Spanish pronouns in some ways work quite differently from their English counterparts. Subject pronouns are often omitted, and object pronouns can appear either as proclitics that come before the verb or enclitics attached to the end of it in different linguistic environments. There is also regional variation in the use of pronouns, particularly the use of the informal second-person singular vos and the informal second-person plural vosotros.
- 1 Table of personal pronouns
- 2 Subject pronouns
- 3 Reflexive pronouns and intensifiers
- 4 Object pronouns
- 5 Genitive pronouns
- 6 Old forms
- 7 Regional variations
- 8 The use of le/les
- 9 Demonstrative pronouns
- 10 Relative pronouns
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
- 13 External links
Table of personal pronouns
The table below shows a cumulative list of personal pronouns from Peninsular, Latin American and Ladino Spanish. Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish, spoken by Sephardic Jews, is different from Latin American and Peninsular Spanish in that it retains rather archaic forms and usage of personal pronouns.
|usted||lo/la, se||le, se||suyo(s)/suya(s)||usted||con usted|
|3rd||él/ella/ello||él/ella/ello, sí||con él/ella/ello, consigo|
|ustedes||los/las, se||les, se||suyo(s)/suya(s)||ustedes||con ustedes|
|3rd||ellos/ellas||ellos/ellas, sí||con ellos/ellas, consigo|
1 Only in countries with voseo
2 Primarily in Spain
Pronoun dropping and grammatical gender
Spanish is a pro-drop language with respect to subject pronouns. Information contained in verb endings renders the explicit use of subject pronouns often unnecessary and even erroneous, although they may still be used for clarity or emphasis:
- Yo hago or just Hago = "I do"
- Ellos vieron or just Vieron = "They saw"
English subject pronouns are generally not translated into Spanish when neither clarity nor emphasis is an issue. "I think" is generally translated as just Pienso unless the speaker is contrasting his or her views with those of someone else or placing emphasis on the fact that his views are his own and not those of somebody else.
The masculine and feminine third-person pronouns (él, ella, ellos, and ellas) can refer to grammatically masculine and feminine objects, respectively, as well as people, although their explicit use as impersonal subjects is somewhat uncommon. The neuter third-person singular pronoun ello (as well as its plural ellos) is likewise rarely used as an explicit subject in everyday Spanish, although such usage is found in formal and literary language. Quite unusually among European languages, the first- and second-person plural subject pronouns (nosotros/nosotras and vosotros/vosotras, respectively) also inflect for gender: nosotros and vosotros are used to refer to groups of men (as well as men and women), and nosotras and vosotras are used exclusively to refer to groups of women.
Tú/vos and usted
Like French and other languages with the T-V distinction, modern Spanish has a distinction in its second person pronouns that has no equivalent in modern English. The most basic is the difference between tú (vos in voseo areas) and usted: tú or vos is the "familiar" form, and usted, derived from the third-person form "your grace" (vuestra merced), is the "polite" form. The appropriate usage of these forms is fundamental to interpersonal communication. Using the usted form when addressing someone implies that the person addressed is a social superior, someone to whom respect is owed, or someone with whom one does not have a close relationship; in conservative families a child will use usted when addressing a parent. In contrast, the use of tú or vos implies that the person addressed is an equal, a comrade, a friend, someone with whom one has a close relationship, or a child or other social inferior, including (traditionally) a maid or other household employee. One can give offense by addressing someone with tú instead of usted, similar to inappropriately calling someone by his/her first name in English. Spanish has a verb, tutear, meaning to use the familiar form tú to address a person. Commonly, if a speaker feels that the relationship with the conversant has evolved - sometimes only after a few minutes of conversation - to a point where a shift from "usted" to "tú" is desirable, he or she will confirm this by asking if it is acceptable: Nos tuteamos, ¿verdad? or ¿Te puedo tutear? is fairly common. In Anglophone countries this would be parallel to asking if it is acceptable to call someone by their first name.
In leftist political contexts, where everyone is to receive equal treatment, "usted" is rarely used. Conversely, in formal Spanish and hierarchical contexts (such as the Catholic church and the legal system), use of "usted" is routine.
In the plural, in Spain (other than the Canary Islands and parts of western Andalusia), the usage of the familiar vosotros/vosotras and the polite ustedes is identical to the usage of tú/usted. In the Canary Islands as well as those parts of western Andalusia in addition to Spanish America, vosotros is not used except in very formal contexts such as oratory, and "ustedes" is the familiar as well as the polite plural.
The distinction extends to other types of pronouns and modifiers: when using usted one must also use the third-person object pronouns and possessive adjectives. "Tu casa" (tú with an (acute) accent is the subject pronoun, tu with no accent is a possessive adjective) means "your house" in the familiar singular: the owner of the house is one person, and it is a person with whom one has the closer relationship the tú form implies. In contrast, su casa can mean "his/her house", but it can also mean "your house" in the polite singular: the owner of the house is someone with whom one has the more distant or formal relationship implied by the use of usted.
Similarly, the use of usted requires third-person object pronouns. Te lavas means "you [familiar singular] wash yourself", but se lava can mean "you [polite singular] wash yourself", as well as "he/she/it washes himself/herself/itself"'.
The Spanish impersonal pronoun is uno ("one", as well as una for women), which declines as a normal third-person pronoun and is treated as such for purposes of conjugation and reflexivity. It is used in a variety of situations, although many ideas that would be expressed with an impersonal pronoun in English would more often be expressed with passive constructions in Spanish, e.g. "That would not be done" as opposed to "You (One) wouldn't do that".
