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Spanish Personal A: Why Some Objects Take an “A” While Others Don’t

The Weird Use-Case of the Simplest and yet Most Elusive of All Spanish Prepositions

Spanish personal “a” indicates a human or human-like direct object

Photo credit: Reg Natarajan licensed cc by 2.0

HomeBlogSpanish Personal A: Why Some Objects Take an “A” While Others Don’t

Spanish personal a is an interesting concept. A is a preposition in Spanish and, for the most part, it translates into to. A, however, has a much broader use-case than its English counterpart to. It can indicate physical destination or just the recipient of an action. Spanish personal a, as the name indicates, is more personal in nature. On the surface, it indicates the recipient of an action. But dig a little deeper and you learn that not all recipients are equal. In this context, I’m referring to direct recipients. English also uses to for indirect recipients and that’s similar to to what Spanish does with a. But direct recipients is where the two grammars diverge.

Spanish Personal A: What It Is and Isn’t

There are subjects and there are objects. No, I’m not talking pronouns here. Subjects do stuff and objects bear the consequences. These objects can further be classified as direct and indirect. Take the following example:

Sam gave the book to Sally.

Here, Sam is the subject, but which one’s the object? The book? Or Sally? Well, both. The book is what grammar calls direct object and Sally, indirect. That’s because the book is the direct recipient of the act of giving, Sally comes later. The preposition to here serves to illustrate this distinction. Spanish follows the same convention:

Sam dio el libro a Sally.

Here, a ensures that Sally is the indirect object. So what’s the fuss all about? Well, it’s about the direct object situation. English, for the most part, doesn’t use to with the direct object. Spanish doesn’t either. Except when it does. And it’s these exceptions that we’re talking about today. There are times Spanish mandates a even with direct objects and that’s not a choice. This a is called the Spanish personal a. Here’s one such example:

Ayer vi a mi abuela.

This is a straightforward sentence translating into:

Yesterday I saw my grandma.

But did you notice the difference? Abuela or grandma is the direct object here. It doesn’t need a to in English. But see what Spanish did. It added a to the object. This is the Spanish personal a, I’ve been talking about. So it’s pretty elementary, Spanish personal a is the preposition a when used before a direct object for no apparent reason. This usage, more often than not, has no English equivalent. Nothing too hard to get so far; but this is where things start to get confusing.

Spanish Personal A: The Confusion

It’s clear that only direct objects qualify for the Spanish personal a. But not all direct objects are made equal, at least not in Spanish. Check out these examples:

Yo vi a la chica (I saw the girl).

Yo vi el libro (I saw the book).

See the difference? Both la chica and el libro are direct objects to the verb ver. Yet la chica takes an a, while el libro doesn’t. This is what makes Spanish personal a one of the more confusing aspects of the language to new learners. Let’s just say, it’s special and only special direct objects deserve its company. What makes those objects special? That’s what we’ll learn here.

Spanish Personal A: The Rules

The rules are simple and the rules are contrived, depending on who you ask. Simple if you ask a lazy learner like me, contrived if you ask a grammarian. But in order to appreciate the awesomeness, it’s important to understand the hard part first. So let’s see what the grammarian says first and then we can move on to the trick.

1. Spanish Personal A Is for “Persons”

Obvious, isn’t it? If you haven’t guessed already, only people qualify for this usage, not things, not ideas, not plants, not animals. Only people. This is exactly why in the examples I gave above, la chica takes a personal a but el libro doesn’t. English speakers might find this weird because to is simply awkward in either scenario:

I saw to the girl.

I saw to the book.

What an eyesore! But the first usage is not only acceptable in Spanish, it’s the rule. But speakers of many languages other than English might feel quite at home with this phenomenon. That’s because the idea of supporting a human direct object with a special preposition is intrinsic to many languages such as Hindi. In a strange way, the Spanish personal a (along with its non-Spanish counterparts) serves to qualify a person as a special entity as compared to other lesser mortals or things. Why this discrimination? I don’t know!

