The Personal a


When to Use the Personal a

Consider the following sentences:

Él visitó la montaña.
Él visitó a Isabella.

How should they be translated? The first one is easy, “He visited the mountain.” The second one is a bit more difficult. It looks like, “He visited Isabel,” but what is the “a” there for? The reason is a small but important rule in Spanish known as the personal a rule.

While it may not appear to be necessary, the second sentence needs to have an a before Isabel. Why? Because two conditions are true:

  • One, Isabel is a person.
  • Two, Isabel is a direct object.

OK, what’s a direct object?

*Note: technically speaking we should ask “He visited whom?”

You’ll learn more about objects later, but what you need to know now is that a direct object answers “who?” or “what?” receives the action of the verb in the sentence. To figure that out, simply read the sentence, stop after the verb, and ask yourself “who?” or “what?” He visited who? He visited Isabel. “Isabel” answers the question, “who?”

Note: Do not confuse the personal a with the preposition a: Ella gritó a Pablo. (She screamed at Pablo.)

So we need to include a personal a in front of a direct object if that direct object is a person. (The a does not get translated into English.) We do not put an a in front of a direct object that is not a person.

The formula looks something like this:

subject + verb + a + direct object (person)

Compare these examples:

Andrés conoce bien a mi prima.
Andrés knows my cousin well.

Hernando vio a Ronaldo.
Hernando saw Ronaldo.

Geraldo besó a su novia.
Geraldo kissed his girlfriend.

Andrés conoce bien la ciudad.
Andrés knows the city well.

Hernando vio la película.
Hernando saw the movie.

Geraldo besó la tierra.
Geraldo kissed the ground.

Let’s practice a little, shall we? If we translated these sentences, which ones would need a personal a and where would it go?

She drives a car.
They know my brothers.
We practice with the twins.
I love my mother

Note: A personal a followed by an el will combine to form al:
Yo conozco al maestro.

In the first sentence, “car” is a direct object, but it is not a person, therefore no personal a is necessary. In the second sentence, “brothers” is the direct object and they are people so we should use a personal a. In the third sentence, “twins” are people, but they are not a direct object because they don’t answer “who?” or “what?” (“Twins” is actually part of a prepositional phrase that starts with the preposition “with.”) In the last sentence, “mother” is a direct object and a person. In Spanish, these sentences should look like:

Ella conduce un coche.
Ellos conocen a mis hermanos.
Nosotros practicábamos con los gemelos.
Yo amo a mi madre.

Note: If the answer to a question would require a personal a, the question should have one too.

When pronouns like alguno and ninguno refer to people, the personal a is used. Ditto for alguien, nadie, and quién. Some examples:

No oigo a nadie.
I don’t hear anyone.

¿A quién estás llamando?
Whom are you calling?

¿Maestros? No veo a ninguno.
Teachers? I don’t see any.

Exceptions to the Personal a Rule

Ser, Haber, and Tener

Even in sentences with a direct object who is a person, we typically do not use a personal a after the verbs ser, haber, or tener:

Mi mejor amigo es mi primo.
My best friend is my cousin.

Hay muchas personas allí.
There are many people there.

Yo tengo dos hermanos.
I have two brothers.

However, there is an exception to the exception. When we use tener in a sense of “to hold” or “to have in a specific place” we should use a personal a:

Por fin, ella tenía a su nieto en los brazos.
Finally, she had her grandson in her arms.

Él tiene a su hijo en la cama.
He has his son in bed.

Personified Objects

Sometimes things (especially countries) are treated as if they were people to show an emotional connection and therefore a personal a would be used:

Susana extraña mucho a Nicaragua.
Susana misses Nicaragua a lot.

And even though they are not people, a personal a can be used with pets, especially if that pet is a beloved member of the family:

Nosotros queremos a nuestro perro.
We love our dog.

Depersonified People

When the direct object refers to indefinite or non-specific people (people who may not even exist) or anonymous people (people with whom we don’t have an emotional connection), we do not need to use a personal a. In this situation the direct object has become depersonified; it’s being treated more like an object than a person. This tends to happen with verbs like buscar, necesitar, and encontrar:

Armando está buscando tres obreros.
Armando is looking for three workers.

Necesitaban voluntarios.
They needed volunteers.

El maestro quiere estudiantes inteligentes.
The teacher wants smart students.