“At the moment I’m struggling massively with Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns.” – Real Fast Spanish Subscriber.
This is a really common question.
Which makes sense because when you replace a Spanish noun with a direct or indirect object pronoun you have a lot of things to think about.
You have to consider sentence order, prepositions when you can and can’t replace objects, and a few special rules for combining direct and indirect object pronouns in Spanish.
What’s worse, sometimes Spanish natives will use a different pronoun to what’s written in the textbooks.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns including what they are, how to use them when to use them, how to combine them, a rule you need to be careful with, and where Spanish natives get it backwards.
To start, let’s first discuss the concept of an object pronoun in general.
What is an object pronoun?
I’m first going to talk about how object pronouns behave in English because:
- Learning about your own language helps you learn another language.
- Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns behave in almost exactly the same way as English object pronouns except for sentence order.
So, what is an object pronoun?
A pronoun is a word that you use to substitute for a noun.
An object receives the action of the verb—either directly or indirectly (we’ll get back to this).
Thus an object pronoun is a word that you use to replace the object of a sentence.
Let’s look at an example of a simple English sentence:
I eat ice cream.
In this example, ‘I’ am the subject of the sentence because ‘I’ am carrying out the action of the verb (eating) and the ice cream is the object of the sentence.
(I know this is basic but I want to make sure we cover all bases.)
If you wanted to use an object pronoun in this sentence, you need to look for a word that can replace ‘ice cream’.
If someone asks you:
Do you like ice cream?
You could then respond and say:
Yes, I eat it every day.
In this case ‘it’ is the English object pronoun for ‘ice cream’.
Here are a few more examples in English:
— Have you seen my glasses?
— No, I haven’t seen them.
— Can you give this parcel to Sara and Lucas?
— Yes, I will give it to them tomorrow.
As you can see, the object pronouns in English are ‘it’, ‘them’, ‘him’ and ‘her’.
In the last example, I used a direct object pronoun (it) in combination with an indirect object pronoun (them).
Let’s discuss these two types of object pronouns further.
What are direct and indirect object pronouns?
In this section, I’m going to interchange the terms ‘object’ and ‘object pronoun’ a lot (just a heads up).
A direct object receives the action of the verb.
An indirect object is indirectly affected by the action of a verb.
‘Direct object pronouns’ and ‘indirect object pronouns’ are the words you use to replace the direct and indirect objects of a sentence.
To understand this concept, I found one idea that was particularly helpful for me.
The idea is that there are certain verbs that cannot use indirect objects. And, there are verbs that commonly use indirect objects.
For example, the verb ‘to see’ cannot have an indirect object.
Person 1: Can you see my book?
Person 2: Yes, I see it.
Note here that ‘it’ is the direct object pronoun for ‘book’.
But, most importantly, there cannot be an indirect object with ‘to see’ because when you ‘see’ something, the action of ‘seeing’ that thing does not affect anything else.
In contrast, the verb ‘to give’ often has an indirect object. For example:
Person 1: What did you give your mother for Christmas?
Person 2: I gave her a book.
In this example, the book is the direct object because it receives the action of the verb. And, ‘her’ is the indirect object pronoun because the mother is indirectly affected by the action of giving the book.
When you give, you generally give something to someone. And, if you know from context the thing being given and who is receiving it, then you can form a sentence with a direct and an indirect object pronoun like this:
I gave it to them last week.
This sentence translates really well to Spanish, let’s see how.
Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns
Here is a table of the Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns and their English equivalents:
|(Person)||English Object Pronouns||Spanish Direct Object Pronouns||Spanish Indirect Object Pronouns|
|(Él / Ella)||Him / Her / It||Lo / La||Le|
|(Usted)||You (Formal)||Lo / La||Le|
|(Ellos / Ellas)||Them||Los / Las||Les|
|(Ustedes)||You All (Formal)||Los / Las||Les|
As you can see from the table, there is a big challenge you have to deal with.
When using direct and indirect object pronouns in Spanish, you have to decide between ‘lo‘ and ‘le‘ for the translation of ‘him’ and ‘it’, ‘la‘ and ‘le‘ for the translation of ‘her’ and ‘it’, and ‘los‘, ‘las‘ and ‘les‘ for the translation of ‘them’.
But, if you know the word you want to translate is a direct object pronoun or indirect object pronoun in English, then you will know which word to choose in Spanish.
This is why I spent so much time on the rules of object pronouns in English above.
If you want to translate an English sentence with the word ‘them’ to Spanish, and you know ‘them’ is an indirect object pronoun, then you need to choose ‘les‘.
