When to use indirect object pronouns in Spanish?

The road sign with "Se habla espanol" written on it. An introduction image to Spanish  indirect object pronouns article.

Are you struggling with when to use indirect object pronouns in Spanish, and how? Don’t worry, you are not alone! It’s quite a common problem that many Spanish students face.

When we need to replace the Spanish nouns with direct or indirect pronoun, there is a lot of things we need to think about. We need to consider the sentence order, prepositions, rules when you can replace the object, and when you can’t, rules of combining direct and indirect object pronouns. It’s sooo confusing!

So I created this article, to organize together all important rules we should remember when we learn how to use indirect object pronouns in Spanish.

I hope it will help you to understand the concept of indirect object pronouns in Spanish more clear as it did to me.

To start, let’s remember the concept of the direct object pronoun and know the difference with an indirect object pronoun.

What is the difference between Spanish direct and indirect object pronouns? 

Person Direct object pronoun Indirect object pronoun
Yo Me Me
Te Te
Él / Ella Lo/La Le
Nosotros Nos Nos
Vosotros Os Os
Ellos/ Ellas Los/Las Les
Spanish direct object pronouns

If you’ve read my article on direct object pronouns, you will remember that direct object pronouns are used to replace the direct object to avoid unnecessary repetition of the object.

In case you haven’t studied this topic thoroughly yet, this article might help you to get an idea of how the direct object pronouns work and when to use them.

Otherwise, if you don’t need the whole explanation again, here is a brief refresher: 

  • The direct object pronouns receive a direct action from the verb.
  • The direct object usually answers the questions “What?” or “Whom?”. 
  • The direct object pronoun replaces the direct object to avoid unnecessary repetition.
  • The direct object pronoun always goes before the conjugated verb.

Here is an example:

    Emma eats food => Emma eats it. 
Emma come la comida. => Emma la come.

Emma eats what? La comida (direct object).
In the second sentence, the direct object pronoun la replaces la comida, and it takes place before the conjugated verb come. 

The Alhambra fortress which is located in Granada, Spain
Spanish indirect object pronoun

The Spanish Indirect Object Pronouns, on the other hand, are used to replace a word or a phrase (indirect object), which tells us where the direct object is going.

The indirect object typically answers the question “To whom?” or “For whom?” the action is being done for.

Let’s see a simple example:

     I bought  a present for my mother =>
     Compré un regalo para mi  madre

In this sentence:
The direct object is un regalo ( a present)
The verb is Compré (bought)
The indirect object is mi madre (my mother) since the action is being done for her.

I will share with you an easy trick to identify the indirect object pronoun. You just need to remember that the indirect object pronoun always comes with prepositions “a” and “para” because the action is always intended for something or someone.

Now let’s try to replace the indirect object (my mother) with the proper pronoun:

     I bought a present for her - Le compré un regalo

To whom did I buy the present?
“Le” – the indirect object pronoun – is the answer to this question.

So the difference between the Spanish direct object pronouns and indirect object pronouns is simple:

  • Direct object pronouns replace the object that receives direct action from the verb and answers to questions “Whom”, “What”. They tell you what is eaten, or who is called, chosen, searched for, etc.
  • Indirect object pronouns replace the object which is indirectly affected by the verb, and it answers to questions “To whom” or “For whom.” It tells you for whom something is brought, given, bought, etc.

Which verbs take an indirect object in Spanish? 

Now it gets even trickier! Not every verb in Spanish can take an indirect object… Some verbs cannot use indirect objects at all. And other verbs always require the indirect object.

But no need to panic yet! You don’t need to memorize these verbs by heart. It’s pretty logical which verb requires an indirect object and which not.

And you will be able to understand it if you know the meaning of the verb.

For example, the verb “to see” cannot use the indirect object because when you “see” something, the action of seeing doesn’t affect anything else.

    Puedes ver mi bolso? / Can you see my purse? 
    Si, puedo verlo. / Yes I can see it. 
Three toy frogs with red eyes and limbs

On the other hand, the verb “to give” will always require an indirect object because you always specify someone who is receiving this object that is being given.

Puedes darme mi bolso? / Could you give me my bag?
Te lo di hace diez minutos / I gave it to you ten minutes ago.

Moreover, whether the verb requires an indirect object or no depends on the context of the sentence.