2. Spanish Personal A Is for Some Animals Too!

Yes! Some animals do get the privilege at times! But who decides? We, of course. In Orwell’s words, all animals are equal but some are more equal than others. In the context of language, those special animals are ideally pets. Perhaps because we tend to humanize pets, they’re a part of family, an extension of our own human personalities. Let’s call them honorary humans, maybe? English speakers, please don’t frown. You do the same, albeit in a different area. Ever wondered why you bestow gendered pronouns — he and she — upon your pets and a less ceremonious it for the stray raccoon in the yard? Yeah, thought as much. We’re all guilty of this discrimination.

Pedro mató las ladillas (Pedro killed the crabs).

Pedro mató a su perro (Pedro killed his dog).

So coming back to Spanish personal a, the preposition goes with animals as much as it does with people, so long as the animal in question is special to the subject. And in most cases, special means pet. This use-case can also extend to creatures that aren’t exactly pets but somehow enjoy human-like qualities, for instance in a story like The Jungle Book. To make things easier, any animal that has a given name gets a Spanish personal a. Even when the name isn’t being used in the sentence. This takes care of all pets and fable animals. Sometimes the size of the animal plays a role too, but that’s taking it too far.

If you love your pet, give him a personal “a” If you love your pet, give him a personal “a”
Victor Pineda licensed cc by-sa 2.0

3. Personify with Spanish Personal A

This builds upon what I just said about creatures being treated as people. There are times when we like to give a human character to not just animals but also things or ideas. Think Uncle Sam, Father Russia, Mother India, or just your kid’s friendly doll. Anytime you exhibit a special emotional bond with the object or entity in question, it acquires a human form. At least in Spanish grammar:

Mi hija abrazó a su muñeca a causa de era su mejor amiga (My daughter hugged her doll because she was her best friend).

Vi la muñeca abajo de la sofa (I saw the doll under the sofa).

The first example uses the Spanish personal a because the doll in question is almost a person, a best friend. The second doll, however, is just a doll, an inanimate object, hence no special treatment.

4. Not before Haber and Tener

What’s a rule without exceptions? Boring. So let’s spice things up with one. Just as not all objects deserve a Spanish personal a, not all verbs give one either. Both haber and tener mean to have, but in different ways. While haber is have as an auxiliary verb, tener is have in the sense of possession. Although this habertener distinction is a subject for another day (but no less important than serestar or porpara), let’s take a quick little detour to get it out of the way:

Nunca había ido a Colombia (I have never been to Colombia).

Nunca tenía gato (I never had a cat).

See the difference in interpretation? Haber supports another verb (ir in this case), tener indicates possession. Haber can at times also serve as a standalone verb. That usage involves hay (there is) and its fellow conjugations.

Now coming back to the subject of Spanish personal a, the rules say you can’t use it with either of these two verbs. So to kill your wife is matar a su esposa, but to have one is tener esposa, not tener a esposa. To see Tom is ver a Tom, but there is Tom is hay Tom!

4. Spanish Personal A before Tener

What? Didn’t we just establish that this verb, along with haber, does not go with personal a? What’s this exception then? An exception to an exception, if you will. Grammar loves to make learners miserable and Spanish grammar, slightly more so. So here’s the deal, it’s true that tener doesn’t get along with the Spanish personal a, but if it indicates a strong emotional bond, the rule doesn’t apply:

Tengo hermanos (I have siblings).

Nunca me siento solo porque tengo a mis hermanos (I’m never lonesome because I have my siblings).

The first example is merely stating a fact with no emotional overtones. The second, however, is expressing a deep emotional bond between the speaker and their siblings. It might be hard to identify the subtle difference at times but don’t sweat it.

Tener also takes a personal a if it implies that the speaker has someone someplace or is holding someone physically. Notice it’s someone and not something:

Tengo a mi bebé en los brazos (I have my baby in my arms).

