Master Direct (Complemento Directo) vs Indirect Objects (Complemento Indirecto) in Spanish
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish which object is accompanying a verb and whether it is a Direct Object (DO) or an Indirect Object (IO) in English.
These grammatical objects also exist in Spanish, and are known as Complemento Directo (CO) and Complemento Indirecto (CI).
So, if you were to read (or hear) the following sentences, would you be able to tell what was the Direct Object and what was the Indirect Object?
• Yesterday, I saw your mother at the cinema. Ayer vi a tu madre en el cine.
• I am writing a letter to my sister. Estoy escribiendo una carta a mi hermana.
• The dog barks at the children. El perro ladra a los niños.
• John greets Paul. Juan saluda a Pablo.
If you were able to recognize each one, great job! However, if not, don’t worry.
You’ll definitely be able to learn it. Now, let’s think of a different question: if I were to ask you to replace the direct object noun or the indirect object noun, would you be able to do it?
Just like in English, it is typical to replace or substitute the noun objects with pronoun objects in Spanish. But, why?
Well, when we speak Spanish, we want to avoid repetition or redundancy as much as possible. Therefore, in this article, we will take a look at the principles, structures and forms in order to clear up any questions regarding whether we should choose nouns or pronouns when using direct and indirect objects.
Direct Object: Nouns and Pronouns
In grammatical terms, a direct object of a verb is a noun or a pronoun that is being directly acted upon by a person or thing by way of a verb:
• He hits the ball. (Él) golpea la pelota.
• The dog bites John. El perro muerde a Juan.
• We saw them. (Nosotros) los vimos.
• I found it. (Yo) lo encontré.
“The ball” and “John” are both nouns, while “them” (los) and “it” (lo) are both pronouns, being that they take the place of other, presumably previously mentioned, nouns.
• We saw our friends (them). Vimos a nuestros amigos (a ellos).
• I found the money (it). Yo encontré el dinero.
We can further distinguish between personalobject nouns (John / Juan, our friends/ nuestros amigos) and impersonalobject nouns (the ball / la pelota, the money / el dinero).
In English, all direct objects, whether nouns or pronouns, are placed after the verb they are the object of in everyday speech. There are some exceptions, such as in certain forms of poetry, where the direct object is occasionally placed in front. Examples:
• Her beauty, I have admired for many years.
• That I would not care to say.
In Spanish, a noun that acts as a direct object is also normally placed directly after the verb. However, because Spanish word order is more flexible than that of English, this is not always the case, even in normal speech.
Nevertheless, when the direct object of the verb is personal and refers to a specific person or group of people, the preposition a (often called the “personal a”) must be placed before the noun or name referring to the person.
This preposition, however, has no English equivalent, and is simply used as a marker in Spanish in order to indicate that following noun is a direct object (and not the subject) of the verb.
On the other hand, when the direct object is impersonal, or does not specify a particular person, no preposition is put before the noun.
Note that when the a is followed by the masculine singular definite article el, these two words contract to form a + el = al.
• Deseo ver al señor Escudero. (personal, specific)
• Deseo ver una película. (non-personal)
• Juan visita a la amiga de su madre. (personal, specific)
• Juan visita Madrid. (non-personal)
• Diego llama a su jefe. (personal, specific)
• Diego llama un taxi. (non-personal)
• ¿Conoce usted a María? (personal, specific)
• ¿Conoce usted esta playa? (non-personal)
• Busco al mecánico. (a specific one)
• Busco un mecánico. (any one)
In many speech and writing situations, however, replacing nouns by pronouns is preferred being that it is cumbersome to keep repeating a noun that has already been mentioned. This “noun replacement” process happens particularly in question-answer situations.
• Have you still got the money? ¿Tienes (tú) todavía el dinero?
• No, I’ve spent it. No (yo) lo he gastado.
Languages have therefore developed sets of direct object pronouns to fulfill this function. In Spanish these are as follows:
• Masculine: lo / los
• Feminine: la / las
Note that the direct object pronouns differ by number (singular and plural) and gender (masculine and feminine). The form used in a particular sentence is determined by the number and gender of the noun that is replaced. This is called pronoun agreement.
Another characteristic of Spanish pronouns that is different from English usage is that when used with conjugated forms of the verb (that is, with verbs in the present, future, past tense, etc.), the direct object pronouns are placed before the verb. In this regard, Spanish is similar to French, but different from English.
Consider the following examples:
• ¿Ya conoce Carmen a Carlos? Sí, ya lo conoce. (masculine, singular: him)
• ¿Ya conoce Carlos a Carmen? Sí, ya la conoce. (feminine, singular: her)
• ¿Conoce José a Pedro y Julián? No, no los conoce. (masculine, plural: them)
• ¿Conoce Manuel a las chicas? No, no las conoce. (feminine, plural: them)
The same set of pronouns is used to replace non-personal (inanimate object) nouns as well, because we now know that gender is not limited to human beings alone in Spanish. All nouns are either masculine or feminine in gender, and hence, are replaced by the pronoun that corresponds to that gender, whether singular or plural.
