Clitic pronouns in Spanish


1. Introduction
2. Direct and indirect object
3. Placement
4. Clitic promotion/climbing
5. Clitic left dislocation (CLLD)
6. References

For the historical dimension click here.

1. Introduction

A clitic is an item that lacks prosodic independence in connected speech, requiring a phonological ‘host’ either to its left or to its right. In the first case, the item is said to be enclitic (from Greek enklitikos ‘leaning on’) and in the second proclitic. The Latin form que ‘and’, for example, was always used enclitically, as in the famous opening line of Virgil’s Aeneid Arma virumque cano ‘of arms and of a man I sing’. In contrast, the contracted form j’ (= /ʒ/) of the French first person singular subject pronoun is proclitic: j’aime ‘I like’.

In Spanish, the weak personal pronouns se, me, te, lo(s), la(s), le(s), nos and os are clitics, requiring a verbal host either to their right or to their left, depending on the nature of the verb form, infinitives and positive imperative forms calling for pronominal enclisis and tensed finite forms calling for proclisis.

The items me, te, nos and os are deictic, in that their reference depends on the context of utterance. Thus me refers to the speaker, te to the addressee, nos to a group of persons that includes the speaker and os to the addressees. When used as deferential second-person pronouns – i.e. as weak correlates of usted(es) – the items lo(s), la(s) and le(s) can also be deictic. Thus la in ¿Dónde la dejo? is deictic if the sentence means ‘Where shall I drop you off?’.

Aside from the latter type of case, lo(s), la(s) and le(s) are anaphoric pronouns, meaning that they take their reference from a previously used NP, which is known as the pronoun’s antecedent. In the literary extract below, for example, las has aquellas escapadas de Celina as its antecedent, with which it agrees in gender and number.

Nunca supe si don Baltazar sabía de aquellas escapadas de Celina. O si las sabía y no le importaba.
‘I never knew whether don Baltazar knew of Celina’s escapades. Or whether he knew of them but wasn’t bothered.’
(Los hombres de Celina, Mario Halley Mora)


2. Direct and indirect object
Each of the exclusively deictic clitics (i.e. me, te, nos, os) can function either as the direct object or the indirect object of a verb, as can se when used as a reflexive or reciprocal pronoun. On the other hand, lo(s), la(s) and le(s) are constrained in terms of the direct ~ indirect object distinction, although in different ways in different parts of the Spanish-speaking world.

Except in Castile, Ecuador and Paraguay the predominant pattern (and the one recommended by the Real Academia Española) is the one shown below, which reflects the fact that lo, los, la and las descend from Latin accusative forms while le and les descend from dative forms:

Table 1  Third-person object clitics: the standard system

Direct object
Indirect object
  Masc. Fem.  
lo la le
los las les

Table 1 requires some qualification, however, as even in regions in which the above system represents the norm, le and les are likely to be used in the direct object function in certain circumstances.

In the first place, this happens with verbs that collocate very frequently with [+ human] direct objects, i.e. those that are introduced by the accusative-marking preposistion a (known as the personal a). A case in point is the verb ayudar ‘to help’. That this verb selects a direct object is demonstrated by passive examples such as (1) below.

(1)        el anciano de pelos blancos [. . .] será ayudado en el último [escalón] por una enfermera piadosa

            ‘the old man with the white hair will be helped on the last step by a pious nurse’
            (Salvador Garmendia, Los pies de barro, 1972)

Here, the subject el anciano de pelos blancos would be the direct object in the corresponding active sentence, implying that ayudar, when used in the active voice, selects a direct object rather than an indirect one (modern Spanish disallows the passivization of indirect objects). Despite this, if the object of ayudar is a clitic, le or les is commonly preferred to lo(s) or la(s), as in (2) below:


(2)        Nunca le ayuda en casa.

            ‘He/She never helps him/her at home.’

Perhaps this leísta tendency results from partial reanalysis of the direct object of verbs like ayudar as an indirect object, given that the preposition a, in addition to marking [+ human] direct objects, generally marks the indirect object.

The second case in which le(s) is commonly used in the direct object function is when the object is the experiencer of a psychological stimulus and the subject is either clausal or inanimate. Molestar ‘bother’, for example, in principle selects a direct object, as (3) below illustrates:

(3)         No quiero molestarlo.

