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Indirect objects: all you need to know b ...

Indirect objects: all you need to know before learning the pronouns

Jul 19, 2023

In previous posts, we delved into how to identify and use direct object pronouns (you can find the posts here). This time, we're going to focus on how to identify indirect object pronouns - those that are always used with le and se.

Just a heads up: if you're not familiar with using the direct object first, it'll be pretty challenging to follow along with this lesson. So make sure you've either watched the previous class or read the following recap. If you already remember everything about the direct object, feel free to skip it.

Recap on Direct Objects

  • A direct object refers to things or people that receive the action directly.

  • To correctly identify it, we need to ask one of these two questions about the verb: ¿qué cosa? (What thing?) or ¿A quién? (Whom?) in that order. The answer to that question will be our direct object. If there's no answer, there's no direct object.

  • The direct object pronouns are me, te, lo, la, nos, los, las.

What's an Indirect Object?

It's a person (usually) who receives the action of the verb indirectly through a direct object.

Sorry, what?

I know. It's easier with examples.

In the sentence:

Yo toco la puerta (I knock the door), the direct object is la puerta (I knock, what thing? The door). It's what is being knocked.

But if my intention in knocking the door is for someone else to hear me and open it for me, I am directing my action towards that person. That person would be my indirect object. Indirect because I'm not knocking the person -that would be a different, more aggressive scenario, but I am knocking the door to produce a reaction in them.

Yo toco la puerta a María (I knock on Maria's door)

Let's see another example:

Yo compro un regalo para los niños (I buy a gift for the children)

The thing being bought is a gift, but the children are the recipients of that direct object. Therefore, they are my indirect object. Also, I'm not buying the children themselves. That would be illegal!

So, with this in mind, we can conclude that the indirect object is the person who receives the direct object or receives the action through it.

Why do I have to learn to identify it?

Because the group of indirect object pronouns is a bit different from the direct ones. If we don't know which one is direct or indirect, we'll be using the pronouns incorrectly, especially when our objects are people, as things are almost always direct objects, but people can be direct or indirect depending on the action (at least in Latin America, this grammatical explanation holds true; in Spain, the dynamics are different).

Identifying it step by step

The first thing you always have to do before determining if you have an indirect object is to identify your direct object first because it's impossible to have an indirect object without the other. So, if your sentence doesn't have a direct object, then you don't have anything to worry about. There's nothing to look for there.

Let's remember that the direct object questions are ¿qué cosa? (What thing?) and ¿a quién? (Whom?)

  • Mi hermana lee un libro a sus hijos (My sister reads a book to her children).

Mi hermana is the subject of the sentence, so it can't be a direct or indirect object. This is a common confusion; the person performing the action can't be an object unless the verb is reflexive.

The action is lee (reads). So, I ask my first question to identify the direct object: ¿qué cosa? (What thing?)

Mi hermana lee, ¿qué cosa?

Un libro (a book) = direct object.

Now that I've identified the direct object, I have to ask the corresponding questions for the indirect object:

¿A quién? (To whom?)

¿Para quién? (For whom?)

Mi hermana lee un libro, ¿a quién?

A sus hijos (to her children) = indirect object

Now let's look at it from the perspective of the action: my sister is not reading her children as if they had letters all over their bodies; if that were the case, they would be the direct object. So what she's reading is the book (direct), and her children are receiving the reading (indirect).

It's that easy.

More examples:

  • Camilo dice un secreto a sus amigos (Camilo tells a secret to his friends).

Camilo dice (Camilo tells), ¿qué cosa?

Un secreto (a secret) = direct object

¿A quién? (To whom?)

A sus amigos (to his friends) = indirect object

  • Laura compra vegetales para su madre (Laura buys vegetables for her mother).

Laura compra (Laura buys), ¿qué cosa?

Vegetales (vegetables)= direct object

¿Para quién? (For whom?)

Para su madre (for her mother) = indirect object

When to use "A" and when to use "PARA"

The truth is that there are verbs that use para and others that use a in both English and Spanish. However, it's not necessary to remember which preposition each verb uses because guess what: in Spanish, a is always possible with indirect objects. For example:

Laura compra vegetales para su madre can also be Laura compra vegetales a su madre.

Both sentences are correct in Spanish. So my recommendation is to always use a, so that you'll always be right.

Now that you can identify indirect objects, it's good to remember these five things:

  1. Indirect objects are generally people, while direct objects can be both things and people.

  2. There's no indirect object without a direct object.

  3. Always identify the direct object first with the question "What thing?" If this question has no answer, then continue with the question "To whom?" If that second question has an answer, that will be your direct object. But if it has no answer, you have neither a direct nor an indirect object.

  4. If the direct object of your sentence is a person, then most likely you don't have an indirect object.

  5. You can always use the preposition "a" with indirect objects in Spanish.

There you go. That's all for today. In the next post, I'll teach you how to use indirect object pronouns, so stay tuned.

Move on to the exercise section if you want to practice or watch the video for more examples and a mini-test.

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