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This is a canonical question / Esta es una pregunta canónica

In a movie scene from "Revenge" ("La Venganza", 1990, with Kevin Costner) the character Tiburón Méndez was discussing a political campaign with 2 guests at the 30 minute point (for context, see Italian version, they mention it by 00:53). I heard the following (translated/dubbed from English to Spanish):

Preguntémosle al estúpido.

In subtitles it was the following:

Vamos a preguntarle al estúpido.

I know that both are correct grammatically, of course.

QUESTION - Am I correct to say that the use of "le" in the above sentences is optional? While if one used "a él" instead of "al estúpido", you would definitely have to use the redundant "le"?

On what am I basing this? I have seen the following sentences as examples on Lawless Spanish's Redundant Object Pronouns, in which the use of "le" was stated to be optional:

[Le] estoy hablando a mi hermano. (I'm talking to my brother.)

[Le] traigo unos libros a la escuela. (I'm taking some books to the school.)

Mi idea [le] pareció al profesor la más interesante. (My idea seemed the most interesting to the teacher.)

While from What's the difference between “ti” and “te”? I read the following:

As above, you will sometimes find both ti and te in the same sentence, referring to the same person, when they are the object of a verb. You cannot say Yo elijo a ti (without te); it's ungrammatical. You will find ti on its own when it is not the verb object:

Traje esto para ti.
"I brought this for you."

After reading What is the role of the "le" in the sentence "Miguel le dio a su novia un anillo."?, I now understand that I am correct that in the sentences I wrote, the use of "le" is completely optional. But I still have doubts whether it is obligatory to use redundant indirect object pronouns ('me', 'te', 'le') with the corresponding emphatic form of pronouns ('a mí', 'a ti', 'a él') OR whether you can do it both ways (example - "Te pregunto a ti" = "pregunto a ti").

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    In Traigo unos libros a la escuela, a la escuela would usually be a complemento circunstancial de lugar (AFAIK), rather than a complemento indirecto, so Le is neither required nor allowed. Using a la escuela as a complemento indirecto sounds a bit weird. Incidentally, Tengo que hacer muchas cosas que no las comprendo and ¿Cómo se llama el niño a quien le cuidas? (both from the linked page) sound horribly broken to me. They might be acceptable in some Spanish variants, though. – OnlyThenDidIReckonMyCurse Feb 12 at 19:48
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    That's true, @OnlyThenDidIReckonMyCurse, and the sentence "Mi idea pareció al profesor la más interesante" is not correct either, as I have explained in my answer. – Charo Feb 12 at 21:24
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    @OnlyThenDidIReckonMyCurse yes, I think that "Lawless Spanish" website is not a very reliable source... – wimi Feb 13 at 10:49
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TL;DR

The redundant le is only optional if a noun acts as indirect object and that noun is placed after the verb: otherwise, it is mandatory. However, in spoken speech, the redundant le is almost always used.


First a disclaimer: this is actually a complicated topic, which is treated in detail in Section 16.14 of RAE's Nueva gramática de la lengua española, which spans 7 pages. In this answer, I give an overview of the general rules, but I cannot cover all the exceptions mentioned in the NGLE. In most of the answer, I use a different source (also from RAE), which is easier to read.

There seem to be different opinions about whether redundant le is required there (partly due to different usage in different areas), but Javi's comment to this answer provides this link to an "official" source (RAE/DPD), which answers your question as follows:

First question: is redundant le optional when there is also a noun acting as indirect object?

See Section 5.2 of the source. The redundant use of le is mandatory in the following cases:

  • when the noun that acts as indirect object appears before the verb:

    Al estúpido le hemos preguntado cinco veces

  • when the indirect object indicates who experiments or feels the action, instead of who the action is addressed to, such as when the verb is gustar, encantar, molestar:

    Le molestó a ese estúpido que le preguntáramos tantas veces

The use of le in sentences where a noun acts as the indirect object is optional in all other cases, i.e., when the noun appears after the verb and indicates an addressee of the action:

Preguntémos(le) al estúpido

(Le) he regalado un libro a mi hermano

However, though optional, in spoken speech the redundant le is almost always included.

Second question: is redundant le optional when there is also a stressed pronoun (a mí, a ti, a él, a ella...) acting as indirect object?

