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Indirect Object

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2015-01-16 – © Baldo Partners: Hector Cantú & Carlos Castellanos; Universal UClick

What is an Indirect Object?

Grammatically, the indirect object is the person or thing which indirectly receives the action of the verb. For example:

  • John throws the ball to Bill.

In the above sentence, “the ball” is the direct object of the verb—it directly receives the action of being thrown. Bill, however, indirectly receives the action of the verb and is thus the indirect object. It is often said that the indirect object is the person or thing which is the answer to one of these questions:

  • To what?
  • For what?
  • To whom?
  • For whom?

In English, word order is not important in determining what part of a sentence is the indirect object:

  • John throws Bill the ball.
  • John throws the ball to Bill.

It’s important, then, when trying to determine what the indirect object is in a sentence to ask the “to what/for what/to whom/for whom” questions first before trying to determine what the direct object is.

When the indirect object is known, or understood, from earlier portions of a conversation, it is often replaced, in both English and Spanish, with an indirect object pronoun:

  • Does John throw the ball to Bill?
  • Yes, he throws it to him.

Here, the pronoun “him” replaces the “to Bill” in the reply, as “Bill” is understood, and doesn’t need to be repeated.

Indirect Object Pronouns in Spanish

Here are the indirect object pronouns used in Spanish:

Person Singular Plural
me nos
te os
le les

Thus:

  • ¿Juan le tira la pelota a Miguel?
  • Sí, le tira la pelota.

In the first sentence above, “Miguel” is the indirect object, indirectly receiving the action of the verb tirar. In the response, “le” stands in for the masculine singular indirect object.

Now, you will have noticed that the “le” appears in both the first and second examples. One of the characteristics of Spanish that differs significantly from English, is that if there is an indirect object in a sentence, then you must always include the indirect object pronoun, even when the indirect object is stated explicitly. Thus, it would be incorrect to write the first example above as “Juan tira la pelota a Miguel.”

Placement of the Indirect Object Pronouns

As we see in the examples above, indirect object pronouns very often immediately precede the verb:

  • Sí, le tira la pelota a Miguel.

While this word order is foreign to a native speaker of English, it is by far the most common placement of indirect object pronouns in Spanish, and will soon feel “normal” to you.

Other possible, valid locations for placing the indirect object pronoun are:

  • after, and attached to an infinitive:
    • ¿Juan le va a tirar la pelota a Miguel?
    • Sí, va a tirarle la pelota.
  • after, and attached to a direct affirmative command:
    • ¿Juan le va a tirar la pelota a Miguel?
    • Sí, Juan, por favor, ¡tírale la pelota! (note the addition of the accent)
  • after, and attached to the progressive participle:
    • ¿Juan le está tirando la pelota a Miguel?
    • Sí. Está tirándole la pelota. (note the addition of the accent)

Frequency of Use

For the frequency with which the above indirect object pronouns are used, see the following excerpt from the Frequency Dictionary:

#Freq.Vocab ItemPart of SpeechEnglish
119le, lespronounto him, to her (3rd person indirect object pronoun)
to you (formal 2nd person indirect object pronoun)
235mepronounme, to me, myself (1st person sing. object pronoun)
365nospronounus, to us, ourselves (1st person plural object pronoun)
4136tepronounyou, to you, yourself (fam. 2nd person sing. object pronoun)
51373ospronounyou all, to you all, yourselves (familiar 2nd person plural object pronoun)