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Mastering the difference between direct and indirect objects is an unavoidable rite of passage on your way out of intermediate purgatory. It’s not always as straightforward as grammar books make it out to be, but learning it will give you the key to the secret lives of verbs.

In this article, we’ll talk about the job of direct objects, the fear of missing out of indirect objects and the games of musical chairs that object pronouns like to play. I hope you come away with better mental tools and a greater ability to fend for yourself out in the streets of the Spanish-speaking world.

The direct object

Naming elusive things is the first step to get better at noticing them, so let’s start with a definition:

A direct object is a way to focus the verb on a specific something or someone.

If that feels too abstract, take your verb and see if it passes the plug test:

De todas las cosas o personas que podrías {VERBEAR}, estás {VERBEANDO} {OBJETO-DIRECTO}
Of all the things or people you could {VERB}, you are {VERBING} {DIRECT-OBJECT}

If that sentence makes sense when you plug your verb in it, you can assume it has a direct object. Let’s try it on a real sentence with the verbs ir and llamar:

Voy a mi casa para llamar a mi madre.
I’m going home to call my mother.

  • De todas las cosas que podrías ir (Of all the things you could go…) ❌ (this makes no sense, no direct object)
  • De todas las personas que podrías llamar, estás llamando a tu madre (Of all the people you could call, you are calling your mother) 👍 (this makes sense, so the direct object must be: a tu madre)

The job of the direct object is to narrow the meaning of the verb so it can point to a specific thing or person.

The plug test only works when you’re dealing with noun phrases. If the verb is accompanied by pronouns instead, try to expand them into their corresponding noun phrase:

Mi madre me está llamando.
My mother is calling me.

Let’s replace me with a su hijo:

  • De todas las personas que mi madre podría llamar, está llamando a su hijo (Of all the people mi mother could call, she is calling her son) 👍 (this makes sense, so the direct object must be: me)

In theory, the only valid direct object pronouns are: lo, la, los, las, me, te, se, nos, os. However, in Spain you’ll often hear two versions of this sentence:

Su padre lo está esperando en el aeropuerto.
His dad is waiting for him at the airport.

Su padre le está esperando en el aeropuerto.
His dad is waiting for him at the airport.

Le is an indirect object pronoun (as we’ll see in the next section), but so many people in Spain use le instead of lo that it’s no longer considered a mistake when talking about people. The fact that leísmo is a thing is proof that you’re not the only one who gets confused by these pronouns—even natives mix them up sometimes.

What’s the point of knowing what the direct object of a verb is, anyway?

Good question. Arguably, the most important split in the family of Spanish verbs is the difference between those that allow direct objects and those that don’t, or—as the grammar nerds like to say—the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.

A verb is behaving in a transitive way when it allows the presence of a direct object. Otherwise, it’s behaving in an intransitive way.

This is where the confusion starts: some verbs can behave in both transitive and intransitive ways (with slightly different meanings). This is especially true for verbs with embedded pronouns (pronominal verbs)—the regular version is usually transitive version and the pronominal is intransitive. For example:

Fernando levanta la mano.
Fernando raises his hand.

Fernando se levanta muy temprano.
Fernando wakes up very early.

Let’s do the plug test on levantar and levantarse:

  • De todas las cosas que Fernando podría levantar, está levantando la mano 👍 (this makes sense, transitive)
  • De todas las cosas que Fernando podría levantarse ❌ (this makes no sense, intransitive pronominal)

In the next article, we’ll talk about pronominal verbs and the fact that se is often not an object pronoun, but simply part of the verb. Meanwhile, try to find out if the pronominal verbs that confuse you are behaving in a transitive or an intransitive way. Once you’re comfortable doing that, you can dedicate more brain cycles to noticing more subtle patterns.

The indirect object

The indirect object indicates who the receiver of the consequences of the verb is, but that definition can sometimes overlap with that of the direct object. To avoid getting these mixed up, look for the direct object first. Once you’ve found it, look for either:

  • an indirect object pronoun (le, les, me, te, se, nos, os), or
  • a noun phrase starting with “a”.

For example:

Explica a tu madre por qué voy a llegar tarde.
Explain to your mother why I’m going to be late.

The verb is explicar. The plug test shows that the direct object is “por qué voy a llegar tarde”, and the only thing that remains is a noun phrase that starts with “a”, which is the indirect object: a tu madre.

If we changed it to a pronoun, the outcome would be the same:

Explícale por qué voy a llegar tarde.
Explain to her why I’m going to be late.

Probably the most confusing aspect of the indirect object pronoun is the fact that it often appears along with the noun phrase it should be replacing. Isn’t this duplication completely redundant?

Explícale a tu madre por qué voy a llegar tarde.
Explain to your mother why I’m going to be late.

Think of the indirect object pronoun as a good friend with serious FOMO. Anytime one of your verbs uses an indirect object, make an effort to also invite the pronoun. It’s not duplication, it’s just being nice.

Although duplicating the indirect object pronoun makes you sound much more native, don’t get carried away and do the same with the direct object. Direct object pronouns like to live happy introverted lives and they are perfectly satisfied not being invited to every cool new sentence that happens to come by. Avoid this very common duplication mistake:

Lo siento no haber podido llamarte antes.
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to call you sooner.

