Lo is one of the most versatile words in the Spanish language.
Similar to another very functional two letter word se, the Spanish pronoun lo is used in a number of structures for replacing or creating new ideas in Spanish.
The most obvious use of lo is in the translation of the English word ‘it’. But, lo is capable of forming much more complicated ideas.
In this post, you’ll learn the 4 uses of lo including how to use it as a direct object, how to combine it with Spanish adjectives to create new ideas, how to use it in one of the most common Spanish relative pronouns, plus a few common errors that students make with lo such as using it when it shouldn’t really be there.
Use 1 – Lo as a direct object pronoun
I’ve written about Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns a bit already, so I’m not going to get into all of the details here. But, I will give you the short version.
A direct object pronoun is a word that replaces the object of the sentence.
If I ask you:
Do you have my wallet?
And you did, you could respond by saying:
Yes, I have it.
Here ‘it’ is a direct object pronoun because is filling in for the role of ‘wallet’.
In Spanish, you can use lo to do the exact same thing.
The main difference is that Spanish has masculine and feminine nouns and therefore there are 4 versions of lo:
Lo – masculine singular (it)
La – feminine singular (it)
Los – masculine plural (them)
Las – feminine plural (them)
With this in mind, you can now replace any noun with one of the above 4 versions of lo, provided you have some context.
In addition to ‘it’, lo can also represent people when they are the object of a sentence. In this case, the above 4 versions of lo would become:
Lo – masculine singular (him)
La – feminine singular (her)
Los – masculine plural (them)
Las – feminine plural (them)
Here are some examples:
English: Do you have my wallet?
Español: ¿Tienes mi cartera?
English: Yes, I have it.
Español: Sí, la tengo.
English: Have you seen Isabel today?
Español: ¿Has visto a Isabel hoy?
English: No, I haven’t seen her.
Español: No, no la he visto.
English: Do you like the dress?
Español: ¿A usted le gusta el vestido?
English: Yes, I’m going to buy it.
Español: Sí, lo voy a comprar.
English: Have you thrown out those old magazines?
Español: ¿Has tirado esas revistas viejas?
English: Yes, I’ve thrown them out.
Español: Sí, las he echado.
Note the word order with lo. It almost always goes before the conjugated verb, which is quite different from English.
Use 2 – ‘Lo + adjetivo’ to create a new idea
One of the coolest uses of lo happens when you combine it with a Spanish adjective to create a new idea or noun.
This use of lo is intriguing because we can’t really form ideas in the same way in English.
And, since we can’t do something similar in English, it makes this use of lo difficult to translate, understand and explain.
The simplest way to think about lo in this construction is to consider the following approximation:
Lo bueno ~ the good thing
You can also think of ‘lo bueno‘ as “that which is good”.
Moreover, the most important thing to remember (lo importante) is that you don’t pluralise or modify the gender of lo in this construction.
So, the above approximation could also represent:
Lo bueno ~ the good things
As I mentioned, this doesn’t always translate well. But, hopefully, a few more examples will help to solidify the concept.
English: The difficult thing about Spanish is the verbs.
Español: Lo difícil del español son los verbos.
English: This month has been the worst!
Español: ¡Este mes ha sido lo peor!
English: I want what’s best for her. (I want the best thing / things for her)
Español: Quiero lo mejor para ella.
Note that in this last example “…what’s best…” also demonstrates another good approximation for ‘lo mejor‘, which gives you an alternative way to think about this construction of lo in English.
That said, you do need to be really careful when “what” appears in the middle of a sentence in English because you may need the next construction of lo in the following section…
Use 3 – ‘Lo que’ to replace ‘what’
In Spanish, you can combine lo with que to create a relative pronoun.
What this means is that you can use ‘lo que‘ to represent ‘what’ in sentences such as:
I don’t understand what you want.
Or, sentences that start with “What this means is…” (as above).
You can also think of ‘lo que‘ as the translation of the phrase “that which”.
The most common mistake we see with this construction is using que instead of ‘lo que‘.
For example, the above sentence is often translated as follows:
English: I don’t understand what you want.
No entiendo que quieres. ⊗
When you translate the above sentence like this and forget the lo, you get a phrase that is equivalent to:
I don’t understand that you want.
This, of course, is an incomplete idea in both English and Spanish.
Alternatively, you could say:
English: I didn’t know that you wanted something to eat.
Español: No sabía que quería algo de comer.
In this example, both ‘that’ and que are perfectly fine because the second clause of the sentence has an object.
Here you can see the most important question to consider when deciding between ‘lo que‘ and que is — does the second clause in the sentence have an object (algo de comer)?
Put simply, if you have a sentence with two clauses and the second clause doesn’t have an object, you’ll need to say ‘lo que‘, if the second clause does have an object, you’ll need to say que.