See Section 5.1 of the source. The unstressed pronouns (pronombres átonos) me, te, le can go alone in a sentence:

Le he preguntado qué piensa

or together with the stressed pronouns (pronombres tónicos) a mí, a ti, a él/ella:

Le he preguntado a él qué piensa

But the stressed pronouns a mí, a ti, a él/ella cannot go alone in a sentence:

He preguntado a él qué piensa

There are a few exceptions to this rule. One of them are the verbs that express direction:

Se (*le) acercó a él

where stressed pronouns must go alone. There is some discussion whether this actually is an indirect object, as it can be replaced by le if it names a person (se le acercó), but it cannot be replaced by le if it names an object (se acercó al coche). RAE's Nueva gramática de la lengua española, in its Section 16.14i, says:

No se duplican necesariamente los complementos indirectos tónicos que expresan dirección (§35.4j), por lo que se asimilan en cierta medida a los complementos de régimen. Los verbos que los seleccionan alternan las formas tónicas del complemento indirecto pronominal, sin duplicación obligatoria (Se acercó a mí, [...]) con las variantes átonas (Se me acercó, [...]). [...] Como se ha señalado, entienden algunos autores que las primeras variantes pueden interpretarse como complementos de régimen [...].

The verb parecer does not have duplication of pronouns either:

Se (*le) parece a ella

Another class of sentences where stressed pronouns go alone (without duplication) is treated in this answer. These are sentences in which the verb is ditransitive (not reflexive) and the direct object is in the first or second person. In this case, the indirect object cannot be an unstressed pronoun: it must be a stressed pronoun and cannot be duplicated:

  • Te (*le) venderán a él
  • (*Te) me recomendaron a ti
  • Me (*le) presentaron a él
  • @Charo see updated answer: RAE's Nueva gramática de la lengua española, in its Section 16.14i, calls this type of object ("Se acercó a mí") an indirect object, and says that some authors consider it a "complemento de régimen" (prepositional object?) instead. – wimi Feb 13 at 8:24
  • @Charo I also do not like it, as it does not make sense that a distinction is made if the object is a person or a thing, and I would also prefer to call it a complemento de régimen. But is it not the same in Italian? I see many examples of "gli si avvicina" online, and even some sources that also call that an indirect object... (but of course, I am not sure what the reliable sources for Italian are). – wimi Feb 13 at 8:33
  • What is explained at the end of this answer happens not only with verbs which express movement. Pronominal verb "parecerse" had the same behaviour: "se parece a él/ella" (without mandatory clitic duplication) / "se le parece". – Charo Feb 17 at 16:15
  • Mis dudas existenciales con el italiano han acabado dando lugar a esta pregunta. Pero, a parte de una discusión en los comentarios tan larga que se ha tenido que trasladar a un chat, de momento no ha recibido respuesta. – Charo Feb 17 at 16:15
  • @Charo gracias por el aviso! Leeré la discusión, aunque me llevará tiempo porque mi velocidad de lectura/comprensión en italiano es sensiblemente más baja que en español. – wimi Feb 17 at 17:36
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Your sentences from the movie are examples of what is called "redundancia pronominal" or "reduplicación/doblado de clíticos" ("clitic doubling"): there is an object in the canonical position ("a su novia" in your case) and also a clitic pronoun ("le" in your case) with the same syntactic function. As explained in the Enciclopedia de lingüística hispánica, by several authors, it's a phenomenon that singles out Spanish with respect to other Romance languages (but this is not exclusive of Spanish: this also happens in Catalan with a lower extent).

In your case, what is duplicated is the indirect object ("le" and "al estúpido"). This book explains that there are situations in which such indirect object duplication is mandatory and others in which it is not, although the option with duplication is by far the preferred one.

The duplication is mandatory when the object (direct or indirect) in the canonical position is constructed with a pronoun (with some exceptions). For instance:

  • María me llamó a mi.
  • Yo le di el regalo a ella.

You cannot say "María llamó a mi" or "Yo di el regalo a ella". In the same way, you can say "preguntémosle a él” or "vamos a preguntarle a él", but not "preguntemos a él” or "vamos a preguntar a él".

The exceptions to this rule are the pronouns "usted" and neutral "ello" which do not require duplication, as in these examples:

  • Para servir a usted.
  • Es cuanto tenemos que decir a usted, señor presidente. (CREA, España, 1996)
  • La EMT agradece a usted la utilización de sus autobuses.
  • Dedicaré a ello el siguiente capítulo.

