Grammar & Vocabulary

Object Pronouns Explained

1024px-Barack_Obama_on_phone_with_Benjamin_Netanyahu_2009-06-08
«El presidente lo llamó por teléfono y le explicó el problema». / PUBLIC DOMAIN

Level: Intermediate/Advanced

The problem

Spanish objects pronouns are, in the third person, different for accusative (direct object) cases and dative (indirect object) cases.

What does that mean?

Here are some examples, in English:

Accusative case (“her” is a direct object pronoun) Dative case (“her” is an indirect object pronoun)
I call her I give her a flower
I visit her I show her my apartment
I love her I teach her a lesson
I know her I tell her a story

In English, the pronoun is the same for both cases (“her,” in this example, but it could also be “me,” “you,” “him,” or “them” in other similar sentences). Note, however, that the meaning is different in the two cases: on the column on the left, she is directly receiving the action (she’s being called, visited, loved or known, respectively). On the column on the right, the action is happening “to her:” a flower is being given to her, my apartment is being shown to her, a lesson is being taught to her, and a story is being told to her.

In Spanish, for first and second grammatical persons (both in singular and plural), we use the same pronoun for both cases (me, te, nos, os). The problem comes with the third person: when the pronoun is accusative (direct object), we use “lo/la/los/las.” When the pronoun is dative (indirect object), we use “le/les.” Here is the Spanish translation of the examples above:

Accusative case (“la” is a direct object pronoun) Dative case (“le” is an indirect object pronoun)
La llamo Le doy una flor
La visito Le muestro mi apartamento
La amo Le enseño una lección
La conozco Le cuento una historia

How can I tell whether the case is accusative or dative?

Our recommendation is to memorize a list of common verbs that usually take people as direct objects…

Verbo: En Inglés: Ejemplo:
Amar To love Amo a María. 
Ayudar To help Ayudé a esa mujer.
Conocer To know Conozco a tu hermano.
Llamar To call Llamo a María.
Mirar To watch/to look at Miré al hombre. 
Odiar To hate Odio a Javier.
Pasear To walk (transitive) Paseo a mi perro.
Visitar To visit Visito a Juan en New Jersey.

(Pets are considered to be people, grammatically)

…knowing that, in these cases, the pronoun for the person(s) will always be “lo/la/los/las”…

Example Spanish translation
I help him Lo ayudo
I know them (f) Las conozco
I visit her La visito
I call them (m) Los llamo

…and then memorize a list of common verbs that usually take people as indirect objects…

Verbo: En Inglés: Ejemplo:
Contar To tell Conté la historia a Luisa.
Enseñar To teach Enseño la lección a la clase. 
Enviar To send Envío la carta a Mateo.
Explicar To explain Explico el problema a María.
Mostrar (stem changing) To show Muestro el mapa a Julia.
Regalar To give (as a present) Regalo una flor a Marisa.
Dar To give Da una manzana a Javier.
Decir To say Decía unas palabras a Sandra cada noche.
Preguntar To ask Preguntó una pregunta a Silvia.
Pedir To ask for/to request Pedía un vaso de agua a Laura.

…knowing that, in these cases, the pronoun for the person(s) will always be “le/les:”

Example Spanish translation
I send him a letter Le envío una carta
I tell them a story Les cuento una historia
I give her a present Le doy un regalo
I ask them for a pen Les pido un bolígrafo

Practice – Translate the following sentences into Spanish:

1. I called her
2. They visit her
3. She knows me
4. We gave them a present
5. Mary sent her a card
6. Tony helped us
7. The broker showed them the apartment
8. They explained to her how the program works
9. Do you know him?
10. She gave them a pen

*********************

Correct answers for Practice – Translate the following sentences into Spanish:
1. La llamé. 2. Ellos la visitaron. 3. Ella me conoce. 4. Les dimos un regalo. 5. Mary le envió una tarjeta. 6. Tony nos ayudó. 7. El agente inmobiliario les mostró el apartamento. 8. Ellos le explicaron cómo funciona el programa. 9. ¿Lo conoces? 10. Ella les dio un bolígrafo.

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