‘Lo’ vs ‘le’ vs ‘la’

Quick answer – ‘le’ is an indirect object pronoun, we use it to show who benefits from an action or to whom it is directed. ‘Lo’ and ‘la’ are direct object pronouns. Direct object pronouns are used to replace nouns in sentences and thus avoid repetition. ‘Lo’ can also be a neuter article (I’ll explain exactly what this is later in the article).

Pronouns are a complex issue.

These tiny words have many different functions, and to make matters worse, they all look so similar!

Today we’re going to look at three commonly mistaken words (‘le’, ‘lo’, and ‘la’) and some of their different uses.

Here’s a brief overview for those more visual readers –

Infographic showing the differences between "lo", "la", and "le"

Le’ vs ‘lo’ vs ‘la


Lo’ and ‘la’ as direct object pronouns

Both ‘lo’ and ‘la’ can be used as direct object pronouns.

And what’s a direct object pronoun?

Well, it’s a word used to stand in for another word that’s already been mentioned in either the same sentence or in a previous sentence.

They’re basically used to avoid repetition.

For example, which one sounds better?

“Do you know Carlos?” – “Yes, I played tennis with Carlos just yesterday! He’s really good, I couldn’t beat Carlos!”

OR

“Do you know Carlos?” – “Yes, I played tennis with him just yesterday! He’s really good, I couldn’t beat him!”


If you opted for the second, you can probably now appreciate quite how useful direct object pronouns can be!

Let’s look at some more examples –

¿Conoces a Laura? – No, no la conozco.

Do you know Laura? – No, I don’t know her.



¿Viste a Juan ayer? – Sí, lo vi en la escuela.

Did you see Juan yesterday? – Yeah, I saw him at school.

Hopefully, you can see how we use pronouns to avoid repetition; we say ‘lo’ and ‘la’ instead of repeating ‘Laura’ and ‘Juan’.

So, ‘lo’ and ‘la’ correspond to the English ‘him’ and ‘her’ and basically stand in for a male person and a female person, respectively.

"Lo" next to a male symbol
"La" next to a female symbol



They can also both be used with “usted“, animals and things –

“usted” form

Yo creo que lo conozco de algún lado.

I think I’ve met you somewhere before.

Boy saying, "Creo que lo conozco."


la‘ refers to la obra’

La he leído desde que empezó a escribir.

I’ve read your work since you started writing.



lorefers toel libro

¿Dónde está el libro? – Lo perdí.

Where’s the book? – I lost it.



la‘ refers to la ardilla’

¿Dónde está la ardilla? – La vi por allá.

Where’s the squirrel? – I saw it over there.



Abstract concepts and ideas

Lo’ can also represent more abstract concepts and ideas.

¡Ojo! (Watch out!): this use is way less common in English!

Rhino on scales!


¿Cuánto pesa un rinoceronte? – No lo sé.

How heavy is a rhino? – I don’t know. // I don’t know how heavy a rhino is.

‘lo’ stands for ‘how heavy a rhino is’



¿Compraste el pan? – Lo olvidé.

Did you buy some bread? – I forgot (about it).

‘lo’ (or ‘about it’) stands for ‘to buy the bread’



¿Cuánto te costó esa chamarra? – No lo recuerdo.

How much was that jacket? – I can´t remember. // I can’t remember how much it costs.

lo’ stands for ‘how much it costs

Rupert’s pro tip – in all of the above examples, ‘lo‘ is used to provide extra clarity, BUT when responding to questions in everyday conversation, it CAN normally be omitted. It really just adds a touch of “completeness” to the sentence!


Le’ as an indirect object pronoun

We can often find ‘le’ working as an indirect object pronoun corresponding to ‘him’, ‘her’, or ‘you (formal)’.

And what’s the deal with these indirect object pronouns?

Well, if I buy a car, the car is the direct object of the sentence, it’s the word on which the verb is acting.

If, however, I buy a car for Luis (lucky guy!), the car is the direct object of the sentence and Luis is the indirect object (the recipient of the direct object, which in this case is the car).

So, the person, animal, or object that benefits from the action or towards whom the action is directed is the indirect object.

A man (Luis) receiving a car as a gift


An indirect object pronoun stands in for an indirect object.

Phew! I think that’s enough grammar for now!

Let’s have a look at some examples –

le’ refers to ‘Silvia

Laura le compró un pan (a Silvia).

Laura bought her (Silvia) a cake.



le’ refers to ‘the cat

Le voy a dar comida (al gato).

I’ll give her (the cat) some food.



le’ refers to ‘Juan’

¿Le escribiste (a Juan) anoche?

Did you write to him (Juan) last night?


If you’re more visually inclined, this fun camel mnemonic might help you better remember the difference between ‘le‘, ‘lo‘, and ‘la‘!

