One of my pet peeves in English is when a speaker does NOT clear up ambiguity when using pronouns. For example:

Mary and Elizabeth went to the store. She bought an apple.

In the above sentence, it is not clear who bought the apple. This is because 'she' could refer to either Mary or Elizabeth. Drives me crazy!

Now, quite often in Spanish, pronouns are omitted because the subject is implied by the conjugation of the verb. However, things can become ambiguous when speaking in the third person. Let's examine the following excerpt from the book "El Quijote: Para estudiantes de español":

Pensó Don Quijote que el mundo le necesitaba. ... En ese momento recordó que no podía entrar en batalla. No había sido armado caballero. Según las leyes de caballería no podía luchar con nadie hasta que no fuese armado caballero. Decidió que el primer caballero andante que encontrase le armaría caballero.

The bolded text is where I find the ambiguity. Being that I'm still a beginner with the language, it took me several readings to understand this. I believe it means:

He (don Quijote) decided that the first knight that he (don Quijote) met would arm him (don Quijote) with knighthood.

So, it took me a while to understand that the 'le' in 'le armaría caballero' refers to don Quijote, and does not refer to the errant knight.

Does such ambiguity present a problem to native speakers of Spanish? Or is this a problem merely for language learners like me? Is there a way to express the bolded text in manner that is more clear?

I'm thinking someone might post an answer saying, "There is no ambiguity to the brain of a native Spanish speaker. The direct and indirect objects of the sentence is obvious."

2 Answers 2


In this particular example, I'm afraid, there is no ambiguity. Let's strip the sentence down to the basics:

Decidió que el primer caballero andante que encontrase le armaría caballero.

This is a main sentence whose subject (elided) is a third person; context tells us it's Don Quijote. Let's take that away and stay with the subordinate:

El primer caballero andante que encontrase le armaría caballero.

This again has a subordinate clause embedded in it. It's that type of subordinate that qualifies but doesn't define the noun it modifies, so it can be taken out too, as well as the other qualifiers:

El primer caballero andante le armaría caballero.

This is just a "subject verbs direct-object to indirect-object" type of sentence. What might this indirect object refer to? It cannot refer back to the subject, since that would be a reflexive expression, and the reflexive third person pronoun is se, not le. The sentence would look like this:

Decidió que el primer caballero andante que encontrase se armaría caballero.

This wouldn't be ungrammatical, but it would make no sense at all. So le can only refer to the subject. Note that this would work also in English: if I say "The first knight he met would make him knight", it's perfectly clear that him refers to the prior he and that in turn refers to the unnamed man we're surely talking about.

In technical terms, "Don Quijote" is the topic of that sentence, and the topic, in fact, of the whole passage. The topic and the subject often coincide, but not always. Spanish is a pro-drop language so the topic is often completely left to context if it is the subject (unlike English, where you have to at least use a pronoun). This is what happens in your example (twice, with decidió and with encontrase).

  • Thanks for breaking this down. I now see that I have to program my brain to instantly comprehend the "pro-drop" nature of Spanish. Sep 4, 2017 at 21:20

I’m responding long after the fact, perhaps at this point moot for the original poster, but perhaps of use to other readers. There is are two even simpler ways that this ambiguity is cleared for the Spanish speaker, one is contextual, the other is grammatical. Contextually, Don Quixote is reflecting on the fact that while he believes the world needs him [as a hero], he cannot fight because he has not been granted knighthood. He decides that the first knight he encounters will knight him (‘him’ being Don Quixote). Grammatically, Spanish has a grammatical tool, the personal ‘a’ that is placed before the direct object when it is a person. If “primer caballero” in that last sentence were intended to be the object of the knighting (and of the clause), it would be written “....AL primer caballero andante que encontrase le armaría de caballero.” Without the ‘a’, “el caballero” is the subject of “armaría”,not the object.

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