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Why do Spanish subject pronouns “disappear”?

Why does Spanish let you start a sentence with “soy” or “son” — without “yo” or “ellos”? And how can you tell when you should include the subject pronoun or leave it out? Let’s practice the skill of choosing whether or not to use subject pronouns with Spanish verbs.

Full Podcast Episode


Do we really need nouns and pronouns to make sentences?

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

Let’s talk about why you can actually form Spanish sentences WITHOUT using nouns or pronouns! And it has to do with a core difference between English verbs and Spanish verbs.

This week we’ve been learning Ser, and besides the word ser itself, we’ve learned five different forms of this verb, each of them very specific as to whom it’s talking about. That’s not true in English — in English, we say “I AM, you ARE, we ARE, they ARE, she IS”. That’s only three different words, “am”, “are” and “is”.

But in Spanish, all five are clearly distinct:  I soy, you eres, we somos, they son, she es. All five of those are completely different, specific to who it is that’s being talked about. So something interesting happens if you see one of these words out of context. In English, if you see the word “are” out of context by itself, you don’t know who it’s referring to; it could be “you”, “we”, or “they”. But if you see the word somos in Spanish, it could only be referring to “we”.

And that’s why Spanish does something that doesn’t happen in English: Very often, the subject pronouns just disappear.

Subject pronouns are words that are interchangeable with “he”. So if you think about the sentence template “he hugged him”, all the words that we learned in the hymn scene, like “him”, “her”, and “me”, are object pronouns, and they’re interchangeable with “him” in this sentence. But words that are interchangeable with “he” are subject pronouns: words like “we”, “I”, and she”. “We hugged him.” “I hugged him.” “She hugged him.”

In English we don’t leave these words out. For example, we always say “we are friends”, not just “are friends”. In Spanish, you COULD say “we somos friends”, but you’re more likely to just say “somos friends”. The subject pronoun disappears.

As another example, you could say “You eres a nice person.” But why put “you” there? It’s already clear from eres who it is that you’re talking to; the “you” information is kind of packaged into the specific conjugation. So most of the time, in Spanish you’ll just say “Eres a nice person.”

So when would you do this and when would you not do this? There is some nuance to pick up as you go, but basically, it depends on how much information you need in the specific context. If the subject of the sentence is a whole named noun, you’ll still include it. For example, let’s say you need to say “my dog is my best friend”. You’re specifically mentioning your dog, so you wouldn’t leave that off; you’d still say “MY DOG es my best friend”.

But if you’ve been talking with someone about your dog, and it’s clear what you’re talking about, you probably don’t need to say “my dog”. In English, you could just say “he is my best friend”, where it’s clear which “he” you’re talking about. In situations like that in Spanish, the “he” would be left off. You’d just say “Es my best friend.”

Here’s another situation: “We are good friends.” If you need to be specific about who it is you’re talking about, then you’ll name them, just like you would in English. You might say “She and I are best friends”, or “she y I somos best friends.” But if you’ve been talking about her and yourself for a while now, you don’t have to say “she and I”; in English you might say “we are best friends” as a shortcut. And in Spanish you’d shortcut it even further: “Somos best friends.”

Let’s practice this a bit with a rapid-fire quiz. So for these sentences, any time the English simply says “I am”, “she is”, “they are”, “we are”, or something like that, you can leave off the subject pronoun and simply start the sentence with the conjugation of Ser. But if there’s a whole named noun, you’ll leave that in the answer.

First example:

They are of wood.

Son de wood.

Son de madera.

The girls are my daughters.

Las girls son my daughters.

Las chicas son mis hijas.

They are students.

Son students.

Son estudiantes.

The boys and I are brothers.

Los boys y I somos brothers.

Los chicos y yo somos hermanos.

I’m a local.

Soy a local.

Soy local.

He’s a thief!

Es un thief!

¡Es un ladrón!

Now in that last example, “he’s a thief”, we assumed that it was clear that we’re talking about someone we refer to as “he”. But what if we’re talking about two people, one of them a he and one of them a she? In that case, we’ll probably name the person, or at least say “he” or “she” to be clear.

In particular, when we’re creating contrast between two people, subject pronouns often DON’T disappear. Check out this sentence:

She is not a thief, he is a thief.

She no es una thief, he es un thief.

Ella no es una ladrona, él es un ladrón.