Tengo a mi bebé en la cuna (I have my baby in the crib).

Again, this usage might seem a tad cumbersome to remember at first, but don’t let that throw you off. These are not mission-critical and continued practice will drive the concept home without you even trying. Mistakes with the Spanish personal a are relatively more forgiving than most others in this language.

Easy Trick for the Spanish Personal A

This is where it all comes together, the one rule to rule them all. What we’ve seen thus far is that only direct objects qualify for a personal a. The rules further narrow down the eligibility to only those direct objects that are either humans or humanlike. So long as you remember this distinction, you’re good. And the easiest way to do that is to ask a question whose answer is that direct object. Confused? Lemme simplify. If the direct object answers a who question, it takes the Spanish personal a. If it answers to what, it doesn’t.

Recuerdo a mi amiga (I remember my friend).

Recuerdo el concerto (I remember the concert).

Who do I remember? My friend; hence, a mi amiga. But what do I remember? The concert; hence, el concerto without the a. This trick covers pets and personified but otherwise inanimate things too. Let the ever-familiar who-what distinction be your guide. As for the tengohaber exceptions, you could just come up with some clever mnemonic for help. The one I use is no PATH:

No Personal A with Tener and Haber

The exception to this exception is just a matter of practice and will come of its own accord with time. Or else, you could just devise your own fun little mnemonic for the job. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

Spanish Personal A in Action

Now that we’ve learned the rules of the game and also memorized them with a couple of easy memory hacks, let’s take it a step further. Mnemonics are good when you want to recall what you’ve learned. But they aren’t very handy in a live conversation. In live conversations, you’ve got to think on your toes, be ready with the words before you need them. Decoding mnemonics can decelerate the process leading to fumbles. This is where reinforcements come in. Memorizing a bunch of readymade sentences is a proven way to drill a grammar concept into active memory. Luckily for you, there’s plenty of very witty sayings, or refranes, in Spanish that employ the Spanish personal a.

Refranes kill two birds with one stone. on one hand, they help you reinforce the grammar you’ve learned; on the other, they serve to add personality to your conversations. Use them as much as you can because no mnemonics can help your Spanish the way full-blown sentences can. Let’s look at five for the task at hand.

Amor no Respeta Ley, Ni Obedece al Rey

Meaning:Love doesn’t respect law, nor does it obey the king

This is an excellent example of a refrán illustrating where Spanish personal a works and where it doesn’t. Ley (law) is a non-human entity, an inanimate noun, which is why it doesn’t warrant a personal a. Rey (king), on the other hand, is very much human and thus, can’t go without the preposition. And if you can’t spot the Spanish personal a in front of rey, that’s because a has fused together with el to become al. In Spanish, common nouns take a definite article, el or la (depending on its gender), more often than their English counterparts. Rey here does the same. But whenever a and el come they contract to al. Same happens with de and el too, which become del. See this excellent article for more illustration of these contractions.

El Que Roba a un Ladrón Tiene Cien Años de Perdón

Meaning: He who steals from a thief has one hundred years of forgiveness

No, this refrán isn’t condoning theft. It’s just a witty way of saying that any harm done to a harmful person is forgiven. In other words, the enemy of one’s enemy is a friend. Well, not exactly, but you get the idea. Kind of like Robin Hood stealing from the corrupt and rich and still being a hero among the masses. Anyway, back to the point at hand: Spanish personal a. The first verb of interest here is robar (to steal or rob). Ask the question what’s being robbed. No answer? Fine, now ask who’s being robbed. This time you have an answer. It’s the ladrón (thief)! Since ladrón is an answer to a who-question rather than a what-question, it gets its own personal a. Wasn’t too hard, was it? But we aren’t done yet.

Now check out the second clause in this refrán. This clause hinges on the verb tener. We know tener only gets a personal a when it indicates an emotional bond or physical possession. The tener here, doesn’t qualify on either ground and hence goes without the preposition.

