strong>make an effort to also invite the pronoun</strong>. It's not duplication, it's just being nice.</p><p>Although duplicating the indirect object pronoun makes you sound much more native, don't get carried away and do the same with the direct object. <strong>Direct object pronouns</strong> like to live happy introverted lives and they are perfectly satisfied not being invited to every cool new sentence that happens to come by. Avoid this very common duplication mistake:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><span class="sp mistake"><strong>Lo</strong></span> siento no haber podido llamarte antes.</span><br><span class="en">I'm sorry I wasn't able to call you sooner.</span></p></div><p>The direct object is <span class="sp">"no haber podido llamarte antes"</span> and there isn't a good reason to duplicate it. Stick to these two alternatives:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Siento <strong>no haber podido llamarte antes</strong>.</span><br><span class="en">I'm sorry I wasn't able to call you sooner.</span></p><p><span class="sp"><strong>Lo</strong> siento.</span><br><span class="en">I'm sorry.</span></p></div><h2><a name="placing_object_pronouns"></a> Finding a place for the object pronouns</h2><p>Once you've figure out the pronoun that you want to use, you now have to find a home for it. You have three choices:</p><ol><li><strong>Before the verb</strong>. Choose this when the pronoun accompanies a <strong>conjugated verb</strong> (that includes <em>any</em> conjugated verb: present, past, future or conditional, simple or compound, indicative or subjunctive):</li></ol><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">¿<strong>Te</strong> <em>dije</em> que <strong>me</strong> <em>dieron</em> la beca?</span><br><span class="en">Did I tell you that they gave me the scholarship?</span></p><p><span class="sp">No hace falta que <strong>lo</strong> <em>despiertes</em> mañana. Ya <strong>lo</strong> <em>hago</em> yo.</span><br><span class="en">You don't have to wake him up tomorrow. I'll take care of it.</span></p></div><p>Remember: first the <strong>pronoun</strong>, then the <em>conjugated verb</em>.</p><ol start="2"><li><strong>Attached to the end of the verb</strong>. Choose this when the pronoun accompanies a non-conjugated verb (that is, an <strong>imperative</strong>, an <strong>infinitive</strong> or a <strong>gerund</strong>).</li></ol><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><em>Espéra<strong>me</strong></em> aquí, que enseguida vuelvo.</span><br><span class="en">Wait for me here. I'll be right back.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Estoy cansado de <em>prestar<strong>te</strong></em> dinero.</span><br><span class="en">I'm tired of lending you money.</span></p><p><span class="sp">No vas a solucionar nada <em>escondiéndo<strong>te</strong></em> de tu padre.</span><br><span class="en">You're not going to fix anything by hiding from your father (gerund).</span></p></div><p>The first is an imperative, the second is an infinitive, and the third is a gerund. Remember that imperatives behave differently when they're negative:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No <strong>me</strong> <em>esperes</em> aquí.</span><br><span class="en">Don't wait for me here.</span></p></div><p>The <strong>negative imperative</strong> is formed with the present subjunctive, which means it's a conjugated verb, which means the pronoun has to go <strong>before the verb</strong>.</p><ol start="3"><li><strong>Either before the verb or attached to the end of it</strong>. You only get this freedom when the pronoun accompanies a <strong>conjugated verb followed by an infinitive or a gerund</strong>:</li></ol><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No <strong>te</strong> <em>he podido llamar</em> antes.</span><br><span class="en">I wasn't able to call you sooner.</span></p><p><span class="sp">No <em>he podido llamar<strong>te</strong></em> antes.</span><br><span class="en">I wasn't able to call you sooner.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Leire <strong>me</strong> <em>está guiñando</em> un ojo.</span><br><span class="en">Leire is winking at me.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Leire <em>está guiñándo<strong>me</strong></em> un ojo.</span><br><span class="en">Leire is winking at me.</span></p></div><p><span class="sp">He podido</span> is conjugated, <span class="sp">llamar</span> is an infinitive. <span class="sp">Está</span> is conjugated, <span class="sp">guiñando</span> is a gerund.</p><p>This option is the most confusing, so let's clear up a couple of points:</p><ol><li>Both alternatives have <strong>exactly the same meaning</strong>. Instead of worrying about which one you should use, <strong>practice flipping back and forth between them</strong> until you get good at it. If you see a sentence with the attached version, try to put the pronoun before, and vice versa. </li><li>The most common exception to this rule is when the conjugated verb is <span class="sp">gustar</span> or one of the other <em>psych verbs</em> (<span class="sp">encantar, apetecer, aburrir</span>). Think of the conjugated verb as being completely oblivious to the other verb and apply the first rule by putting the pronoun <strong>before the verb</strong>:</li></ol><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No <strong>me</strong> <em>gusta llegar</em> tarde a las fiestas.