Reflexive pronouns and intensifiers
The third person is the only person with a distinct reflexive pronoun: se. In the first and second persons, the normal object pronouns are used. Thus, the reflexive forms are:
The reflexive pronoun is used with pronominal verbs, also known as reflexive verbs. These verbs require the use of the reflexive pronoun, appropriate to the subject. Some transitive verbs can take on a reflexive meaning, such as lavar (to wash) and lavarse (to wash oneself). Other verbs have reflexive forms which do not take on a reflexive meaning, such as ir (to go) and irse (to go away). Some verbs only have reflexive forms, such as jactarse (to boast).
The nominal intensifier in Spanish (equivalent to English "myself", "yourself", "themselves", etc. when used after a noun) is mismo, which in this case is placed after the noun it modifies and behaves like a normal adjective. Thus:
- Yo mismo lo hice = "I [masc.] myself did it"
- No entiendo porque necesitas la cosa misma = "I don't understand why you need the thing itself"
- Dáselo a los hombres mismos = "Give it to the men themselves"
- A nosotros no nos gustan las chicas mismas = "We don't like the girls themselves" (lit. "The girls themselves don't please us")
Unlike English intensifiers, which are often placed several words after the noun they modify (e.g. "I did it myself"), Spanish intensifiers must come immediately after the noun they modify.
Clitic pronouns and enclitization
Object pronouns are generally proclitic, i.e. they appear before the verb of which they are the object. Thus:
- Yo te veo = "I see you"
- Él lo dijo = "He said it"
- Yo lo he hecho = "I've done it"
- El libro me fue dado = "The book was given to me"
In certain environments, however, enclitic pronouns (i.e. pronouns attached to the end of the verb or similar word itself) may appear. Enclitization is generally only found with:
- positive imperatives
With positive imperatives, enclitization is always mandatory:
- Hazlo ("Do it") but never Lo haz
- Dáselo a alguien diferente ("Give it to somebody else") but never Se lo da a alguien diferente (as a command; that sentence can also mean "He/she/it gives it to somebody else", in which sense it is entirely correct)
With infinitives and gerunds, enclitization is often, but not always, mandatory. With all bare infinitives, enclitization is mandatory:
- tenerlo = "to have it"
- debértelo = "to owe it to you"
- oírnos = "to hear us"
In all compound infinitives that make use of the past participle (i.e. all perfect and passive infinitives), enclitics attach to the uninflected auxiliary verb and not the past participle (or participles) itself:
- haberlo visto = "to have seen it"
- serme guardado = "to be saved for me"
- habértelos dado = "to have given them to you"
- haberle sido mostrado = "to have been shown to him/her/you"
In all compound infinitives that make use of the gerund, however, enclitics may attach to either the gerund itself or the main verb, including the rare cases when the gerund is used together with the past participle in a single infinitive:
- estar diciéndolo or estarlo diciendo = "to be saying it"
- andar buscándolos or andarlos buscando = "to go around looking for them"
- haber estado haciéndolo or haberlo estado haciendo = "to have been doing it"
With all bare gerunds, enclitization is once again mandatory. In all compound gerunds, enclitics attach to the same word as they would in the infinitive, and one has the same options with combinations of gerunds as with gerunds used in infinitives:
- haciéndolo = "doing it"
- hablándoles = "talking to them"
- habiéndolo visto = "having seen it"
- siéndome dado = "being given to me"
- habiéndole sido mostrado = "having been shown to him/her/you"
- habiendo estado teniéndolos or habiéndolos estado teniendo = "having been holding them"
- andando buscándolos or andándolos buscando = "going around looking for them"
In constructions that make use of infinitives or gerunds as arguments of a conjugated verb, clitic pronouns may appear as proclitics before the verb (as in most verbal constructions, or, in the case of positive imperatives, as enclitics attached to it) or may simply appear as enclitics attached to the infinitive or gerund itself. Similarly, in combinations of infinitives, enclitics may attach to any one infinitive:
- Quería hacerlo or Lo quería hacer = "He wanted to do it"
- Estoy considerándolo or Lo estoy considerando = "I'm considering it"
- Empieza a hacerlo or Empiézalo a hacer = "Start doing it"
- Sigue diciéndolo or Síguelo diciendo = "Keep saying it"
- querer vernos or querernos ver = "to want to see us"
- tener que poder hacerlo, tener que poderlo hacer, or tenerlo que poder hacer = "to have to be able to do it"
Enclitics may be found in other environments in literary and archaic language, but such constructions are virtually absent from everyday speech.
Enclitization is subject to the following rules:
- The s in the first-person plural ending -mos drops before nos, se, and os: vámonos ("let's go"), démoselo ("let's give it to him"), mostrémoos ("let's show you [pl.]"), etc.
