Teaching Spanish Double Object Pronouns

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Keep the Pieces in the Right Places

The correct use of double object pronouns in Spanish depends on a thorough understanding of the concepts of indirect objects and direct objects. Students must be quizzed in writing and drilled orally until those two types of objects are almost second nature. Even once they seem secure, they should not be immediately exposed to all the possibilities that the placement rules allow. It will be a big accomplishment if you can get them to know and remember to change le and les to se when required… Let’s get started.

Write the following English sentence across the top of the board: He sells us the oranges. Get them to tell you the subject by asking them who sells? Write an S under He and remind them that the question you just asked is how to find the grammatical subject of a sentence. Proceed eliciting the other features: The question what does he do? will reveal the verb. What does he sell? will tell what the direct object is while to whom does he sell the oranges? will reveal the indirect object, or receiver of the direct object.

Next Step: Translation

Next, translate the sentence or, if you have a few strong students, ask them to translate it, then call on someone to write their translation beneath the English. Ask them to identify each of the subjects in the Spanish sentence. This may seem redundant, since they just identified these in the English, but it reinforces the concept of speaking of grammar as a metacognitive endeavor – indeed if students are unaware of what they are doing, they will not remember or care about it.

Next, have them change oranges to them and rewrite the English sentence. There are a couple of possibilities for placement of “it” – so no matter what they come up with, as long as it is correct English, use the differences to show that, as they shall later see (not today), there are a few options about placement. He sells us them or He sells them to us are the most likely permutations.

Next, have them change las naranjas to the proper indirect object pronoun (las). Next, tell them they are about to learn what to do when, in Spanish, just as in English, they have to manage two object pronouns: one showing the object acted on directly and the other indicating the receiver. Tell them this is referred to commonly as “double object pronouns.” The better way to understand it is to realize that it is the verb which makes this possible. Some verbs can’t take objects (go, for instance, as most verbs of motion). Others take one (see, and many verbs of perception). Still others take both direct and indirect (give, and other “transactional” verbs). The first type are called intransitive, the second transitive and the last group is known as ditransitive.

Tell them that they will learn more about the placement of object pronouns relative to the other parts of the sentence but that no matter what, when a verb takes two objects, the indirect must come first, followed immediately by the direct. Tell them you have a chart that easily shows all the possible combinations. Assure them that there really aren’t many.

Finally: Illustration

At this point, draw a vertical line with a short horizontal near the top. To the upper left, write Indirect Object Pronouns, to the upper left, write Direct Object Pronouns. Vertically, on the left, write in descending order: me, te, nos, os (if you teach it) and se. To the left of se, draw two arrows pointing to se and write le and les at the left end of the arrow. In the right hand column for the direct object pronouns, write, in descending order lo, la, los and las.

At this point, they will wonder why se, a word they’ve probably only seen as a reflexive object pronoun, is doing on the list. So this is the time to tell them that besides putting the indirect object pronouns before the direct object pronouns, they need to remember that when le or les would precede any direct object beginning with the letter L, they must change le or les to se. Assure them that if it is reflexive se, they will figure it out from the verb used. Show them that Me lavo las manos > Me las lavo isn’t a big stretch for the mind. If they don’t use os, there are only sixteen possible combinations, using two sets of four words each.

Finally, they need to be reminded about the third person. Ask them how many grammatical persons le and les could refer to? Write Se lo doy on the board and ask them to come up with all the possible receivers or indirect objects the indirect object pronoun se could be representing. After showing them the clarifiers a él, a ella, a Ud.; a ellos, a ellas and a Uds., give a quick quiz in which they will have to identify objects of different types, subjects, and finally make progressive substitutions ending in a sentence with double object pronouns. Of course, only give them sentences with one verb.

Many students wonder if you can leave out the indirect object if you just use a clarifier. The answer is a simple no. Clarifiers are just that – they clarify something that is already there. It is the clarifier that is optional.