If you want to translate an English sentence with ‘it’ to Spanish, and you know that ‘it’ is a direct object pronoun, and ‘it’ represents a male object, then you need to choose ‘lo‘.
That said, things are a little different with indirect object pronouns and verbs like gustar. You can read the article on verbs like gustar for more detail.
Next, let’s look at some examples of how to use these Spanish object pronouns, starting with direct object pronouns.
How to use Spanish direct object pronouns
Remember that in order to use a direct object pronoun, you need to know what the direct object is from context.
Let’s look at the example sentences from above.
English: Can you see my book?
Español: ¿Puedes ver mi libro?
English: Yes, I see it.
Español: Sí, lo veo.
In this example, you need to use ‘lo‘ because it is the direct object pronoun for ‘book’. And, since ‘book’ is masculine in Spanish, you need to use ‘lo‘ and not ‘la‘.
Also, importantly, you need to put the ‘lo‘ before the conjugated verb.
Note how the sentence order is different. It feels strange coming from English to put the direct object pronoun before the conjugated verb. But, this is something you’ll simply to have to get used to.
That said, if you have a ‘compound phrase‘ which is a conjugated verb followed by a verb in infinitive form, you can switch the order.
English: Yes, I can see it.
Español: Sí, lo puedo ver.
Español: Sí, puedo verlo.
Note that the ‘lo‘ can go before or after the compound phrase. Which is useful because the second sentence is much closer to English.
Here’s another example:
English: These boxes are very heavy, I can’t lift them.
Español: Estas cajas son muy pesadas, no puedo levantarlas.
Español: Estas cajas son muy pesadas, no las puedo levantar.
Next, some examples with indirect object pronouns.
How to use Spanish indirect object pronouns
As I mentioned earlier, in order to use an indirect object pronoun, you need a special kind of verb.
You need a verb that can indirectly affect other things by its action.
A few of these common verbs in Spanish are: alquilar, dar, decir, dejar, echar, regalar, and vender.
One thing to keep in mind is that these verbs don’t have to have an indirect object. It’s just that they commonly do.
English: Will you leave him the car?
Español: ¿Le dejas el coche?
Note the indirect object pronoun is ‘him’. The action of leaving the ‘car’ is indirectly affecting ‘him’ because now he can use the car.
English: Did she tell you the story?
Español: ¿Te dijo la historia?
Here ‘you’ are the indirect object because you are indirectly affected by ‘her’ telling the story.
Here is another example:
English: I have rented my house to her.
Español: Le he alquilado mi casa (a ella).
Often you know from context who the person is so you don’t need the ‘a ella‘. But if it isn’t clear, or you need to make it explicit, you can demonstrate that the indirect object pronoun is male or female with ‘a él‘ and ‘a ella‘.
In this section, you have seen indirect object pronouns in isolation. Let’s now look at how to combine Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns in a sentence.
Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns combined
This next part is where a number of Spanish students get into trouble.
I want to add a caveat that if this is really challenging for you, just use the direct object instead of the direct object pronoun (just like in the previous section).
Note that the direct object pronoun and indirect object pronoun will often combine after a relevant question.
English: Did she tell you the story?
Español: ¿Te contó la historia?
English: Yes, she told it to me.
Español: Sí, me la contó.
Here the direct object pronoun ‘la‘ represents the story and the indirect object pronoun ‘me‘ represents the speaker.
Next, we have to look at what happens when you combine the third-person indirect object pronouns (le, les) with direct object pronouns (lo, la, los, las).
And, it turns out that we can’t actually say ‘le lo‘, instead, this becomes ‘se lo‘.
The explanation for this has to do with phonetic changes that originally occurred in Latin (illî illu → ge lo /ʒe lo/) that then transferred to Spanish with another further phonetic shift (/ʒe lo/ → /se lo/) that occurred in the 16th century.
That said, while it is technically a myth, another explanation that has arisen over the years is to say that ‘le lo‘ is actually harder to say. Try saying ‘le lo‘ three times fast, now try ‘se lo‘ three times fast.
It’s much easier to say ‘se lo‘ than ‘le lo‘. And, again, while this technically is not the real historical justification for the shift, it helped me personally to remember it, and it might help you too.
Here is a list of all of the changes for third-person indirect object pronouns combined with direct object pronouns:
Le lo → se lo
Le la → se la
Le los → se los
Le las → se las
Les lo → se lo
Les la → se la
Les los → se los
Les las → se las
Let’s look at these in action.
