Indirect Object Pronouns in Spanish

       

Getting Started

It would be good once again to do a quick review of some terms from previous lessons.

What are Subjects and Objects?

Subjects (in yellow) state who or what is doing the action in the sentence. Objects (underlined) refer to people or things that are being acted upon or otherwise affected by the subject:

They returned the book to the teacher.
We gave the photos to our parents.
She sent the letter to her son.
He hit Rafael.

What's an Indirect Object?

Note: Occasionally an indirect object will answer the question "from whom?": Le robaron el dinero. (They stole the money from him.)

Whereas direct objects answer the questions "what?" or "who?" receives the action of the verb, indirect objects (IOs) answer "to whom?" or "for whom?" the action is done. To identify IOs, read the sentence, stop at the direct object, then ask yourself "to whom or for whom?" The answer to that question is an indirect object:

They returned the book to the teacher.
We gave the photos to our parents.
She sent the letter to her son.

Note: A sentence with an indirect object usually also has a direct object.

They returned the book to whom? They returned the book "to the teacher"; "the teacher" is the indirect object. We gave the photos to whom? We gave the photos "to our parents"; "our parents" is the IO. She sent the letter to whom? She sent the letter "to her son"; "her son" is the IO.

What's an Indirect Object Pronoun?

Indirect object pronouns (IOPs) are shorter words which replace indirect objects. In the following examples indirect objects have been replaced with indirect object pronouns:

They returned the book to her.
We gave the photos to them.
She sent the letter to him.

Ditransitive Verbs

Transitive verbs that take one object are known as "monotransitive." Those which can include both a direct and an indirect object are known as "ditransitive." Some ditransitive examples:

Ella pateó el balón a Susana.
She kicked the ball to Susana.

Ella dio un libro a Paco.
She gave a book to Paco.

Indirect Object Pronouns in Spanish

Note: Don't confuse indirect object pronouns with reflexive pronouns: me, te, se, nos, os, se.

If we want to replace an indirect object with a pronoun, we need to use an indirect object pronoun (IOP) from the Spanish chart below:

English IOPs:

Spanish IOPs:

me

us

you

you

him, her, it

them

me

nos

te

os

le

les

IOPs also agree in person and number (but not gender) with the nouns they replace:

you → te
us → nos
her → le
them → les

In English there is no difference between direct and indirect object pronouns. In Spanish, however, DOPs and IOPs have differences in the third-person row. This makes using object pronouns in Spanish very difficult as you need to know what kind of object you're dealing with before you can translate.

Note that there are no gender distinctions with indirect object pronouns. The pronoun le can mean either "to him" or "to her."

How To Use Indirect Object Pronouns (IOPs) in Spanish

Note: IOPs can be used in impersonal expressions: Le es necesario salir. (It is necessary for him to leave.)


Note: IOPs can replace possessive adjectives: Nos está lavando la ropa. (He's cleaning our clothes.)

Just like with direct object pronouns, we place our indirect object pronouns in front of the verb. For example:

They returned the book to her.
We gave the photos to them.
She sent the letter to her.

Ellos le devolvieron el libro.
Nosotros les dimos las fotos.
Ella le mandó la carta.

Notice once again that the pronoun le can mean either "to her" or "to him."

Using Indirect Objects and Indirect Object Pronouns

Due to the fact that by itself le (and les) can be very ambiguous, we'll often include an indirect object (in the form of a prepositional phrase) for clarification:

Ellos le devolvieron el libro a la maestra.
Nosotros les dimos las fotos a nuestros padres.
Ella le mandó la carta a su hijo.

Note: This only occurs with IOPs. We don't use direct objects and DOPs together in the same sentence.

It may seem redundant to use both an indirect object and an indirect object pronoun in the same sentence. We'd never do it in English, but it happens quite often in Spanish, even when it's not strictly necessary. In addition to using indirect objects together with IOPs for clarity, we can also use them together for emphasis:

¡Nos parece increíble a nosotros!
A no me gustar leer.

Pronoun Placement Alternatives

Just like with DOPs, we have some options for where to place IOPs depending on the sentence.

We have the choice to attach object pronouns to infinitives:

No quiero comprarte un regalo. / No te quiero comprar un regalo.
I don't want to buy a gift for you.

And we may attach object pronouns to present participles:

Estoy comprándote un regalo. / Te estoy comprando un regalo.
I am buying a gift for you.

When using affirmative commands, we must attach our pronouns to the end:

¡Cómprame un regalo!
Buy a gift for me!

When we add pronouns to the end of verbs, we may need to add an accent mark to the verb to preserve the original stress. And remember, if we don't have an affirmative command, infinitive, or present participle, the object must come in front of the verb:

¡No me hables!
Don't speak to me!

Ya te hablé.
I already spoke to you.

No te he hablado.
I have not spoken to you.

Common Mistakes with Indirect Object Pronouns

Taking Shortcuts

Since direct objects tend to refer to things and indirect objects are usually people, you may be tempted to simplify the rules a bit and use lo and la whenever you're referring to a thing and le whenever you're referring to a person. You can't do this. It may happen less frequently but DOs can be people and IOs can be things:

Darth Vader lo mató con su espada de luz.
Darth Vader killed him with his light saber.

Le di el dinero al banco.
I gave the money to the bank.

Bad English

Another way to get off track is to confuse DOPs and IOPs because of the bad habits in English. How would you write this sentence in Spanish?

Our grandma sent her flowers.

*Note: technically speaking in this case we should ask "Grandma sent whom?" Here's a free bonus English lesson: who/whom

Well, "Grandma" is the subject and "sent" is the verb. To figure out the direct object we ask "who?" or "what?" Grandma sent who*? Grandma sent "her," so we look at the DOP chart, la, and we end up with:

Nuestra abuela la envió flores.

Right?… Wrong. The problem in this sentence is that "her" is not a DOP. It's an IOP. While it looks like "her" answers the question "who?" it's really answering the question, "to whom?" After all, grandma didn't really put "her" in a box and send her somewhere. The thing being sent was "flowers." If we're a little more careful with the English, it's easier to translate:

Our grandma sent flowers to her.

Nuestra abuela le envió flores.

Gustar and other IOP Verbs

See also: How to Use Gustar

As you may remember from a previous lesson, gustar is a verb that always takes an indirect object pronoun:

A Julian le gusta bailar.
Julian likes to dance. / Dancing is pleasing to Julian.

Note: Used with an IOP, tocar means "to be one's turn": Le toca a Mario. (It's Mario's turn.)

If you think of gustar as meaning "to be pleasing to," the need for an IOP should make sense. There are a number of other verbs that also take indirect object pronouns exclusively. When you look at the translations it is obvious why some need IOPs, but others may not make sense. You'll just have to get used to using IOPs with them.

aburrir (to be boring)

agradar (to be pleasing to)

bastar (to be sufficient)

disgustar (to be disgusting)

doler (to be painful)

encantar (to be enchanting)

faltar (to be lacking)

fascinar (to be fascinating)

hacer falta (to be lacking)

importar (to be important)

interesar (to be interesting)

molestar (to bother)

parecer (to appear to be)

picar (to itch)

placer (to be pleasing to)

quedar (to be left over)

If you ever see a sentence with an IOP where you were expecting to see a DOP, it may simply be that the verb requires one.

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