              ‘I don’t want to bother him.’

However, if the subject is clausal or inanimate, le(s) is preferred:

(4)         Le molesta que fumes.

             ‘He doesn’t like you smoking.’


(5)         Les molestaba el viento.
             ‘They were bothered by the wind.’


The preference for le(s) in the type of case illustrated by (4) and (5) seems likely to be due to analogy with the gustar type of construction, as in Le gustan tus nuevos zapatos ‘He/She likes your new shoes’, which requires the experiencer to be expressed as an indirect object.



3. Placement

In modern Spanish, the weak personal pronouns attach proclitically to tensed finite verb forms (except in archaic or dialectal Spanish) and enclitically to positive imperatives and nonfinite verb forms, as is shown in (6) to (8) below. This system of linearization is of relatively recent origin, however – for the pre-modern system, click here.


(6)          La veo.

              ‘I see her.’


(7)          ¡Ábrelo!

              ‘Open it.’


(8)          para decirlo

              ‘in order to say it’


The last two examples illustrate also the orthographic convention whereby enclitic pronouns are written as part of the preceding verb.


Strict ordering rules govern the possible arrangement of clitics within an array. Thus, if the clitics are grouped into the series shown below, no form can precede a form that belongs to a numerically lower series:


Table 2                Order of clitics in arrays

Series 1
Series 2
Series 3
le(s) lo(s), la(s)


Sentences (9) and (10), for example, are grammatical but (11) and (12) are not:


(9)       Pedro nos la dio

           ‘Pedro gave it to us.’


(10)      Se me perdieron los zapatos.

            ‘I lost my shoes.’


(11)      *Pedro la nos dio.


(12)      *Me se perdieron los zapatos


Once again, departure from the standard rule can be observed in practice, as the ordering shown in (12) is not infrequent in non-standard varieties.



4. Clitic promotion/climbing

A clitic that functions as the direct or indirect object of a gerund or an infinitive attaches either enclitically to the gerund/infinitive or proclitically to a governing finite verb. In the latter case, clitic promotion or clitic climbing is said to have occurred:


(13)      Quieren comprarlo or Lo quieren comprar.

            ‘They want to buy it.’


(14)      Seguí cantándolo or Lo seguí cantando.

            ‘I continued singing it.’


The enclitic option in the above ‘finite + nonfinite’ structure is of relatively recent origin, clitic climbing being almost categorical until the latter stages of the Middle Ages.

Note that the alternation illustrated in (13) and (14) only arises if the relevant clitic is the structural object of the subordinate verb. So, for example, while (15) is grammatical, a formulation such as (16) would not be, given that llegar is an intransitive verb and hence la cannot be its object.

(15)      La vi llegar.

            ‘I saw her arrive.’


(16)      *Vi llegarla.

One consequence of the foregoing principle is that clitic arrays that are possible in proclitic position (in relation to the finite verb) may be impossible in enclitic position (in relation to the nonfinite verb). Thus while (17) is possible, (18) is not:


(17)        Me la dejaron ver (= Me dejaron verla but with climbing of la)

              ‘They let me see her.’


(18)        *Dejaron vérmela.

The paradigm in (15) and (16) is useful for analysing the construction shown in (19) and (20), where the subordinate infinitive has an apparently passive meaning.

(19)         Los hizo abrir or Hizo abrirlos
‘He/She had them opened.’

(20)          La vi asfaltar or Vi asfaltarla

                ‘I saw it being paved.’

Given the earlier remarks about (15) and (16), the possibility of placing the clitic after the subordinate infinitive implies that the clitic is structurally the object of the infinitive. Therefore, rather than treating the infinitive as a subject-less passive verb form, it would seem to be appropriate to analyse it as being transitive but with a silent impersonal subject. (For discussion of this type of structure generally in Romance, see Kayne 1977, Aissen 1974, Guasti 1996 and Radford and Vincent 2007 [p. 155].)

A final point to note about clitic promotion is that a clitic cannot climb out of an adjunct clause, i.e. one that has an adverbial role in the sentence. Infinitival adjunct clauses are typically introduced by prepositions such as para ‘in order to’ or by prepositional locutions such as antes de ‘before’ or después de ‘after’:

(21)       Esperamos para hacerlo/antes de hacerlo.

