In Spanish, you may find indirect object pronouns where you least expect them, at least if your native language is English. That is because in Spanish, the indirect object pronouns have a much wider variety of uses than they do in English.
As you may recall, in English the indirect object pronouns are used almost exclusively to indicate that someone has been the recipient of a verb's action although not directly acted upon. Thus, in English, the indirect object is often a shorter substitute for saying something is being done to or for someone. The same usage is common in Spanish (although the use of the indirect object is usually mandatory in such sentences, not so in English). A few examples should help explain this usage:
- English: I am giving him the books. Spanish: Le doy los libros. Explanation: "Book" (libro) is the direct object of the verb because it is the object that is given. The indirect object is "him," because he is the recipient of the action. The English sentence is the equivalent of "I am giving the book to him."
- English: He showed her the house. Spanish: Le enseñó la casa. Explanation: "House" (casa) is the direct object because it is what was shown. The indirect object is "her," because she is the recipient of the action. The English sentence is the equivalent of "He showed the house to her."
- English: They are serving us the dinner. Spanish: Nos sirven la cena. Explanation: "Dinner" (cena) is the direct object because it is what is being served. The indirect object is "us," because we are the recipients of the action. The English sentence is the equivalent of "They are serving the dinner to us."
In Spanish, indirect object pronouns are used in similar sentences that would be awkward in English. For example, while it is possible to say, "They are painting me a house," it would be more common to say, "They are painting a house for me." In Spanish, there is no awkwardness; the normal sentence construction still would be "Me pintan una casa."
The main point of this lesson, however, is that Spanish uses the indirect objects in many cases where it would be impossible to do so in English. As noted above, English typically uses the indirect object for cases in which the object is the recipient of some object or action. In Spanish, however, the indirect object can be used in other types of instances where the object is merely affected by the action. The use of the pronoun indicates only that the person was affected by the verb; exactly how the person was affected is determined by the context. Also, in English it is almost always the case that a sentence with an indirect object also has a direct object (as in the above examples). However, in Spanish there are some verbs (the most common being gustar, "to be pleasing") that take an indirect object without needing a direct object.
Following are examples that should help clarify some common types of uses of indirect objects. The indirect object pronouns le and les (the third-person indirect objects) are used in the following examples to make it clear that an indirect object pronoun is being used. (In the first and second persons, the indirect and direct objects are the same; for example, me can function as either an indirect or direct object.)
Indicating that a person "received" some emotion, sensation, result or impression: El trabajo le abruma. (The work is overwhelming to her.) Le gusta el programa. (The program is pleasing to him.) No voy a explicarle las teorías. (I am not going to explain the theories to you.) Les obligó que comer. (He forced them to eat.) La decisión le perjudicó. (The decision harmed him.) Les es ventajoso. (It is advantageous to them.)
Indicating a loss of something: Le robaron cincuenta euros. (They took 50 euros from her.) Le sacaron un riñon. (They took out one kidney from her.) Le compré el coche. (I bought the car from him or I bought the car for him.) Las inversiones le devaluaron. (The investments lost money for him.)
With various phrases using hacer or tener: Les hacía feliz. (It made them happy.) Les tengo miedo. (I'm afraid for them.) Le hizo daño. (It hurt her.)
When a verb affects a body part or an intimate possession, particularly clothing. In such cases, the pronoun is seldom translated to English: Se le cae el pelo. (His hair is falling out. Note that, as in this example, when a reflexive verb is used, the reflexive pronoun comes before the indirect-object pronoun.) Le rompieron los anteojos. (They broke his glasses.)
With certain verbs to indicate sufficiency or insufficiency. The pronoun isn't always translated to English. Le faltan dos euros. (She is two euros short.) Les bastan 100 pesos. (A hundred pesos is enough for them.)
When making requests or addressing someone: Le pidieron dos libros. (They asked her for two books.) Les exigió mucho dinero. (It required much money from them.) Les dijo que es peligroso. (He told them it is dangerous.)