</span><br><span class="en">I don't like to arrive late at parties.</span></p></div><h2><a name="combining_object_pronouns"></a> Combining object pronouns</h2><p>When you have multiple pronouns:</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>The <strong>indirect</strong> object pronoun always goes <strong>before</strong> the <strong>direct</strong> object pronoun.</p></blockquote><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Quédate con el libro, <strong>me lo</strong> puedes devolver mañana.</span><br><span class="en">"Keep the book, you can give it back to me tomorrow."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Mañana me voy de vacaciones. Prefiero devolvér<strong>telo</strong> hoy.</span><br><span class="en">"Tomorrow I'm going on vacation. I prefer to give it back to you today."</span></p></div><p>This is the opposite of what happens in English: <span class="sp">me, lo</span> (<span class="en">it, to me</span>).</p><p>The infamous gotcha comes when you have to combine a third-person indirect object pronoun (<span class="sp"><strong>le</strong>, <strong>les</strong></span>) with a third-person direct object pronoun (<span class="sp"><strong>lo</strong>, <strong>la</strong>, <strong>los</strong>, <strong>las</strong></span>):</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Quédate con el libro, <strong>se lo</strong> puedes devolver mañana.</span><br><span class="en">Keep the book, you can give it back to him/her/them tomorrow.</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Mañana me voy de vacaciones. Prefiero devolvér<strong>selo</strong> hoy.</span><br><span class="en">"Tomorrow I'm going on vacation. I prefer to give it back to him/her/them today."</p></div><p>Instead of saying <span class="sp mistake">le lo</span> (or any of the other awkward combinations), we dress up <span class="sp">le, les</span> in a <span class="sp">se</span> costume. Don't let that fool you—they're still full-blooded third-person indirect object pronouns.</p><p>Let's do one last example showing <span class="index index--annotation-manual present" manual="direct"></span> and <span class="index index--annotation-manual imperfect" manual="indirect"></span> objects.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Óscar <span class="imperfect"><strong>le</strong></span> manda <span class="present"><strong>un mensaje</strong></span> <span class="imperfect"><strong>a Julia</strong></span>.</span><br><span class="en">Oscar sends a message to Julia.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Óscar <span class="imperfect"><strong>se</strong></span> <span class="present"><strong>lo</strong></span> manda.</span><br><span class="en">Oscar sends it to her.</span></p></div><p>Julia is the third person singular, so the <span class="sp"><strong>le</strong></span> dresses up as a <span class="sp"><strong>se</strong></span>.</p><p>For <span class="sp"><strong>se</strong></span> to be the real deal, you have to use the first-person (reflexive) indirect object pronoun:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Óscar <span class="imperfect"><strong>se</strong></span> manda <span class="present"><strong>un mensaje</strong></span> <span class="imperfect"><strong>a sí mismo</strong></span>.</span><br><span class="en">Oscar sends himself a message.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Óscar <span class="imperfect"><strong>se</strong></span> <span class="present"><strong>lo</strong></span> manda.</span><br><span class="en">Oscar sends it to himself.</span></p></div><h2>Conclusion</h2><p>How are you feeling? I hope a few things are clearer now:</p><ul><li>You can use the <strong>plug test</strong> to identify the direct object that accompanies a verb</p></li><li><p>You know what to name verbs that <strong>allow direct objects</strong> (transitive verbs) and verbs that don't (intransitive verbs). That's the first step towards noticing subtle differences in meaning between pronominal and non-pronominal verbs.</p></li><li><p>You now have a strategy for finding the <strong>indirect object</strong> (look for the direct object first) and for dealing with the indirect object pronouns (<span class="sp"><strong>le</strong>, <strong>les</strong>, me, te, se, nos, os</span>): be nice and <strong>add them whenever you can</strong> (even if they seem redundant).</p></li><li><p>You know where to put and how to combine multiple object pronouns (and how to not get fooled by a <span class="sp">le, les</span> in disguise).</p></li></ul><p>Get comfortable using these tools. Once you apply them enough times, <strong>they'll become second nature</strong>, which will free up mental space to allow you to tackle more challenging grammatical structures.<p>We've covered a lot of ground in this article. Next time, we'll take the foundation we've built here and set up camp among the reflexives and the rest of the pronominal verbs. If you want to be notified when that comes out, <a href="">sign up for the newsletter</a>.</p><p>Feel free to comment below if you have any questions, and <strong>send this article to someone who needs it</strong> 😊.</p>