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I'm a bit fuzzy on how the "personal a" works in Spanish, for example in this passage from Harry Potter y la Cámara Secreta:

Nunca se había sentido tan solo. Antes que ninguna otra cosa de Hogwarts, antes incluso que jugar al quidditch, lo que de verdad echaba de menos era a sus mejores amigos, Ron Weasley y Hermione Granger.

I'm new to echar de menos too, so my understanding is that Harry is the subject of echar, and lo que is its direct object.

I'm a little surprised you wouldn't use a lo que here rather than just lo que, considering the a that follows. Would a lo que also be grammatical? What about if you reordered the clauses to A sus mejores amigos, Ron Weasley y Hermione Granger, era (a?) lo que de verdad echaba de menos.?

A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish gives a related example: A lo que yo temo es a la maldita casualidad.

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Note that the "related example" may not be as related as you think. In the sentence

A lo que yo temo es a la maldita casualidad

the object ("casualidad") is not a person, and even so it carries an a. What's happening here is that the verb temer, with the sense of "to fear something" can be used in Spanish both as a transitive or intransitive verb. In the latter case, you will always need the a preposition. You can tell if the verb is being used as transitive or intransitive by the use of la/le/lo:

Temer(le) a los gatos.
Temer(le) a la oscuridad.
Temer(le) a la casualidad.

But:

Temer a los gatos > Temerlos.
Temer la oscuridad > Temerla.
Temer la casualidad > Temerla.

The Harry Potter example, nonetheless, is different. The verbal locution echar de menos always acts as a transitive verb. So in this case you will need the personal a:

Echo de menos a mi gato.
Echo de menos la oscuridad.
Echo de menos estar con mis amigos.

But then, what happens with the Harry Potter example? Isn't it talking about his friends? Yes, but (as I hinted in a previous example) it happens that when the object is substituted with la or lo, you don't need the preposition any more:

—¿Echas de menos a tus amigos?
—Sí, los echo de menos.

So, as the sentence starts with a lo, the preposition is not needed:

Lo que de verdad echaba de menos era a sus mejores amigos.

Finally, note that if you make sus mejores amigos the subject of the sentence, you don't need the preposition either:

Sus mejores amigos eran lo que de verdad echaba de menos.

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  • Really helpful answer, thank you. I'm a bit confused about your first point though: what would be a transitive example of temer? To include more context from A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish, they wanted to make the point that la casualidad, while not a person, is sort of "personified", and hence takes a personal a. They also give the example "Los cazas llevan bengalas para confundir a un misil dirigido" as another "personified" direct object, and mention that this is common with verbs like confundir, temer, admirar, etc., that tend by their nature to this "personification". – Alan O'Donnell Apr 2 '19 at 12:50
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    @AlanO'Donnell I don't think that "la oscuridad" is being personified, it is just being used as an indirect object. I have expanded my answer with your concerns. Your "confundir" example may be different, as you can only confuse intelligent things (a dumb thing cannot be confused), so in this case the missile is supposed to be provided with an intelligent system able to be confused, hence it is being "personified". – Charlie Apr 2 '19 at 13:09
  • I guess the authors of your book are taking a reasonable position, but I personally would not go so far as to call it personification. If you take a crop duster up and "seed" the clouds, you confuse the clouds -- confundes a las nubes -- but I don't think that's personification. At any rate, Charlie's answer has a lot of helpful stuff in it (I'm not sure the part in the middle about how you can tell whether a verb is transitive or not is as simple as he suggested, but the whole "loísmo/leísmo" topic is an area where I personally get very confused.) – aparente001 Jan 14 at 20:44

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