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The Spanish personal “a”

Why does the Spanish preposition “a” appear right before some direct objects? Let’s practice using the personal “a” in Spanish sentences. We’ll also learn a couple of new idioms involving other Spanish prepositions.

Full Podcast Episode


Let’s polish some prepositions.

Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.

This week we’re wrapping up the whole first phase of our learning. We’re going to cap off our work on the essentials of ser, estar, ir, tener, and haber. And starting next week, we’ll begin a new lesson structure that involves learning a new verb and some new nouns every week.

For today, we’re going to talk some more about the prepositions a, de, and para. I know we’ve spent a lot of time on these words, but the fact is that these three prepositions alone make up more than 6% of all words spoken in real Spanish, and so it makes a huge difference to get to know them really well.

And there’s a reason we have to give these words so much focus: Prepositions are the hardest words to translate between languages. Although they’re used all the time, they don’t carry a lot of meaning in themselves; instead, they’re used in idiomatic ways, which means that they get all their meaning from the phrases around them. And they’re some of the hardest words to use correctly — if someone is not truly fluent in a language, you can easily tell by the way they use prepositions.

To show how much of a difference this makes, let’s start with a preposition use that seems extremely weird to English speakers but is perfectly natural in Spanish. Imagine that you’re talking about having something or someone. We’ll use this sentence template:

We had your things here.

Teníamos tus cosas aquí.

Now of course in this sentence, tus cosas is the direct object. So if we were to use a direct object pronoun, we would say it more like lo teníamos aquí or la teníamos aquí.

But what if instead of a thing, what we had was a person?

For example:

We had the girl here.

Here’s how that would translate into Spanish:

Teníamos a la chica aquí.

For some reason, the preposition a has appeared right before la chica. By default, we would expect this to be Teníamos la chica aquí. But with the a there, it sounds like we’re saying “we had to the girl here”. What is this?

In Spanish, when a direct object is a person or a group of people, you put the preposition a right before them. There is no literal way to translate this, except by simply dropping the a when taking the sentence from Spanish to English. But in Spanish, it’s important to establish the habit of putting a before a person when they’re the named direct object in a sentence.

Here are a couple more examples:

The boy loves the girl.

El chico loves a la chica.

El chico quiere a la chica.

The girl sees the boy.

La chica sees al chico.

La chica ve al chico.

Now he doesn’t have anybody in the world.

Ahora no tiene a nadie en the world.

Ahora no tiene a nadie en el mundo.

Now if a person in the sentence is not a direct object, you aren’t going to do this. For example:

The boy has done it with the girl.

El chico lo ha hecho con la chica.

In that case, the girl is not the direct object; that’s technically a prepositional object, with the word con right before it. So this is another example of where it’s important to know whether you’re dealing with a direct object or not, as discussed back in Episode 7.

Let’s practice this a bit with some examples. Some of these will need the extra a in there, and some won’t, specifically when the object is a thing rather than a person, or when the person in the sentence is not a direct object.

I’m not going with my friends.

No voy con mis amigos.

She has her friend.

Tiene a su amigo.

I saw my friends at the fair.

I saw a mis amigos en the fair.

Vi a mis amigos en la feria.

She doesn’t know the girls.

No she knows a las chicas.

No conoce a las chicas.

I’m going to go with my friends tonight.

Voy a ir con mis amigos esta noche.

Now let’s talk about the word de, which is used in an enormous variety of ways, including in many idioms. One common idiom involves our new verb Tener. Let’s say you want to express how much variety something has; for example, a small city you visited has a surprising variety of things to do, or a movie you watched has something in it for everyone. In English, you might say “It has some of everything.” In Spanish, you simply say that it “has of everything”, or tiene de todo.

Tiene de todo.

There are also idioms in Spanish that involve the phrase de más, literally “of more”. This phrase generally means “extra”. And one common way to use it is to say that something is NOT extra or is not too much. That phrase is no está de más.

So for example, let’s say someone is telling you to help their friend out with something. If you’re not sure whether they really need the help, but it really wouldn’t be super out of your way, you might shrug and say “it couldn’t hurt”. In Spanish, you’d say no está de más.

Let’s practice a couple of examples of these.

You have two extra things.

Tienes dos cosas de más.

It couldn’t hurt to do that.

No está de más hacer eso.

My friend’s(f) house has a bit of everything.

La casa de mi amiga tiene de todo.

Next let’s learn a strange use of the preposition para. There’s a very common idiom, para nada, which literally means “for nothing” or “intended for nothing”, but it’s how you say “not at all” in Spanish.

And as one last thing to learn today, here’s the idiom for “instead of”. Spanish doesn’t have a word for “instead”, so we need to learn some phrases that can be used in place of that word. Check this out:

I have this in place of that.

Tengo esto en lugar de eso.

So you can use the word lugar this way. But what’s more common is actually to use the word vez. Here’s an example.

We have done this instead of that.

Hemos hecho esto en vez de eso.

So normally, the phrase “instead of” is translated into Spanish as en vez de. This seems really strange, since vez normally means “time” or an “instance” of something. But this is a very common idiom in Spanish — “instead of” is translated as en vez de, and “instead” is translated as en vez.

Let’s practice para nada, en vez, and all our other new idioms, using today’s final quiz.

We don’t have to do what you say.

No tenemos que hacer lo que you say.

No tenemos que hacer lo que dices.

I’m going to face my enemies again.

Voy a face a mis enemies otra vez.

Voy a enfrentar a mis enemigos otra vez.

It’s not that way at all.

No es así para nada.

You have to bring drinks instead of food.

Tienes que bring drinks en vez de food.

Tienes que traer bebidas en vez de comida.

Those things are extra.

Esas cosas están de más.

Go to the place and I hope you don’t have trouble. 

Ve al lugar y I hope que no tengas trouble.

Ve al lugar y espero que no tengas problemas.

The boys will have to do that.

Los chicos tendrán que hacer eso.

Let’s go! It isn’t at all boring!

¡Vamos! ¡No es para nada boring!

¡Vamos! ¡No es para nada aburrido!

Back then one had to do those things.

Back then uno tenía que hacer esas cosas.

En ese entonces uno tenía que hacer esas cosas.

Have two books, so that I have three.

Ten dos books para que yo tenga tres.

Ten dos libros para que yo tenga tres.

Leave now! We have extra things.

¡Vete ahora! Tenemos cosas de más.

This house is better because it has a bit of everything.

Esta casa es mejor porque tiene de todo.

The other boy has one of those things.

El otro chico tiene una de esas cosas.

Let’s leave! We don’t know these guys.

¡Vámonos! No we know a estos chicos.

¡Vámonos! No conocemos a estos chicos.

It couldn’t hurt to visit the city because it has a bit of everything.

No está de más to visit the city porque tiene de todo.

No está de más visitar la ciudad porque tiene de todo.

(All of you) Leave or instead of that I will call the police.

Váyanse o en vez de eso I will call the police.

Váyanse o en vez de eso llamaré a la policía

It couldn’t hurt if both are here.

No está de más si los dos están aquí.

There is a need to make many things.

Hay que hacer muchas cosas.

He will have to do this when they go to his house.

Tendrá que hacer esto cuando ellos vayan a su casa.

(Formal) Leave because it’s dangerous!

¡Váyase porque es dangerous!

¡Váyase porque es peligroso!

Get more practice with all of this at LCSPodcast.com/56.

Tomorrow we’re going to take another quick visit to Ser and Ir, and we’ll learn about a mysterious connection between them.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Michael Agudelo. Our music was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.

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