• ¿Compraste (tú) el coche? (masculine, singular) Sí, lo compré
• ¿Ve (usted) la casa? (feminine, singular) No, no la veo
• ¿Estudian los chicos los poemas? (masculine, plural) Sí, los estudian
• ¿Tenéis (vosotras) las fresas? (feminine, plural) No, no las tenemos
• ¿Bebe usted agua todos los día? (feminine, singular) Sí, la bebo todos los días
You should note in the last example that even when the noun is used without a definite article, it is still replaced by the appropriate direct object pronoun (in this case, la).
Also, you should remember that the noun agua is feminine, even though it is accompanied by the article el: el agua. Other exceptions include el mapa and el problema.
• Teresa lee el mapa de carreteras. Teresa *lo* lee.
• No entiendo el problema. No *lo* entiendo.
Placement of Direct Object Pronouns with Infinitives and Gerunds.
When a direct object pronoun is used in conjunction with an infinitive or a gerund, the pronoun is placed after the infinitive or gerund and is attached to it, forming one single word.
There are some allowable exceptions to the rule, however, such as when the object pronoun is located elsewhere in the sentence. Nevertheless, it is better to learn the base rule first and then learn the variations later. That way, you can be sure of always being right, even if your style might sometimes be a bit more formal than native speakers.
• ¿Quieres ver esta película? No, no quiero verla hoy
• ¿Es fácil aprender español? Sí, es muy fácil aprenderlo
• ¿Cuándo vas a hacer estas tareas? Voy a hacerlas mañana
• ¿Puede usted ayudar a esos hombres? No, no puedo ayudarlos
• Ana, ¿estás limpiando las cortinas? Sí, claro estoy limpiándolas
• ¿Está mirando la columna? Sí, está mirándola
Indirect Object: Nouns and Pronouns
So far, we have seen how nouns that are the direct objects of verbs can be replaced by their equivalent direct object pronouns.
• ¿Estás leyendo ese libro? Sí, estoy leyéndolo
However, in addition to direct objects, there are also indirect objects, which are noun phrases that indicate to whom or for whom an action is done.
• I write to my mother. Escribo a mi madre. (feminine, singular: her)
They also often occur in sentences that already have a direct object.
• He gives the book (DO) to his brother (IO). (Él) da un libro (DO) a su hermano (IO)
Spanish also allows an indirect object to precede a direct object without any apparent change to the meaning. We can restate the sentence above in this way:
• (Él) da a su hermano (IO) un libro (DO)
Here are some other examples:
• Mando la carta (DO) al banco (IO)
• Mando al banco (IO) la carta (DO)
• Ofrecemos dinero (DO) a nuestros hijos (IO)
• Ofrecemos a nuestros hijos (IO) dinero (DO)
On the other hand, there are some English verbs that only take indirect objects, and never a direct object.
• That idea appealed to the professor (IO). Esta idea sedujo al professor (IO
• That didn’t occur to the police (IO). Eso no ocurrió al policía (IO)
Similar structures occur in Spanish. Indirect objects are most frequently found with verbs that also take direct objects, but there are a number of verbs that only take indirect objects. Such verbs have to be learned as we encounter them.
However, when such structures are found in a question, it is much easier to answer that question by replacing the noun phrases with pronouns (the shorter form), being that it is redundant to repeat them if it is already quite clear what we are talking about. We have already learned direct object pronouns, in which the direct object forms distinguish between both number and gender:
• Masculine Singular: lo / Plural: los
• Feminine Singular: la / Plural: las
However, in Spanish, indirect object pronouns only distinguish between singular and plural, and the gender doesn’t matter. Thus:
• Singular: le (se)
• Plural: les (se)
In the third person, le and les are much more ambiguous. Le can mean both a él, a ella, or a usted according to the noun it is referring to, while les can mean a ellos, a ellas, or a ustedes. So, the gender of whomever is completing the verb is not important.
Let’s see how this substitution works if we turn the example sentences above into questions. For the moment though, we will only change the indirect objects to pronouns, leaving the direct object nouns in the answers (this is not the way that it is generally done in Spanish).
• ¿Mandaste la carta (DO) al banco (IO)?
• Sí, le (IO) mandé la carta en seguida
• ¿Dan dinero (DO) a sus hijos (IO)?
• No, nunca les (IO) damos dinero
• ¿Compra el hombre muchos regalos (DO) a su mujer (IO)?
• Sí, cada semana le (IO) compra un regalo
As with direct object and reflexive object pronouns, indirect object pronouns are placed before the verb when it is in a conjugated (tense) form.
However, if the verb is an infinitive or uses a gerund, then the indirect object pronoun (like the direct) is generally placed after the infinitive or gerund.
Due to the pronunciation problems that would occur when an indirect object pronoun appears before a direct object pronoun, we have to use the se instead of le form.
Let’s go back to our example sentences, and this time transform both object nouns into pronouns:
• ¿Mandaste la carta al banco?
• Sí, se (le) la mandé en seguida
• ¿Dan dinero a sus hijos?
• No, nunca se (le) lo damos
• ¿Compra el hombre regalos a su mujer?