- The d in the informal second-person plural positive imperative drops before os: sentaos ("[you all] sit down"), apuraos ("[you all] hurry up"), etc., except for the verb ir: idos ("[you all] leave")
Combinations of clitic pronouns
In Spanish, two (and rarely three) clitic pronouns can be used with a single verb, generally one accusative and one dative. Whether enclitic or proclitic, they cluster in the following order:
- Él me lo dio = "He gave it to me"
- Ellos te lo dijeron = "They said it to you"
- Yo te me daré = "I will give myself to you"
- Vosotros os nos mostráis = "You [pl.] are showing yourselves to us"
- Se le perdieron los libros = "The books disappeared on him" (lit. "The books got lost to him")
When an accusative third-person non-reflexive pronoun (lo, la, los, or las) is used with a dative pronoun that is understood to also be third-person non-reflexive (le or les), the dative pronoun is replaced by se to avoid "le/lo"-like clusters:
- Se lo di = "I gave it to him"
- Él se lo dijo = "He said it to him"
If se as such is the indirect object in similar constructions, however, it is often, though not always, disambiguated with a sí:
- Se lo hizo a sí or Se lo hizo = "He did it to himself"
- Se lo mantenían a sí or Se lo mantenían = "They kept it for themselves"
Like Latin, Spanish makes use of double dative constructions, and thus up to two dative clitics can be used with a single verb. One must be the dative of benefit (i.e. someone (or something) who is indirectly affected by the action), and the other must refer to the direct recipient of the action itself. Context is generally sufficient to determine which is which:
- Me le arreglaron la moto = roughly "They fixed the bike [motorcycle] for him to help me" or "They fixed the bike for me to help him" (literally more like "They fixed the bike for him for me" or vice-versa)
- Muerte, ¿por qué te me lo llevaste tan pronto? = "Death, why did you take him from me so soon?"
Only one accusative clitic may be used with a single verb, however, and the same is true for any one type of dative clitic. When more than one accusative clitic or dative clitic of a certain type is used with a verb, therefore, the verb must be repeated for each clitic of the same case used:
- Me gusta y te gusta but never Me y te gusta = "You and I like him" (lit. "He pleases you and me")
- Lo vi y te vi but never Lo y te vi = "I saw him and you"
Occasionally, however, with verbs such as dejar ("to let"), which generally takes a direct object as well as a subsequent verb as a further grammatical argument, objects of two different verbs will appear together with only one of them and may thus appear to be objects of the same verb:
- Me la dejaron ver = "They let me see her" (la is the object of ver; Me dejaron verla is thus also acceptable)
- Te lo dejará hacer = "He/she will let you do it" (Te dejará hacerlo is also acceptable)
Simple non-emphatic clitic doubling is most often found with dative clitics, although it is occasionally found with accusative clitics as well. Because all personal non-clitic direct as well as indirect objects must be preceded by the preposition a, an appropriate dative clitic pronoun is often used to mark non-clitic indirect objects as such, even with non-personal things such as animals and inanimate objects. With all non-clitic dative personal pronouns, which take the form a + the prepositional case of the pronoun, and all non-pronominal indirect objects that come before the verb, in the active voice, clitic doubling is mandatory:
- A mí me gusta eso but never A mí gusta eso = "I like that" (lit. "That pleases me")
- Al hombre le dimos un regalo but never Al hombre dimos un regalo = "We gave the man a gift"
- Al perro le dijo que se siente but never Al perro dijo que se siente = "He/She/You told the dog to sit"
With non-pronominal indirect objects that come after the verb, however, clitic doubling is usually optional, though generally preferred in spoken language:
- Siempre (les) ofrezco café a mis huéspedes = "I always offer coffee to my guests"
- (Le) Dijeron a José que se quedara donde estaba = "They told Jose to stay where he was"
- (Le) Diste al gato alguna comida = "You gave the cat some food"
Nevertheless, with indirect objects that do not refer to the direct recipient of the action itself as well as the dative of inalienable possession, clitic doubling is most often mandatory:
- No le gusta a la mujer la idea but never No gusta a la mujer la idea = "The woman doesn't like the idea" (lit. "The idea doesn't please the woman")
- Le preparé a mi jefe un informe but never Preparé a mi jefe un informe = "I prepared a report for my boss"
- Les cortó a las chicas el pelo but never Cortó a las chicas el pelo = "He/She/You cut the girls' hair" (dative of inalienable possession, cannot be literally translated into English)
With indefinite pronouns, however, clitic doubling is optional even with such dative constructions:
- Esta película no (le) gusta a nadie = "No one likes this movie" (lit. "This move pleases no one")
- (Les) Preparó esta comida a todos = "He/she/you made this food for everyone"
In the passive voice, where direct objects do not exist at all, simple non-emphatic dative clitic doubling is always optional, even with personal pronouns:
- (Le) Era guardado a mi amigo este pedazo = "This piece was saved for my friend"
- (Te) Fue dado a ti = "It was given to you"
Dative clitic personal pronouns may be used without their non-clitic counterparts, however:
- Él te habló = "He spoke to you"
- Se lo dieron = "They gave it to him/her/you"
- Nos era guardado = "it was saved for us"
Simple non-emphatic clitic doubling with accusative clitics is much rarer. It is generally only found with:
- the pronoun todo ("all, everything")
- numerals that refer to animate nouns (usually people) and are preceded by the definite article (e.g. los seis – "the six")
- the indefinite pronoun uno when referring to the person speaking
- No lo sé todo = "I don't know everything"
- Los vi a los cinco = "I saw the five (of them)"
- Si no les gusta a ellos, lo rechazarán a uno = "If they don't like it, they'll reject you"
Accusative clitic doubling is also used in object-verb-subject (OVS) word order to distinguish it from simple subject-verb-object (SVO). The appropriate direct object pronoun is placed between the direct object and the verb, and thus the sentence La carne la come el perro ("The dog eats the meat") is distinguished form the nonsensical La carne come el perro ("The meat eats the dog").
