When Is the Personal 'A' Not Used?

Preposition Needed Only for Specific People

sign that doesn't use the personal a
Buscan una empleada de hogar. (They're looking for a domestic employee.). Photo by Daniel Lobo; licensed via Creative Commons.


I'm a little confused about using the personal a. Why isn't one used in a sentence such as "Busco un novio" (I'm looking for a boyfriend)? Obviously, un novio refers to a person.


The key to the personal is that it is typically used only with specific, known or identified human beings (or animals or things that have been personified). In a sentence such as the one you gave, the person speaking isn't looking for a particular person, but for a member of a certain category.

Here's another example: "No conozco una sola bisabuela" (I don't know a single great-grandmother), but "No conozco a tu bisabuela" (I don't know your great-grandmother). In the first sentence, there is no reference to a specific person, so the a isn't used. But in the second sentence, the a is needed. Similarly, "Necesito una secretaria" (I need a secretary) needs no a. But "Necesito a la secretaria" (I need the secretary), which refers to a specific person, does.

As a result, some sentences can have a slightly different meaning, depending on whether the a is used. For example, we might say "El FBI busca a un hombre de 40 años," meaning that the FBI is looking for a specific 40-year old man, perhaps the one who committed a crime. If we say "El FBI busca un hombre de 40 años," it suggests the FBI is looking for a 40-year-old man in general, perhaps to fill a role in a promotional film or for some other purpose where it doesn't particularly matter which 40-year-old man it finds.

The main exception to this rule is that certain pronouns, such as alguien and nadie, always require the personal a when used as direct objects, even when they refer to no specific person. Example: No conozco a nadie. (I don't know anybody.)