Where does the Spanish personal A go? What are the rules for the placement of this frustrating tiny one-letter word, ‘a’? – Real Fast Spanish Subscriber.
If you want to talk about colleagues, friends, family members, or even pets, you need to learn how to use the personal a in Spanish.
Part of the challenge of learning Spanish is understanding how English and Spanish are different. And, when it comes to the personal a, there is no translation for this word into English.
In this article, you’ll learn all about the Spanish personal a including where to use it, where to avoid it and some important tricky exceptions.
An overview of the Spanish personal A
To start to understand the personal a in Spanish, we first need to remember the difference between the subject and object of a sentence:
I see the book.
In this sentence, ‘I’ am the subject and the ‘book’ is the object.
This simple distinction is vital for understanding direct object pronouns and the Spanish personal a.
Next, whenever the object of the sentence is a specific person, we need to precede this person in the sentence with the personal a.
For example, compare these two sentences:
- Veo el libro (I see the book)
- Veo a tu amigo (I see your friend)
Here, we need the personal ‘a‘ because the person, ‘tu amigo‘, is the object of the sentence and they are someone specific that we can identify.
Here are some more examples:
- Conozco esta calle (I know this street)
- Conozco a tu profesor (I know your teacher)
- Necesita comida (he needs food)
- Necesita a su madre (he needs his mother)
- Recuerdo esa película (I remember that movie)
- Recuerdo a mi primer jefe (I remember my first boss)
Note with all of these examples, where people are objects in the sentence, the people are specific and can be identified.
Next, we’ll look at what we mean by specific and identifiable and how this might lead to exceptions.
Specific vs non-specific people
A central idea for the personal a in Spanish is that the person you are referring to is someone that is specific and can be identified.
In the previous section, the examples referred to ‘your teacher’, ‘his mother’, and ‘my first boss’.
If, on the other hand, we are talking about a role that a person could fill as opposed to a specific person then we don’t need the personal a.
English: I want a brother but my parents don’t want another child.
Español: Quiero un hermano pero mis padres no quieren otro hijo.
Here the speaker doesn’t have a brother, so they can’t refer to a specific person that doesn’t exist.
In contrast, if ‘un hermano‘ or ‘otro hijo‘ referred to someone specific, they would need the personal a.
English: I would like to see my brother but he is overseas.
Español: Me gustaría ver a mi hermano pero está en el extranjero.
Here ‘my brother’ is someone specific that we can identify, so we need the a.
In addition, we can also refer to non-specific people by using a job title.
English: We need a police officer.
Español: Necesitamos un policía.
English: I’m searching for a chef for our restaurant.
Español: Busco un cocinero para nuestro restaurante.
Here we don’t have a specific person in mind, so we don’t need the a.
Also, when referring to groups of specific people using vocabulary like gente or equipo, if we can identify the members of the group, we will need the personal a.
English: They just chucked out the people from the bar.
Español: Acaban de echar a la gente del bar.
Next, let’s consider if we need the personal a when we are not referring to people.
Animals and objects
So far, you’ve seen that we need the personal a for specific people when they are the objects in the sentence.
This means that in general if we are talking about animals or objects we don’t need the personal a.
English: I saw two fish and a frog at the lake today.
Español: Hoy he visto dos peces y una rana en el lago.
English: I want to find a new school.
Español: Quiero encontrar un nuevo colegio.
But, as an exception, if the animal is a pet, which owners often love like members of the family, then we can use the personal a for the beloved pet.
English: Carlos adores his fish.
Español: Carlos adora a su pez.
English: We love our dog.
Español: Queremos a nuestro perro.
In addition, another exception, if the object contains people such as schools, businesses, charities, or churches, and an action is required to be completed by in the people in the institution, then we need to use the a.
English: They fined the business for not paying taxes.
Español: Multaron a la empresa por no pagar impuestos.
English: They gathered the school to make an announcement.
Español: Reunieron a la escuela para hacer un anuncio.
Note this last example contrasts with the example above (I need to find a new school).
When there is no action required from within the institution (find a new school), then we don’t need a. But, if there is an action to be carried out such as a requested gathering, a fine to be paid, work to be done etc. then we need to keep the a.
The Spanish personal a in questions
Taking what we know so far, if you want to ask a question about someone specific, you’ll need the personal a.
And, when asking questions in Spanish, it’s really important to remember that, unlike English, we can never put a preposition at the end of a question.
We must put prepositions at the start of our questions in Spanish.
English: Who are you looking for?
Español: ¿A quién buscas?
English: Who did you meet at the conference?
Español: ¿A quién conociste en la conferencia?
English: Who are you going to see next week?
Español: ¿A quién vas a ver la semana que viene?