English: Will you leave him the car?
Español: ¿Le dejas el coche?
English: No, I won’t leave it for him because I need it.
Español: No, no se lo dejo porque lo necesito.
English: Did you rent your house to her?
Español: ¿Le has alquilado tu casa a ella?
English: Yes, I have rented it to her.
Español: Sí, se la he alquilado.
English: Have you thrown the tomatoes in the soup?
Español: ¿Le has echado los tomates a la sopa?
English: Yes, I have already thrown them in (it).
Español: Sí, ya se los he echado.
Also, if you have a compound phrase, you can change the location of the combined objects. For example:
English: Do you want to tell her what happened?
Español: ¿A ella le quieres decir lo que pasó?
English: Yes, I want to tell it to her.
Español: Sí, se lo quiero decir.
Español: Sí, quiero decírselo.
Note the small change you have to make with pronunciation when you move the object pronouns to the end. You have to put an accent on the last syllable of the verb.
As you can see, the best place to combine direct object pronouns and indirect object pronouns is after questions.
Despite these structures being a little tricky, there is good news.
The good news is that when these pronouns come up in your Spanish conversations, you will have some control over context.
For example, if you are talking with someone in Spanish and they ask you a question, you can choose to use a direct and indirect object pronoun or not.
Moreover, if you ask a native speaker a question and they answer with a combination of direct and indirect object pronouns, you will know from context because you asked the question.
How to avoid mistakes with indirect object pronouns and the preposition ‘a’
A common mistake we hear from students in our classes is leaving off the indirect object pronoun when it is required.
English: Have you given the gift to her?
¿Has dado el regalo a ella? ⊗
This isn’t right, you absolutely need the ‘le‘.
English: Have you given the gift to her?
Español: ¿Le has dado el regalo a ella?
Moreover, the ‘a ella‘ is optional, the ‘le‘ isn’t.
With normal Spanish subject pronouns (yo, tú, ella, él, etc.), you can drop them from your sentences because you’ll already know the person from the verb conjugation.
English: He wants it.
Español: Él lo quiere.
Español: Lo quiere.
You can drop the ‘él‘ because ‘quiere‘ tells you it is the third person. And, you probably know from context who you are talking about.
The ‘a él‘ and ‘a ella‘ behave in the same way.
English: I gave it to him.
Español: Se lo he dado a él.
Español: Se lo he dado.
The ‘le‘, or in this last example ‘se‘, is the necessary pronoun. The ‘a él‘ provides additional information if required.
Note you could also put the ‘a él‘ at the start:
English: I gave it to him.
Español: A él se lo he dado.
Thus, you can choose to put the ‘a él’ at the start, at the end, or leave it off completely. But you must remember the ‘le‘.
A few difficult verbs with object pronouns
The behaviour of the verbs in this section confuses both native speakers and students alike.
From time to time native speakers may use an unexpected pronoun with the verbs below. When this happens, this is known as leísmo, laísmo, or loísmo (I’ll cover this in more detail in the next section).
This list is by no means exhaustive for difficult verbs with object pronouns. I have just chosen a few of the high-frequency verbs in this category.
1. Escribir – to write
We tend to have a problem with this verb in English as well. When you say ‘I wrote him every day’, is ‘him’ a direct or indirect object pronoun?
As is the case in both Spanish and English, when you ‘write’ you are ‘writing something to someone’. Therefore, you need to use an indirect object for the person receiving the product of the writing.
English: I wrote her a letter.
Español: Le escribí una carta (a ella).
But, it is also perfectly fine to drop the object.
English: I wrote her every day.
Español: Le escribí todos los días.
You just need to keep in mind that when you drop the object, it is still there implicitly.
In addition, you can also say:
English: I wrote it.
Español: Lo escribí.
Where ‘lo‘ refers to the product of your writing, maybe you wrote ‘la carta‘ (the letter) or ‘el artículo‘ (the article).
2. Llamar – to call
Llamar is another verb you might hear with both types of object pronouns: ‘le llamo‘ and ‘lo llamo‘.
To cut a long and complicated story short, you should use the direct object pronouns ‘lo‘ and ‘la‘.
English: I called her on the telephone.
Español: La llamé por teléfono.
This also applies in the context of ‘calling someone a name’ or ‘calling out’ to get someone’s attention.
3. Molestar – to annoy
Molestar is also a challenging verb because, not only is it a Spanish false friend, but it can also use a direct or indirect object pronoun.
And, the decision of which pronoun to use depends on whether the subject of the sentence is an active agent of action.
