Even after many English-speaking students of Spanish have learned the forms of and the grammatical functions of object pronouns, and understand the notions they convey, they still have to master the placement rules. Comparisons with English placement rules is of limited value.
The relationship of Spanish object pronouns (of any type) to the verb or verb phrase in a sentence can be tricky to learn and teach. Concepts about verbs are essential as well. Is a verb transitive or intransitive and what does either mean? To explain that a verb is ditransitive has no value if students do not know what a transitive verb is. And then, after all that, there are reflexive verbs and “se constructions.” Double object pronouns present some confusion because of interference with English word order rules which do not provide consistent models.
Many textbooks in the past couple of decades or more have skirted these issues by treating many grammatical functions euphemistically (e.g., “how to avoid the repetition of a noun,” when introducing direct object pronouns). In teaching or learning about the placement of object pronouns, the focus must begin with the verb or verb phrase which governs the object pronoun or pronouns, like the sun at the center of the solar system.
The term placement rules explicitly requires that pronouns be considered in terms of their relationship to something – and that something is the verb or verb phrase. No good baseball coach would expect players to become good batters by only keeping their eye on the ball but ignoring how or when to swing the bat, or learning to swing while ignoring the ball.
This lesson aims to clear the confusion and give examples to serve as models.
There are only four scenarios students need to understand and remember in order to determine where to place object pronouns, whether or not one is considering the placement of one (or more) object pronoun(s) or any kind.
First, let us examine double object pronouns, since many students begin to reveal their lack of mastery with regard to pronoun placement with faced with them. Double object pronouns must be placed together and when they can be placed in more than one position, they must move in tandem: indirect first, direct second. The very common se construction is a good place to begin in order to unravel some confusion about pronoun placement, simply because it is a quintessential instance of double object pronoun usage. In the se construction known formally as the dative of interest (dumbed down in every textbook I have used for thirty years to ironically verbose euphemisms such as “how to talk about unexpected or unfortunate events”), the pronoun se comes first, then the indirect object, which indicates the person(s) impacted by the action.
Se nos fue la luz.
Our lights went out.
A Juan, se le perdieron las llaves.
John’s keys got lost (In reality, John lost his keys).
Without any more preamble, we now present ALL the possible positions for object pronouns in modern Spanish. All the examples will use double object pronouns, but keep in mind that even if there were only one object pronoun, the following scenarios indicate all the possible positions for object pronouns. Note that some archaic uses still are heard and written in proverbial, poetic and rhetorical usage and in regional dialects of Spanish, in all Spanish-speaking countries.
First Scenario: Whenever a clause or sentence contains only one conjugated verb, there are no placement options. The object pronoun(s) have to go directly before the verb. If the verbs is used in the negative, object pronouns must still go directly before the verb (after the word no):
Él te lo da.
Él no te lo da.
Second Scenario: Whenever helping verbs (also known as auxiliary verbs) introduce an infinitive, the object pronoun(s) may be placed (a) either as in the First Scenario (before the conjugated verb, in this case, the auxiliary) or (b) attached to the end of the infinitive (formally, this is known as an enclitic pronoun).
Unlike in French, Portuguese and Italian, in Spanish, the object pronoun(s) must never, ever be placed between the auxiliary verb and its complementary infinitive. When the pronoun is appended to the end of the infinitive, a written accent must be placed over the syllable that naturally received the stress before the object(s) was or were added.
Él te lo quiere dar. Él no te lo quiere dar.
Él quiere dártelo. Él no quiere dártelo.
Third Scenario: In like manner, when the progressive aspect is used (here we show only the present progressive, for brevity, but this rule holds for the progressive aspect in any tense), the object pronoun(s) may be placed (a) either in front of the conjugated verb (usually estar) or (b) attached to the end of the gerund. As in the First Scenario, the object pronouns must never, ever be placed between the verb estar and the gerund. And, as before, if the object pronoun(s) is or are placed on the end of the gerund, a written accent must be placed on the syllable that naturally received the stress before the object(s) was or were added.
Él te lo está dando. Él no te lo está dando.
Él está dándotelo. Él no está dándotelo.
Fourth Scenario: This last scenario applies only to commands, or imperatives. What makes this scenario unique is that unlike the second and third scenarios, there are no options for the placement of object pronouns. Where the object pronoun(s) appears or appear depends solely on whether or not the command is affirmative or negative.
Note that the following examples use Ud. commands, but the placement rules apply to all persons and numbers of command forms. Also, see how the placement of object pronouns in negative commands follows the pattern established by the First Scenario: the object pronoun(s) must precede the verb. By contrast, when the affirmative command is used, the object pronoun(s) must follow and be attached to the imperative form of the verb and the written accent placed on the originally stressed syllable of the imperative, as in option (b) in the Second and Third Scenarios.
¡No se lo dé!
We hope these examples help you as a teacher or as a student, to take the confusion out of placement. This said, it is essential to understand the functions of the different types of object pronouns and realize that many of the same forms are used to perform different function, but this topic likes beyond the scope and focus of this Tip for the Week.
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