So I got this sentence where I needed to fulfill the personal pronouns [we MUST use a feminine pronoun since we are talking about a woman]

_____ dolían las muñecas y a los tobillos porque el chiflado _____ había atado a la silla y estaba sentada en una posición incomoda.

The uni teacher then gave us the correct answer:

Le dolían las muñecas y a los tobillos porque el chiflado la había atado a la silla y estaba sentada en una posición incómoda.

According to her explanation, the first "le" refers to an indirect object. I completely agree, since - "¿Dolían a quién? -> A ella".

But then the second example, where "la" refers to a direct object, seems more obscure to me.

I would have put "le había atado", because I ask myself "¿El chiflado había atado a quién?, había atado a ella".

Can somebody explain this confusion and give a technique for justifying these pronouns in the example above? I'm aware of leismo and loismo, but my question here is about traditional and conventional grammar.

  • 1
    We don't talk about grammar cases as dative and accusative in Spanish, since nouns, adjectives, etc. are not inflected. Spanish grammar is pretty much written in terms of objects (direct, indirect).
    – c.p.
    Jan 29, 2020 at 5:47
  • does it have to be inflected ? In many languages many words who change forms are also labelled as cases. I reckon it depends on grammarians but indeed vast majority of them don't use this apellation
    – Mintou
    Jan 29, 2020 at 7:24
  • Inflection implies changing form.
    – c.p.
    Jan 29, 2020 at 22:04
  • excuse us for using the wrong term.
    – Mintou
    Jan 30, 2020 at 2:30
  • 1
    It's perfectly OK to use the terms dative an accusative when discussing Spanish grammar. Just look at the entries for "le" and "lo" in the RAE's DLE: le: 1. pron. person. 3.ª pers. m., f. y n. Forma que, en dativo, designa a alguien o algo [...] whereas lo: 1. pron. person. 3.ª pers. m., f. y n. Forma que, en acusativo, designa a alguien o algo [...]
    – Wences
    Jan 31, 2020 at 19:40

5 Answers 5


I think a great deal of your confusion might come from thinking that a direct object has no preposition: "Leo el libro", hence being "direct", whereas an indirect one starts with a preposition that makes it "indirect": "Le doy el libro a ella". The problem is that that rule is BS. :)

When a direct object is animated (an animal or a person, perhaps also a robot, or some thing that you decide to anthropomorphize for "poetic" reasons), then it usually (but not always) starts with the preposition "a". "El chiflado ató el libro a la silla" "El chiflado ató a la chica a la silla". (The cases where an animated direct object does not take that "a" are super complicated, you can find them here (in Spanish): http://lema.rae.es/dpd/srv/search?id=ctMgM8Bp2D6ELPuNfg )

When the direct object is moved to the front of the sentence (more specifically: somewhere before the verb, even if it's not at the very beginning) to emphasize it, it is also headed by "a": "A la chica la ató a la silla, al libro no lo ató."

So to know what is a direct object and what not... well... you need to know the regime of the verb (is it transitive or not) or look for "intermediate" direct objects: "Le regaló un libro al rey" The king is only affected indirectly by the giving, whereas the book is given, directly. (To make things really messy, in the parallel sentence "Le regaló un esclavo al rey" we have an animated direct object that is not introduced by "a", you'll have to read that link if you want to understand why.)

  • Good point. Such a rule would work better in English (I gave the book to her), but it doesn't work in Spanish, I guess because of the personal a. When we see the preposition a, we can't assume that it's going to be an indirect object, because the a might be there for a different reason. Feb 1, 2020 at 1:42
  • @Wences, you say that "When a direct object is animated (an animal or person)", it's actually not working exactly like this and I respectfully add these informations : You say "cazar un ciervo", not "cazar a un ciervo", You say "veo niños", and not " veo a niños". So a more correct rule would be that personnal "a" applies to definite human beings or definite anthropomorphized human beings only, with the exception of "a algiuien" ect". When you say "Amo a los perros", because "amar" is usually used for humans, so when you "amar a los perros", you give them human qualities, as why "a" comes in.
    – Mintou
    Feb 11, 2020 at 11:51
  • @Mintou, yes, the definite vs indefinite part is a refinement on my broad "animate vs. inanimate" rule of thumb, but you do not need to anthropomorphize dogs to say you love them; amo el chocolate, and I eat it, but I'm not a cannibal. :-) "Amar" is also for things and animals. On the other hand, your theory doesn't explain why "el adjetivo modifica al sustantivo" or "No hay nadie" and so on and on... The link I gave is the only explanation I have found that doesn't fall short. That's why I gave just the bare minimum and the link to the full monty, for those brave enough. :)
    – Wences
    Feb 13, 2020 at 11:37

I think you have a typo -- "y a los tobillos" should probably be "y los tobillos."

Basically, I think your teacher wants you to distinguish between a direct object and an indirect object.

Atar a una persona -> direct -> la.

Dolerle las muñecas [a alguien] - the person who is experiencing the pain is an indirect object -> le.

