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I've been reading through the book "La mecánica del corazón" and I am confused about the use of al que in this sentence:

Para salvarlo, le colocarán un reloj de madera, al que deberá dar cuerda durante toda su vida y le causará un sinfín de molestias.

Could someone please explain why the preposition 'a' is in this sentence?

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    Hi Sionnach, welcome to Spanish.SE! To help us give you a better answer, why do you think the a is unneeded? Also, could you provide a bit more context of the sentence? Maybe the sentence before/after as well? When a sentence has a lot of object pronouns it is easier to help out if we know what each one actually is. Aug 15 '19 at 16:52
  • Hi Diego, thanks for the quick response! it's not that I think it's unneeded, I'm just trying to understand why it's there. I have read quite a few articles on prepositions and I can't tie it together with what I see in that sentence so I'm just trying to learn more about it. The sentence before the one I posted is "Allí nacerá Jack, hijo de una prostituta, y cuyo corazón está dañando". And the sentence after is "claro que para mantener su corazón deberá atenerse a una serie de reglas.
    – Sionnach
    Aug 15 '19 at 17:10
  • @Sionnach I believe it’s because in this instance ‘dar’ is functioning as a verb of transference, therefore requiring the ‘a’.
    – Traveller
    Aug 15 '19 at 17:56
  • @Traveller - I'm not familiar with that terminology, "verb of transference." Are you saying that the verb is transitive? Aug 16 '19 at 4:38
  • @aparente No, I’m saying that ‘dar’ and a few other verbs sometimes convey the idea of transferring something. So in the example in the OP’s question, although ‘dar cuerda’ is the verb the ‘a’ is needed to complete it. My Argentinian spanish teacher used the phrase ‘verbos de transferencia’ when he explained this to me.
    – Traveller
    Aug 16 '19 at 11:33
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The key is in the definition and usage of the expression dar cuerda. As defined in the DRAE,

dar cuerda a un mecanismo

  1. loc. verb. Tensar la cuerda o resorte que lo pone en marcha y le permite funcionar.

In English we say wind [up] a clock, wind a watch (where "up" is optional), but in Spanish it's different, we say dar cuerda al reloj.

There are other expressions that follow this pattern, for example

dar fin a: to end

Compare the sentence you were having trouble with to

deberá dar cuerda al reloj de madera durante toda su vida

I think that once you understand how this expression, dar cuerda a works, the sentence you asked about will make more sense.

Here is a crude literal translation of the sequence of words, that may help you see what's going on:

le colocarán un reloj de madera, al que deberá dar cuerda | they will insert/install a wooden heart, to which he will need to provide spring action

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  • Just to make sure I'm on the right path to understanding this. Is the 'a' in dar cuera a used because we're introducing an indirect object? In the case of dar cuerda al reloj we are providing spring action to a clock. If that is the case then in my original question is 'al que' used because it's referring to an indirect object (the clock)
    – Sionnach
    Aug 16 '19 at 10:53
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    @Sionnach - Yes. "Cuerda" is the direct object of "dar," and "el reloj" is the indirect object of "dar." Note it is possible to write a sentence using "dar cuerda" that doesn't have an indirect object, for example, "Un reloj automático es un reloj que se va dando cuerda «automáticamente»." (chrono24.es/magazine/…) Aug 16 '19 at 13:55
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    thanks for the explanation. I'm understanding this much better now.
    – Sionnach
    Aug 16 '19 at 16:00
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"Al" is the contraction of "a el". "A" is a preposition that, among other uses (the meaning of prepositions can depend on the context) can introduce an object (both direct and indirect). Thus, it might depend on the context, but the Spanish preposition "a" can usually be translated with the English preposition "to"

To save him, they will put a wooden heart, to which he will need to wind up for all his life and which will cause him endless pain.

Basically it is saying

Deberá dar cuerda a el corazón de madera / He will need to wind up de wooden heart

so the preposition introduces a DC.

Other examples (from this site):

¿Ves a Luis? (complemento directo).

Se lo robé a Miguel (complemento indirecto).

These rules might help to explain when you need the "a" pronoun and when is not needed (or wrongly used) before a OD.

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  • Thanks Diego. That answer was super helpful. I just have one minor question. "Deberá dar cuerda a el corazón de madera / He will need to wind up de wooden heart" - in this case is the wooden heart not the direct object since it receives the action of winding? I could still be misunderstanding this though.
    – Sionnach
    Aug 15 '19 at 18:32
  • You are right. Sorry for the confusion. I'll update my answer.
    – Diego
    Aug 15 '19 at 19:27
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    @Sionnach No, with the verb dar the direct object is the thing given (in this case cuerda) and the indirect object is the receiver (in this case el corazón de madera). The linked RAE article states that a never precedes an inanimate object acting as direct object (1.3 a)
    – rsanchez
    Aug 15 '19 at 21:30
  • This doesn't work as an answer because you've misunderstood how the expression is used in English. It should be: "To save him, they install a wooden heart, t̶o̶ which he will need to wind up." (Note the strike-out of "to".) Aug 16 '19 at 4:05
  • @aparente001 Why do you think that detail of the "to which" makes this answer completely wrong/useless? I think that the key of this question is what is the preposition introducing, something I tried to explain in my answer. Also, in your own answer you write an identical example "they will insert/install a wooden heart, to which he will need to provide spring action". How does this reconcile with the comment you made to my answer? Why the same "to which" makes my answer completely invalid and not to work but you then provide the same example as valid for your own answer? Please explain.
    – Diego
    Aug 16 '19 at 13:53

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