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I started learning Spanish a few weeks ago and there is something that puzzles me. I'm a fluent English and French speaker (French being my native tongue) and I don't understand why some sentences seemingly need to contain "a" or "al".

Per example, I've seen this:

Veo al niño.

Él ayuda a su hermano.

I don't understand why the "a" is needed there. In both English and French, it does not make sense to have it there:

I see the boy. / Je vois le garçon.

He helps his brother. / Il aide son frère.

I learned that "al" means "to the" more or less, and that just doesn't make sense:

I see to the boy.

Is there a reason/pattern for those or is it arbitrary, or even optional? Why wouldn't I say this instead:

Él ayuda su hermano.

Thanks,

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The rule is quite simple. If your direct object is a person or is person-(e.g. a pet), you must preface the direct object with the preposition a (called the a personal). Spanish has much more fluid word order than English or French, so in translated "John sees Mary", without the prepositions we'd end up with all of the following:

  • Juan ve María
  • Juan María ve
  • Ve Juan María
  • Ve María Juan
  • María Juan ve
  • María ve Juan

At which point, you have no idea who saw whom. The addition of the a is optional (but effectively never used except in cases of extreme ambiguity) for all direct objects, but required for people. This probably is because people are more likely to be subjects than objects, and if they are objects, the other subject is often also a person. Notice how much clearer these are with the a personal:

  • Juan ve a María
  • Juan a María ve
  • Ve Juan a María
  • Ve a María Juan
  • A María Juan ve
  • A María ve Juan

In normal circumstances, you'll probably only hear the first, third, or fourth, of these in actual speech, but the other three are valid (and more importantly, clearly understood thanks to the a)

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