Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns in Spanish, or How to Sound Like a Native
Imagine if someone said the following:
“I bought a car. The car is very fast. The car was red but I had the car painted yellow.”
This tells you two things: 1. The speaker now has a yellow car and 2. The speaker is not a native English speaker.
How can you tell? Because the more natural way to speak would be to say:
“I bought a car. It is very fast. It was red but I had it painted yellow.”
The only difference between the first and the second example is that the objects have been changed into object pronouns! Yet the overall effect is enormous.
Such is the power of object pronouns.
Object pronouns help us make our speech more fluent and easier to understand. They are great indicators that you know what you are doing, which makes things easier for you and for the people receiving your message.
And, as you will see, they can make a huge difference in any language, including Spanish. If you are aiming to speak in a natural way, you will need to master these little words.
What exactly are Spanish object pronouns and how do you use them? Let’s find out!
What Are Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns?
Making sense of the Spanish object pronouns is a little thing that lets teachers know whether a learner is intermediate or advanced.
Yes, they are that important!
There are many beginner and intermediate learners who know what a pronoun or object is. Some of them even know how to use direct or indirect object pronouns separately. But someone who knows how to use them all without hesitation is well on their way to being an advanced speaker.
Before going deep into the topic, we first need to learn to identify what we are dealing with. So let’s start with the basics by answering the following questions:
1. What is a pronoun?
2. What is an object?
3. What is the difference between a direct and an indirect object?
What is a pronoun?
If you are trying to learn the Spanish object pronouns, you probably already know that a pronoun is a word that substitutes a noun.
Say you have the sentence “I like the apple” and you want to substitute “apple” for a pronoun. What do you do? You replace “apple” with the pronoun “it” and you have “I like it.” Easy!
What is an object?
Simply put, an object is the person or thing that receives the action of a verb.
If you decide to write an email to your friend Laura, Laura will be getting the action of the verb. In other words, Laura will be an object in the sentence “I am writing to Laura.”
Likewise, if you decide to buy a watermelon, the watermelon will be the thing receiving the action of the verb, so in the sentence “I am buying a watermelon,” the watermelon is an object.
When we combine the concepts of pronoun and object, what we get is an object pronoun. An object pronoun fuses the two definitions we have just talked about. On one hand, it substitutes a noun because it is a pronoun and on the other hand, it receives the action of the verb because it is an object.
What is the difference between a direct and an indirect object?
Object pronouns can, in turn, be divided into direct object pronouns and indirect object pronouns, which takes us to the third question above.
Deciding whether an object pronoun is direct or indirect can be a difficult task when learning a language like Spanish. All of us, as native speakers of a specific language, do not even think about these definitions and differences. We just use the correct object pronoun because that is how our brains have been taught and we just happen to know which one to use.
However, when learning a foreign language, we need to stop and analyze the verb, learn about its behavior in a sentence and find out whether it accepts direct, indirect or both types of objects.
So what exactly is the difference between direct object pronouns and indirect object pronouns?
A direct object pronoun is an object pronoun that receives the action of the verb directly. Going back to the watermelon sentence, when you decide to buy a watermelon, you are directly buying it. There is nothing between the action of buying and the watermelon itself. You buy a watermelon, and so you have:
I am buying a watermelon (direct object). → I am buying it (direct object pronoun).
We can then infer that “to buy” will be followed by a direct object or a direct object pronoun.
Now let’s go back to the other sentence. The main verb was “to write.” If you say “I am writing an email to Laura,” you are not writing Laura, you are writing an email. The email will then be directly affected by the action of the verb and it will be the direct object, but Laura will be indirectly affected because she will be receiving that email, so she will be the indirect object.
If we were to replace all the nouns with pronouns, we would get something like the following:
I am writing an email (direct object) to Laura (indirect object). → I am writing it (direct object pronoun) to her (indirect object pronoun).