Clitic doubling is also often necessary to modify clitic pronouns, whether dative or accusative. The non-clitic form of the accusative is usually identical to that of the dative, although non-clitic accusative pronouns cannot be used to refer to impersonal things such as animals and inanimate objects. With attributive adjectives, nouns (appositionally, as in "us friends"), and the intensifier mismo, clitic doubling is mandatory, and the non-clitic form of the pronoun is used:
- Te vi a ti muy feliz = "I saw a very happy you"
- Os conozco a vosotros gente (or, in Latin America, Los conozco a ustedes gente) = "I know you people"
- Le ayudaron a ella misma = "They helped her herself" (ayudar governs the dative)
With predicative adjectives, however, clitic doubling is not necessary. Clitic pronouns may be directly modified by such adjectives, which must be placed immediately after the verb, gerund, or participle (or, if used in combination or series, the final verb, gerund, or participle):
- Mantente informado = "Keep yourself informed"
- Viéndolo hecho en persona, aprendí mucho = "By seeing it done in person, I learned a lot"
- Lo había oído dicho a veces = "He/she/you had heard it said occasionally"
Clitic doubling is also the normal method of emphasizing clitic pronouns, whether accusative or dative. The clitic form is used in the normal way, and the non-clitic form is placed wherever one wishes to place emphasis:
- Lo vi a él = "I saw him"
- Te ama a ti = "He loves you"
- A ella le gusta la idea = "She likes the idea" (lit. "The idea pleases her")
Because non-clitic accusative pronouns cannot have impersonal antecedents, however, impersonal accusative clitics must be used with their antecedents instead:
- Se las di las cosas but never Se las di ellas = "I gave the things (them) to her"
- Lo vi el libro but never Lo vi él = "I saw the book (it)"
Impersonal dative clitic pronouns, however, may be stressed as such:
- Se lo hiciste a ellos = "You did it to them"
- Esto le cabe a ella = "This fits it [feminine noun]"
Emphatic non-pronominal clitic doubling is also occasionally used to provide a degree of emphasis to the sentence as a whole:
- Lo sé lo que dijo = "I know what he/she/you said" (with a degree of emphasis)
- ¡Lo hace el trabajo! ¡Déjalo solo! = "He's doing his work! Leave him alone!"
Prepositional and comitative cases
The prepositional case is used with the majority of prepositions: a mí, contra ti, bajo él, etc., although several prepositions, such as entre ("between, among") and según ("according to"), actually govern the nominative (or sí in the case of se): entre yo y mi hermano ("between me and my brother"), según tú ("according to you"), entre sí ("among themselves"), etc., with the exception of entre nos ("between us"), where the accusative may be used instead (entre nosotros is also acceptable). With the preposition con ("with"), however, the comitative is used instead. Yo, Tú, and se have distinct forms in the comitative: conmigo, contigo, and consigo, respectively, in which the preposition becomes one word with its object and thus must not be repeated beforehand: conmigo by itself means "with me", and con conmigo is redundant. For all other pronouns, the comitative is identical to the prepositional and is used in the same way: con él, con nosotros, con ellos, etc.
As often with verbs used with multiple object pronouns of the same case, prepositions must be repeated for each pronoun they modify:
- Este vino es solamente para mí y para ti but never Este vino es solamente para mí y ti = "This wine is only for me and (for) you"
- Ella estaba con él y con ella but never Ella estaba con él y ella = "She was with him and (with) her"
Genitive pronouns describe to whom something belongs or of whom (or sometimes what) something is a characteristic or property. They are analogous to English "mine", "yours", "his", "hers", etc., and unlike their English counterparts, they inflect for gender and number according to the thing possessed (not the possessor itself) and are generally used with the definite article:
- Mi coche es más grande que el tuyo = "My car is bigger than yours"
- Tu casa tiene más cuartos que la suya = "Your house has more rooms than his/hers/yours/theirs"
- Estos libros son más interesantes que los vuestros = "These books are more interesting than yours [pl.]"
- Esas camisas son más pequeñas que las nuestras = "Those shirts are smaller than ours"
After ser, however, the definite article is usually omitted:
- Este coche es mío = "This car is mine"
- Esta camisa es suya = "This shirt is his/hers/yours/theirs"
To avoid ambiguity in the meaning of suyo, it may be replaced by de + the appropriate pronoun:
- Estos pantalones son más largos que los de él = "These pants are longer than his"
- Esta camisa es de ella = "This shirt is hers"
The neuter article lo can also be used with genitive pronouns to express the concept of "what is mine", "what is yours", "what is his", etc.: lo mío, lo tuyo, lo suyo, etc.
Genitive pronouns are identical in form to long-form possessive adjectives, which can be placed after the noun to place emphasis on the fact of possession.
In the past, the pronoun vos was used as a respectful form of address, semantically equivalent to modern usted. This pronoun used the same conjugations as modern vosotros (see below) and also the oblique form os and the possessive vuestro/-a/-os/-as. However, unlike vosotros, which always refers to more than one person, vos was usually singular in meaning. The modern voseo of several countries (see below) derives from this old form, but has become a generic form of address instead of a specifically respectful form. Vos and its related forms are still used in literature, cinema, etc. when trying to depict the language of past centuries.
The pronoun "vos" is used in some areas of Latin America, particularly in Central America, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, the state of Zulia in Venezuela, and the Andean regions of Colombia, Bolivia, Perú, and Ecuador. These are all distant from the large Spanish colonial cities, like Mexico City, Cartagena (Colombia), and Lima.
