Beyond “It”: The Spanish Lo and Its Many Flavors
Today we’re going to look at the Spanish word lo, one of the most versatile words you will ever find in Spanish.
Lo is a word of many flavors and uses.
Let’s learn all about the Spanish lo and its many functions!
- The Meaning and Functions of Lo in Spanish
- 2 Things to Remember About Spanish Lo
- Lo as a Direct Object Pronoun
- Lo as a Neuter Definite Article: Lo + Adjective
- Lo + Ser and Estar
- Lo Que, Lo De and Lo Cual
- Expressions That Use the Spanish Lo
The Meaning and Functions of Lo in Spanish
If I had to give you a single translation for lo, that would be “it”:
Lo quiero. (I want it.)
Dámelo. (Give it to me.)
However, lo seems to have a multiple-personality disorder. As you will see later on, it can also mean “him,” “her,” “what,” “the” and even more.
Knowing how to translate lo is one of the difficulties of using the word. You cannot just assume it will mean “it” and call it a day!
As you will learn in this post, to fully grasp this word and all its eccentricities, you will need to learn its functions in the sentence and the patterns associated with it.
Lo can be a direct object pronoun and a definite article, it can accompany verbs and adjectives and it even appears in idioms.
The key to success here is understanding what lo is doing in each sentence. But do not worry! That is exactly what we will learn in this post.
2 Things to Remember About Spanish Lo
Before we get down to brass tracks, there are a couple of things you should take into account when using the word lo:
1. When functioning as a pronoun, lo will precede the verb except when the verb is an infinitive, a present participle or a positive imperative:
Lo quiero. (I want it/him.)
No puedo comprarlo. (I cannot buy it.)
Estoy cambiándolo. (I am changing it.)
¡Dámelo! (Give it to me!)
2. Do not think you can translate lo as “it” every time. If you do this, you will have aberrations like these incorrect examples:
*Lo está lloviendo. (*It it is raining.)
*No lo me gusta. (*Do not it I like.)
*Lo es interesante. (*It it is interesting.)
The following sections will teach you how to use and translate lo correctly so you can get it right every time.
Never underestimate the power of a small two-letter Spanish word!
If you are reading this, you probably have some trouble using the word lo and want to get to know it better.
The following five uses of this word will make it crystal-clear, so that the next time you come across Spanish lo you get through it with flying colors.
Lo as a Direct Object Pronoun
The most common function of lo in a sentence is probably that of a direct object pronoun.
Simply put, direct objects are (normally) nouns that get the direct action of the main verb. Most of the time, the direct object answers the questions “what?” or “who?”
For example, take this sentence:
Necesito el libro que te di. (I need the book I gave you.)
If you ask “what do I need?” the answer is “the book I gave you.” That is the direct object of the sentence.
Check out another example before we continue:
Vi a tu hermano en la piscina. (I saw your brother at the pool.)
“Who did I see?” “Your brother.” There is our direct object!
Let’s take this one step further: Pronouns are words that substitute a noun in a sentence.
Take these sentences, for example:
Lo necesito. (I need it.)
Lo vi en la piscina. (I saw him at the pool.)
“It” and “him” are substituting “the book I gave you” and “you brother,” respectively. “It” and “him” are pronouns.
When we mix both a direct object and a pronoun, we get a direct object pronoun. A direct object pronoun is a pronoun that functions as a direct object, and lo is our guest star here.
If you have a look at our last two examples (“I need it” and “I saw him at the pool”), “it” and “him” are actually direct object pronouns. They answer the questions “what?” or “who?” and they substitute a noun. Bingo!
Now take a look at the Spanish versions of the examples:
Lo vi en la piscina.
You do not need to know a lot of grammar to see that lo is the direct object pronoun in both sentences.
This tells us two things:
1. Lo can refer to both masculine things and males/male animals. It is a multifaceted word.
2. You will have to translate it into English accordingly.
Remember when I told you not to assume lo will always mean “it”? Here is your proof!
So now that we know that as a direct object pronoun, lo means “it” and “him,” let’s enjoy some more examples:
Cuando lo compré, no sabía que era un producto ilegal. (When I bought it I did not know it was an illegal product.)
Lo saludaré si lo veo. (I will greet him if I see him.)
Dámelo y te lo devolveré mañana. (Give it to me and I will give it back to you tomorrow.)
¡Lo siento! (I am sorry! [Literally: I feel it!])
Lo as a Neuter Definite Article: Lo + Adjective
You probably already know that Spanish has four definite articles: el, la, los and las (all meaning “the”).
However, there is also one neuter definite article, and that is lo.
