How To Use Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns in Spanish

Distinctions made only in the third person

woman handing her neighbor a casserole
La mujer le da una cazuela a su vecina. (The woman gives her neighbor a casserole. In this sentence, the cazuela or casserole is the direct object, while "le" and "neighbor" are indirect objects.).

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Perhaps the most difficult aspect of grammar for most Spanish students when studying pronouns is learning how to use and distinguish between direct object and indirect object pronouns. English doesn't make a distinction between the two types of pronouns, but Spanish does.

Direct vs. Indirect Objects

Direct object pronouns are those pronouns that represent the nouns directly acted upon by the verb. Indirect object pronouns stand for the noun that is the recipient of the verb's action. In both English and Spanish, a verb may have no object (e.g., "I live," vivo), a direct object only (e.g., "I killed the fly," maté la mosca), or both direct and indirect objects (e.g., "I gave her the ring," le di el anillo, where le or "her" is the indirect object and anillo or "ring" the direct object). The construction of an indirect object without a direct object isn't used in English, but it can be done in Spanish (e.g., le es difícil, "it is difficult for him," where le is the indirect object).

Another way of looking at indirect objects in Spanish is that they could be replaced by "a + prepositional pronoun" or sometimes "para + prepositional pronoun." In the example sentence, we could say di el anillo a ella and mean the same thing (just as we could say in English, "I gave the ring to her"). In Spanish, unlike English, a noun can't be an indirect object; it must be used as the object of a preposition. For example, we could say "I gave Sally the ring" in English, while "Sally" is the indirect object, but in Spanish the preposition a is needed, le di el anillo a Sally. As in this example, it is common, although not strictly required, to include both the pronoun le and the named indirect object.

In English, we use the same pronouns for both direct and indirect objects. In Spanish, both types of object pronouns are the same except in the third person. The third-person singular direct object pronouns are lo (masculine) and la (feminine), while in the plural, they are los and las. But the indirect object pronouns are le and les in the singular and the plural, respectively. No distinction is made according to gender.

The other object pronouns in Spanish are me (first-person singular), te (second-person familiar singular), nos (first-person plural), and os (second-person familiar plural).

Following in chart form are the object pronouns in Spanish. The direct objects are shown in the second and third columns, the indirect objects in the fourth and fifth columns.

me me Ella me ve (she sees me). me Ella me dio el dinero (she gave me the money).
you (familiar) te Ella te ve. te Ella te dio el dinero.
him, her, it, you (formal) lo (masculine)
la (feminine)
Ella lo/la ve. le Ella le dio el dinero.
us nos Ella nos ve. nos Ella nos dio el dinero.
you (familiar plural) os Ella os ve. os Ella os dio el dinero.
them, you (plural formal) los (masculine)
las (feminine)
Ella los/las ve. les Ella les dio el dinero.

More About Using Object Pronouns

Here are some other details of using these pronouns:

Leísmo

In some parts of Spain, le and les are used as direct-object pronouns to to refer to masculine human beings instead of lo and los, respectively. You're not likely to run into this usage, known as el leísmo, in Latin America.

Attaching Object Pronouns

Object pronouns can be attached after infinitives (the unconjugated form of the verb that ends in -ar, -er or -ir), gerunds (the form of the verb that ends in -ando or -endo, generally equivalent to the "-ing" ending in English), and the affirmative imperative.

  • Quiero abrirla. (I want to open it.)
  • No estoy abriéndola. (I am not opening it.)
  • Ábrela. (Open it.)

Note that where the pronunciation requires it, a written accent needs to be added to the verb.

Placing Object Pronouns Before Verbs

Object pronouns are always placed before verb forms except those listed above.

  • Quiero que la abras. (I want you to open it.)
  • No la abro. (I am not opening it.)
  • No la abras, (Don't open it.)

Se

To avoid alliteration, when le or les as an indirect-object pronoun precedes the direct-object pronoun lo, los, la or las, se is used instead of le or les.

  • Quiero dárselo. (I want to give it to him/her/you/.)
  • Se lo daré. (I will give it to him/her/you.)

Order of Object Pronouns

When both direct-object and indirect-object pronouns are objects of the same verb, the indirect object comes before the direct object.

  • Me lo dará. (He will give it to me.)
  • Quiero dártelo. (I want to give it to you.)

Sample Sentences

These simple sentences demonstrate the distinctions among the pronouns.

  • Compro el regalo. (I am buying the gift. Regalo is a direct object.)
  • Lo compro. (I am buying it. Lo is a direct object.)
  • Voy a comprarlo. (I will buy it. The direct object lo is attached to the infinitive.)
  • Estoy comprándolo. (I am buying it. The direct object is attached to the gerund. Note the accent mark to keep the stress on the second syllable of the verb.)
  • Te compro el regalo. (I am buying you the gift. Te is an indirect project.)
  • Le compro el regalo. (I am buying him the gift, or I am buying her the gift. Le is the indirect object; the indirect object pronouns are same for males and females.)
  • Se lo compro. (I am buying it for him, or I am buying it for her. Se here substitutes for le.)

Key Takeaways

  • Verbs act on direct objects, while indirect objects are recipients of the verb's action.
  • Although there are regional variations in usage, the standard direct and indirect objects in Spanish are the same in the first and second person, while the indirect objects are le and les in the third person.
  • Object pronouns come before verbs, although they can be attached to infinitives, gerunds, and affirmative commands.