             ‘We waited to do it/before doing it.’


(22)       *Lo esperamos para hacer/antes de hacer.


Gerundial adjunct clauses illustrate the same principle:


(23)         Esperamos leyéndolo.

               ‘While we waited we read it.’


(24)        *Lo esperamos leyendo. (Unless lo is construed as the direct object of esperamos.)


5. Clitic left dislocation (CLLD)

This occurs when a phrase occurs clause-initially but is resumed later in the sentence by a co-referential clitic, which has the role of syntactic place-filler. In (25) and (26) below the relevant clause-initial element is shown in bold and the resumptive clitic is shown in italic font.


(25)         Esta habitación la vamos a pintar.

               ‘This room we are going to paint.’


(26)          A mí no me cuentes historias.

                ‘Don’t give me any stories.’


From a discourse perspective, a CLLD’d phrase (e.g. esta habitación or a mí in the examples above) expresses discourse-given material rather than new or focal material. This is reflected in the fact that sentences like (25) and (26) can, but need not, be uttered with a ‘comma’ intonation immediately after the CLLD’d phrase, implying that the latter is introduced as a topic about which the remainder of the sentence makes a comment. On the other hand, like constructions involving wh-movement, CLLD is sensitive to so-called island constraints. For example, just as wh-extraction from a relative clause, as in (27), is ungrammatical, so a CLLD’d phrase cannot be resumed by a clitic inside a relative clause, as in (28):


(27)        *¿Qué artículo conoces al periodista que escribió qué artículo?

              *‘Which article do you know the journalist that wrote?’


(28)         *A esta chica no conozco a nadie que le tenga cariño.

                ‘This girl, I don't know anybody who is fond of her.’


Note that the minimally different sentence to (28), viz. (29) below, is actually grammatical:


(29)          Esta chica no conozco a nadie que le tenga cariño.

                ‘This girl, I don't know anybody who is fond of her.’


Here, however, the construction is not CLLD, but rather left dislocation, involving a weaker dependency between the clause-initial phrase and the resumptive clitic. This weaker dependency in comparison with CLLD is reflected in the fact that the clause-initial phrase in (29) lacks the personal a, which is used in Spanish to indicate that a [+ human] phrase has accusative Case. In other words, CLLD involves a higher degree of grammatical connectivity than left dislocation does between the clause-initial phrase and the rest of the clause.

Notice that the earlier sentence (25) is in fact structurally ambiguous, as between CLLD and left dislocation, given that the clause-initial phrase cannot be overtly Case-marked. Indeed the dependency esta habitación . . . la can extend into a relative clause, as is shown in (30) below; this possibility arises because the dependency need not be analysed as involving CLLD.

(30)         Esta habitación no conozco a nadie que la pudiera pintar.

               ‘This room, I don't know anybody who could paint it.’


For an excellent discussion of CLLD versus left dislocation in Spanish, see Zagona 2002 (pp. 220–7).


6. Clitic doubling
This arises when a clitic is used redundantly, i.e. it resumes another phrase such as an object but has no place-filling function. In the standard language, doubling is commonest with indirect objects, as in (31), but it is also possible (in informal speech) with definite direct objects, as in (32):


(31)          No le importa a la chica.

                ‘The girl doesn’t mind.’


(32)          ¿Lo has visto a Miguel?

                 ‘Have you seen Miguel.’




Aissen, J. 1974. The Syntax of Causative Constructions, PhD diss., Harvard.

Guasti, M.-T. 1996. ‘A cross-linguistic study of Romance and arbëresch causatives.’ In Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi (eds), Parameters and Functional Heads: Essays in Comparative Syntax (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 209–238.

Kayne, Richard S. 1977. Syntaxe du français: Le cycle transformationnel. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Radford, Andrew and Michele Vincent. 2007. ‘On past participle agreement in transitive clauses in French.’ In Antonietta Bisetto and Francesco E. Barbieri (eds), Proceedings of the 33rd Incontro di Grammática Generativa, Bologna, March 1st to 3rd (Bologna: Universtità di Bologna), pp. 146–161.

Zagona, Karen. 2002. The syntax of Spanish (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).