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Object Pronoun Placement

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2015-01-23 – © Baldo Partners: Hector Cantú & Carlos Castellanos; Universal UClick

Multiple objects in the same sentence

It is not unusual to have more than one type of object in a sentence in either English or Spanish. English, uncharacteristically, is fairly flexible in terms of word order when it comes to placement of the objects in the sentence. For example:

  • John gives Bill the ball.
  • John gives the ball to Bill.

In the two examples above, “the ball” is always the direct object, and “Bill” is always the indirect object, regardless of where they appear in the sentence. Substituting pronouns for the two examples makes no difference:

  • John gives him the ball.
  • John gives it to him.

(Some native speakers of English might occasionally say “John gives him it.” This is generally not accepted as being correct, and honestly, it makes my ears bleed…)

In Spanish, the order and location of object pronouns is more rigid than in English. To help remember the order, you might try chanting the following:

  • Indirect, before Direct, Reflexive first of all.

Thus, in Spanish:

  • ¿Juan nos da la pelota a nosotros?
    (remember, in Spanish, if there is an indirect object, you must always use the indirect object pronoun, even when the indirect object is explicitly stated)
  • Sí, nos la da.

Here, ‘nos’ is the indirect object pronoun, and comes directly before ‘la’, the direct object pronoun. (Indirect, before Direct, Reflexive first of all.)

Third person Indirect Objects

One of the unique features of having multiple object pronouns in the same sentence in Spanish, is that if the indirect object in the sentence is the third person, the ‘le’ or ‘les’ normally expected is changed to ‘se’ in both cases. It might help to remember this by chanting the following:

  • You can’t le lo and you can’t le la.
  • You’ve got to se when you le lo and se when you le la.

Thus, if we replace “nos” (us) in the above examples with “Miguel” (him), we have:

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

Here, the expected le is replaced with se when both objects appear together. (You can’t le lo and you can’t le la.)

Reflexive Pronouns

In a sense, the reflexive pronouns are really just a special case of indirect objects. Remember, the indirect object answers the questions “to whom/for whom”, so if I say, in Spanish, “I brush my teeth”, “teeth” are the direct object, but I’m brushing them “for me”:

  • Me cepillo los dientes diariamente.
  • Me los cepillo diariamente.

Some reflexive verbs in Spanish don’t “feel” reflexive to speakers of English, but are always reflexive in Spanish nonetheless. And thus, the required reflexive pronouns will go “first of all”.

Placement of the object pronouns

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

  • Sí, se la da.
  • Me los cepillo diariamente.

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

Other possible, valid locations for placement of object pronouns are:

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