Haz Bien sin Mirar a Quien

Meaning: Do good without looking at whomsoever

Quien typically means who, but at times can also extrapolate to whosoever. That’s the case in this awesome rhyming refrán. In short, the proverb advises one to do good no matter who the deed benefits. If anyone needs help, offer them help. Don’t let the fact that you don’t know them come in the way. The proverb comes in myriad different versions some of which are:

  • haz bien y no te fijes a quien
  • haz bien sin ver a quien
  • haz bien y no acates a quien
  • haz bien y no cantes a quien
  • haz bien aunque no sepas a quien

There’s many more, but they all carry the same message: Altruism. Just as the last one, this proverb involves two clauses, haz bien and mirar a quien. The two clauses are strung together by the conjunction sin (without). The object of the first clause is bien, a non-human, which means no personal a. In the second clause, the object is quien. Now quien might look like a non-human entity at first, but remember, it answers a who-question. And that’s why it’s a quien here.

En las Malas se Conocen a los Amigos

Meaning: In bad times, friends are remembered

This is the Spanish near-equivalent of the ever-familiar friend in need proverb. Malo means bad, but when used as a feminine noun in plural, it means bad times. The horas is implicit. That’s what they’ve done here; instead of malas horas, just las malas. The verb of interest is conocer and its object, los amigos. Needless to say, your amigos are at least human-like if not human. That qualifies los amigos for a personal a. Remember, Spanish personal a goes with both humans as well as animals with human-like treatment.

Also note that a and los haven’t fused together this time. That’s because they’re not supposed to. A only fuses with el. Not with la, not with las, not even with los; only with el. As for conocer, the verb technically means to know. But in the context of this proverb, it means to remember, or to appreciate. Just understand that such offbeat usage is only acceptable in established proverbs that have stood the test of time. Do not use conocer for remember elsewhere; for that, the verb would be recordar. That said, the proverb is undeniably an excellent illustration of the Spanish personal a, and witty to boot.

Un Grano no Hace Granero, Pero Ayuda al Compañero

Meaning: One grain doesn’t make a granary, but it can help a friend

Yet another example of a perfectly poetic proverb with an insanely useful life lesson. Just see the rhyme between granero (barn) and compañero (companion), isn’t it tan chido (so cool)! Forget Spanish personal a, this proverb could help you step up your conversations with its philosophy and lucidity alone. It basically tells you that every little bit matters. That the drops make the ocean. That something you might deem insignificant could make a world of a difference to someone else.

Okay enough fawning over its philosophy, now let’s get back to how it helps you with the Spanish personal a. Two clauses again, each with its own verb and its own object. The first object granero doesn’t take a personal a. Can you tell why? Hint: Look at the corresponding verb! What about the second one? The verb is ayudar and the object, el compañero. Should it take the Spanish personal aCompañero is a very human entity. Even if your companion is a plant, you’re already elevating it to the level of humans by making it a companion. So it’s every bit deserving of a personal a. And you know what happens when a and el meet. That’s how we get al cmpañero.

Concluding Thoughts

So here’s the key takeaways from this post:

  • Spanish personal a is not directly translatable into English.
  • Spanish personal a serves to announce a direct object that is either human or human-like.
  • If the direct object answers a who-question, it takes a personal a.
  • If the direct object answers a what-question, it doesn’t take a personal a.
  • No direct object gets a personal a if its verb is haber.
  • Direct objects whose verb is tener get a personal a only if the verb indicates physical possession.

There you go, everything you ever needed to know about this pesky little aspect of Spanish grammar. Use the whowhat trick to remember the rules. And memorize the refranes to reinforce your memory. It’s no rocket science, really, is it?

What other aspects of Spanish grammar do you find challenging? Do let me know in a comment below and I will come up with some memory hacks to help you with it. Until then, enjoy practicing!

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