At present we are looking at an area of Spanish language which is basic, but at the same time rather fiddly. It is one of those areas where we really do have to accept certain things without necessarily understanding them fully and one where it takes a while to build up the whole picture.

So far we have explained in some detail exactly what a Direct Object Pronoun is, what its equivalent is in English and how it is used in most cases in Spanish. Last month I skirted around a particular aspect, which is what happens to the Direct Object Pronoun in the third person and also what happens when the object is ‘usted’ or ‘ustedes’ (the formal ‘you’ which uses the same forms as the third person).

We have established that the usual Direct Object Pronoun in the third person is ‘lo’ for masculine and ‘la’ for feminine and this is technically true when referring to people as well as for things. However, in many forms of spoken Spanish there is a tendency to replace ‘lo’ with ‘le’, particularly when referring to people. (The word ‘le’ exists correctly as something else we’re not learning yet). Exactly the same phenomenon occurs in the third person plural, which sometimes substitutes ‘los’ for ‘les’ when referring to people rather than things.

This can be very confusing when we learn that ‘lo’ is correct and then see that sometimes it changes to ‘le’ for no apparent reason. Even more confusing is when teachers and books insist that ‘lo’ is the only possibility, but then you discover that the Spanish themselves use the two words apparently interchangeably. Also, believe me, if you ask your average Spanish person to explain why they’ve used the word ‘le’ instead of ‘lo’ in a particular sentence, they won’t be able to.

The simplest explanation is that although it is technically incorrect to use ‘le’ as a direct object pronoun, the use has become so common, particularly in certain parts of the country, that it is now generally regarded as acceptable. If you think that is horrible, just be aware that the same thing happens in English and is all part of the evolution of languages. Certain things creep into speech which the purists jump up and down about because they are incorrect, but in the end they become so common that everyone accepts them and forgets they were wrong in the first place. (Just two examples: the tendency nowadays to say ‘If I was you’ instead of ‘If I were you’ and ‘If I would have known’ instead of ‘If I had known’).

You may think I’m making a lot of fuss about nothing, particularly if you didn’t know there was a problem in the first place, but in fact as we move on and learn more of these little words, they can become a bit of a nightmare if you don’t realize these basic truths, so the best thing is to store the information in your mind for future recall. You can put it in that folder labelled ‘Things Jane says will be important later on’.

Here’s a summary which therefore needs to be tacked onto the bottom of the list of Direct Object Pronouns in last month’s article.

*le – him / you (m. usted)
les – them (people) / you (m. ustedes)

(*when 3rd person masculine refers to people, it is very common in European Spanish to use le/les instead of lo/los)

This oddity only applies to the masculine form. The feminine remains ‘la’ and ‘las’ for people and things when they are Direct Objects. What we haven’t mentioned yet are Indirect Object Pronouns (of which ‘le’ and ‘les’ are actually examples), but don’t worry, we’re not going to do that for a while! Next month we will go back to real examples of Spanish sentences to put all this into place. Bet you can’t wait!

Jane Cronin’s “Step by Step Spanish” articles are available as e-books at where you can also obtain Jane’s “Step by Step Internet Spanish” course.