Object pronouns may seem daunting to the untrained eye, but they are easier than you can imagine. This post will teach you everything you need to know in order to master them in Spanish like a pro and use them without hesitation. After this, you will definitely be one step closer to being a real advanced learner.
Here we go!
Object Pronouns in Spanish for All Your Object-replacing Needs
Object pronouns are small, somewhat problematic words that can seem too difficult to handle at first. But once you know a couple of rules, you will be able to add them to your daily conversations in Spanish and feel like you belong to the “language elite” that wastes no time thinking about them.
You will discover that Spanish speakers use these little words very often!
The following is a post on direct and indirect pronouns explained with examples. First, you will get to see them separately, but the last section of the post will put them together to show you how they react to each other. Have fun!
Spanish Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns
In order to use object pronouns in Spanish, you will need to know what they look like. Here they are:
Direct object pronouns
lo, la (him, her, it, you formal)
os (you all)
los, las (them, you all formal)
Indirect object pronouns
le (him, her, it, you formal)
os (you all)
les (them, you all formal)
As you can see from the two lists above, Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns are all identical except for the third person singular and plural. This makes learning them even easier because we will have to focus our attention solely on those two forms.
There will indeed be some times when you will be required to distinguish between me and me, but you do not have to worry about it right now.
This post will cover all the object pronouns, but it will be paying particular attention to lo, la, los, las, le and les. This is normally the way teachers introduce object pronouns to learners. Once you learn how to recognize the tricky ones, the others will be a walk in the park!
Spanish Direct Object Pronouns
We already know that direct objects are people or things that directly receive the action of the verb, while direct object pronouns are the little words that substitute direct objects to avoid being too repetitive. But how does it all work in practice?
Finding the direct object in a sentence
Let’s use the following sentence as our main example:
Mi madre me quiere. (My mom loves me.)
We have the verb querer (to love). Once we have located the verb, we need to ask ourselves a very important question: What or who does my mom love? The answer here is “me.” She loves me. That right there is our direct object.
Let’s do it again. Here is our next example:
Nunca compro naranjas. (I never buy oranges).
We have the verb comprar and now we ask the same question: What or who do I buy (or, in this case, not buy)? Oranges! That is our direct object.
This is undoubtedly the easiest way to see if an object is direct or not. It may take a couple of seconds in the beginning if you ask these questions every time, but you will learn to do it automatically in the long run.
Replacing direct objects with direct object pronouns
Now that we know how to find the direct object in a sentence, let’s see how we can substitute them for direct object pronouns.
The first thing you should take into account is the fact that just as in English, Spanish has a different direct object pronoun for almost every person. You cannot substitute “your mom” with “them,” or “Franko” with “us” in a sentence.
Dealing with the first and second persons singular and plural is fairly easy. Me will always mean the speaker, nos will refer to the speaker plus another person or group of people and te and os will always refer to the listener or listeners, respectively:
Tu hermano nos odia. (Your brother hates us.)
María me quiere. (María loves me.)
Te quiero/Os quiero. (I love you/you all.)
The problem begins when we have to find a substitute for the third person. In that case, we have four different options to choose from and we need to make the right choice so we do not sound weird. So what do we do?
First, take a look at the sentence and decide which noun is the direct object by using the question technique described above. Here are some examples to help you get started:
He comprado una casa. (I have bought a house.)
Ayer perdí mi teléfono. (I lost my phone yesterday.)
Estoy comiendo manzanas. (I am eating some apples.)
Juan no lee libros. (Juan does not read books.)
If you apply the question rule, we get four direct objects: una casa (a house), mi teléfono (my phone), manzanas (apples) and libros (books).