• Sí, se (les) los compra cada semana
Now, let’s remember this set of pronouns:
• Direct Pronoun me Indirect Pronoun me (a mí)
• Direct Pronoun teIndirect Pronoun te (a ti)
• SubjectÉl / Ella / Usted
• Direct Pronoun lo / la
• Indirect Pronoun le o se (a él / a ella / a Usted)
• SubjectNosotros (as)
• Direct Pronoun nosIndirect Pronoun nos ( a nosotros - as)
• SubjectVosotros (as)
• Direct Pronoun osIndirect Pronoun os ( a vosotros - as)
• SubjectEllos / Ellas / Ustedes
• Direct Pronoun los / las
• Indirect Pronoun les o se (a ellos/ a ellas / a Ustedes)
Note that the first person and second person singular and plural are the same for both object pronouns: me / te / nos / os
Such pronouns, however, have no difference in form between their direct and indirect functions (though they are much more commonly used as indirect objects since they are less frequently the direct recipients of an action). Thus, they can be used for both, with the context indicating which function they are fulfilling in any particular sentence.
• ¿Vas a comprarnos (IO = a nosotros) la fruta (DO)?
• Sí, os (IO = a vosotros) la (DO) compraré
• ¿Me (IO = a mí) puedes reparar los zapatos (DO)?
• No, lo siento, no te (IO = a ti) los (DO) puedo reparar
• ¿La universidad va a enviarnos (IO = a nosotros) los títulos (DO)?
• Sí, la universidad os (IO = a vosotros) los (DO) enviará mañana
You should be careful with usted and ustedes in particular because despite the fact that they mean you, they are third person forms and therefore distinguish between the masculine and feminine forms according to whether the you being referred to is male or female (at least for the direct object).
If this is a bit hard to get your head around, imagine that you are a courtier speaking respectfully to the Queen. You might ask (especially if this was in the days of Queen Victoria) …
• What does Your Majesty wish I should bring (to) her? ¿Qué desearía que le trajera a su Majestad?
Or, if addressing a king, the courtier would say:
• What does Your Majesty wish I should bring (to) him? ¿Qué desearía que le trajera a su Majestad?
So when using the usted forms, think of Her Majesty and address her in the third person!
However, because these third person object pronouns can refer to him, her or you, there is potential for ambiguity. Hence, when you is meant in particular, the phrase a usted or a ustedes is often added in addition to the object pronoun. This assists in clearing up any possible ambiguity.
• I’m offering (to) you a pay raise.
• Le ofrezco a usted un aumento de sueldo
• They are giving them (los) to you (plural)
• Se los dan a ustedes. (Se for les)
Same structure but different object pronoun.
Finally (for now anyway, this being a nearly inexhaustible subject), a (the preposition a in this case) + personal pronoun is also used in Spanish to indicate a direct object with a personal reference.
• ¿Has visto a mi madre (DO)?
• No, no la (DO) he visto. (have seen)
This raises the problem of how Spanish distinguishes such a direct object from an indirect object structure that also uses a (preposition a connoting “to”) + personal noun, such as:
• ¿Escribiste a mi madre (IO)?
• No, debes escribir**le** (IO) tú mismo
• ¿Escribiste a mi padre (IO)
• No, debes escribirle (IO) tú mismo
Note: le refers to mi madre (feminine) or mi padre (masculine).
While in most cases the reference is clear, the potential for ambiguity is such that Spanish has come up with the device of the so-called redundant pronoun , (though this term is deceiving because it is not always redundant being that it helps to clear up ambiguity). It involves inserting the indirect object pronoun (le or les) into a sentence, in addition to the indirect object noun phrase.
• ¿Le (IO) escribes a tu madre (IO)?
• Sí, le escribo todos los días
• ¿Les (IO) va usted a preguntar a los policías (IO)?
• No, no les voy a preguntar
If we notice that such a redundant pronoun is present in the question, then we simply retain it in the answer and drop the noun phrase. However, this redundant pronoun usage is an indicator of relatively formal speech in Spanish. When there is no possible redundancy, especially in oral language, it is often left out.
To take one of the examples above, a less formal rendition of this would be:
• ¿Vas a preguntar a los policías (IO)?
• No, no les (IO) voy a preguntar
This response with les shows that a los policías is in fact an indirect object of the verb preguntar (to ask a question). However, in this case there is no chance of it being confused with a direct object, so the redundant pronoun is not necessary.
It is a good idea, however, as a new speaker of Spanish, to always put the redundant indirect object pronoun in when an indirect object noun phrase is used. That way you will always be grammatically correct, even if you end up using a slightly more formal style.
• ¿Qué les (IO) da Carmen a Lola y Julián?
• Les (IO) da un regalo (DO)
• Se lo da
• `¿Le (IO) pides ayuda a tu padre (IO)?
• No, no le (IO) pido ayuda nunca
• ¿Le (IO) va a mandar la carta (DO) al Primer Ministro (IO)?
• Sí, se (IO) la (DO) voy a mandar
I hope that this article has helped to clarify any confusion you might have had regarding Direct and Indirect Object pronouns in Spanish.
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