Notice that in all of these questions, we need the question word ¿quién? (who?) and we don’t have the preposition con (with).
It is also common in Spanish to ask questions about people using con (with) and when we do, we don’t need the preposition a.
English: Who are you travelling with?
Español: ¿Con quién viajas?
English: Who are you speaking with?
Español: ¿Con quién hablas?
In addition, all of the questions above that use the personal a are going to prompt an answer where a specific person is the object of the sentence.
In contrast, if the question is asking about a person where they are the subject of the sentence, then we don’t need the personal a.
English: Where are your parents?
Español: ¿Dónde están tus padres?
English: What is Luisa like?
Español: ¿Cómo es Luisa?
In these two examples, ‘your parents’ and ‘Luisa’ are the subjects of the question and so we don’t need the a.
Up to this point, there is a fairly clear logic to the use of the personal a in Spanish. If a specific person is the object of the sentence, we need a. And, sometimes, we can treat animals such as pets like people.
But, there is a breakdown in logic for pronouns that can represent people.
The rule is: we always have to use the personal a with these pronouns even if we want to say that we don’t know ‘anybody’ in a negative sentence.
The pronouns are:
- alguien, alguno, nadie, ninguno, todos, uno etc.
English: I don’t know anybody.
Español: No conozco a nadie.
English: Do you see any students on the playground?
Español: ¿Ves a algún estudiante en el patio de recreo?
English: No, I don’t see any.
Español: No, no veo a ninguno.
English: How many athletes do you want?
Español: ¿Cuántos atletas quieres?
English: We want them all.
Español: Los queremos a todos.
In these examples, particularly the negative examples, we aren’t referring to anyone specific or identifiable but we are using one of the key pronouns, so the a has to be there.
For the last example, when we switch from ‘we want them’ to ‘we want them all’, we simply need to add ‘a todos‘ when referring to people.
Exceptions: Tener and Haber
Even less logical than the last section on pronouns, when we use the verbs tener and haber, we generally don’t use the personal a.
This happens regardless of whether the people are specific and identifiable.
English: They have three children.
Español: Tienen tres hijos.
English: I have an older brother and a younger sister.
Español: Tengo un hermano mayor y una hermana menor.
English: There are three customers in the waiting room.
Español: Hay tres clientes en la sala de espera.
English: There is someone at the door.
Español: Hay alguien en la puerta.
After you have become familiar with the personal a, the verbs tener and haber tend to be the hardest to understand because they are the least logical.
Try to practice these two verbs with a few examples from earlier, where we must use the a, in order to get used to the contrast.
Exceptions: Changes in meaning with and without the personal a in Spanish
The last area we are going to look at in this article is where we have the option to include the a or not.
And, the difference between the versions with and without the a often have a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, change in meaning.
The good news is that the changes in meaning are fairly logical based on what we know so far.
a) Subtle change in meaning
When we use the verbs buscar, necesitar, or querer in the context of looking for someone, we can specify whether we are looking for someone specific or someone in general by including or omitting the personal a.
English: I’m looking for a teacher (for the school).
Español: Busco un profesor (para la escuela).
English: I’m looking for a teacher (that used to work here).
Español: Busco a un profesor (que trabajaba aquí).
In the first example, we don’t have anybody specific in mind, we are simply looking for a teacher to fill a position in the school.
For the second example, we have a very specific teacher in mind, someone that we used to know or that we knew worked in the school some time ago.
Also, if we use the verbs encontrar (to find) or elegir (to select), we can omit or include the a, again with a very subtle change in meaning.
English: Yesterday I found a man that can fix the house.
Español: Ayer encontré un hombre que puede arreglar la casa.
English: Yesterday I found a man that can fix the house.
Español: Ayer encontré a un hombre que puede arreglar la casa.
Here the first example is more focused on the fact that the house will get fixed soon, and the second focuses more on the specific person. Note this is very subtle, but the main takeaway is you can go with or without the personal a in this example.
b) Not so subtle change in meaning
Lastly, sometimes the personal a can change the meaning of the object quite significantly.
English: In this town, the people don’t respect the justice system.
Español: En esta ciudad, la gente no respeta a la justicia.
English: In this town, the people don’t respect justice (the virtue).
Español: En esta ciudad, la gente no respeta la justicia.
In these two sentences, we can see that the personal a in combination with justicia can refer to a system for maintaining justice and without the a can refer to the virtue or notion of fairness within a society.
As you can see the personal a in Spanish is a big topic and can be quite complex.
To make it easier, try to pick a few examples that are new or unfamiliar to you and practice those first. Then once you have mastered those, come back later and pick some more examples to work on.
How else can you use the Spanish personal a?