In some areas, like the River Plate region, vos has become the only generic form of address for the second-person singular, that is, it has the same meaning that tú has elsewhere (informal and intimate). In other areas, like Chile, it persists as a fairly stigmatized form alongside the more prestigious tú. In some other areas, it is employed among equals but not for very close people (couples or family) or to inferiors (children, animals etc.), where the pronoun tú would normally be used.
Ladino speakers use vos as well, except that they employ it as in Old Spanish (see above), that is, as a respectful form of address, equivalent to how usted is used elsewhere. In fact, Ladino speakers do not use usted at all because vos implies the same respect that it once had in Old Spanish. In Ladino, tú is used towards anyone in an informal manner.
The use of vusted and vuestra merced
The variant vusted/vustedes is mostly a regionalism of some South American countries. It is common to hear it in isolated areas of Colombia and Venezuela. Other speakers consider it archaic because it is an older form of a contraction of vuestra merced. In Colombia, it is not unusual to hear people use "su merced" interchangeably with usted. It can be used as a vocative as well, e.g. when speaking to an older person, as in "Su merced, ¿por qué no vienen vusted y sus nietos a mi casa esta tarde?"
Vuestra merced (literally 'your grace') is the origin of usted, usarcé and similar forms that govern third-person verb forms with a second-person function. They are mostly confined to period works now.
It is unlikely that similar-sounding Arabic ustādh ('professor') was involved in the formation of Spanish usted, given the weakness of the semantic link and the fact that usted is not documented before 1598 (see the online Corpus del Español) — over a century after the fall of Moorish Granada.
The use of vosotros
Today, the informal second-person plural pronoun vosotros is widely used by Spaniards, except in some southwestern regions and in most of the Canary Islands, where its use is rare. Among the former colonies of the Spanish Empire, the use of vosotros and its normal conjugations is also retained in the Philippines and Equatorial Guinea. Vosotros is the only form used by Sephardic Jews who speak Ladino.
Throughout Latin America, the third person plural pronoun ustedes is universally used orally in both formal (singular usted) and informal (singular tú/vos) contexts. However, "that vosotros is not used in Spanish America is one of the great myths of Spanish language instruction, at least in the U.S." The following quote from Sandino was displayed on a billboard in Nicaragua:
Más de un batallón de los vuestros, invasor rubio, habrá mordido el polvo de mis agrestes montañas.
Vosotros is not unusual in oratory, legal documents, or other highly formal or archaic contexts.
Forms based on vosotros and vos are used in many Spanish-based creole languages.
In Chavacano, spoken in the Philippines, vo is used alongside tu as a singular second-person pronoun in Zamboangueño, Caviteño, and Ternateño. In Zamboangueño, evos is also used. For the plural, Zamboangueño has vosotros while Caviteño has vusos. Papiamento, spoken in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, maintains boso (singular) and bosonan (plural). Since it was used with slaves, the forms that seemed disrespectful in the rest of America were common.
Menda is the equivalent of I in Caló, where it is concords in first person singular. In Spanish slang, el menda / la menda can be used as an emphatic I, concording with a third person verb, but its use is receding.
The use of le/les
The pronouns le (singular) and les (plural)—which do not change form for gender—are used to replace the indirect object of a sentence. They also usually accompany an explicit indirect object, "redundantly". For example, in "Le di el libro a María" (I gave the book to María), both "Le" and "a María" refer to the same person (María) as the indirect object. In spoken language, les is frequently replaced by le, and this replacement—although not approved by normative grammar—can often be found in written, published texts as well. When the indirect object pronoun is followed in sequence by a direct object pronoun beginning with l- (lo, la, los, las), both le and les are replaced by se:
- Le di el libro = "I gave the book to him/her/you"
- Se lo di = "I gave it to him/her/you/them"
Generally, the unstressed third-person object pronouns in Spanish are lo, la, los, and las. This is the Real Academia Española's current position on the subject. This is a reasonable generalisation given that it is true in over ninety percent of the Spanish-speaking world. However, it is helpful to take note of the various exceptions to this general rule whereby le/les rather than lo, la, los, las are used. Note however that this use is rather modern and often found only in part of Spain whereas the use of lo, la, los, las is considered more traditional.
Theoretical basis for the use of direct-object le/les
There are various diachronic and synchronic reasons for the use of le/les for direct objects. To understand why there is vacillation and hesitation in usage, it is helpful to understand these often-conflicting linguistic forces.
- a) Masculine e
There is a strong tendency in Spanish, inherited from Latin, for pronouns and determiners to have a set of three different endings for the three genders. These are: -e or -o for masculine pronouns, -a for feminine pronouns and -o for neuter pronouns.
Thus, éste, ésta, esto; ése, ésa, eso; aquél, aquélla, aquello; el, la, lo; él, ella, ello.
In this context, it would make sense to say le vi "I saw him" for any masculine noun, la vi "I saw her/it" for any feminine noun, and lo vi "I saw it" when no noun is being referred to. This gives us a set like the above: le, la, lo.
- b) Indirectness for humans — general
Spanish has a tendency, discussed at Spanish prepositions, to treat as indirect objects those direct objects which happen to refer to people. In this context, it would make sense to say le/les vi "I saw him/her/them" when referring to people and lo/la/los/las vi "I saw it/them" when referring to things.