In other cases, duplication of indirect object is mandatory or not depending on its semantic role: it's (relatively) optional when this object express the target or the recipient, as in this example,

  • María le entregó el paquete a su dueño / María entregó el paquete a su dueño

or these other examples from the book Gramática descriptiva de la lengua española, by several authors:

  • Le dijeron a Juan que viniera / Dijeron a Juan que viniera,
  • Le dieron el premio al escritor / Dieron el premio al escritor.

But duplication is mandatory when indirect object has other semantical roles: what are called experiential ("experimentantes", which means that the role of the indirect object is to convey who is experiencing or feeling what is being expressed by the verb)

  • Nunca le gustó realmente el cine a María (you cannot say "Nunca gustó realmente el cine a María"),

beneficiary ("beneficiarios")

  • María le hizo los deberes al niño (you cannot say "María hizo los deberes al niño"),
  • Le preparó un brebaje al enfermo (you cannot say "Preparó un brebaje al enfermo")

and (inalienable) possessor datives

  • Aquí le rompieron la pierna a Juan (you cannot say "Aquí rompieron la pierna a Juan"),
  • Le cortaron las uñas al niño (you cannot say "Cortaron las uñas al niño"),
  • Le duele la pierna a Pedro (you cannot say "Duele la pierna a Pedro").

Note that, in your sentences from the movie, "el estúpido" has the role of recipient or target of the verb "preguntar", so it corresponds to the case in which duplication is (relatively) optional: as in the examples "Dieron el premio al escritor" and "Dijeron a Juan que viniera", one can also say "Preguntemos al estúpido".

But, in this other sentence from your question

  • Mi idea le pareció al profesor la más interesante,

"el profesor" of the indirect object is the person who is feeling what is expressed by "parecer la más interesante", so it corresponds to one of the cases in which duplication is required. That is, in this instance, you can not say "Mi idea pareció al profesor la más interesante" without the clitic "le".

And, as stated in the comment by OnlyThenDidIReckonMyCurse, you can say both

  • Le traigo unos libros a mi hermana / Traigo unos libros a mi hermana,

but not "Le traigo unos libros a la escuela" because "a la escuela" is not an indirect object, but a place complement, so one cannot use a dative pronoun in this sentence.

Note also that what's being said in some answers to this other question, namely something like "I'm a native speaker and the version with the clitic pronoun le sounds better to me", completely agrees to what is explained in the above cited books in reference to the case in which the presence of the clitic pronoun is (relatively) optional:

la opción del doblado es, con mucho, la preferida

and Gramática descriptiva de la lengua española adds to this statement

Véanse Silva-Corvalán 1981 para el español chileno; Bentivoglio 1978 para el Caribe y Barrenechea y Orecchia 1977 para el bonaerense.

The book Complementos argumentales del verbo: directo, indirecto, suplemento y agente by José-Álvaro Porto Dapena, gives also an example which is similar to your sentences in the sense that an indirect object is present but there is no need of clitic pronoun. In this case, it's written without the clitic pronoun:

  • Nicolás regaló una moto a su hijo

(you may also perfectly say "Nicolás le regaló una moto a su hijo").

In addition, this book provides some instances of constructions that also require the presence of a clitic pronoun (this happens also in other Romance languages) without a duplication of the indirect object, namely, what are called "etic dative" ("dativo ético"), in which the presence of the clitic pronoun adds to the sentence an intensive value, expressing a greater participation of the subject in the action expressed by the verb,

  • Se bebieron toda la cerveza

and "possessive dative" ("dativo posesivo"), in which the clitic pronoun adds the semantical role of possession to other noun phrase present in the sentence:

  • Le llevaron el equipaje a la estación,
  • Nos ocuparon los asientos.

These are examples of a complete different phenomenon because, as you can see, there is no duplication of the indirect object in the above sentences; but it is a peculiar use of dative clitics which can give also rise to wondering about the role of such pronouns.

Notice that I've not included in the above explanation what are called "left dislocation" ("dislocación a la izquierda", for instance, "A Juan le han dado un premio") and "right dislocation" ("dislocación a la derecha", for example, "No le dieron el premio, a Juan"), which are different phenomena also requiring the presence of clitic pronouns that duplicate an indirect object and that are not characteristic of Spanish language, but are also present in other Romance languages. So, let's explain them.

