All You Needed to Know about the Spanish Indirect Object Pronouns
Spanish is not special so far as object pronouns go; all Romance languages have them. Many non-Romance languages do too. And that includes English. If Spanish has la and le, we have him and her. So, no novelty there. And yet, we have a hard time getting acclimatized to the object pronouns while learning Spanish. What could possibly be the reason?
The problem is not the object pronouns themselves but the way Spanish obsesses over them. In English, there’s no difference between direct and indirect objects when it comes to pronouns. All that matters is the gender. So, all you need to remember is that him is for guys, her for girls, and it for everything non-human, and you’re good to go. Not so easy in Spanish. In Spanish, there are rules, and enough of them to confuse the living hell out of a noob like us.
Not only Spanish mandates different pronouns for its direct and indirect objects in the third person, it even tends to blur the lines in some cases. There are places that use the same pronouns for both objects, others swap them completely. Some even go so far as to doing both depending on the context!
This article attempts to break it all down for easy absorption and make object pronouns a cinch for you. We will only be dealing with the third person here since the others, such as me and te, are pretty straightforward already. There’s a difference between what grammar prescribes and what real life follows. Let’s learn that difference.
The Good Ol’ Standard
In order to understand the colloquial usage, it’s important to first get a firm handle on what the Spanish-language playbook mandates. Once you understand the standard, it’ll be easier for you to appreciate regional differences and their importance. So, first things first, let’s go through a refresher on what objects are in the first place. In most languages, a typical sentence has three essential components. Let’s illustrate them with an example:
Escribe una carta (He writes a letter).
In this example, the three components are:
- The action or event: This is at the very core of the sentence and is represented by what grammar calls a verb. In this case, the verb is escribir (to write) and is used in it’s conjugated form for the present indicative tense – escribe (writes).
- The doer: This one is grammatically referred to as the subject and is the one who performs the action in question. Here, the subject is él (he) or ella (she) although it’s merely implied and not written. In Spanish, you don’t explicitly write or say the subject pronoun unless there were some kind of an ambiguity.
- The recipient: This is what the verb affects. Grammar calls this the object. If you asked a question like what, whom, or to whom this is what answers. What does he write? Una carta (A letter); that makes it your object.
Objects in Spanish
Now, this recipient of your action, the object, can be either direct or indirect. That would, in most circumstances, depend on whether it answers a what or a to whom. That, of course, is an extremely simplified way of looking at things but it works – mostly. If it answers a what, it’s direct. Otherwise, indirect. Thus, in our example, a letter is a direct object. If a sentence has only one object, it’s most likely direct but not always. Of course, it can have both too:
Le escribe una carta (He writes her a letter).
This time, there are two objects. One answers what, the other to whom. What does he write? A letter. To whom does he write the letter? To her. Notice that little le before escribe? That’s your indirect object pronoun in this example.
Now, the object pronouns in the first and second persons are fairly easy to understand. That’s because they don’t care about whether they’re being used as direct object or indirect. They stay the same:
- me: This is Spanish for me. Wow, that was a no-brainer! And this is also Spanish for to me. So direct or indirect, the first person object pronoun remains me. Unless its plural in which case it becomes nos.
- te: This one is Spanish for you or to you in a familiar setting when used as object. Don’t confuse this you with the subject you which translates as tú. When there’s more than one person involved, you use os if you’re in Spain. In the rest of the world, though, you use the formal version instead – ustedes.
Spanish Object Pronouns: Direct
It’s the third person where the confusion begins. Let’s see what the playbook says, one object at a time. First the direct object:
- lo: This one is for the guys. Him, if you will. Take for example, lo vi (I saw him) or lo tocó (you touched him). Just add an -s and you have the plural – los (them).
- la: This one is for the girls. Her, if you will. Examples could be, la vi (I saw her) or la tocó (you touched her). Just add an -s and you have the plural – las (them).
Now, this should hardly cause you any grief as everything seems pretty intuitive. Nothing seems out of place. If you’re this far in Spanish, you already know that any word ending in -o is masculine and any ending in -a is feminine. Bar exceptions, that is. This should make lo and la very easy to internalize. Nothing is “ungendered” in Spanish. It’s always either a guy or a girl – either a lo, or a la.
Spanish Object Pronouns: Indirect
If you liked direct object pronouns because of their simplicity, you’ll like indirect ones even more. That’s because there’s only one! You heard that right, there’s just one indirect object in Spanish, gender notwithstanding. Isn’t that a relief in this gender-obsessed world?
This gender-neutral pronoun is le. And its plural is an equally unassuming les. The ending should easily tell you all you need to know about its indifference to genders. Look at these examples:
Le dio un libro (She gave him/her a book).
Le escribo una carta (I write a letter to him/her).
A point worth noting here is that, like in the first example above, the preposition to doesn’t always have to be explicit in English. The same sentence could also be rendered as:
She gave a book to him.
In Spanish, though, either variant would translate as le dio un libro; unless you needed to stress on the object for whatever reason in which case you could try le dio un libro a ella. The a ella reinforces the fact that it’s her who received the book and not anybody else. Remember, le is gender-agnostic. This redundancy might sound strange to English ears but make total sense because that’s the only way to kill any ambiguity around the recipient’s gender or identity if needed.
Meet Lola, the Memory Hook
We saw how straightforward direct object pronouns are and we also saw how straightforward indirect pronouns are. So if both are that simple and easy to get, where exactly is the problem? Where’s the confusion I was talking about? Well, the confusion lies in remembering which one is which. I mean you will easily remember lo, la, and le as object pronouns. You will also remember, just as easily, that one of them is indirect object. But which one? When using them in a sentence, newbie learners often forget which one to use for which object.