- b1) Indirectness for humans — respect for the interlocutor
The general tendency to use indirect objects for people is intensified when the speaker wishes to convey respect. The third person in Spanish can be used as the second person to mean "you". In this context, it would make sense to use lo/la/los/las vi "I saw him/her/it/them" when one is speaking about a third party or an object, but le/les vi "I saw you" when the pronoun is intended to represent usted/ustedes.
- b2) Indirectness for humans — contrast with inanimate things
The general tendency to use indirect objects for people is intensified when the subject of the sentence is not human, thus creating a contrast in the mind of the speaker between the human and the thing. In this context, it would make sense to say la halagó "he flattered her" when the subject is "he" referring to a person, but le halagó "it flattered her" when the subject is "it", a thing.
- b3) Indirectness for humans — humanity otherwise emphasised
The general tendency to use indirect objects for people is intensified when the humanity of the person who is the object of the sentence is emphasised by the way the verb is used. In this context, it would make sense for a subtle distinction to be made between lo llevamos al hospital "we took/carried him to the hospital" when the patient is unconscious and le llevamos al hospital "we took/led him to the hospital" when the patient is able to walk.
- b4) Indirectness for humans — with impersonal se
The general tendency to use indirect objects for people is intensified when impersonal se is used instead of a real subject. This is to avoid the misinterpretation of the se as being an indirect object pronoun. In this context, it would make sense to say se le lee mucho "people read him/her a lot" if "se" means "people" and "le" means "him/her", and reserve se lo/la lee mucho "he/she reads it a lot for him/her" for sentences in which the "se" is not impersonal.
Direct-object le/les in practice
All of the theoretical reasons for using le/les detailed above actually influence the way Spanish speakers use these pronouns, and this has been demonstrated by various surveys and investigations.
Extreme preference for le/les is a dialectalism known as leísmo; however, not all use of direct-object le/les is dialectal. Some instances of it are universal across the educated Spanish-speaking world.
Let us first look at dialectal extremes. There is leísmo (covered under point a above) motivated by the tendency towards masculine e in uneducated Madrid speech. This actually used to be quite standard, and the Real Academia only stopped endorsing it in the 1850s. We therefore find in old texts:
- Unos niegan el hecho, otros le afirman = "Some deny the fact; others assert it" (Feijóo, mid-eighteenth century)
Such speakers would say le afirman in reference to a word like el hecho, la afirman in reference to a word like la verdad, and lo afirman only in reference to a general neuter "it".
The second extreme leísmo is the one motivated by the second point mentioned: the tendency to use indirect objects for people. This is noticeable in Northwestern Spain, especially Navarre and the Basque Country, where regional speech uses le vi for "I saw him/her" and lo/la vi for "I saw it". The same phenomenon is sporadically heard elsewhere, e.g. in Valencia and Paraguay.
Now let us look at less extremely dialectal cases. For the majority of educated speakers in Spain and parts of Latin America, neither of the two tendencies (a or b) is enough on its own to justify the use of le/les; but together they are. Thus, speakers who would reject sentences like le vi for "I saw it" and le vi for "I saw her" would nevertheless accept and use le vi for "I saw him". Indeed, this use of le to mean "him" is so common in standard Castilian speech that some would call the use of lo vi to mean "I saw him" an example of loísmo/laísmo, i.e. the dialectalism whereby lo is overused. The Real Academia's current line is that le for "him" is officially "tolerated".
A case on which the Academy is silent is the tendency described in point b1. It is perfectly common in educated speech in many parts of the world to distinguish between no quería molestarlo "I did not mean to bother him" and no quería molestarle "I did not mean to bother you". Those Spaniards who would not just say le anyway for the reasons explained in the last paragraph are likely to use le in this case. Butt & Benjamin (1994) says that their Argentine informants made this distinction, whereas their loísta Colombian informants preferred molestarlo always.
The Academy is also silent on the tendency described in b2; however, it is universal across the Spanish-speaking world. In a questionnaire given to 28 Spaniards in the Madrid region, 90% preferred la halagó for "he flattered her" and 87% preferred le halagó for "it flattered her". García (1975) reports a similar but less extreme tendency in Buenos Aires: only 14% of García's sample said él le convenció for "he convinced him" (the rest said él lo convenció). With an inanimate subject, a slight majority (54%) said este color no le convence.
García reports Buenos Aires natives differentiating between lo llevaron al hospital and le llevaron al hospital depending on how active the patient is, although anecdotal evidence suggests that Argentines are more loísta than this, and would prefer lo in both cases.
Point b3 is also backed up by the fact that many Latin Americans distinguish between le quiero "I love him" and lo quiero "I want him" (or indeed "I want it").
- Near the speaker ("this"): éste, ésta, esto, éstos, éstas (from the Latin ISTE, ISTA, ISTVD)
- Near the listener ("that"): ése, ésa, eso, ésos, ésas (from the Latin IPSE, IPSA, IPSVM)
- Far from both speaker and listener ("that (over there)"): aquél, aquélla, aquello, aquéllos, aquéllas (from the Latin *ECCVM ILLE, *ECCVM ILLA, *ECCVM ILLVD)
According to a decision by the Real Academia in the 1960s, the accents on these forms are only to be used when necessary to avoid ambiguity with the demonstrative determiners. However, the normal educated standard is still as above. Foreign learners may safely adhere to either standard. There is furthermore never an accent on the neuter forms esto, eso and aquello, which do not have determiner equivalents.
The main relative pronoun in Spanish is que, from Latin QVID. Others include el cual, quien, and donde.