Once we have the direct objects, we need to substitute them for pronouns. We know we have four options: lo, la, los and las, but maybe we still do not know which one to use in each case. In order to solve this, you only need to have a look at the nouns and see what their gender and number is:
una casa (feminine singular)
mi teléfono (masculine singular)
manzanas (feminine plural)
libros (masculine plural)
It turns out we have both masculine and feminine nouns in both singular and plural, but guess who has masculine and feminine forms in both singular and plural? Direct object pronouns! Have a look:
lo (masculine singular)
la (feminine singular)
los (masculine plural)
las (feminine plural)
The only thing we have to do is substitute the different nouns with the pronoun that matches their gender and number! Easy!
una casa → la
mi teléfono → lo
manzanas → las
libros → los
However, if we just make a substitution, the sentences you end up with are not grammatically correct:
*He comprado la.
*Ayer perdí lo.
*Estoy comiendo las.
*Juan no lee los.
Enter the Golden Rule of Pronouns: Always put the pronoun in front of the verb:
La he comprado. (I have bought it.)
Ayer lo perdí. (I lost it yesterday.)
Las estoy comiendo. (I am eating them.)
Juan no los lee. (Juan does not read them.)
Perfect! You can now tell yourself you are awesome because you have mastered direct object pronouns.
Let me give you just a couple of examples more to see if you have been paying attention so far. Find the direct objects in the following sentences and substitute them for pronouns:
1. Estoy viendo la televisión. (I am watching TV.)
2. Mañana escribiré dos cartas. (I will write two letters tomorrow.)
3. Aprendo español. (I am learning Spanish.)
The answers to the exercises above and a few more throughout the article can be found at the very end of this post. Be sure to scroll all the way down to see them!
Spanish Indirect Object Pronouns
As mentioned before, indirect objects differ from direct objects because they are indirectly affected by the action of the verb.
If you remember the email example (“I am writing an email to Laura”), Laura is only indirectly affected by the verb “to write.” The object directly affected by the action of the verb “to write” is the email. Laura is only the recipient of the email so she is the indirect object.
We saw earlier that indirect object pronouns are identical to direct object pronouns except for the third person singular and plural. This means that, just in the previous section, the first person singular and plural and the second person singular and plural are not a problem for us.
Granted, we may need to know if they are functioning as direct or indirect objects, but we only have one option from which to choose, so we will always get it right:
Ella compra un regalo para mí. (She is buying a present for me.) → Ella me compra un regalo. (She is buying me a present.)
Escribo una carta para ti. (I am writing a letter for you.) → Te escribo una carta. (I am writing you a letter.)
The third person indirect object pronouns are le and les for singular and plural, respectively. You may be wondering why this person is problematic if they only have one choice to offer, and the answer is: because it is very easy to mix up direct and indirect objects.
Finding the indirect object in a sentence
To help us with this problem, we need to use the question technique once again but now, instead of asking “what” or “who,” we will have to ask “to/for what?” and “to/for whom?”
When asking these questions, if the verb can answer “what” or “who,” this means you have a direct object. If the verb can answer “to/for what” and “to/for whom,” you have found the indirect object.
Ella compra un regalo para él. (She is buying a present for him.)
For whom is she buying? For him. This means that él is the indirect object.
Escribo una carta para ella. (I am writing a letter for her.)
For whom am I writing? For her, meaning that ella is the indirect object.
Here is an example in the third person plural, as well:
Pedro compra caramelos para los niños. (Pedro is buying some sweets for the kids)
For whom is he buying? For the kids, so los niños is the indirect object.
Replacing indirect objects with indirect object pronouns
Now that we know how to identify the indirect objects, we just need to substitute them for le or les. This is easier this time because we only have two options, one for the singular and one for the plural, so we get:
él → le
ella → le
los niños → les
If we follow the same Golden Rule we had before (always add pronouns in front of verbs) then this is the end result:
Ella le compra un regalo. (She is buying him a present.)
Le escribo una carta. (I am writing her a letter.)
Pedro les compra caramelos. (Pedro is buying them sweets.)
Up until now, indirect object pronouns seem fairly easy. But what happens when we add the preposition a to the equation? That is when things start getting messy.