As if that were not enough, Spanish grammar has yet another rule to stump you further. Turns out la, lo, and le aren’t the only object pronouns in the third person. There’s also a se. This one only steps in when you have a sentence that uses both direct as well as indirect objects in the third person. Try translating the following sentence:
I gave it to her.
Here, you have two object pronouns, both in the third person. It is direct and her is indirect. Let’s see how it fares in Spanish:
Le lo di.
You might find it alright but the above sentence doesn’t sound good to Spanish ears. The combination of le and lo is weird to them. Don’t ask me why, it just is. And Spanish grammar recognizes this problem which is why it mandates that the le be replaced by a se in such cases. The rule is simple, whenever you have both direct and indirect object pronouns being used together in the same sentence, regardless of number, se must be used for the indirect. Thus, any permutation of le or les for indirect and lo, la, los, or las for direct would warrant using se for indirect. So, the correct translation for the above example would be:
Se lo di.
Here’s a fun way to remember the bits without se:
What did Lola eat today?
Imagine Lola as a fat woman who’s perpetually hungry. She just can’t help chowing down whatever she finds edible, no matter how full. Well, she’s never full. To make the image harder to forget, make it more vivid and fun. Think of her as giving off loud burps after having more than her fair share of bean burritos and enchiladas. In case your own name happens to be Lola, do accept my sincerest apologies and take this mnemonic as a little price to pay for the greater good!
The trick here is to stress on the bits in bold. Lola has both lo and la built-in and since the questions asks what (meaning the answer would be a direct object), it should easily tell you that lo and la serve as direct object pronouns.
The last word contains to and something that rhymes with le – today. This should hint to the fact that whatever answers to whom, is the indirect object which, in Spanish, is le. What did you write? A letter. To whom did you write the letter? To her.
So, to reiterate in a nutshell, lo and la answer what and le answers to whom. Lola, direct. Today, to, le, indirect.
You can use the same Lola to also remember the rules for se:
The name’s Lola, not Lela.
You see, nobody likes their name being mispronounced. And our Lola is particularly touchy about that. I don’t know why so many people wind up calling her Lela but she makes sure you know her displeasure when you do so. If you can remember that Lela is not cool, you’d remember that using le with la or lo is not cool either. That leaves you with se.
You already knew that mnemonics work wonders for vocabulary; but they can also work their magic on grammar. All you need is a little out-of-wack thinking and a child-like imagination!
Leísmo, a Mistake Legitimized
Not everybody likes our good old Lola. There are places where she’s not even welcome!
What we studied so far was the standard. Just follow that and you’ll be understood everywhere. If, however, standard Spanish bores you, read on. In some parts of the Spanish speaking world, they don’t like using lo for the masculine third person direct object pronoun. Instead, they prefer le. Ideally, le is reserved for the indirect object; but in these parts, they use it for direct object too. This apartheid against lo is referred to as leísmo, the practice of using le where le isn’t exactly appropriate.
Leísmo enjoys such a clout that even RAE, the body with the final say on Spanish grammar, has admitted it as a grammatically acceptable practice! The only caveat RAE stipulates is that this le must only refer to living things and not objects. If your direct object pronoun is referring to a masculine inanimate object, it would still take a lo.
Vio a un hombre; lo vio (She saw a man; she saw him).
This is standard Spanish. Correct no matter where you go. Now, check out the form using leísmo:
Vio a un hombre; le vio (She saw a man; she saw him).
Since what she saw is a person, and masculine, leísmo speakers would prefer le over lo in this case. This is allowed by Spanish grammar so you could speak like this even in formal settings without raising any eyebrows in the room. Now let’s review another example:
Vio a un anillo; lo vio (She saw a ring; she saw it).
Here, despite being masculine, anillo (ring) is not a living thing. That’s why even leísmo would stick to lo. The rule is simple, if it’s an it, leísmo doesn’t apply.
So, basically, leísmo is just a colloquial (now legitimized by the RAE overlords) practice of using le instead of lo when the direct object is a masculine living thing. This practice is mostly followed in parts of Spain – to be specific, northwestern Spain, Navarre, Valencia, and the Basque Country. If you’re in Latin America, the only places you’ll encounter leísmo are Paraguay and parts of Argentina. Unless you’re gonna be in any of these regions, you really have no reason to bother with this practice and confuse yourself further.
Loísmo and Laísmo, the Absolutely Wrong
Loísmo is, as the name suggests, when you prefer lo over le for the masculine indirect object pronoun. We have already seen how standard Spanish doesn’t bother with gender when it comes to indirect objects. However, some Spanish speakers do, it seems. If the indirect object is feminine, though, they stick to le. Since this practice favors lo, it’s called loísmo.
Another similar practice is one where they stick to le if the indirect object is masculine but prefer la if it’s feminine. Since this one favors la, it’s called laísmo.
The main difference between leísmo and these two is that only leísmo enjoys an endorsement from Spanish grammar. Both loísmo and laísmo are regionalisms and must be treated as such. What this means is that while you can practice leísmo in formal settings, you can’t loísmo and laísmo.
Honestly, I don’t even know why you need to bother with these two unless you’re gunning for a particular dialect. Laísmo and loísmo are only practiced in certain parts of Spain and maybe Central America. I am not sure exactly which parts follow one of these and to what extent because I haven’t traveled that extensively. But if you have any experience, I would love to hear. From what I’ve read and heard, laísmo seems to be limited to Madrid and surrounding areas. Leísmo, too, seems to enjoy currency only in certain parts of central Spain. But then, I can’t really claim to be sure.
So, that’s all about the pesky third person object pronouns in Spanish for you. I hope that’s another monkey off your back in case you were struggling with it thus far. I am still curious to explore loísmo and laísmo deeper, so if you know anybody who practices them, please let me know in a comment below.