Definite articles are normally used to show that the noun is known or has already been mentioned before, so in the following sentence, you either know the kid or you are referring to a specific kid:
El niño está jugando en el parque. (The kid is playing in the park.)
But when you use lo as a neuter definite article, things change a little bit.
For starters, it is followed by an adjective. You will never ever find lo following a real noun.
The funny thing here is that the adjective is indeed functioning as a noun! So what you are really doing when using lo followed by an adjective is creating abstract nouns.
Before I give you some examples, let me just ask you to calm down. It might sound unusual but this is actually a concept you are already familiar with! English also has some noun-creating strategies, the most well-known of them being using a present participle as the subject of the sentence, turning it into a noun:
Smoking is bad for your health.
Running is so great.
The difference between English and Spanish is that in Spanish, you use an infinitive to create that subject:
Fumar es malo para la salud.
Correr es fantástico.
But when you use lo and an adjective, you are creating abstract ideas, not specific ones like smoking or running. Abstract nouns can be a bit of a big deal for learners who get to know them for the very first time but there is actually nothing to worry about.
The only problem you can have when using lo followed by an adjective is the way you translate it, because it will not always be the same for each adjective.
Imagine I say lo bueno. If you translate it literally, it will make no sense (“it good”). If you want to convey its real meaning you would say “the good thing,” “that which is good” or even “what is good.” The translation is quite free, to be honest, but you get the gist of it.
Using lo with an adjective means what you say after the adjective has the quality of being that adjective, or going back to our example, what you are going to say after “good” is good.
See how this works with some examples:
Lo importante es participar. (The important thing is taking part.)
Lo barato sale caro. (That which is cheap ends up being expensive, or “You get what you pay for.”)
Lo mejor está por venir. (The best is yet to come.)
See? That was not so hard, after all!
Lo + Ser and Estar
At the beginning of this post I told you lo is one of the most amazing and versatile words in the Spanish language, and this point is the final proof of that.
You can use lo to answer a question by placing it in front of the verb “to be” (ser and estar in Spanish) in reference to the noun or adjective mentioned in the question.
This may sound a little confusing, but hear me out.
When you ask questions in English using the verb “to be,” you can answer briefly:
“Is he a student?” “Yes, he is. / No he is not.”
“Was she happy?” “Yes, she was. / No, she was not.”
These shortened answers also exist in Spanish but they use lo to refer back to that noun or adjective.
Have a look:
“¿Es él estudiante?” “Sí, lo es. / No, no lo es.” — In this example, lo is referring to “student.”
“¿Estaba ella feliz?” “Sí, lo estaba. / No, no lo estaba.” — This time, lo is referring to “happy.”
So the next time you want to give a quick answer to a “to be” question, remember that you need to use lo in your response to refer to the noun or adjective in question.
Here are a couple more examples for clarity:
“¿Eres de Colombia?” “Sí, lo soy. / No, no lo soy.” (“Are you from Colombia?” “Yes, I am. / No, I am not.”) — Lo is referring to being Colombian.
“¿Estuviste casada en el pasado?” “Sí, lo estuve. / No, no lo estuve.” (“Were you married in the past?” “Yes, I was. / No, I was not.”) — Lo is referring to being married.
“¿Es tu madre trabajadora social?” “Sí, lo es. / No, no lo es.” (“Is your mom a social worker?” “Yes, she is. / No, she is not.”) — Lo is referring to being a social worker.
Lo Que, Lo De and Lo Cual
I could have divided this point into three sections and told you about each of these constructions individually. However, they are the only three phrases with lo worth mentioning and they behave quite similarly, so I have grouped them together for you!
Let’s start with lo que. If you translate it literally (“it what,” “it that”), it does not make any sense at all. This must be an example of Spanish putting two words together to mean something else (spoiler alert: it is!).
The closest way of translating lo que into English without leaving information behind and still being grammatically correct is “that,” “that which” or “what,” once again, depending on the sentence.
The exact meaning of lo que will depend on how the English sentence is written so that it remains correct.
If I say:
Lo que pasó es que no tenía dinero.
And I translate it into English like this:
*That happened was that I had no money.
We do not get a correct sentence. But if you translate it this way:
What happened was that I had no money.
We know we are being grammatically correct.
So remember this: When you have lo que in Spanish, choose the translation that forms a correct sentence in English. Do not try to adhere to lo que as a single meaning or else you will be doomed in translation.
Here are some examples that use this construction, translated accordingly:
Lo que necesito es más tiempo. (What I need is more time.)
No sé lo que le dijo a su madre. (I do not know what he told his mother.)
No es oro todo lo que reluce. (Not all that glitters is gold.)
Lo de is one of those constructions you will either love or hate. (I hope you love it!)
