5 Differences Between Spanish and English Object Pronouns

'Le' Is Singular Indirect Object

Bud earphone in someone's ear
A Chris le gusta escuchar música. (Chris likes listening to music.). Photo by Marcus Quigmire; licensed via Creative Commons.

Because both are Indo-European languages, the grammars of Spanish and English are quite similar: The verb tenses are similar, for example, and sentences in both usually follow a pattern (with exceptions more often in Spanish) in which the main verb of a sentence follows the subject.

Of course, grammatical differences between the two languages abound. Among them is the way that object pronouns are treated.

Here are five ways that Spanish deals with object pronouns in ways that might not seem familiar to English speakers:

1. In the third person, Spanish distinguishes between direct and indirect object pronouns. The English third-person object pronouns are "him," "her" and "it" in the singular and "them" in the plural, and the same words are used whether the object is direct or indirect. (In the simplest sense, although the distinctions don't always line up in the two languages, as explained below, a direct object is one that is acted upon by a verb, while an indirect object is one affected by a verb's action even though the action is directed at someone or something else.) But in standard Spanish (exceptions are explained in our lesson on leísmo), the pronouns are distinguished like this:

  • Singular direct objects: lo (masculine), la (feminine).
  • Plural direct object: los (masculine), las (feminine).
  • Singular indirect object: le.
  • Plural indirect object: les.

So while the simple English sentences "I found her" and "I sent her a letter" use the same pronoun "her," a distinction is made in Spanish. The first sentence would be "La encontré," where la is a direct object, while the second would be "Le mandé una carta" with le being the indirect object.

("Letter" or carta is the direct object.)

2. In Spanish, object pronouns can be attached to some verbs. The pronouns can be attached to three verb forms: infinitives, gerunds and affirmative commands. The pronoun is written as part of the verb, and sometimes a written accent is needed to maintain the same pronunciation as if the verb and pronoun were written as separate words. Here is an example of each of the verb types with an attached pronoun:

  • Infinitive: Voy a amarte por siempre. I'm going to love you forever.
  • Gerund: Seguían mirándonos. They kept on looking at us.
  • Command: ¡Cállate! (You) shut up!

3. The distinction between direct and indirect objects is different in the two languages. Taking note of which verbs require the use of le or les would be beyond the scope of this lesson. But it can be said that many Spanish verbs use the indirect-object pronoun where the pronoun in English would be viewed as a direct object. For example, in the sentence "Le pidieron su dirección" (They asked him for his address), le is an indirect object. But in English, "him" would be viewed as a direct object because he was the one who was asked. The same is true in "Le pegó en la cabeza" (They hit him in the head).

4. It is common in Spanish to use an object pronoun even when the noun represented by the pronoun is explicitly stated. Such a redundant use of the pronoun often occurs when the object is named and appears before the verb:

  • A Chris le gusta escuchar música. Chris likes listening to music. (See the lesson on gustar for information on this type of sentence.)
  • Toda la ropa la tenemos en descuento. We have all the clothing on sale.

Note that the redundant pronoun isn't translated to English.

The pronoun also is used redundantly in some cases to add emphasis, or often because that's what "sounds right" to native speakers even if such use isn't mandatory:

  • Lo conocemos bien a este señor. We know this man well.
  • Le dieron un regalo a la niña. They gave a present to the girl.

5. Spanish sometimes uses an indirect object pronoun where English would use a phrase. In English we often indicate who or what was affected by a verb's action with phrases such as "for me" or "to him." In Spanish, it may not be necessary to make a phrase.

The case where doing so sounds most unfamiliar may be with the verb ser (to be). For example, in Spanish you could say "No me es posible" for "It is not possible for me." But similar constructions are possible with other verbs as well. For example, "Le robaron el dinero" means "They stole the money from him" or "They stole the money from her."