Dislocations are constructions typical of oral speech, although one can also find them in written texts which do not have a high degree of formality.

A left dislocation of an object consists of a direct or indirect object (more generally, a noun phrase which acts as complement of the verb) which is written at the beginning of a sentence and then repeated in the sentence in the form of a clitic pronoun. For instance, in this example from Enciclopedia de lingüística hispánica

  • Ese libro ya lo he leído

what is dislocated to the left is the direct object "Ese libro": notice how such direct object is again present in the sentence by means of the pronoun "lo". An example in which the indirect object is dislocated to the left may be

  • A Juan le dieron un premio.

As explained in detail in Enciclopedia de lingüística hispánica, in Spanish, as in other Romance languages, we tend to transmit information in such a way that the news comes after the known things. For this reason, one frequently needs to alter the order subject-verb-complements of the sentence components, which is the one that is felt as neutral, specially in oral speech. Left dislocations is one of the resources the language has to achieve this. So, for instance, one can say to some friends

  • A Juan le dieron un premio

if all of them know who is Juan and the news one wants to transmit is the fact that they have been awarded a prize. But if everyone knows that a prize has been awarded and the news is who is the winner, I would said instead

  • Dieron el premio a Juan Goytisolo,

which in oral speech is more likely to be expressed as

  • Le dieron el premio a Juan Goytisolo.

Notice that left dislocations of an object (direct or indirect) require object duplication by means of a clitic pronoun. In a certain sense, you can think about this as if you have decided to put the object "out of the sentence". But, once you make such decision, you must add to the sentence a clitic that has the same syntactic role of such object, otherwise it would lack of something.

An exception to this rule explained in Enciclopedia de lingüística hispánica is when the dislocated object is an undefined noun phrase. Since Spanish lacks of undefined clitic pronouns, in this case there is not object duplication by means of a clitic, as it happens in this sentence:

  • Carpetas rojas, yo no he visto.

As explained in Enciclopedia de lingüística hispánica, in Spanish right dislocations are much less frequent than left dislocations, but are quite used in Italian and Catalan. In "Hablado/Parlato: aspectos lingüísticos y discursivos de la comunicación oral", an interesting paper by Félix San Vicente (University of Bologna) which compares these and other oral constructions in Spanish and Italian, it is even stated that right dislocations in Spanish may sometimes seem somewhat unnatural. When you make a right dislocation of an object (direct or indirect), first of all you produce a complete sentence that contains a direct or indirect object pronoun and then you decide not to finish the sentence there, but to add the direct or the indirect objrct of the sentence for further clarification. An example of right dislocation of the direct object from Enciclopedia de lingüística hispánica is this one:

  • La dará la doctora Pujol, la conferencia plenaria.

And here is an example of right dislocation of the indirect object from the above cited paper by San Vicente:

  • No, no le han dado el alta, a Juan.

Note that in these constructions there is a direct or indirect object in the form of a clitic pronoun and then it's duplicated by expliciting such object. As explained by San Vicente in their paper, a typical situation in which right dislocation is used is a conversation in which

el hablante, debido a un gesto o movimiento por parte de su interlocutor, interpreta que la comunicación no se ha percibido del modo adecuado (por haber supuesto un conocimiento compartido, o bien por descuido u olvido) y recupera la información que se suponía elidida

That is, the speaker, due to a gesture or movement of their interlocutor, interprets that the communication has not been perceived in the appropriate way (because they have supposed a shared knowledge or either by inattention or oversight) and retrieves the information that was supposed to be elided.

| improve this answer | |
  • I'm sorry if I have written another answer, but it was very hard to me to accommodate to the format of the previous answer. – Charo Feb 10 at 16:24
  • It is great that you have taken so much effort on this! Since it is pretended to be canonical, do you see a way to combine with wimi's answer (now CW) so all the content is in one single place? – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' Feb 11 at 13:22
  • I'm sorry, @fedorqui, I've thought about this for quite a long time, but I find extremely difficult to adapt all this to an style of writing which is very different from mine in a way that the final product is something coherent. Maybe the problem is that I have my own limitations or that I have zero experience in writing community wiki answers, except for the ones that simply consists of a list of things. Please, feel free to take whatever you want from this answer to add it to the other one. In fact, everything comes from the cited books and everyone can use them as a source. – Charo Feb 12 at 15:21

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