Spanish Indirect Object Pronouns

Another crucial part of the Spanish language, Spanish indirect object pronouns can take a little while to fully understand as we don’t have direct English translations (we might say “to him” or “to them”, where Spanish uses just one word “le”, or “les”, for example). It can also trip learners up when Spanish uses different words for direct pronouns and indirect pronouns, where in English we would use just one. It’s also used in all sorts of cases where we wouldn’t consider doing the same in English (such as with the verb “gustar“). In this post, we clarify how to form and place the Spanish indirect object, and then we explore its various uses.

What is the indirect object?

Let’s start with another grammar nugget:

“Rob baked Liz a cake”

In this simple sentence, we have a subject (“Rob”), and a direct object (“cake”). Remember, the direct object is the thing that is directly affected by the verb. We also have an indirect object (“Liz”), which is the secondary noun in the phrase, and is typically the recipient (Liz receives the cake). You can usually test whether an object is indirect by replacing the word with “who… for?, or “what… for?”. In the phrase above, we get “Who did Rob bake a cake for?”. In order for there to be an indirect object, there must first be a direct object.

In the following sentence, what is the subject, direct object, and indirect object?

“I wrote her a letter”

Click for answer

Subject: “I”; direct object: “a letter”; indirect object: “her”

Indirect object pronoun forms

Let’s take a look at the indirect object pronoun forms. These are fairly simple:

Indirect OBJECT PRONOUNS
Me Nos
Te Os
Le Les

 

As you can see, the only difference between these forms and the direct object forms are with “le” and “les”. All other forms are the same, which makes things easier!

Singular:

Spanish English
Me Me, to me, for me
Te You, to you, for you (for informal “tú”)
Le You, to you, for you (for formal “usted”)

 

Plural:

SPANISH ENGLISH
Nos Us, to us, for us
Os You, to you, for you (for “vosotros”, informal plural)
Les You, to you, for you (for “ustedes”, formal plural)

Noun replacement with indirect object pronouns

All of the above forms replace “a + noun”. It’s probably easiest to explain this with a few examples!

“Voy a comprar un regalo a Liz”  →  I’m going to buy a present for Liz

Using the indirect object pronoun to replace “a Liz”, we get:

Le voy a comprar un regalo”  →  I’m going to buy her a present

“Liz dió la comida a los perros”  →  Liz gave food to the dogs

Using the pronoun as a replacement, we get:

Les dio la comida” →  Liz gave them food

Word order

The good news is that the same rules apply for the placement of the indirect object as the direct object. Let’s refresh our memories, and take a look at a few examples:

Before the verb

Conjugated verbs

This is the most frequent use. When dealing with conjugated verbs, either positive or negative, in the indicative or subjunctive (ie, any of them!), the indirect object pronoun goes before the verb.

“Lis escribió a Rob” → “Le escribió”

Negative commands

When telling someone NOT TO DO something, we use the same form as the subjunctive, and the pronoun is also placed before the verb:

“No nos digas” → Don’t tell us

 

Attached to end of the verb

Positive commands

When telling people TO DO something, attach the pronoun to the end of the verb. There is no space between the verb and the pronoun.

“Dígame” Tell me

Before or after the verb

Infinitive

Infinitives are the verb forms you’ll find in the dictionary which require conjugation – in English these are sometimes referred to as the “to” form – “to eat”, for example (“comer”). When they are used as infinitives (for example, when used in combination with other verbs, such as “quiero comer” I want to eat), the pronoun can either go before or after the verb group:

“Quiero contarte algo” or “Te quiero contar algo” I want to tell you something

“Voy a comprarles una torta” or “Les voy a comprar una torta” I’m going to buy them a cake

Gerund

The gerund is equivalent to the English “ing” ending, and typically ends with “ando” or “(i)endo” in Spanish. As with the infinitive, the pronoun can be placed before or after the verb group:

“Estaba escribiéndole” or “Le estaba escribiéndo” I was writing to him/her

Both indirect and direct object pronouns

When you have both types of pronoun in one phrase, the indirect object pronoun goes first:

Te escribí una carta” → “Te la escribí”

 

To add emphasis or clarification

We can use both the indirect object pronoun and the “a + noun” which it replaces to add clarification or emphasis. Taking one of our earlier examples:

“Lis escribió a Rob” → “Le escribió”

To add clarification, we use both the pronoun and the noun it replaces:

“Lis le escribió a Rob

Spanish verbs that take the indirect object

In Spanish, many verbs take the indirect object where they would take the direct object in English, and so can be quite confusing for learners. “Mirar”, to see, is one such example. In English, “him” of “I’m looking at him” is a direct object, yet in Spanish the indirect object is used:

“Le miro” → I look at him/her

Many of these verbs are accompanied by “for” or “to” in English, which gives us a good clue that they take the indirect object:

Buscar → To look for

Esperar → To wait for

Another clue is whether the verb is one of communication:

Decir→ To tell

Hablar → To talk with

Enseñar → To teach

Comunicar → To communicate

And, there is a whole set of verbs which use the indirect object – often referred to as “reverse construction verbs“. These are verbs such as “gustar”:

Faltar → To be missing

Me falta un euro I’m missing one euro

Encantar → To delight

Nos encantó! We loved it!

Quedar → To be left, to remain

Me queda un trozo There is one piece left for me (lit: “It remains me one piece”)

And many more! The easiest way to approach these is on a verb by verb basis. If you hear the indirect object being used in a verb, check it in a dictionary. If the verb is referred to as an “intransitive verb” (often marked “vi” – “verbo intransitivo”), this means it takes the indirect object (and does not require a direct object).

 Loísmo and laísmo

This section is for advanced learners, but feel free to read if you’re keen! Both loísmo and laísmo refer to the use of the direct pronoun where the indirect pronoun is expected in standard use. In a way, it’s the opposite of leísmo:

La hablé hoy  → Lit: I spoke her today

Standard use here would be “le hablé hoy”. This use is found only in parts of Spain, and is generally frowned upon – the Real Academia Española has labelled its use as “inappropriate”! As a learner we wouldn’t advise doing it, but generally prefer to take a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach to grammar, . We like the label “non-standard”, but would hesitate to label laísmo or leísmo as “incorrect”.