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How are direct and indirect object pronouns used in Spanish?

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Direct and indirect object pronouns replace the direct object or indirect object of a sentence. While in English these pronouns are placed after the verb (I ate it), in Spanish they are usually placed before the conjugated verb (Lo comí). However, this is not always the case, especially when these pronouns are with other forms of verbs. In these cases, the object pronoun is placed after the verbal form (comerlo). Let’s see what and which types these pronouns are, and how they are placed in more detail!

Direct and indirect object pronouns replace the direct object or indirect object of a sentence. While in English these pronouns are placed after the verb (I ate it), in Spanish they are usually placed before the conjugated verb (Lo comí). However, this is not always the case, especially when these pronouns are with other forms of verbs. In these cases, the object pronoun is placed after the verbal form (comerlo). Let’s see what and which types these pronouns are, and how they are placed in more detail!

What is a direct/indirect object?

Let’s review what direct and indirect objects are in case you need to refresh your memory! Let’s take a look at these examples:

  • Ana describe un cuadro.    Ana describes a picture.

  • Ana describe a sus hijos.    Ana describes her children.

In the examples above, un cuadro and (a) sus hijos are the answers to the questions “what?” and “who(m)” respectively (What does Ana describe? / Who(m) does Ana describe?). They are called “direct objects.”
Let’s take a look at this example now:

  • Ana describe un cuadro a sus hijos.    Ana describes a picture to her children.

In this example, we see a new element, a sus hijos [to her children]. This element answers the question, “to who(m)?” and is called an “indirect object.” In fact, indirect objects answer the questions, “to who(m)” or “for who(m).”

Did you know? You see a sus hijos in both examples. Please don’t get confused by the use of “a”: in the first case, it is used because it precedes a direct object that is a person (this is a rule in Spanish) but in the second example it precedes an indirect object. The translations help to clear things up: when “a” precedes a direct object, it is not translated into English; when placed before an indirect object, it is usually translated as “to.”  

Which are the direct and indirect object pronouns?

The direct and indirect objects can be replaced by pronouns. For example:

  • Ana describe el cuadro.Ana lo describe.
    Ana describes the picture. → Ana describes it.

So, let’s see which pronouns these are. For the direct/indirect object pronouns that correspond to yo [I], tú/vos [you – informal], nosotros/nosotras [we], vosotros/vosotras [you all] — which by the way is only used in Spain — you don’t need to get a headache remembering these grammar terms, because you just use the same pronoun for the direct and the indirect object:

Screen Shot 2021-08-03 at 3.10.20 PM

  • Nos invitó a su fiesta de cumpleaños.      He invited us to his birthday party.

  • Me regaló un libro.                                      He gave a book to me.

On the other hand, for the pronouns that correspond to él [he], ella [she], ellos [they – masculine], ellas [they – feminine] (either person or object), or to usted, ustedes [you – singular, formal] or [you all – formal] you use different words:

Screen Shot 2021-08-03 at 3.13.19 PM

Be careful! Direct object pronouns must agree in gender and number with the nouns they are replacing. In the following example, el pastel is the direct object of the sentence and it is a masculine singular noun, that is why the pronoun we need to use is lo.

  • -¿Cocinaste el pastel? → -Si, lo cociné.
    -Did you cook the cake? → -Yes, I cooked it.

Now, let’s look at the example below: the noun las cartas is the direct object in this sentence, this noun is feminine plural, thus, we should use the pronoun las.

  • -¿Enviaste las cartas? → -Sí, las envié. 
    -Did you send
    the letters → -Yes, I sent them.

Indirect object pronouns, on the other hand, only agree in number with the nouns they refer to since there are only two forms and no distinction between masculine and feminine. To review concepts like gender and number, see “Unpacking the grammar” at the end of the post. In the examples below, we use the indirect object pronoun to replace “your mother” and “your father” and as you can see, we use the pronoun le in both cases.

  • -¿Compraste el regalo a tu madre? → - Sí, le compré el regalo.
    -Did you buy the present for your mother? → - Yes, I bought the present for her.

  • -¿Diste el regalo a tu padre? → -Sí, le di el regalo.
    -Did you give the present to your father? → -Yes, I gave the present to him.

Let’s see now how to place these pronouns in sentences.

Unpacking the grammar

  • Gender represents categories in which nouns are split based on endings. In Spanish, there are two: masculine and feminine.

El chico (m.)                     The boy
La chica (f.)                      The girl

  • Number represents the quantity the noun refers to, meaning if it is singular or plural.

El chico (s.), los chicos (pl.)              The boy, the boys
La chica (s.), las chicas (pl.)             The girl, the girls

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