Just think of ‘lo‘ (i.e., ‘him‘) as a super masculine male camel with loads of treasure on its back, ‘la‘ (i.e., ‘her‘) as a REALLY feminine female camel, and ‘le‘ (i.e., ‘to him‘ / ‘to her‘) as the male camel giving a bouquet of flowers to the female camel …

… it might sound weird, but I bet you never forget the difference between the three ever again 😉

Fun camel mnemonic to help learn the difference between "le", "lo", and "la"


It’s also worth mentioning that indirect pronouns in Spanish are peculiar because they NEED to be used whether the word they refer to is mentioned in the same sentence or not!

For example, you can say –

Laura le compró un pan. // Laura le compró un pan a Silvia.

You can’t say: Laura compró un pan a Silvia.



Le voy a dar comida. // Le voy a dar comida al gato.

You can’t say: Voy a dar comida al gato.



¿Le escribiste anoche?  // ¿Le escribiste a Juan anoche?

You can’t say: ¿Escribiste a Juan anoche?


Rupert’s pro tip – the “redundant le” was something that tripped me up A LOT when I first got to Mexico, but I found a good way of drilling it in was by using flashcards.

I’d normally write down the sentence that I’d got wrong and leave a gap where the ‘le‘ should be –

Gap-fill flashcard for remembering "le"
Gap-fill flashcard for remembering "le" (reverse)



And then you can make a translation flashcard to really fire those neural pathways up –

Translation flashcard for remembering "le"
Translation flashcard for remembering "le" (reverse)


The verb ‘gustar

We also use indirect object pronouns (and therefore our friend ‘le’) when conjugating verbs related to likes and dislikes.

Remember that “Le gusta la pizza” literally translates to “The pizza is pleasing to him“.

Here are some more examples –

Cartoon of a thumbs up


A Nadia le gusta correr en la playa.

Nadia likes running on the beach. (literally: ‘Running on the beach is pleasing to Nadia’)



A Bruno le chocan los mariscos.

Bruno hates seafood. (literally: ‘Seafood is not pleasing to Bruno’)



¿A usted le interesa el jazz?

Are you interested in jazz? (literally: ‘Is jazz interesting to you?’)

Erika’s note – if you’re still a bit confused by THE VERB ‘GUSTAR’, our article on the subject is sure to help dispel any lingering doubts 😉


Indirect object pronouns vs. direct object pronouns

 Pronombre de objeto directoPronombres de objecto indirecto
yomeme
tete
él / ella / ustedlo, lale
nosotros / nosotrasnosnos
ellos / ellas / ustedeslos, lasles


Lo’ as a neuter article

We’ve still to explore ‘lo’s’ most interesting facet, the fact that it’s also a neuter article.

Let’s look at the masculine and feminine articles (‘el’ and ‘la’) in action first so that we can better understand how they work.

"Lo" next to a neuter symbol


Juan – ¿Viste mi suéter azul?

Bruno – ¿Cuál?

Juan – El que llevaba ayer.



John – Have you seen my blue sweater?

Brono – Which one?

John – The one I was wearing yesterday.


La pluma está en la mesa.

The pen is on the table.


As you can see, the masculine (‘el’) and feminine (‘la’) articles are used with masculine nouns and feminine nouns, respectively.

And this weird-sounding neuter article?

Well, we use the neuter ‘lo’ to form noun phrases (‘lo raro’, ‘LO QUE te conté’, ‘lo de Juan’) which can work as either subjects or objects.

Lo’ can be placed before the following to create a noun phrase –

  • adjectives (‘raro’, ‘bueno’, más difícil’)

  • subordinate sentences (‘que no entiendo’, ‘que te conté’, ‘que más me gustó’)

  • prepositional phrases (de Bianca, de Juan)


Got it? Let’s look at some examples to further elucidate this use of ‘lo’ –

Camila – ¿Te acuerdas de nuestra conversación?

Ramon – ¿Qué?

Camila – Lo que te dije antes de entrar.



Camilla – Do you remember our conversation?

Ramon – What?

Camilla – The thing that I told you before we came in.


Gus – LO QUE no entiendo es por qué se mudaron al norte.

María – What I don´t get is why they moved north.



Gus – LO QUE te conté es secreto, ¿eh?

Maria – The thing that I told you is a secret, ok?



Lo más difícil es acostumbrarte a correr todos los días.

The hardest part is getting used to running every day.



Lo bueno es que ya pagaste tus deudas.

The good thing is you’ve paid your debts.



LO QUE más me gusto de mi viaje fue la comida.

What I liked most about my trip was the food.



Lo de Juan me sorprendió mucho.

What happened to Juan surprised me.



Lo de Bianca me hizo sonreír.

What happened to Bianca made me smile.



Lo raro es que no había nadie en la casa.

The weird part is there was no one at home.


Before you go …

You’re gonna come across ‘lo‘ in the phrase ‘lo queA LOT on your Spanish journey, but luckily for you, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide on exactly HOW TO USE ‘LO QUE’ (and how it’s different from a simple ‘que‘!)

See you on the flip side 😉

Carlos is a Spanish and English teacher. He studied Language and Literature and has a diploma in teaching Spanish as a foreign language from the prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico.

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