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In a recent question, there was a use of "a" that seemed strange. Title of the question:

Sustantivos para designar a un lugar cuyo nombre se desconoce

The OP defended the "a" as follows:

Extraido de un artículo de prensa (negritas mías): "Un escritor de Castilla, que se llamaba Miguel de Cervantes, aludía con frecuencia a las diferentes denominaciones vernáculas del bacalao; en cada región española hay un nombre especial para designar a ese delicioso pez noruego e islandés."

I think "designar a una persona, por ejemplo a un actor," is perfect, and "designar a un pez" is iffy, and "designar a un lugar" looks all wrong to me. But I tend not to feel very confident about grammar stuff.

Any rules of thumb, patterns or observations about customs in various regions that could give some helpful context to this difference of opinion?

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    Some verbs have a preposición de régimen that is used regardless the object. Other verbs valency isn't strictly defined (allowing the objects to be either indirect or direct). An indirect object must have an a in front of it. The DPD doesn't talk about it, and the DLE doesn't say anything with respect to a mandatory preposition Apr 2 '17 at 1:28
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Just to have the chance to defend myself (as I am responsible for the question that originated this one), I asked the RAE on Twitter if the sentence was correct or not:

En el título "Sustantivos para designar a un lugar cuyo nombre se desconoce", ¿es correcto usar la prepos. "a" tras el verbo?

Here's their response:

Aunque lo más normal es prescindir de la preposición en casos como este, su uso no sería incorrecto.

So as the RAE says, the sentence is just written in an unusual, but not incorrect, way.

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  • Very authoritative! I didn't know they would answer a question! Apr 4 '17 at 1:36
  • @aparente001 in fact, they answer every question people ask them regarding current Spanish. They provide a very good service for this matter.
    – Charlie
    Apr 4 '17 at 5:00
  • @aparente001 Using the tentative conditional "no sería incorrecto" sounds like an understatement, not like the word of an authority to me.
    – Gustavson
    Apr 4 '17 at 9:55
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    @Gustavson - But it comes from such a pedigree! Anyway, I found the conclusion soothing -- that none of us was wrong. Apr 5 '17 at 5:30
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The meaning of "designar" we are dealing with is this one:

  1. tr. Denominar, indicar

I agree that the phrase "...designar a un lugar..." is wrong. "designar a ese delicioso pez noruego e islandés" may be accepted on the basis of this rule stated at the very beginning of Source 1 below:

[...] lo habitual es que el CD lleve la preposición "a" cuando su referente es específico y animado: [...] No encuentro a mi gato. [negritas mías]

"ese delicioso pez..." is, as a matter of fact, specified and animate.

Here are two sources (the first one largely based on the second one) that provide some useful rules:

Now, for some reason I can't quite define, verbs like "designar", "denominar" or "nombrar" (all synonyms) do not sound as bad, if followed by "a" plus an inanimate object, as do other verbs like "indicar". One possible explanation might be that those three verbs sound very much like "referirse a" or "asignar un nombre o denominación a". Another might be that those verbs usually take a direct object (DO) AND an object complement (OC), and the presence of two complements may render "a" more acceptable or even justified as a means to differentiate the DO (preceded by "a") from the OC. This acceptability of "a" even extends to structures like "nombre con que se denomina a ...", even if what follows is an inanimate object.

Here are some examples which, even if wrong according to strict grammar rules, do not sound so terrible to my native ears. In fact, I've taken them from Google books:

  • La expedición nombró a ese lugar Puerto del Castigo... (Source)
  • ... denominaron a este estilo de liderazgo como maquiavelismo. (Source)
  • ... designa a ese fenómeno como "Derecho Trasnacional" ... (See line 5, paragraph 2, of the footnote here)
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  • At the bottom of your second link are some possible explanations for even designar a un lugar: "Cuando el complemento directo substantival indica una ‘cosa’ se puede utilizar la preposición a: si el substantivo indica un espacio habitado". It's also possible that designar is a verb that's being interpreted with the designation as DO and the designee as the IO —thus obligating the a. I'd need to do more looking around to see to what extent semantically and geographically it holds, but certainly with some of the other uses of designar that pattern is standard. Apr 2 '17 at 5:10
  • @guifa Just in case other members want to check, the reference to an inhabited place appears in Source 1. "designar", just like "nombrar", can only be ditransitive with people, e.g. "Designaron una institutriz a (para) la niña", "Nombraron un secretario al (para el) director". What follows the inanimate DO has to be an OC.
    – Gustavson
    Apr 2 '17 at 11:13

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