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Here's a silly example: To translate

I hear a cat and a horse

this is what I was told was correct

Oigo a un gato y a un caballo

But if "a cat" or " a dog" translates to "un gato" or "un perro", then why is "a un" needed?

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3 Answers 3

In Spanish it is mandatory to use a before the Direct Object in most cases when it refers to a person or persons. You can find a full explanation in the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas.

Your example would be covered by case 1.1.e in the link above if you were talking about people; but, of course, a cat and a horse are not such a thing. So the correct translation is:

Oí un gato y un caballo.

If you write Oí a un gato y a un caballo, you are somehow assimilating them to people. At least, you are implying an affective affinity with them. Since this is not the case (you are talking about an unknown cat and horse), I would advise not to use a in this sentence. Compare this with the case when you heard, for instance, your aunt's cat. This is an animal you know and you can express this affective affinity using a:

Oí al gato de mi tía.

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I can tell you that should be:

Oigo un gato y un caballo

even if I think is incorrect it's very common listen

Oigo a un gato y a un caballo

La preposición a se utiliza para expresar/The preposition a is used to:

Tiempo/Time: Llámalo a las diez. (Call him at ten)

Causa/Reason: A petición del público; una nueva canción. (On request of the public; a new song)

Precio/Price: Venderá el carro a diez mil bolívares. (He/She's selling the car at ten thousand bolivares)

Medio/Way: Ambos se fueron a pie. (They both went walking. afoot(?))

Distancia/Distance: De aquí a mi casa hay dos kilómetros. (From here to my house there are two kilometers)

Dirección: Ella irá a casa de Manuel. (She's going to the house of Manuel)

Finalidad/Finality: Vine a traer comida. (I came to bring food)

Modo/Mode: Dejarás las cosas a medias. (You're going to leave the things half-done)

Lugar/Place: Se movió a la derecha. (He/She moves to the right)

References: [1] [2]

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I'm thinking about a case: Escucho a un ingeniero. I think Escucho un ingeniero. would be a wrong construction. –  El_Mochiq Feb 14 at 22:02
    
@El_Mochiq Creo que aplica lo mismo que explique, escuhar a un ingeniero por algo(finalidad), el ingeniero tiene un conocimiento que otra persona que no sea ingeniero no tiene..."Supuestamente" –  Emilio Gort Feb 14 at 23:01
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Explanation

It is correct to translate I hear a cat and a horse as Oigo un gato y un caballo. Yet, remember translating is not a bijective function (one-to-one correspondence).

What happens here is that the word a is indicating direction, this can be done to put emphasis on something, for example consider this conversation:

- ¿Oíste eso?                    -- Did you hear that?
- Lo único que oigo es un gato.  -- The only thing I hear is a cat.
- Oigo un gato y a un caballo.   -- I hear a cat and a horse.

This is much more common in Spanish, in particular it would be odd style in English to say Heard to a horse (it would be either Heard a horse or Listened to a horse). Instead Spanish is a bit more liberal, consider: ¿Cómo entrenar a un perro? and ¿Cómo entrenar un perro? both are acceptable.


Examples

Realistic example 1:

The succession of economic crises should lead to a timely rethinking of our models of economic development and to a change in lifestyles.

->

La sucesión de crises economicas debe llevar a una pronta reformulación de nuestros modelos de desarrollo economico y a un cambio de estilos de vida.

Notice in English it says ... and to a change in lifestyles instead of ... and a change in lifestyles. I have translated to y a un to preserve this style.


Realistic example 2:

When I got home, I stood in the driveway next to my car for a while, listening to the wind and to a dog barking far away.

->

Cuando llegé a casa, me detuve en la calzada junto a mi carro for un rato, escuchando el viento a un perro ladrando.

Notice again in English it does not say ... and a barking dog.


Realistic example 3:

They were taken in columns to Convention hall, the McNulty Baseball Park, the Fairgrounds and to a flying field.

->

Fueron llevados en columnas para Salón de convenciones, el Parque de Béisbol McNulty, la feria y a un campo de vuelo.


Realistic example 4:

Vio a una mujer y a un hombre tocando flautas traversas.

->

xe saw a woman and a man playing transverse flutes.

Note 1: using xe as a gender agnostic pronoun to denote the fact that the gender of the person - the one who sees in the given phrase - cannot be infered.

Note 2: In English you will probably not specify the flute is a transverse flute (side-blown flute). Yet in Spanish - at least in some regions - the world flauta often refer to a fipple flute, more properly to a "recorder" (this is known as flauta dulce - literally sweet flute) because these are very common.


As counterexample consider:

- Escuché un ruido               -- I heard a noise
x Escuché a un ruido             -- I heard/listened to a noise

Note: Although Escucchar is usually Listen it is common to use it for a sound that caught your attention.

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