How to Use ‘Lo’ in Spanish

Meaning often depends on its part of speech

communication explained in spanish
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Lo is one of those Spanish words that doesn't always have a clear definition—and it can function in at least four different ways, as a subject pronoun, object pronoun, definite article, or part of a phrase. When you run across the word in a sentence and don't know what it means, you often need to figure out first how it is being used.

Here, in rough order of how common they are, are the ways that lo can function:

Using Lo as a Masculine Direct-Object Pronoun

As a masculine direct object, lo can be translated as either "him" or "it."

  • ¿Pablo? No lo vi. (Pablo? I didn't see him.)
  • El coche es muy caro. Quiero comprarlo. (The car is very expensive. I want to buy it.)
  • Dámelo. (Give it to me.)
  • No creo que lo hayas conocido. (I don't think you've met him.)

Note that the gender of direct-object pronouns is based on the gender of what the pronoun refers to. Thus, in the second sentence, lo is masculine and is used because coche is masculine. If the direct object referred to a feminine noun, la would be used instead, even though the translation to English would still be "it": La caja es muy cara. Quiero comprarla. (The box is very expensive. I want to buy it.)

In the third example above, the use of lo probably indicates that the object sought has a name that is masculine. It is possible, however, that, as explained below in the section on neuter objects, lo could refer to an object whose name isn't known.

In the above sentences where lo means "him," it would be very common in some areas, particularly in Spain, to use le instead of lo. This use of le as a direct object pronoun is known as leísmo.

Using Lo as a Neuter Definite Article

The definite articles in Spanish, typically el and la when singular, are the equivalent of the English "the." Lo can be used as a neuter definite article before an adjective to make an abstract noun. For example, lo importante can be translated as "the important thing," "that which is important," or "what is important," among other possibilities.

  • Lo bueno es que hemos sido más listos. (The good thing is that we have been more clever.)
  • Lo barato sale caro. (What seems cheap ends up expensive.)
  • Lo mejor es que me voy a casa. (The best thing is that I'm going home.)
  • Lo mío es tuyo. (What is mine is yours.)
  • El entrenador se especializa en lo imposible. (The coach specializes in the impossible.)

Lo can be made plural in sentences such as these; los buenos, for example, means "the good things." Los used that way is technically neuter even though it has the same form as the masculine los.

Lo as a Neuter Direct-Object Pronoun

Lo can be used as an object pronoun to refer to something abstract, to an unnamed activity or situation, or to a previous statement. Used in this way, lo is usually translated as "it," sometimes as "that":

  • No podemos hacerlo. (We can't do it.)
  • No lo comprendo. (I don't understand that.)
  • Mi religión no lo prohibe, pero cada vez que lo hago, le doy las gracias al animal por darme vida. (My religion doesn't prohibit it, but every time I do it, I give thanks to the animal for giving me life.)
  • No lo sé. (I don't know it.)

Using Lo With Ser and Estar

It is common when answering questions to use lo before the verbs for "to be" to refer to a preceding noun or adjective. When used in this way, lo has neither number nor gender. Lo also could be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence.

  • —¿Es nueva tu computadora? —No lo es. ("Is your computer new?" "It isn't.")
  • —¿Estaban felices? —Sí, lo estaban. ("Were they happy?" "Yes, they were.")

Using Lo Que and Lo Cual

The phrases lo que and lo cual serve as relative pronouns usually meaning "that," "what", or "that which":

  • La marihuana: Lo que los padres deben saber. (Marijuana: What parents ought to know.)
  • Mis padres me daban todo lo que yo necesitaba. (My parents gave me everything that I needed.)
  • No puedo decidir lo que es mejor. (I can't decide what is better.)
  • No todo lo que brilla es oro. (Not everything that shines is gold.)

Using Lo De

The phrase lo de can be translated differently depending on the context, but generally means something like "the matter concerning":

  • Los senadores republicanos fueron informados sobre lo de la CIA. (The Republican senators were informed about the CIA matter.)
  • Lo de que las niñas japonesas se perdieron no era una mentira. (The story about the Japanese girls getting lost wasn't a lie.)
  • Lo de Castro es todo pretextos y mentiras según sus enemigos. (Castro's way of doing things is all pretexts and lies, according to his enemies.)

Using Lo in Phrases

Phrases using lo, not necessarily in a way that seems intuitive, include:

  • a lo largo de, throughout
  • a lo lejos, in the distance
  • a lo loco, like crazy
  • a lo mejor, possibly, maybe
  • lo sabe todo, he/she knows it all
  • por lo general, generally
  • por lo menos, at least
  • por lo pronto, for now
  • por lo tanto, as a result
  • por lo visto, apparently

Using Lo as an Indirect Object

In some regions, you may occasionally hear the use of lo as an indirect object instead of le. However, this practice, known as loísmo, is considered substandard and should be avoided by those learning the language.

Key Takeaways

  • One of the most common uses of lo is as a masculine or neuter object pronoun to mean "him" or "it."
  • Lo is also frequently placed before adjectives to turn them into abstract nouns.
  • The phrase lo que (or, less often, lo cual) can be used as to mean "that which" or something similar.
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Erichsen, Gerald. "How to Use ‘Lo’ in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). How to Use ‘Lo’ in Spanish. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "How to Use ‘Lo’ in Spanish." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).