Indirect Object Pronouns Have Versatile Use in Spanish

They can be used in ways that aren’t done in English

girl with skinned knee
La caída le hirió la rodilla. (The fall injured her knee.).

 Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

In Spanish, you may find indirect object pronouns where you least expect them, at least if your native language is English. That is because in Spanish, the indirect object pronouns have a much wider variety of uses than they do in English.

English and Spanish Indirect Objects Compared

In the grammar of Spanish as well as English, an object is a noun or pronoun that is affected by a verb's action, while direct and indirect objects are distinguished by the way the verb's action affects them. As their name suggests, a direct object is directly affected by a verb's action. For example, in the simple sentence "Leo el libro" (I am reading the book), libro or "book" is the direct object because it is what is being read.

And indirect object, on the other hand, is affected by the verb's action without being directly acted on. For example, in "Le leo el libro" (I am reading the book to her), libro is still the direct object, while le represents the person being read to. That person is affected by the reading but isn't the thing being read.

The difference between Spanish and English that this lesson focuses on is that indirect objects are very common in but used much less in English. In this case, we could say "I am reading her the book," but it doesn't sound all that natural. It would be much more common to say "I am reading the book to her," making "her" the object of a preposition rather than in direct object.

And there are cases where Spanish uses an indirect object where the same could not be done in English. A simple example is "Le tengo un regalo" (I have a gift for him). In English, we simply don't say "I have him a gift." We must make "him" the object of a preposition, in this case "for."

Uses for the Indirect Object in Spanish

In general, we might say that while English typically uses the indirect object for cases in which the object is an indirect recipient of a verb's action, the Spanish indirect object can be used in all sorts of situations where it is merely affected by a verb's action. Following are types of sentences where that occurs. In these examples, the indirect objects le and les are used for clarity in instruction; other indirect objects such as nos and me could be used, but they take the same form as the direct objects.

Emotional or Mental Effect

The indirect object can be used to show that a person "received" an emotion, sensation, result, or impression.

  • El trabajo le abruma. (The work is overwhelming to her.)
  • Le gusta el programa. (The program is pleasing to him.)
  • No voy a explicarle las teorías. (I am not going to explain the theories to you.)
  • Les obligó que comer. (He forced them to eat.)
  • La decisión le perjudicó. (The decision harmed him.)
  • Les es ventajoso. (It is advantageous to them.)

Loss

The indirect object can indicate who is deprived of something by the verb's action.

  • Le robaron cincuenta euros. (They took 50 euros from her.)
  • Le sacaron un riñon. (They took out one kidney from her.)
  • Le compré el coche. (I bought the car from him or I bought the car for him. Note that this sentence is ambiguous, as le indicates merely that the person is affected by the verb's action, not necessarily how.)
  • Las inversiones le devaluaron. (The investments lost money for him.)

With Tener and Hacer

Indirect objects are common used with phrases that include tener or hacer.

  • Les hacía feliz. (It made them happy.)
  • Les tengo miedo. (I'm afraid for them.)
  • Le hizo daño. (It hurt her.)
  • No les tengo nada. (I don't have anything for them.)

With Clothing and Personal Possessions

The indirect object is often used when a verb's action affects a body part or an intimate possession, especially clothing. In these cases, the indirect object pronoun isn't always translated to English.

  • Se le cae el pelo. (His hair is falling out. Note that, as in this example, when a reflexive verb is used, the reflexive pronoun comes before the indirect-object pronoun.)
  • Le rompieron los anteojos. (They broke his glasses.)
  • La medicina le ayuda a tratar una deficiencia de magnesio. (The medicine helped treat his magnesium deficiency.)

Sufficiency and Insufficiency

An indirect object can be used with certain verbs that indicate whether a person has enough of something, or not. The pronoun isn't always translated to English.

  • Le faltan dos euros. (She is two euros short.)
  • Les bastan 100 pesos. (A hundred pesos is enough for them.)

When Making Requests

When making a request, the thing requested is a direct object, while the person the request is made of is the indirect object. The same principle applies when someone is spoken to or addressed, as in the third example below.

  • Le pidieron dos libros. (They asked her for two books.)
  • Les exigió mucho dinero. (It required much money from them.)
  • Les dijo que es peligroso. (He told them it is dangerous.)

Key Takeaways

  • Indirect object pronouns are used more in Spanish than English, which more often uses prepositional objects to indicate who is affected by a verb's action.
  • Spanish indirect objects are often used to indicate who is either the recipient of something or who was deprived of something.
  • Spanish indirect objects can be used to indicate who was emotionally affected by a verb's action.