The direct object is “no haber podido llamarte antes” and there isn’t a good reason to duplicate it. Stick to these two alternatives:

Siento no haber podido llamarte antes.
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to call you sooner.

Lo siento.
I’m sorry.

Finding a place for the object pronouns

Once you’ve figure out the pronoun that you want to use, you now have to find a home for it. You have three choices:

1) Before the verb. Choose this when the pronoun accompanies a conjugated verb (that includes any conjugated verb: present, past, future or conditional, simple or compound, indicative or subjunctive):

¿Te dije que me dieron la beca?
Did I tell you that they gave me the scholarship?

No hace falta que lo despiertes mañana. Ya lo hago yo.
You don’t have to wake him up tomorrow. I’ll take care of it.

Remember: first the pronoun, then the conjugated verb.

2) Attached to the end of the verb. Choose this when the pronoun accompanies a non-conjugated verb (that is, an imperative, an infinitive or a gerund).

Espérame aquí, que enseguida vuelvo.
Wait for me here. I’ll be right back.

Estoy cansado de prestarte dinero.
I’m tired of lending you money.

No vas a solucionar nada escondiéndote de tu padre.
You’re not going to fix anything by hiding from your father (gerund).

The first is an imperative, the second is an infinitive, and the third is a gerund. Remember that imperatives behave differently when they’re negative:

No me esperes aquí.
Don’t wait for me here.

The negative imperative is formed with the present subjunctive, which means it’s a conjugated verb, which means the pronoun has to go before the verb.

3) Either before the verb or attached to the end of it. You only get this freedom when the pronoun accompanies a conjugated verb followed by an infinitive or a gerund:

No te he podido llamar antes.
I wasn’t able to call you sooner.

No he podido llamarte antes.
I wasn’t able to call you sooner.

Leire me está guiñando un ojo.
Leire is winking at me.

Leire está guiñándome un ojo.
Leire is winking at me.

He podido is conjugated, llamar is an infinitive. Está is conjugated, guiñando is a gerund.

This option is the most confusing, so let’s clear up a couple of points:

  1. Both alternatives have exactly the same meaning. Instead of worrying about which one you should use, practice flipping back and forth between them until you get good at it. If you see a sentence with the attached version, try to put the pronoun before, and vice versa.
  2. The most common exception to this rule is when the conjugated verb is gustar or one of the other psych verbs (encantar, apetecer, aburrir). Think of the conjugated verb as being completely oblivious to the other verb and apply the first rule by putting the pronoun before the verb:

No me gusta llegar tarde a las fiestas.
I don’t like to arrive late at parties.

Combining object pronouns

When you have multiple pronouns:

The indirect object pronoun always goes before the direct object pronoun.

—Quédate con el libro, me lo puedes devolver mañana.
“Keep the book, you can give it back to me tomorrow.”

—Mañana me voy de vacaciones. Prefiero devolvértelo hoy.
“Tomorrow I’m going on vacation. I prefer to give it back to you today.”

This is the opposite of what happens in English: me, lo (it, to me).

The infamous gotcha comes when you have to combine a third-person indirect object pronoun (le, les) with a third-person direct object pronoun (lo, la, los, las):

Quédate con el libro, se lo puedes devolver mañana.
Keep the book, you can give it back to him/her/them tomorrow.

—Mañana me voy de vacaciones. Prefiero devolvérselo hoy.
“Tomorrow I’m going on vacation. I prefer to give it back to him/her/them today.”

Instead of saying le lo (or any of the other awkward combinations), we dress up le, les in a se costume. Don’t let that fool you—they’re still full-blooded third-person indirect object pronouns.

Let’s do one last example showing and objects.

Óscar le manda un mensaje a Julia.
Oscar sends a message to Julia.

Óscar se lo manda.
Oscar sends it to her.

Julia is the third person singular, so the le dresses up as a se.

For se to be the real deal, you have to use the first-person (reflexive) indirect object pronoun:

Óscar se manda un mensaje a sí mismo.
Oscar sends himself a message.

Óscar se lo manda.
Oscar sends it to himself.

Conclusion

How are you feeling? I hope a few things are clearer now:

  • You can use the plug test to identify the direct object that accompanies a verb

  • You know what to name verbs that allow direct objects (transitive verbs) and verbs that don’t (intransitive verbs). That’s the first step towards noticing subtle differences in meaning between pronominal and non-pronominal verbs.

  • You now have a strategy for finding the indirect object (look for the direct object first) and for dealing with the indirect object pronouns (le, les, me, te, se, nos, os): be nice and add them whenever you can (even if they seem redundant).

  • You know where to put and how to combine multiple object pronouns (and how to not get fooled by a le, les in disguise).

Get comfortable using these tools. Once you apply them enough times, they’ll become second nature, which will free up mental space to allow you to tackle more challenging grammatical structures.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. Next time, we’ll take the foundation we’ve built here and set up camp among the reflexives and the rest of the pronominal verbs. If you want to be notified when that comes out, sign up for the newsletter.

Feel free to comment below if you have any questions, and send this article to someone who needs it 😊.

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