When Is the Personal ‘A’ of Spanish Not Used?

Here are three exceptions to the rule about the preposition

sign that doesn't use the personal a:
Buscan una empleada de hogar. (They're looking for a domestic employee. Note how the sign in the picture doesn't use the personal "a.").

Daniel Lobo / Creative Commons.

The general rule is that the personal a of Spanish is used before a direct object when that object is a person or an animal or thing that has been personified.

However, there are exceptions. The personal a is either optional or not used when the direct object is a nonspecific person, when following the verb tener, or to avoid awkwardness when two a's would be close to each other in a sentence.

Omitting the Personal A When the Person Isn’t Specific

Perhaps the best way to state the biggest exception to the rule is to clarify the rule. Rather than saying that the personal a is used before people, it would best to say that the personal a is used only with specific, known, or identified human beings (or animals or things that have been personified). In other words, if the person is treated as a member of a category rather than as a known person, the personal a isn't needed.

Here are some examples of the difference:

  • Busco a mi novio. (I am looking for my boyfriend. Here, the boyfriend is a specific, known person, even though his name isn't given.)
  • Busco un novio. (I am looking for a boyfriend. Here the boyfriend is merely someone who is a member of a category. We do not know who the person is, or even if he exists.)
  • No conozco a tu bisabuela. (I don't know your grandmother. We have the person's identify even if her name isn't given.)
  • No conozco una sola bisabuela. (I don't know a single great-grandmother. As in the case of the boyfriend above, the person is talking about a hypothetical person rather than an identified one.)
  • Necesito una secretario. (I need a secretary. The speaker needs assistance, but not necessarily from a specific person.)
  • Necesito a la secretario. (I need the secretary. The speaker needs a specific person.)

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 for a criminal lineup or for some other purpose where it doesn't particularly matter which 40-year-old man it finds.

The main exception to this clarified rule is that certain pronouns, such as alguien (someone) and nadie (no one), 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.)

Dropping the Personal A After Tener

When tener is used to indicate "have" in the sense of having a close relationship, the personal a is not used even if the direct object is known.

  • Tenemos tres hijos. (We have three sons.)
  • La compañia tiene muchos empleados. (The company has many employees.)
  • Ya tengo médico de atención primaria. (I already have a primary-care doctor.)

When tener is used to mean have someone in a role, however, the personal a is retained: Tengo a mi hermana como amiga de Facebook. (I have my sister as a Facebook friend.)

Avoiding Two A's in a Sentence

Sometimes a sentence following the general rule would have two a's, especially when a verb is followed by direct object and then an indirect object. In such cases, the personal a before the direct object is omitted. The listener will then understand that the object without a preceding a is the direct object. In this way, such sentences often mimic the word order in English.

  • Mandé mi hijo a su profesor. (I sent my son to his teacher. Note the lack of a before hijo.)
  • El bombero llevó Pablo a mi madre. (The firefighter carried Pablo to my mother.)

Key Takeaways

  • Although Spanish uses a personal a when a person is a direct object, the personal a is not used unless the person is a known person rather than someone who merely fits a category.
  • An exception is that the personal a is required with nadie and alguien.
  • The personal a is often not used following the verb tener, even if the object is a known person.