Que covers "that", "which", "who", "whom" and the null pronoun in their functions of subject and direct-object relative pronouns:
- La carta que te envié era larga = "The letter [that] I sent you was long" (restrictive relative pronoun referring to direct object)
- La carta, que te envié, era larga = "The letter, which I did send you, was long" (non-restrictive relative pronoun referring to direct object)
- La gente que no sabe leer ni escribir se llama analfabeta = "People who cannot read or write are called illiterate" (relative pronoun referring to subject)
- Esa persona, que conozco muy bien, no es de fiar = "That person, whom I know very well, is not to be trusted" (non-restrictive relative pronoun referring to direct object)
Note from the last example that unlike with other relative pronouns, personal a does not have to be used with que when used as a personal direct object.
When que is used as the object of a preposition, the definite article is added to it, and the resulting form (el que) inflects for number and gender, resulting in the forms el que, la que, los que, las que and the neuter lo que. Unlike in English, the preposition must go right before the relative pronoun "which" or "whom":
- Ella es la persona a la que le di el dinero = "She is the person [that/whom] I gave the money to"/"She is the person to whom I gave the money"
- Es el camino por el que caminabais = "It is the path [that] you all were walking along"/"It is the path along which you all were walking"
In some people's style of speaking, the definite article may be omitted after a, con and de in such usage, particularly when the antecedent is abstract or neuter:
- La aspereza con [la] que la trataba = "The harshness with which he treated her"
- No tengo nada en [lo] que creer = "I have nothing to believe in"/"I have nothing in which to believe"
After en, the definite article tends to be omitted if precise spatial location is not intended:
- Lo hiciste de la misma forma en que lo hizo él = "You did it [in] the same way [that/in which] he did it" (note also how "in" with the word forma is translated as de when used directly, but then changes to en when used with the relative pronoun)
- La casa en que vivo = "The house in which I live" (as opposed to La casa en la que estoy encerrado = "The house inside which I am trapped")
When used without a precise antecedent, lo que has a slightly different meaning from that of el que, and is usually used as the connotation of "that which" or "what":
- Lo que hiciste era malo = "What you did was bad"
- Lo que creí no es correcto = "What I believed is not right"
The pronoun el cual can replace [el] que. It is generally more emphatic and formal than [el] que, and it always includes the definite article. It is derived from the Latin QVALIS, and it has the following forms: el cual, la cual, los cuales, las cuales, and the neuter lo cual. It can be used as a formal, emphatic replacement for que in non-defining clauses, for both subjects and direct objects, and it can also be used as a formal, emphatic replacement for el que as the object of some prepositions. Moreover, it is often preferred to el que entirely in certain contexts. In non-defining clauses, the fact that it agrees for gender and number can make it clearer to what it refers. The fact that it cannot be used as the subject or direct object in defining clauses also makes it clear that a defining clause is not intended:
- Los niños y sus madres, las cuales eran de Valencia, me impresionaron = "The children and their mothers, who were from Valencia, impressed me" (los cuales would have referred to the children as well and not just their mothers)
When used as a personal direct object, personal a must be used:
- Esa persona, a la cual conozco yo muy bien, no es de fiar = "That person, whom I know very well, is not to be trusted"
In such situations as well as the object of monosyllabic prepositions, the use of el cual is generally purely a matter of high style. This is used sparingly in Spanish, and foreigners should thus avoid over-using it:
- Es el asunto al cual se refería Vd. = "It is the matter to which you were referring"
In more everyday style, this might be phrased as:
- Es el asunto al que te referías = "It is the matter to which you were referring"
After multisyllabic prepositions and prepositional phrases (a pesar de, debajo de, a causa de, etc.), however, el cual is often preferred entirely:
- Un régimen bajo el cual es imposible vivir = "A régime under which it is impossible to live"
- Estas cláusulas, sin perjuicio de las cuales... = "These clauses, notwithstanding which..."
El cual is further generally preferred entirely when, as the object of a preposition, it is separated from its antecedent by intervening words. The more words that intervene, the more the use of el cual is practically obligatory:
- Es un billete con el que se puede viajar [...] pero por el cual se paga sólo 2€ = "It is a ticket with which you can travel [...] but for which you pay just €2"
The bare form cual is used as the relative adjective ("in which sense", "with which people", etc.), which only inflects for number:
- en cual caso = "in which case"
- a cual tiempo = "at which time"
- cuales cosas = "which things"
The pronoun quien comes from the Latin QVEM, "whom", i.e. the accusative of QVIS, "who".
It too can replace [el] que in certain circumstances. Like the English pronouns "who" and "whom", it can only be used to refer to people.
It is invariable for gender, and was originally invariable for number. However, by analogy with other words, the form quienes was invented. Quien as a plural form survives as an archaism that is now considered non-standard.
It can represent a subject. In this case, it is rather formal and is largely restricted to non-defining clauses.
