Direct object pronouns are used to replace a noun so that it doesn’t have to be repeated, or if what is being referred to is clear from the context. Here we will only be looking at impersonal direct object pronouns (from here onwards referred to as DOPs), which refer to things rather than people.
Here are some examples of DOPs being used in English, with the DOP highlighted in bold and the words they are replacing underlined:
I like cheese. I eat it all the time
My mum buys a bottle of wine every Saturday. Then, she drinks it with her brother
Enrique has three cats, but his grandfather hates them
Every week María buys three apples, but she never eats them
In each of these sentences you can see a noun has been replaced with either ‘it’ or ‘them’, and because of the context of the sentences, it’s clear what these words are referring to. To translate for these two words into Spanish, we have four possible DOPs that we might use:
In Spanish, when deciding which of these DOPs to use, we must ask ourselves two questions:
- Is the noun I am replacing singular or plural?
- Is the noun I am replacing masculine or feminine?
Each of the example English sentences above would use a different DOP when translated into Spanish, so we’ll go through one by one to see the different usages
In the first example (I like cheese. I eat it all the time) the noun to be replaced is cheese, which in Spanish is ‘el queso’. Asking our two questions above, we can see that this noun is singular and it is masculine. In this case, the DOP that we use will be ‘LO’. So if we translate the whole sentence, we get:
Me gusta el queso. Como lo todo el tiempo
This is very important: DIRECT OBJECT PRONOUNS MUST ALWAYS COME BEFORE A CONJUGATED VERB. This is a common mistake that students make, because in the English version the ’it’ comes after the verb, but Spanish does not work in the same way.
This means the correct translation of the sentence is actually:
Me gusta el queso. Lo como todo el tiempo
Moving onto the second sentence (My mum buys a bottle of wine every Saturday. Then, she drinks it with her brother), the noun we are replacing is a bottle of wine, which translates as ‘una botella de vino’. Although there are two parts to this compound noun, when thinking about the gender we always look at the article (in this case it is ‘una’): any time we include ‘de + noun’ after another noun, we treat this second part as an adjective, so it does not determine the gender. Therefore, our noun is singular and feminine, so the DOP we shall use is ‘LA’. The sentence will translate as:
Mi madre compra una botella de vino cada sábado. Luego, la bebe con su hermano
For our third example (Enrique has three cats, but his grandfather hates them), the noun to replace is three cats, which translates as ‘tres gatos’. ‘Gatos’ is a plural noun, and it is masculine, so the appropriate DOP is ‘LOS’. So, our sentence will translate to:
Enrique tiene tres gatos, pero su abuelo los odia
Finally we have our fourth example (Every week María buys three apples, but she never eats them). The part we are replacing is three apples, which translates as ‘tres manzanas’. ‘Manzanas’ is plural and it is feminine, so the DOP that we shall use is ‘LAS’. Therefore, our sentence will translate to:
Cada semana María compra tres manzanas, pero nunca las come
Earlier it was mentioned that the direct object pronoun always comes before a conjugated verb. In other cases, it is possible for the DOP to come AFTER the verb. We are going to look at these cases here
- When we have an infinitive
When we have a conjugated verb and an infinitive, the DOP can be attached directly to the end of the infinitive instead of coming before the conjugated verb. For example, in the sentence –
Hay una nueva película en el cine. Voy a ver la película mañana (There’s a new film in the cinema. I am going to watch the film tomorrow)
We could replace the second usage of ‘la película in two different ways:
- Hay una nueva película en el cine. La voy a ver mañana
- Hay una nueva película en el cine. Voy a verla mañana
Both of these are gramatically correct, and you will see both used by native Spanish speakers
- When we have a present participle
These are the verbs that end in -ando or -iendo. Like with infinitives, a direct object pronoun can be added to the end of these, or it can come before the conjugated form of ‘estar’.
As an example, in the sentence –
Shakira tiene una nueva canción. Estoy escuchando la canción ahora (Shakira has a new song. I am listening to the song now)
We can replace the second usage of ‘la canción’ in two ways:
- Shakira tiene una nueva canción. La estoy escuchando ahora
- Shakira tiene una nueva canción. Estoy escuchándola ahora
Two important things to note from this:
- The direct object pronoun CANNOT come before the present participle i.e. Estoy la escuchando is INCORRECT – you must either choose before the conjugated form of ‘estar’ or on the end of the present participle
- An accent has been added to ‘escuchando’. This will happen to all present participles that have a direct object pronoun added to the end, to ensure that the participle is still pronounced in the same way as when the DOP is not added. The accent is added to the vowel that is stressed in the participle – without the accent, the stress would be here: escuchandolo
- If we have a positive imperative
The imperative mood is used for a command or a request. Examples in English would be:
Give it to me
Listen to it
The imperative in Spanish is usually formed using the third person singular of the verb e.g. for ‘escuchar’ it would be ‘Escucha’.
If we have an imperative and a direct object pronoun, we must add the DOP onto the end of the imperative – it CANNOT come before it
For example, the sentence:
La nueva canción es muy buena. Escucha la nueva canción (The new song is very good. Listen to the new song)
We can replace the second use of ‘la nueva canción’ by the direct object pronoun in this way:
La nueva canción es muy buena. Escúchala
Note again that an accent has been added to the imperative for the same reason as with the present participle: to preserve the pronunciation of the word.
We’ve given a detailed explanation here of the usage of impersonal direct object pronouns, which refer to objects and things rather than people.