Understanding Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns in Spanish

The idea of direct and indirect object pronouns might sound a bit complicated at first, but you probably know more than you think about them!

English also uses indirect and direct objects, and it even differentiates between subject and object pronouns. So keep an eye out for the similarities between English and Spanish and you will see that this aspect of grammar is actually much easier to grasp than it may seem at first.

Ella lo compró. Ella lo compró.
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What Are Direct and Indirect Objects?

First things first. Before getting into the use of object pronouns in Spanish, you should quickly review what objects are in the first place.

Although there are some nuances, you could summarize the function of direct and indirect objects by saying that the direct object is the one directly affected by the action described by the verb (in a way, the one that receives its impact), while the indirect object is indirectly affected by it (that is to say, to whom or for whom the action is performed).

In an English phrase like Lucy gifted the ball to Tom, the direct object, the ball, is gifted by the subject, Lucy, to the indirect object, Tom.

What Are the Object Pronouns in Spanish?

If you translate the sentence above into Spanish and say that Lucy regaló la pelota a Tom, all the participants (Lucy, la pelota and Tom) will still have the same functions (subject, direct object and indirect object, respectively) as in the English sentence. And, just like in the English sentence, you could replace any of those participants with a pronoun, saying that she gave it to him.

To learn how to do this in Spanish, you first need to learn what the Spanish object pronouns look like:

Subject

Direct Object

Indirect Object

1st person singular

Yo

Me

2nd person singular

Te

Vos

Usted

Lo

Le

3rd person singular

Él

Ella

Lo

La

1st person plural

Nosotros

Nos

2nd person plural

Vosotros

Os

Ustedes

Los

3rd person plural

Ellos

Ellas

Los

Las

Les

If this seems overly complicated, think back to how you use English pronouns everyday. Even though English doesn't differentiate between direct and indirect object pronouns, it does make a difference between subject and object pronouns (think about I and me).

How to Use Object Pronouns in Spanish

Now that you've learnt the proper object pronouns in Spanish, it's time to put them in use, but there are a few rules you should know before you start.

Word Order

The first thing you should pay attention to is word order. Object pronouns in Spanish are usually placed before the verb (but after the subject). This means that Ella compró el libro(she bought the book) becomes Ella lo compró (she bought it).

There are a few instances where the object pronoun is attached to the end of the verb. These cases involve positive imperatives (when someone orders someone else to do something), infinitives and gerunds. For instance, ¡Compra el libro! (Buy the book!) becomes ¡Cómpralo! (Buy it!).

Indirect Object as Pronoun and Prepositional Phrase

It is also worth noting that the indirect object often appears as both a pronoun and a prepositional phrase, leading to apparently redundant phrases like Sandra le dio el regalo a su madre (Sandra gave the present to her mother), where both "le" and "a su madre" refer to the same indirect object.

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Indirect Objects and Preposition Use

Something else you should be wary of is the use of prepositions. While in Spanish the indirect object is always preceded by a preposition, that preposition is dropped when an indirect object pronoun is used. For example, Sandra dio el regalo a su madre becomes Sandra le dio el regalo and not *Sandra a le dio el regalo.

Substituting Both Direct and Indirect Objects With Pronouns

Last but not least, be careful when you substitute both the direct and the indirect object with a pronoun. When you do this, the third person indirect pronoun becomes "se". For instance, she gave it to him is not *ella le lo dio, but instead ella se lo dio.

Examples of Spanish Object Pronouns

It's time to put everything together.

Remember that initial English phrase, Lucy gifted the ball to Tom? You should now be able to translate it into Spanish using object pronouns. It should read Lucy se la regaló (Lucy gifted it to him).

Let's try doing the same with some other phrases:

  • Él corta el pelo a sus amigos (He cuts his friends' hair)
    • Él les corta el pelo (He cuts their hair)
  • Sofía toma café (Sofía drinks coffee)
    • Sofía lo toma (Sofía drinks it)
  • Martín dijo que sí a Julio (Martín said yes to Julio)
    • Martín lo dijo (Martín said it)
    • Martín le dijo que sí (Martín said yes to him)
    • Martín se lo dijo (Martín said it to him)
  • Marina le vendió el auto a Hernán (Marina sold the car to Hernán)
    • Marina lo vendió (Marina sold it)
    • Marina le vendió el auto (Marina sold him the car)
    • Marina se lo vendió (Marina sold it to him)
  • Tú lees el libro a tu hija (You read the book to your daughter)
    • Tú lo lees (You read it)
    • Tú le lees el libro (You read the book to her)
    • Tú se lo lees (You read it to her)
  • Federica me compró la casa a mí (Federica bought the house from me)
    • Federica la compró (Federica bought it)
    • Federica me compró la casa (Federica bought the house from me)
    • Federica me la compró (Federica bought it from me)

Use these and other examples to practice and really get the hang of Spanish object pronouns!