Here are some more examples:
English: I don’t understand what he wants.
Español: No entiendo lo que él quiere.
English: This is not what I like or want.
Español: Esto no es lo que me gusta ni quiero.
English: I want to know what you are thinking about.
Español: Quiero saber en lo que piensas.
English: What this means for us is unclear.
Español: Lo que esto significa para nosotros no está claro.
Use 4 – ‘Lo de’ to replace ‘the thing about’
This last use of lo is kind of a combination of the previous two uses.
Similar to use 2, this phrase is difficult to translate but the best approximation would be:
Lo de ~ the thing about
In most cases, you can use this phrase to reference ideas known from previous discussions between the two people conversing.
The types of ideas that you can reference here could be anything such as birthday plans, homework, a new job, an awkward encounter, a new hobby, etc. It really can be anything, provided the idea is obvious and known to the people involved in the conversation.
The thing about Javi hasn’t been resolved.
As you can see, “the thing about” could be anything but is likely known between to the two speakers from past conversations or experiences.
Here are some examples including the translation of the above sentence:
English: The thing about Javi hasn’t been resolved.
Español: Lo de Javi no se ha resuelto.
English: We need to talk about the thing about Clara.
Español: Necesitamos hablar de lo de Clara.
English: The thing about yesterday was an accident.
Español: Lo de ayer fue un accidente.
Note that a more natural translation of the last example to English might be “the thing that happened yesterday…”, which you can also translate into Spanish as “lo que pasó ayer“.
Lo mejor vs el mejor vs la mejor
After the 4 main uses of lo, I’m going to finish this article with two mistakes we often see Spanish students make.
In this section, I’m going to use the Spanish adjective mejor (best) in all of the examples for simplicity.
So, when should you say ‘lo mejor‘ vs ‘la mejor‘? Or, ‘lo mejor‘ vs ‘el mejor‘?
The answer depends on whether you are creating a new noun or if you are using mejor in a normal adjective construction.
For example, you might want to say:
She is the best tennis player.
In this example, you are using ‘best’ to define a type of tennis player, most likely from a larger group of players.
In other words, you are using a normal adjective to categorise a noun. This sentence in Spanish would be:
English: She is the best tennis player.
Español: Ella es la mejor tenista.
In this case, you need to say ‘la mejor‘ because you are simply placing ‘mejor‘ in the middle of ‘la tenista‘.
Moreover, provided you know from context you are comparing a group tennis players, you can drop the word tenista:
English: She is the best (tennis player).
Español: Ella es la mejor.
In contrast, if you have a good friend and you simply want to state your admiration of this person, you can say:
English: She is the best!
Español: ¡Ella es lo mejor!
In this example, you aren’t categorising a Spanish noun, you are creating a new idea or noun “the best” (lo mejor) and linking ‘ella’ to this new idea.
If you think back to the approximation of this construction from above, you can also consider the following phrase:
Lo mejor ~ the best thing (ever)
Here are some more examples of both constructions:
English: This is the best food.
Español: Esta es la mejor comida.
English: The food here is the best.
Español: La comida aquí es lo mejor.
English: This is the best holiday.
Español: Estas son las mejores vacaciones.
English: Going on holiday is the best (thing ever)!
Español: ¡Ir de vacaciones es lo mejor!
When not to use ‘lo’ in a sentence
Another big mistake we often see Spanish students make is using lo as the translation of ‘it’ when it shouldn’t really be there.
I hear this mistake a lot when I’m testing students for our live Spanish classes.
In the test, you’ll be asked a series of questions, one of which is to translate a sentence like this:
It interests me…
A common answer to this question involves a lo somewhere. I often hear variations of one of the following:
Lo me interesa…
Lo interesa a mí…
Para mí, lo es interesante…
But these aren’t right because you can’t use lo in the translation of the English sentence.
The reason you can’t use lo in the translation is because lo is a direct object pronoun. And, in the original sentence ‘it’ is actually the subject of the sentence, not the object.
So, the key here is whenever ‘it’ is the subject of the sentence, you can’t use lo. Instead, you need to conjugate the verb in the third person.
The translation of the above is:
English: It interests me…
Español: Me interesa…
Note this is significant because you are now using the ‘verbs like gustar’ sentence structure, which generally means that the subject of the sentence is an abstract idea such as ‘it’ and not a person.
Lo is a super important word because you can use it in so many contexts.
If you can learn to use it well, then your Spanish will sound better, and you’ll understand spoken Spanish better too.
As I suggest at the end of every post, pick a few of these constructions, try to form your own sentences using different verbs and adjectives in combination with each of the uses of lo, then try to use the sentences you create when you next have an opportunity to chat with a Spanish teacher or Spanish native.
How else can you use “lo” in a Spanish sentence?