Something similar happens in this sentence: “They are not your friends, I am your friend.” In this case, we could just say “no son your friends, soy your friend.” But notice how we emphasized certain words in the original sentence: “They are not your friends, I am your friend.” That emphasis is important for expressive purposes here. And if we left out the subject pronouns, we wouldn’t be able to emphasize them! So this sentence would sound like this:

They are not your friends, I am your friend.

They no son your friends, I soy your friend.

Ellas no son tus amigas, yo soy tu amiga.

In summary, you’ll include the subject of the sentence if it’s a named noun (not a simple subject pronoun), and you’ll also include a subject pronoun, such as “he” or “we”, if you need it for clarity or for emphasis.

But otherwise, Spanish doesn’t really need subject pronouns, because the information of a verb conjugation already tells you who we’re talking about. That’s why we haven’t even learned subject pronouns yet (we’ll learn them next week); object pronouns, such as lo and me, are much more frequently used, which is why we’ve been practicing them first.

All right, it’s almost time for today’s final quiz. But at this point we’re going to run into a dilemma: Sometimes there’s more than one right answer! In many cases, both on this quiz and in future quizzes, you might add a subject pronoun and then hear that the answer doesn’t have one, or you might leave off the subject pronoun and then find that the answer does include one. The thing is, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you got it wrong. The fact is there’s actually more than one right way to translate MOST sentences between languages. This is likely to be frustrating, because if you’re a high achiever in the language, like many of our students, you really want to know whether you got it right or not!

To maximize your learning, there are two important things to keep in mind: First of all, remember that the testing effect says that it’s important to make your best guess before hearing the Spanish, even if you’re not sure if you have a chance of getting it right. This will accelerate your learning significantly, because producing sentences, not just imitating them, is essential as early and often as possible.

Second, once you DO hear the correct answer, you should imitate it exactly the way you hear it. Whether or not your own sentence may or may not have been correct, you should speak the sentence that you do end up hearing, out loud. That will help you solidify correct Spanish sentences right away.

Of course, when there’s a discrepancy, it IS helpful to know if you’re answering correctly, so I recommend showing your answers to a native speaker when in doubt. And of course, if you’re in our coaching program, your coach will be very happy to do this for you and to give you pointers on anything you’re getting wrong so you know what to practice more.

All right, with those tips and caveats in mind, let’s go on to today’s quiz.

I’m his son.

Soy his son.

Soy su hijo.

She’s not the winner, he is the winner.

She no es la winner, he es el winner.

Ella no es la ganadora, él es el ganador.

You’re the guy that saw him?

¿Eres el guy que lo saw?

¿Eres el chico que lo vio?

No, HE is the man that did it.

No, HE es el man que lo did.

No, él es el hombre que lo hizo.

Yes, that’s why you’re my friend.

Yes, por eso eres my friend.

Sí, por eso eres mi amigo.

She isn’t the teacher, he is the teacher.

She no es la teacher, he es el teacher.

Ella no es la maestra, él es el maestro.

I brought her so that she could take over.

I la brought para que she could take over.

La traje para que ella pudiera hacerse cargo.

We’re very good friends.

Somos very good friends.

Somos muy buenos amigos.

To be a student sounds better than that.

Ser a student sounds better que eso.

Ser estudiante suena mejor que eso.

In this next example, “they” are masculine.

Wait - ¿they are the winners?

Wait - ¿they son los winners?

Espera - ¿ellos son los ganadores?

She isn’t my dog, HE is my dog.

She no es my dog, HE es my dog.

Ella no es mi perra, ÉL es mi perro.

In the next one, “the winners” is feminine.

Not them — WE are the winners.

No them — WE somos las winners.

No ellos — nosotras somos las ganadoras.

I am your teacher so that you can learn physics.

I soy your teacher para que you can learn physics.

Yo soy tu profesor para que puedas aprender física.

How strange that he runs faster than her!

¡Qué strange que he runs faster que her!

¡Qué extraño que corra más rápido que ella!

I brought him because he wants to be president.

I lo brought because he wants ser president.

Yo lo traje porque quiere ser presidente.

In this next example, everyone is feminine.

We are not the teachers, they are the teachers.

We no somos las teachers, they son las teachers.

Nosotras no somos las maestras, ellas son las maestras.

For more practice with all of these, go to LCSPodcast.com/14. And get ready, because in tomorrow’s episode, we’re doing an enormous, comprehensive quiz to review and practice everything that we’ve learned so far on this podcast.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Ximena Lama-Rondón. 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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