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This question is not actually specific to gustar, but given that it's such a widely discussed verb for Spanish language learners coming from English, I thought it may be the easiest example.

I understand, in broad terms, the difference between direct and indirect objects - at least in English. Verbs which can/must have direct objects use them to specify what is actually being done (I wrote a letter, I eat some food, I hit her), while the indirect objects will either follow a preposition or can be reworded to follow one (I gave her a book/I gave a book to her, I hit her with a stick, etc.) and are always optional. Or, at least, I can't think of a single English example of a verb which is nonsense without an indirect object.

But based on the fact that we say "le gusta" and not "lo/la gusta" it seems to me that gustar takes an indirect, rather than direct object. This mirrors English in the way that I could add, for example, "a Maria" to specify who the "le" is referring to. "Maria" would follow a preposition.

Which brings me to my question. Is "El perro gusta" on its own a sentence that makes any kind of sense at all? Because I strongly believe the answer is no, but I find that confusing. I've been cautioned against translating "gustar" in my head as "is pleasing" because that isn't what it means - despite mirroring English sentence structure. I've been cautioned against translating it in my head as "is liked by" because it isn't passive. I'm willing to accept that there isn't a perfect literal translation, I'm not overly hung up on this verb in particular. It's more that the necessity of the indirect object here, and complete lack of direct object, has completely shaken my confidence in choosing the correct object pronouns for sentences I haven't already heard.

Le ayudo or lo/la ayudo?

Le pego or lo/la pego?

Le llamo or lo/la llamo?

For ayudar I seem to be able to find examples of both. For pegar the correct choice seems to be "le" but I can't work out why. For llamar I seem to be able to similarly find examples of both, and while my hunch is that it depends on whether I'm telling you how I address this other person (I call him George) or calling to them (I call him every night) I can't find enough evidence to support or dismiss this hypothesis.

Please help. How do I identify (in)direct objects when I see them in Spanish?

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    I don't know why anyone would caution you against gustar meaning to be pleasing. It works quite well to express the proper valency of the verb. The reason you can find examples of le or lo/la for all of those verbs is that Spanish speakers aren't super consistent (within a dialect, they are, but between dialects, less so). I say "la dije" for "I told her" though most would say "le dije", and many Spanish speakers will say "Le ayudo a Vd" (common in many dialects) and I'll generally also say "le ayudo a él" (less common), even though others would only use "lo ayudo a Vd" Feb 26 at 21:13
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    While it's not super common, it's perfectly valid to say something like "[subj] gusta" ([subj] is enjoyable/likable). For example, in archivo.eluniversal.com.mx/notas/905214.html you get "esa película gusta mucho". Or here google.com/books/edition/Espejo_del_verdadero_m%C3%A9dico/… "si el libro gusta, la gloria será del autor" Feb 26 at 21:17
  • Short answer: look the verbs up in the RAE and see the examples. And no re the dog, you have to say: Al perro le gusta x. Just like: A mi me gusta el helado.
    – Lambie
    Feb 28 at 18:07
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This is a long question with several sub-questions in it, but for the sake of keeping it let's say the core of it is: why do some Spanish verbs require (or seem to require) indirect objects while excluding (or having optional) direct objects?

First of all: indirect objects (IOs) are traditionally described as expressing recipients or beneficiaries of actions (“I give you something”, “She sends her mother a letter”). In many languages they are also found as experiencers of sensations and perceptions (gustar-type verbs in Spanish, along with parecer, importar, etc.). Things that look syntactically as IOs, in Spanish, can in fact be used for other purposes (see our canonical answer about datives).

The most common situation by far is that, when a verb takes only one object, it is a direct object (DO). If the verb is ditransitive (taking two objects), it is a priori impossible to guess whether both will be optional, or only one, or none, or, if optional objects are possible, which one is more likely to be required in a normal context. For example, with pegar you have all these possibilities:

  • No objects: “El niño pega” (“The child hits [other children, other people, habitually]”).
  • Only DO: “El niño pega patadas” (“The child kicks”).
  • Only IO: “El niño le pega a su maestra” (“The child hits his teacher”).
  • Both DO and IO: “El niño les pega patadas a sus compañeros de clase” (“The child kicks his classmates”).

In such a case there is no way but to learn what the structure of the phrase is; although often used with IO only, pegar is not otherwise weird. It is only when thinking about it from the point of view of the English default translation (“hit” or “beat”) that it seems to be weird. The functions of its DO and IO follow the traditional model: the DO specifies the action of the verb (what kind of blows or kicks are they?), while the IO tells you who is the recipient of the action (who receives the blow or kick?).

On top of this there is one complication: leísmo, which means the usage of the third person IO pronouns instead of the corresponding DO pronouns; it is rather common in some dialects, notably in Spain. A subset of leísmo, called leísmo de cortesía, is even more common, and the cause for vacillations like “Le ayudo” vs. “La/Lo ayudo”. Basically it is felt as more polite to refer to a person using the IO pronoun. This just has to be accepted; in any case, from the point of view of semantics, it is clear that le in “le ayudo” is not an IO but the substitution of a DO.

The gustar-type verbs are a different matter. Again you have to learn the basic structure by heart, but once you learn one verb, the others are basically done. The seemingly inverted structure of gustar is a well-known phenomenon, which has been studied in many languages under the term of “dative subject”. The dative case is the grammatical case of IOs. Normally one would expect the main argument of a verb to be its subject, but these verbs consistently do strange things like moving the subject to a different position than the default and requiring an IO (often moved to the slot before the verb) to feel “complete”. English is one of the few European languages that has done away with these verbs, mostly, but Spanish has a ton of them (so does German, for an example of a language of the same family as English).

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  • Thank you!! This was incredibly helpful, as was the answer you linked about the dative case, and actually helped me to make sense of the other verbs I'd found that confused me but that I didn't bother to list. I usually try to wait a couple of days before accepting an answer on stackexchange sites, but this answer is perfect. Thank you :)
    – Emmabee
    Feb 27 at 0:03

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