  • How do you distinguish that atar a una persona is direct ? Atar a quien ? -> a ella Since we ask the question with the preposition "a", it should be an indirect object shouldn't it ?
    – Mintou
    Jan 28, 2020 at 8:38
  • 1
    When the direct object is a person, it goes with the preposition "a". "Vi a Pedro", "llevé a Juan en mi coche"... So to know if it's a direct object "a quién" is not a good enough question. Better try to see if you could exchange the person with an object, and ask the question "Qué". "Vi un coche", "llevé una pelota"...
    – MikMik
    Jan 28, 2020 at 12:51
  • 2
    @Mintou - Check this topic: personal a. Here's a starting point: spanish.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/a-personal Jan 28, 2020 at 13:56
  • 1
    @aparente001 - You are my man, thank you very much : The a precedes the mention of a specific person or persons used as a direct object. My confusion came from the fact that I asked "a quien"->"a xxx", and was considering it as a indirect object because of this. But this special "personal a", is, apparently, not a dative marker, it is an accusative marker. It is exactly the answer I was looking for !
    – Mintou
    Jan 29, 2020 at 0:23

Well, maybe you have to check the verbs involved in your sentences.

According to the DRAE

1. intr. Dicho de una parte del cuerpo: Padecer dolor, mediante causa interior o exterior. Doler la cabeza, los ojos, las manos.

Notice that I've highlighted intr (intransitive). That verb does not take a direct object.

1. tr. Unir, juntar o sujetar con ligaduras o nudos.

On the other side, atar is a tr (transitive) verb. That verb is able to take a direct object, the element (or person) that is tied to the chair. What or who was tied? She was.

You can use "le" in that sentence if you change the element that is tied.

... porque el chiflado le había atado las manos a la espalda y estaba sentada en una posición incomoda.

The direct object in this case is "las manos" while the indirect object is "le" (a ella).

According to the following definition offered by the Wikipedia, "atar" is a ditransitive verb.

a ditransitive verb is a verb which takes a subject and two objects which refer to a theme and a recipient. According to certain linguistics considerations, these objects may be called direct and indirect, or primary and secondary

Notice that the secondary object is considered the indirect one. If you specify which part of the body of a person is tied then that part (the hands, for example) is considered the primary object and the person is the secondary.

Le (I.O) ató las manos (D.O) a la silla

If you don't specify then the lady is the direct object, because there is no secondary one.

La (D.O) ató a la silla

P.S. I agree with @aparente001, the preposition "a" is not idiomatic in "a los tobillos". It should be removed.

  • what about ditransitive verbs then ? :)
    – Mintou
    Jan 28, 2020 at 7:54
  • I'm not familiar with the term "ditransitive" but according to this definition "a ditransitive verb is a verb which takes a subject and two objects which refer to a theme and a recipient. According to certain linguistics considerations, these objects may be called direct and indirect, or primary and secondary", they are verbs that allows both a direct object and an indirect object. "atar" is a ditransitive verb as you can see in my example. Another example is "regalar" where you give a present (direct) to someone (indirect). Tú regalas algo (objeto directo) a alguien (objeto indirecto)
    – RubioRic
    Jan 28, 2020 at 8:19
  • Yes indeed, but I meant that : In the example she gave us ; "porque el chiflado la había atado a la silla", "la" replaces the lady. Therefore I still don't understand how to figure out why we have to put a direct object for a person in that case
    – Mintou
    Jan 28, 2020 at 8:34
  • 1
    The element tied to the chair is the object. In your original sentence there aren't a primary (direct) and a secondary object (indirect), so whatever is tied to the chair is the direct object.
    – RubioRic
    Jan 28, 2020 at 8:57

Cuando estaba en el colegio, mi profesora de lengua me explicó un truco, que funciona 100% de las veces.

Si dudas si un complemento es directo o indirecto, intenta pasar a pasiva la frase. Si es objeto directo, el complemento será el sujeto de la pasiva.

En este caso 'ella había sido atada a la silla por el chiflado', ella es sujeto en pasiva, luego es objeto directo, luego va con lo-la, en este caso la por ser femenino.

Otra cuestión es el laísmo, como bien dices, pero la técnica anterior me ha funcionado siempre.


The simple answer is that a direct object goes with "la" or "lo" and the indirect object takes "le": 'Le dolían las muñecas', 'la había atado a la silla'. You already know this. The confusion stems from the fact that many verbs, such as "atar", "atrapar", "ver", .. use the preposition "a" when the direct object is a person, e.g. "atar los zapatos" vs. "atar a la niña" (ouch, what a terrible example! :). The use of the preposition might suggest that it is an indirect object, but it's not the case, it's still a direct object. That's why the correct form is "el chiflado la había atado a la silla". Incidentally, this is also the reason why, as pointed out in the other replies above, "y a los tobillos" is wrong.

  • There is something called laismo where this does not apply
    – Iria
    Feb 1, 2020 at 16:01

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