Subject Pronouns in Spanish

         

Getting Started

What is a Subject?

Generally speaking, a subject is who or what a sentence is about. Nearly anything can be a subject. In the sentences below the subjects are underlined:

Nicholas Cage is an actor.
Greece is a beautiful country.
Julio, Rafael, and I went to the store.
Your health is very important.
Swimming and bicycling are fun activities.

Subjects usually come at the beginning of a sentence but they don’t have to.

What is a Subject Pronoun?

A pronoun is a shorter word that takes the place of a longer noun. We use pronouns once we’ve introduced a noun so that we don’t have to keep repeating the same thing over and over again. Here are some sentences where the subjects have been replaced with subject pronouns.

He is an actor.
It is a beautiful country.
We went to the store.
It is very important.
They are fun activities.

The subject pronouns in English are “I,” “you,” “he,” she,” “it,” “we,” and “they.” It can be beneficial to organize them into a chart based on number (how many people or things there are) and person (whether you’re talking about yourself, to someone else, or about someone else).

 

singular:

plural:

first person:

I

we

second person:

you

you

third person:

he, she, it

they

Notice that there is no distinction in English between the singular “you” and the plural “you.” While it’s not considered proper grammar, many people will use “y’all” or “you guys” to indicate that they’re speaking to more than one person.

It’s also worth noting that “he” and “she” are the only pronouns that take gender into account.

Spanish Subject Pronouns

The subject pronoun chart in Spanish looks like this:

 

singular:

plural:

first person:

yo

nosotros, nosotras

second person:

vosotros, vosotras

third person:

él, ella

ellos, ellas

Note there is no subject pronoun for "it" in Spanish. How do you say "it"? See below.

Yo

To say “I” in Spanish, say yo. Yo is not capitalized unless it starts a sentence:

Yo hablo español.
I speak Spanish.

Afortunadamente yo hablo español.
Fortunately I speak Spanish.

In many regions the y in yo is pronounced very strongly and sounds more like “jo.”

To say “you” in Spanish, say . can only be singular; you cannot use to address a group of people. Also, the accent on the "u" is not optional; tu (without the accent) means “your” not “you.” (The words and tu are pronounced the same way.)

Tú hablas español.
You speak Spanish.

Él, Ella

To say "he" in Spanish, say él. Like , the accent on the "e" is not optional; el (without the accent) means “the” not "he." (The words él and el are pronounced the same way.)

To say "she" in Spanish, say ella. Remember that the double-l is pronounced like a y.

Él habla español.
He speaks Spanish.

Ella habla español.
She speaks Spanish.

Nosotros, Nosotras

Note: If you are male, it’s very unlikely you would ever have reason to say or write nosotras.

Usually when you need to say “we” in Spanish, you say nosotros. The exception is when a female is referring to herself and other females. She will say nosotras. What about a mixed group? It’s not very nice or politically correct but only groups consisting entirely of females are considered feminine (nosotras). Add one male to the group and whole group is considered masculine (nosotros).

Nosotros hablamos español.
We (group with one or more males) speak Spanish.

Nosotras hablamos español.
We (all female group) speak Spanish.

Vosotros, Vosotras

Unlike English, Spanish does have a way to distinguish between a singular “you” and a plural “you.” To address a group of people as “you” use vosotros.

Vosotros habláis español.
You / Y’all / You guys speak Spanish.

If the entire group you’re addressing is female, say vosotras instead.

Vosotras habláis español.
You (all female group) speak Spanish.

Regardless of the size of the group, if it includes just one male, use vosotros. If you're ever in doubt, use the masculine form.

Here’s the catch, and it’s a big one: Vosotros is used almost exclusively in Spain. So how do you address a group of people if you’re not in Spain? See Vosotros and Ustedes below.

Ellos, Ellas

To say “they” in Spanish, you say either ellos or ellas. Which is which? The same gender rules you learned in nosotros apply. A group consisting entirely of females should be referred to as ellas. Any group with at least one male in it should be referred to as ellos. If you're ever in doubt, it's best to use the masculine form.

Ellos hablan español.
They (group with one or more males) speak Spanish.

Ellas hablan español.
They (all female group) speak Spanish.

Formal vs. Informal "You"

The chart above showing and vosotros as the second-person pronouns is a bit of an oversimplification. The truth is that there are two sets of second-person pronouns in Spanish. One set is used for informal, friendly situations and the other is used to show a greater amount of respect in formal situations. The chart should really look like this:

 

singular:

plural:

first person:

yo

nosotros, nosotras

second person, informal:

vosotros, vosotras

second person, formal:

usted

ustedes

third person:

él, ella

ellos, ellas

So which do you use when?

vs. Usted

Generally speaking you should use when you are addressing someone with whom you have an informal relationship like a friend, a colleague, or a close family member. Use usted when addressing someone with whom you have a more respectful relationship like an elder, a boss, or a dignitary. For example:

speaking to a child:

speaking to a professor:

Tú escribes bien.
You write well.

Usted escribe bien.
You write well.

A good rule of thumb to use is the first name test. If you’re on a first name basis with someone, you may address them as . If you wouldn’t address that person by their first name, you should probably use usted.

Note: There’s even a verb for addressing someone as : tutear.

Different countries have different rules for using vs. usted. While some people might consider your use of endearing, others may consider it offensive. When in doubt, use usted. You’re better off addressing someone as usted when they’re expecting than the other way around.

The word usted is commonly abbreviated Ud. (note the capital letter).

Vosotros and Ustedes

When addressing a group of people, vosotros is used for informal situations and ustedes is used in situations where more respect is necessary. For example:

speaking to a group of children:

speaking to several professors:

Vosotros escribís bien.
You write well.

Ustedes escriben bien.
You write well.

Remember, however, that vosotros is primarily used in Spain. How do you address groups of people in the rest of Latin America? Use ustedes regardless of the level of formality.

 

Spain:

Latin America:

second person, plural, informal:

vosotros

ustedes

second person, plural, formal:

ustedes

ustedes

The word ustedes is commonly abbreviated Uds. (note the capital letter).

Thou and Thee

If all this formal / informal stuff seems needlessly complicated, it wasn’t that long ago that English did the same thing:

informal English:

formal English:

thou

to thee

thy

you

to you

your

“Thou” may sound stuffy and formal now, but it used to be the informal version of “you.” Saying “you” was actually a sign of respect. Older translations of the Bible are full of "thou," "thee," and "thy" not because of formality, but in order to stress that God was familiar and approachable. Nowadays Spanish versions of the Bible use when translating references to God for the same reason.

More About Spanish Subject Pronouns

What About “It”?

“It” is a subject pronoun in English used to refer to something that doesn't have a gender or whose gender isn't known. There is no equivalent subject pronoun in Spanish. So how do you say “it” in Spanish? You don’t. You simply omit the subject pronoun altogether:

Es bonita.
It is beautiful.

Funciona bien.
It works well.

Omitting Subject Pronouns

Speaking of omitting pronouns…

Due to the fact that many verb conjugations make it clear who the subject is anyway, subject pronouns are often unnecessary and frequently omitted in Spanish. For example:

Hablas español.
You speak Spanish.

Hablamos español.
We speak Spanish.

Vos

If vs. usted wasn’t complicated enough, some regions of the Spanish-speaking world have a third category, vos. Generally speaking vos indicates an even closer relationship than .

second person, informal:

vos

second person, semi-formal:

second person, formal:

usted

Read more about vos here: What is the deal with Vos (Voseo)?

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