Using the preposition a and the indirect object pronouns le and les
There are some Spanish verbs that require the pattern verb + something + a + somebody. Two examples of this are:
dar algo a alguien (to give something to somebody)
decir algo a alguien (to tell something to somebody)
When we have a verb that fits into this pattern, we encounter a little problem if we use third person indirect object pronouns. For example, if you say something like this:
Le doy caramelos. (I give ? some sweets.)
You do not really know if you are giving them to him, to her or to a formal you. What do you do, then?
Spanish decided at some point that in these cases, you need to say who the recipient is by using the preposition a:
Le doy caramelos a él. (I give him some sweets.)
A lot of my students say a double indirect object is not necessary and I just like to complicate their lives, but it really is important in Spanish. English has different third person indirect object pronouns (him, her, it, you formal). Spanish, on the other hand, only has one for the singular and one for the plural.
You will get used to this once you practice a little and do a couple of examples yourself. In the meantime, let me show you some instances of verbs requiring the preposition a and hence forcing us to use double indirect objects:
Le escribo una carta a María. (I write a letter to María.)
Le compro un coche a él. (I buy him a car.)
Les digo la verdad a ellos. (I tell them the truth.)
Les doy un regalo a los Señores Martínez. (I give Mr & Ms Martínez a present.)
Now try to correct the following incomplete Spanish sentences. You will find the solutions at the end of the post:
4. Compro una casa a Pepe. (I buy Pepe a house.)
5. Les digo un secreto. (I tell them a secret.)
6. Escribo una carta a María. (I write María a letter.)
Combining Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns in Spanish
The last point we are going to cover in this post is what to do when you have both a direct and an indirect object pronoun in the same sentence. Which one goes first? Where do we put them?
There are a couple of rules you need to follow. If you comply with them, I am sure you will have no problem at all!
1. The indirect object pronoun always goes before the direct one. When we have a double-object verb (i.e. a verb with a direct and an indirect object), 99% of the time the direct object will be a thing and the indirect object will be a person. We should always put the person first:
Le compro caramelos a Laura. (I buy Laura some sweets) → *Le los compro a ella. (I buy them for her.)
Les envío una carta a mis amigos. (I send my friends a letter) →*Les la envío a ellos. (I send it to them.)
Why the asterisks, Franko? Why, oh why? Because of rule number two:
2. If you have a third person direct object pronoun and a third person indirect object pronoun together, the indirect object pronoun always transforms into se:
le lo → se lo
le la → se la
le los → se los
le las → se las
les lo → se lo
les la → se la
les los → se los
les las → se las
Do not get overwhelmed by this. It is as easy as always substituting le or les and leaving the rest as it is. Taking this into account, our incorrect examples would be corrected like this:
Se los compro a ella. (I buy them for her.)
Se la envío a ellos. (I send it to them.)
Here you have two more examples:
Se lo digo a ellos. (I tell it to them.)
Se los robó a él. (He stole them from him.)
If you are still with me after this avalanche of information I have given you, I can only tell you that you will get far in your Spanish learning journey. Getting to know object pronouns is not as difficult as it may seem if you follow a couple of rules, and the reward for mastering them is infinitely huge.
Object pronouns can decide if you are an intermediate or an advanced learner… Which one do you want to be?
And since you have made it this far, here is your reward: the solutions to the exercises in this post!
1. Estoy viendo la televisión. (I am watching TV) → La estoy viendo. (I am watching it.)
2. Mañana escribiré dos cartas. (I will write two letters tomorrow) → Mañana las escribiré. (I will write them tomorrow.)
3. Aprendo español. (I am learning Spanish) → Lo aprendo. (I am learning it.)
4. Compro una casa a Pepe. (I buy Pepe a house) → Le compro una casa a Pepe.
5. Les digo un secreto. (I tell them a secret) → Les digo un secreto a ellos.
6. Escribo una carta a María. (I write María a letter) → Le escribo una carta a María.
How did you do?
Stay curious, and happy learning!
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.