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Whose turn, or responsibility?

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2014-08-21 – © Baldo Partners: Hector Cantú & Carlos Castellanos; Universal UClick

To talk about whose turn it is, or whose responsibility some household chore it is, in Spanish you use a structure with the verb tocar, which often means “to touch”, plus the indirect object pronoun.

To ask whose turn it is to wash the dishes, you would say:

  • ¿A quién le toca lavar los platos? (literally, “to whom does it touch to wash the dishes?”)

Notice that in lavar los platos, the verb remains in the infinitive form lavar. This will always be the case. Some other examples might be:

  • ¿A quién le toca preparar la comida? (literally, “to whom does it touch to prepare the food?”)
  • ¿A quién le toca planchar la ropa? (literally, “to whom does it touch to iron the clothing?”)
  • ¿A quién le toca fregar la cocina? (literally, “to whom does it touch to clean the kitchen?”)

To answer these kinds of questions, you might say something like:

  • Le toca a mamá. (literally, “it touches mom”), or
  • Te toca a ti. (literally, “it touches you”), or
  • Me toca a mí. (literally, “it touches me”), or
  • Nos toca a nosotros. (“it touches us”)

The form of tocar doesn’t change in this structure—it will always be simply toca—but the indirect object pronouns in front of toca will change to indicate to whom the responsibility falls.

To your English ear, the me, te, le, nos, os, les may seem unnecessary—especially because the person in question is almost always explicitly stated after the verb form toca, but they are required in Spanish.

Here are the indirect object pronouns used in Spanish:

Person Singular Plural
me nos
te os
le les

The bit after the verb tocar adds emphasis and/or clarification.

Because there can be no confusion as to whom the responsibility falls in the expressions me toca, te toca, nos toca, os toca, native speakers will only add the a mí, a ti, a nosotros, or a vosotros when they want to add emphasis. This is the equivalent in English of adding extra stress to the pronunciation, like “It’s your turn.”

Note that in a mí, the carries an accent to distinguish it from the word for “my” (eg., mi libro), while in a ti there is no accent on ti because there is no other word with which it could be confused.

In the third person or second person formal, the part after toca clarifies whose responsibility it is. Le toca is ambiguous by itself and could mean “It’s your (Ud., formal) turn”, or, “It’s his turn” or, “It’s her turn.” Thus, the prepositional phrase after toca is necessary to make it clear who is being referenced. For example:

  • Le toca a Ud. (It’s your turn. (second person formal))
  • Le toca a él. (It’s his turn.)
  • Le toca a ella. (It’s her turn.)
  • Le toca a María (It’s María’s turn.)