Unlike el cual, it does not inflect for gender, but it does inflect for number, and it also specifies that it does refer to a person:
- Los niños con sus mochilas, quienes eran de Valencia, me impresionaron = "The children with their rucksacks, who were from Valencia, impressed me" (the use of quienes makes it clear that los niños is referred to; que could refer to the rucksacks, the children, or both, los cuales would refer to either the children or both, and las cuales would refer only to the rucksacks)
As the object of a preposition
Quien is particularly common as the object of a proposition when the clause is non-defining, but is also possible in defining clauses:
- Ella es la persona a quien le di el dinero = "She is the person to whom I gave the money"
- José, gracias a quien tengo el dinero, es muy generoso = "José, thanks to whom I have the money, is very generous"
Donde, a donde, como and cuando
Donde is ultimately from a combination of the obsolete adverb onde ("whence" or "from where") and the preposition de. Onde is from Latin VNDE, which also meant "whence" or "from where", and over the centuries it lost the "from" meaning and came to mean just "where". This meant that, to say "whence" or "where from", the preposition de had to be added, and this gave d'onde. The meaning of d'onde once again eroded over time until it came to mean just "where", and prepositions therefore had to be added once more. This gave rise to the modern usage of donde for "where" and a donde for "to where", among others. Note that all this means that, etymologically speaking, de donde is the rather redundant "from from where", and a donde is the rather contradictory "to from where". This tendency goes even further with the vulgar form ande (from adonde), which is often used to mean "where" as well. In the Ladino dialect of Spanish, the pronoun onde is still used, where donde still means "whence" or "where from", and in Latin America, isolated communities and rural areas retain this as well.
Como is from QVOMODO, "how", the ablative of QVI MODVS, "what way".
Cuando is from QVANDO, "when".
Location and movement
Donde can be used instead of other relative pronouns when location is referred to. Adonde is a variant that can be used when motion to the location is intended:
- El lugar en que/en el que/en el cual/donde estoy = "The place where I am"/"The place in which I am"
- Voy a[l lugar] donde está él = Voy al lugar en el que está él = "I am going [to the place] where he is"
- Iré [al lugar] adonde me lleven = Iré al lugar al que me lleven = "I will go wherever they take me"/"I will go to whatever place to which they take me"
Como can be used instead of other relative pronouns when manner is referred to:
- La forma/manera en que/en la que/como reaccionasteis = "The way that/in which/how you reacted" (en que is the most common and natural, like "that" or the null pronoun in English; but como is possible, as "how" is in English)
Note that mismo tends to require que:
- Lo dijo del mismo modo que lo dije yo = "She said it the same way [that] I did"
Cuando tends to replace the use of other relative pronouns when time is referred, usually in non-defining clauses.
- En agosto, cuando la gente tiene vacaciones, la ciudad estará vacía = "In August, when people have their holidays, the town will be empty"
- Sólo salgo los días [en] que no trabajo = "I only go out the days that I am not working"
Note that just que, or at the most en que, is normal with defining clauses referring to time. En el que and cuando are rarer.
"Cuyo" is the formal Spanish equivalent for the English pronoun "whose." However, "cuyo" inflects for gender and number (cuyos (m. pl.), cuya (f. sg.), or cuyas (f. pl.)) according to the word it precedes. For example:
- Alejandro es un estudiante cuyas calificaciones son siempre buenas = "Alejandro is a student whose grades are always good"
"cuyo" in this example has changed to "cuyas" in order to match the condition of the following word, "calificaciones" (f. pl.)
In Old Spanish there were interrogative forms, cúyo, cúya, cúyos, and cúyas, which are no longer used.
In practice, cuyo is reserved to formal language. A periphrasis like Alejandro es un estudiante que tiene unas calificaciones siempre buenas is more common. Alejandro es un estudiante que sus calificaciones son siempre buenas can also be found even if disapproved by prescriptivists.
Cuyo is from CVIVS, the genitive (possessive) form of QVI.
Notes on relative and interrogative pronouns
Relative pronouns often have corresponding interrogative pronouns. For example:
- ¿Qué es esto? = "What is this?"
- Ese es el libro que me diste = "That's the book that you gave me"
In the second line, que helps to answer what qué was asking for, a definition of "this".
Below is a list of interrogative pronouns and phrases with the relative pronouns that go with them:
- Qué - what, que - that, which
- Quién - who, whom (after prepositions), quien - who, whom (after prepositions)
- A quién - whom (direct object), to whom, a quien - whom (direct object), to whom
- De quién - whose, of whom, cuyo - whose, of whom
- "Pronombres Personales Átonos" [Unstressed Personal Pronouns]. Real Academia Española (in Spanish). Retrieved 9 April 2017.
- In José Rizal's Noli me tangere, Salomé uses vosotros to refer to Elías and his passengers that day. In its sequel, El filibusterismo, in the chapter entitled Risas, llantos, Sandoval addresses his fellow students using vosotros.
- Daniel Eisenberg]], "What I Have Learned about Spanish from 22 Years of Teaching It", Journal of Hispanic Philology, 16, 1991, pp. 3-9, https://web.archive.org/web/20160313023530/http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/deisenbe/JHPcolumn/WHATIVE.htm, retrieved May 4, 2017.
- Reproduced in John G. Copland, Ralph Kite, and Lynn Sandstedt, Literatura y arte, 4th ed. [n.p.: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1989], p. 123.
- "Diccionario de la lengua española" [Dictionary of the Spanish Language]. Real Academia Española (Dictionary) (in Spanish) (Tricentenario ed.). Retrieved 2017-07-03.
- cúyo in the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, 1.ª edición, 2.ª tirada, Real Academia Española.
- cuyo in the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, 1.ª edición, 2.ª tirada, Real Academia Española.
- Butt, John; & Benjamin, Carmen (1994). A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish (Second Edition). Great Britain: Edward Arnold. ISBN 0-340-58390-8
- García, Érica C (1975). The Role of Theory in Linguistic Analysis: The Spanish Pronoun System. Amsterdam-Oxford: North-Holland. ISBN 0-444-10940-4
- Appendix:Spanish pronouns on Wiktionary.