In other words, is the subject actively annoying someone or passively annoying someone?
In the first case, you can say:
English: I don’t want to annoy her.
Español: No la quiero molestar.
Español: No quiero molestarla.
Here the sentence subject is a person that can physically act to annoy.
In contrast, the subject of the sentence could be something that can’t actively carry out a physical action. For example,
English: This song annoys him a lot.
Español: Le molesta mucho esta canción.
In this second case, ‘molestar‘ is acting like a verb like gustar. And, in this situation, the person receiving the action of the verb needs to be described with an indirect object pronoun.
4. Pegar – to hit
Pegar can mean ‘to stick’ or ‘to glue’. But, pegar can also mean ‘to hit’ or ‘to strike’ someone.
So, if you ‘hit someone’, should you use a direct or indirect object pronoun?
In Spanish, when you use pegar in the context of hitting someone, you actually need to use an indirect object.
English: I hit him.
Español: Le pego.
In contrast, if you use the verb golpear, which also means ‘to hit’, then you need a direct object.
English: I hit him.
Español: Lo golpeo.
As I mentioned earlier, the behaviour of verbs like these confuses both native speakers and students.
So, how can you remember how to use pegar and golpear with the right pronoun?
Fortunately, there is an English expression that could help here:
To stick it to him.
Or, a common version of this expression:
Stick it to the man!
Here, you are sticking a direct object ‘it’ to the indirect ‘man’. Coincidently, this works quite well with the Spanish verb pegar which also means ‘to stick’.
However, note that in Spanish the direct object is often omitted with this verb, as in the example above ‘le pego‘.
But it doesn’t have to be.
English: He hit him with two blows to finish the fight. (He hit two blows to him…)
Español: Le pegó dos bofetadas para terminar la lucha.
As you can see from the contrast of this example from ‘le pego‘, like the case with escribir, the object of the verb can be dropped but remains implicitly.
In addition, if you are actually using pegar to mean ‘to stick’, then you need to use a direct object pronoun as follows:
English: I stuck it to the wall.
Español: Lo pegué a la pared.
Because of the confusion caused by verbs such as pegar and golpear, natives could get it wrong. We’ll look at that next.
Leísmo, loísmo, laísmo — When a Spanish native might correct you
The terms leísmo, loísmo and laísmo refer to situations where Spanish natives use the opposite object pronoun to what is expected.
These uses are so prevalent, particularly in Spain, that they get their own name.
Moreover, due to how frequently these uses occur, they actually become accepted by the bodies that govern the use of the Spanish language such as the Real Academia Española.
What this means is that there could be a situation where you use the right object pronoun but a Spanish native actually tells you to use a different one.
Try not to get confused by this (which I know is hard)! Just note that there are potentially two accepted ways to use the pronoun.
English: I saw him near the park.
Español: Le vi por el parque (a él).
Typically, you would expect to hear ‘lo vi‘ (I saw him) in this sentence because the verb ‘ver‘ uses direct object pronouns. But, this instance of leísmo (where ‘le‘ is used instead of ‘lo‘) would now be considered acceptable due to its high use. Moreover, as is the case with normal indirect object pronouns, the sentence may need ‘a él‘ for clarity on the object of the sentence.
That said, it could be that the same speaker actually uses ‘la‘ for the feminine form.
English: I saw her by the park.
Español: La vi por el parque.
In this situation, you wouldn’t need ‘a ella‘ because it is clear from ‘la‘ that the object of the sentence is female.
In contrast, here is an example of laísmo, when you would expect ‘le‘ but get ‘la‘ instead:
English: …because she really likes to see us sweat in winter…
Español: …porque a ella la gusta mucho vernos sudar en invierno…
This use of a direct object pronoun in this example, of course, is quite irregular with the normal form being ‘le gusta‘.
This example comes from a book in a series for adolescents called ‘Manolito Gafotas’ (which I talk a little bit about here). It’s about a boy growing up on the streets of Madrid where you can sometimes hear this laísmo with gustar. As an aside, this book is the place where I first learnt about the concept of laísmo.
Have object pronouns been a challenge for you?
The best thing to do is to start thinking about sentences in English with ‘him’, ‘her’, ‘it’, ‘them’ and asking yourself if they are acting as direct object pronouns or indirect object pronouns.
Then translate these sentences into Spanish.
As a reminder, these pronouns often come up when answering questions, so try to ask your Spanish friends lots of questions using verbs that use indirect objects (decir, dar, dejar etc.)
What sentences can you form with Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns?