Indirect Objects and Indirect Object Pronouns

An indirect object is a word or phrase that informs to whom or for whom something is being done. It can be a person, an animal, or a thing. Not every sentence has a direct object pronoun, but there's a good chance that if a sentence does have a direct object, it will also have an indirect object. The general rule is that a sentence cannot have an indirect object unless it has a direct object; however, exceptions do exist.

Indirect object of a sentence

To find the indirect object of a sentence, you must first find the direct object. Using the three‐step process discussed earlier to locate the direct object, a fourth step is added to identify the indirect object:

  1.  To identify the verb of the sentence, ask yourself what action is taking place. That action word is the verb of your sentence.

  2.  Ask yourself who or what is responsible for the action. The noun that answers that question is the subject of your sentence.

  3.  Ask yourself “who or what is being verb‐ed?” The answer to that question is the direct object of the sentence. You may not have a direct object, but if there is a direct object, there's a chance that there may also be an indirect object.

  4.  To identify the indirect object of the sentence, ask yourself to whom or for whom is the direct object “verb‐ed”?

Remember that every sentence must have a subject and a verb, but not every sentence will have a direct object and/or indirect object. It is, however, safe to say that (except in special cases) there will not be an indirect object unless there is a direct object. Here's an example of the four‐step process:

          Julio le da a María lecciones. (Julio gives María lessons.)

  1.  What is the action of the sentence? Da (gives). Da is the verb of the sentence.

  2.  Who or what does the action? Julio. Julio is the subject of the sentence.

  3.  Who or what is being given? Lecciónes (lessons). Lecciónes is the direct object of the sentence.

  4.   To or for whom or what are the lessons given? A MaríaMaría is the indirect object of the sentence.

Indirect object pronouns

Indirect object pronouns are somewhat different from direct object pronouns because indirect object pronouns are used even when the actual indirect object is stated. Table 1 lists the indirect object pronouns.

As discussed earlier, English pronouns are the same for both indirect and direct objects. You can see that most of the Spanish indirect object pronouns look exactly like direct object pronouns except for the third person singular and plural. There is no differentiation between the masculine indirect object pronoun to him and the feminine to her. The pronouns le/les are used as the indirect object pronoun for both genders.

Because the pronoun le has several meanings, a clarification should be placed either at the beginning of the sentence or after the verb to indicate the gender or even the specific person. To create a clarification, the preposition a is followed by a subject pronoun. A él, a ella, or a usted can be used to clarify the pronoun le, or any noun can be used after the preposition a to specify exactly who the indirect object is.

The pronoun les has the same problem, so if it's necessary to clarify the gender of “them” or to specify “you guys,” use the same method of clarification by adding a in front of the subject pronoun, as in a ellos, a ellas, or a ustedes.

Indirect object pronoun placement

In the following sample sentences, the actual indirect object and the indirect object pronoun are both in bold print because they both refer to the same thing. But unlike with direct objects, you do not have to eliminate the indirect object to require a pronoun. You must use an indirect object pronoun any time there is an indirect object, but you may choose to use only the indirect object pronoun if the actual indirect object is clear. The indirect object pronoun is placed before the conjugated verb or attached to an infinitive like a direct object. The clarification is provided in Spanish by using the preposition a + noun or personal subject pronoun.

Notice in these examples that you can use either the indirect object pronoun without the actual indirect object stated or the indirect object pronoun along with the actual indirect object. Note: In Spanish, you cannot sayDoy el dinero a ella. You must use the indirect object pronoun: Le doy el dinero (a ella).

Special verbs with indirect object pronouns

There are a few special verbs that work in conjunction with an indirect object pronoun to create an idiomatic expression that is quite common in Spanish as well as its English equivalent. See if you know the meanings of the following sentences.

            Me gusta la pizza.
            Te gustan los libros.
            Nos gusta la música.
            Le gusta bailar.

You probably translate the first sentence as “I like pizza,” and you are correct. “I like” is the idiomatic expression used in English to express “me gusta,” but in reality the verb gustar means to please, and the Spanish expression states “Pizza pleases me.” Notice that yo is never used with a gustar‐type verb. It's easier to use the verb gustar correctly if you understand that it doesn't exactly mean “like” even though you translate it that way. When you learn the patterns of sentences with the verb gustar, you will also be able to use the verbs in Table 2, because they are all used in sentences exactly like gustar.

These sentences are tricky, because the English version uses a subject pronoun and the Spanish version uses an indirect object pronoun. Try reading the Spanish sentence backward and it will be more like the English version.

Because the pronoun le is so vague, a clarification can be placed either at the beginning of the sentence or after gustar to indicate the gender or even the specific person who is pleased. To create a clarification, use the preposition a followed by a subject pronoun. A él, a ella, or a usted can be used to clarify the pronoun le.

The pronoun les has the same problem, so if it is necessary to clarify the gender of “them” or to specify “you guys,” use the same method of clarification by adding a ellos, a ellas, or a ustedes.

The indirect object precedes the verb gustar to indicate who is pleased. But what makes these sentences stray from the Spanish norm, is that the subject of the sentence—the thing that is doing the pleasing—follows the verb. The verb is still conjugated to go with the subject, but the subject is after the verb. Usually either the él or ellos form of gustar (gusta) is used. Gustan is used when followed by a plural subject, and gusta is used when followed by a singular subject or an infinitive. The indirect object that precedes gusta or gustan does not affect which form of gustar you use. Look carefully at the following examples, and notice that gustar is conjugated to go with the subject that follows. If there is a clarification of the indirect object after gustar, ignore it. The subject follows and determines which form of gustar to use.

When gusta is followed by a verb in its infinitive form, the verb is actually acting like a singular noun and is called a gerund. In English, a verb that is acting like a noun will have the –ing ending, but in Spanish the infinitive is always used in those cases.

                Soccer is fun. Playing is fun.

Both soccer and playing are singular nouns, as are fútbol and jugar in this translation:

                El fútbol es divertido. Jugar es divertido.

So when an infinitive is used as the subject after gustar, the él form gusta is appropriate, as in these examples:

There are several common verbs in Spanish that are used exactly like gustar, as shown in Table 3 . It's important to learn these verbs and the examples that follow in order to use them correctly.