Dije que no voy a salir / I said that I am not going out.

In this sentence decir doesn’t take an indirect object.

Le dije que no voy a salir / I told her that I am not going out. 

In contrast, in this sentence decir does require the indirect object.

Here is the list of common verbs that almost always require the indirect object pronoun:

To hands, one of them giving flowers to another

Dar – to give something
Alquilar – to rent something
Decir – to tell something
Echar – to trow something
Traer – to bring something
Regalar – to give away something
Vender – to sell something
Encantar – to love something
Gustar -to like something

Maintaining the right order in the sentence

When both direct object pronouns and indirect object pronouns are used in the same sentence, the indirect object pronoun always comes before the direct object pronoun.

John buys me the cookies => John me compra las galletas
John buys it for me => John me lo compra
Give me the opener, please. => Dame el abridor por favor
Give it to me, please => Dámelo por favor

You might find more examples in this link.

Using Spanish indirect object pronouns before or after the verb.

When there are two verbs in the sentence, where one of them the infinitive, for example, quero comer, the indirect object pronoun can either go before or after the verb combination. 

I want to buy you a present.

The box with a present for Christmas
Te quero comprar un regalo
  1. Quero comprarte un regalo 
  2. Te quero comprar un regalo

I am going to tell them the truth

  1. Les voy a decir la verdad
  2. Voy a decirles la verdad

Similar to infinitive, when there is a gerund in the sentence, which typically ends with “-ando”, “-endo” the indirect object pronoun goes either before or after the verb combination.

I am writing to him

  1. Le estoy escribiendo
  2. Estoy escribiendole 

Important to remember that you can put the indirect object pronoun after only infinitive or gerund. You can not put it after the conjugated verb.

Changing le to se

This part is where many students, including me, get the most confused.
The indirect object pronouns le or les change to se whenever it is followed by a direct object pronoun lo, la, los, las.

In Spanish no one says “le lo”, they change it to “se lo”.

It is important to note that this change happens only when the third person indirect object pronoun is combined with the direct object pronoun.

Picture of Barcelona panoramic view

Here is the list of changes to remember:
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

Here are some examples,

I told the truth to Marta =>  I told it to her 
Le dije la verdad a Marta => Se la dije
The teacher brought new maps for students =>  The teacher brought them for them
El profesor trajo nuevos mapas para estudiantes => El profesor se los trajo
Two boys posing for a photo, surrounded by books
El profesor se los trajo
Alejandra sent the invitation to Juan on the last day => Alejandra sent it to him on the last day.

Alejandra le envió la invitación a Juan el último día =>  Alejandra se la envio el último día.

If this is too confusing, I have a tip. Just use the direct object for now instead of the direct object pronoun.

How to use indirect object pronouns in a negative sentence? 

No written in black on multiple white cards

When there is “no” or “nunca” or other negative form in a sentence, it always comes before the indirect and direct object pronoun.

Enrique never explained it to me
Enrique nunca me lo explico

However, when the indirect object pronoun is attached to the end of the verb (infinitive or gerund), then the negative word comes before the verb or verb group.

I don't want to ask him this question
No quero pedirle la pregunta
I don't want to ask him that
No quero pedirlela

Common mistakes of using indirect object pronouns and the preposition “a”.

When I was trying to be safe and not to use the indirect object pronoun at all – I did a very bad mistake. 

You can’t leave indirect object pronoun off the sentence if it’s required. 

Have you given flowers to her? 
You can’t say: ¿Has dado flores a ella?

Child hands holding 3 daisies.

This is completely wrong! You certainly need “le”.

Have you given flowers to her? 
¿Le has dado flores a ella?

It’s noteworthy that you can drop “a ella” , but you absolutely can not drop “Le.”

In Spanish sentences, you can usually drop the subject pronoun such as yoél, ella, etc. because you would already know the person from the verb conjugation. 

But you should always remember the “Le”. 

Benefits of understanding the indirect object pronouns

Three women talking and laughing. 
Spanish indirect object pronouns.

Even though these rules are a little tricky and need some practice before you become comfortable with using them, there give you a big benefit.

Spanish speakers use indirect object pronouns a lot. Mastering them means gaining control over the context of your conversations.

And the best way to master them is to jump right in and start using them every time you speak Spanish.

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