It is even more difficult to translate that the one above because depending on the sentence, it can take many different forms and shapes.
If I have to give you a general translation, it would be “the matter about,” “the matter concerning” or “the thing about.”
It is quite complicated to grasp this construction right away, so do not get discouraged if you need a little bit of time.
Lo de is normally followed by a noun or a verb in the infinitive form. When you use it, you are referring to that noun or infinitive, and you use this construction as an introduction to the topic before you give more information about it.
Let’s have a look at one example:
Lo de mi hermano no era verdad. (That matter about my brother was not true, or What I said/was said about my brother was not true.)
Lo de precedes the noun phrase mi hermano. There was something I told you about him or you heard about him, and lo refers back to that something. De is a preposition and one of its meanings is “about” or “regarding,” so a literal translation would be “that something about/regarding my brother.”
I am just introducing, without having to repeat or mention it explicitly, a piece of information you know or have heard about my brother.
The second part of the sentence will normally expand that information. In this case, what I have to tell you is that my brother’s something was not true, hence the sentence:
Lo de mi hermano no era verdad.
Have a look at a couple more examples:
Lo de mi vecino es un misterio. (That matter about my neighbor is a mystery.) — We do not know what that lo refers to exactly, but we do know that it is a mystery.
Lo de bailar no es mi fuerte. (Dancing is not my strength, or The act of dancing is not my strength.) — Lo here is just referring to “the topic of / the act of.”
In that last example, you might be wondering if you can say bailar no es mi fuerte without having to use lo de. You absolutely can! If you have an infinitive you can omit lo de. It sounds so, so nice in Spanish, though…
Lo cual is the easiest of these three constructions because it is the only that can be (almost always) consistently translated as “which.”
Lo cual always refers to something that has already been mentioned before in the same sentence, so its natural position in the sentence will be after a comma, not at the beginning of the sentence as with the previous constructions:
Ayer vi a tu hermano en Madrid, lo cual me sorprendió mucho. (I saw your brother in Madrid yesterday, which surprised me a lot.)
Soy pobre, lo cual no quiere decir que sea un sintecho. (I am poor, which does not mean I am homeless.)
One curious thing about lo cual is that it can always be substituted by lo que, but the opposite does not always give you a grammatically correct sentence.
For example, you can say:
Ayer vi a tu hermano en Madrid, lo que me sorprendió mucho. (I saw your brother in Madrid yesterday, which surprised me a lot.)
But you cannot say:
*No sé lo cual le dijo a su madre. (*I do not know it which he told his mother.)
Expressions That Use the Spanish Lo
The last section of this post is yet another proof of the fact that lo is super versatile.
Lo appears in a number of fixed expressions that most of the time cannot be translated literally. Sometimes, you will not even translate lo into English at all!
The best piece of advice I can give you here is to study these expressions and learn them by heart. There are only a few and they are used often enough to make them worth the time investment.
Here are the five most commonly used expressions with lo:
A lo lejos (In the distance)
Lo vi a lo lejos y lo reconocí enseguida. (I saw him in the distance and recognized him right away.)
A lo mejor (Maybe)
A lo mejor ya han llegado. (Maybe they have arrived already.)
Por lo menos (At least)
Necesito por lo menos una hora más. (I need at least one more hour.)
Por lo tanto (So, hence, thus, therefore, as a result)
Vivo solo, por lo tanto tengo mucho tiempo libre. (I live by myself, so I have a lot of free time.)
Por lo visto (Apparently)
Por lo visto se ha vuelto a casar. (Apparently he has remarried.)
And that is all for today, folks!
Learning how to use lo in Spanish and how to translate it into English is something that can feel impossible at the beginning—but with a little bit of practice, it can be easily done.
Remember the function of this super versatile word is the first thing you have to bear in mind before using it. Once you master that, the rest will fall into place by itself!
For more practice at using lo, here are some resources that can help you learn this word and how to use it better:
- Spanish podcasts. Podcasts are a great way to practice new words. You can listen to podcasts, like this one, that explain more about this word. If you want to hear it in the wild, you can look for authentic podcasts instead, like those mentioned in this list.
- Spanish videos. Being able to see the context in which native speakers use lo and its expressions can help you better understand when to use it. You can watch authentic Spanish videos with interactive captions on the FluentU program. These videos were made by native speakers for native speakers so you’re getting some natural context.
- Spanish music. Not only can you listen to how native speakers use lo in songs, but you’ll hear some catchy tunes, too. Here are some songs you can check out. Maybe you’ll learn some other new words, too!
Congratulations on taking this huge step to boost your Spanish to the next level.
Stay curious and, as always, 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.