Let's Get to Know Spanish Subject Pronouns | My Daily Spanish
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Let’s Get to Know Spanish Subject Pronouns

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Here is an article about Spanish subject pronouns. We’ll start by looking at what they are, and then go through each (don’t worry, there aren’t too many), and look at how to use them!

What are pronouns? Let's review

We know that nouns are words that name things. Pronouns are words that can be used to replace them. For example, the bold words in this account are pronouns:

Jim went to his wardrobe and pulled out his best suit jacket, which his mother had given to him. He had to get it dry-cleaned before he could wear it to visit her.

Are pronouns that important? Well, let’s look at Jim’s story again, but this time without pronouns:

Jim went to Jim’s wardrobe and pulled out Jim’s best suit jacket. Jim’s mother had given the suit jacket to Jim. Jim had to get the suit jacket dry-cleaned before Jim could wear the suit jacket to visit Jim’s mother.

So, you tell me. Are pronouns important?

(Yes. Yes, they are.)

So, what are Spanish subject pronouns?

There are different types of pronouns. One group is personal pronouns, and within this group, we find our topic for today: subject pronouns.

The subject of a phrase is the person or thing that’s “doing” the action. For example, the subject in ‘John loves Mary’ is John. He’s doing the lovin’.

So, a personal subject pronoun is a pronoun that refers to the (usually human) subject of the sentence! In English, they are ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ (‘it’), ‘we,’ and ‘they.’

And here they are in Spanish:

yo (‘I’)nosotros (‘we’)
(‘you’)vosotros (‘you’)
él/ella/usted (‘he’/‘she’/ [‘it’] /’you’) ustedes (‘they’/’you’)

It’s not me, it’s you ...

Before we start looking at the Spanish subject pronouns one by one, we need to talk about the subject pronoun ‘you.’

In English, we use the word ‘you’ in a lot of different ways without even thinking about it! We use it for the:

  • second person singular—informal, e.g. a best friend. (‘You are getting on my nerves today.’)
  • second person singular—formal, e.g. a new business colleague (‘Do you have a copy of my resume/CV, Señor Bellick?’)
  • second person plural—informal, e.g. members of a group of friends (‘You guys are the best.’)
  • second person plural—formal, e.g. some old ladies you meet on the bus. (‘You are all very friendly.’)

In Spanish, on the other hand, each of these situations has a different word for ‘you.’

They are:

  • Second person singular—informal = tú (Tú me estás molestando hoy.)
  • second person singular—formal = usted (¿Tiene usted una copia de mi currículum, señor Bellick?)
  • second person plural—informal = vosotros (masculine) or vosotras (feminine) (Vosotros sois los mejores.)
  • second person plural—formal = ustedes (Ustedes son todas muy amables.)

Knowing which one to use is not an exact science. It will depend on where you are, who you’re talking to, how old they are, what your perceived relationship is, and whether one of you has invited the other to tutear them (yes, Spanish has a verb specifically meaning to invite someone to address you with tú!).

Yo


Yo means ‘I.’ We all know how to use ‘I’ in a sentence, so let’s make sure it makes sense in Spanish, too!

Yo he comprado dos helados.I have bought two ice creams.
Mi amigo y yo fuimos al parque.My friend and I went to the park.

Pretty simple? Let’s look at the next one.

(don’t forget the accent!)


Tú means ‘you.’ Now, this is where things get interesting. In most parts of Latin America, they use tú a lot less than in Spain. Latin American Spanish favors the politer usted.

In Spain, you could use with:
  • Children
  • Animals
  • Friends
  • Co-workers (if you work in a close-knit, chilled environment)
  • Family
  • Strangers your age if you’re both teens or in your twenties
  • Strangers who are older than you(!) up to the age of around 40
  • Talking to anyone in Catalonia except really old people

In Latin America, you should be more economical with it, and use it for:

  • Children
  • Animals
  • Friends
  • Family

tienes que comportarte.You have to behave yourself.
Cariño, ¿tienes un boli?Darling, do you have a pen?

In some parts of the world, such as Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, tú is hardly used. They use the word vos instead. Same meaning, just a different word!

Él/ella (don’t forget the accent!)

Él means ‘he’ (or ‘it’). Ella means ‘she’ (or ‘it’). These pronouns are an ideal way to avoid repeating someone’s name over and over.

No me gusta Juanca. Prefiero Juanmi. Él sí que me atrae.I don’t like Juanca. I prefer Juanmi. Now he attracts me.
¿Ves a esa chica? Ella es la prima de Fernando.You see that girl? She’s Fernando’s cousin.

Usted

This is the more formal version of the second person singular. It’s conjugated exactly the same as él and ella (due to how it developed historically*).

Usted is used a lot more in Latin America than it is in Spain. It’s used all over the Spanish-speaking world to show respect to:
  • An elderly person
  • A person in a position of authority
  • Someone helping you in an administrative or bureaucratic setting
  • A work associate (e.g. if you’re in a very corporate job, meeting a potential client for the first time)
  • Someone you want to keep at arm’s length

Sometimes in Spain, you can gamble with tú, but in Latin America (and even if you’re in Spain and in doubt), stick with usted for:

  • Any strangers!
question

Historical Fact

The word usted comes from the shortening of an archaic phrase, vuestra merced, a way of addressing your superiors with respect and courtesy. This is why you see usted sometimes abbreviated to Ud. and sometimes to Vd.!

Perdone, ¿trabaja aquí usted?Excuse me, do you work here?

Nosotros/as

Nosotros means ‘we’ in the masculine form (if it’s a group of people from more than one gender, you have to use the masculine form by default). Nosotras means ‘we’ in the feminine form.

Nosotros podríamos viajar por todo el mundo juntos.We could travel all around the world together.
Nosotras somos unas mujeres fuertes e independientes.We are strong, independent women.

Vosotros/as

Vosotros/vosotras is the plural version of informal ‘you.’

Vosotros dos tenéis mucho en común.You two have a lot in common.
Vosotras sois mis hermanas, y os quiero mucho.You are my sisters, and I love you lots.

In Spain, the use of vosotros corresponds to the use of tú. For example, if you were talking to one friend your age, you’d use tú, so when you talk to a whole group of them, opt for vosotros.

In the vast majority of Latin America, vosotros basically doesn’t exist. There’s no point even considering using it—they always use ustedes for plural ‘you.’

Ellos/ellas

Ellos means ‘they’ (masculine), and ellas means ‘they’ (feminine).

Ellos van a ganar.They are going to win.
Ellas son más listas que nosotros.They (feminine) are smarter than us.

Ustedes

Ustedes, sometimes shortened to Uds. or Vds., is the plural form of usted. It refers to the second person plural—formal version!

Disculpen, señoras. ¿Ustedes son de aquí?Excuse me, ma’ams. Are you from around here?

So, it’s used in Spain as the plural form of usted (as discussed above).

However, in Latin America, ustedes is used in all second person plural situations, no matter what level of formality or respect! They literally only use ustedes, never vosotros, when talking about ‘you’ (plural). You could be talking to a group of kids and still would use ustedes.

¿De dónde son ustedes? ¿Dónde están sus padres?Where are you from? Where are your parents? (Talking to a group of lost children in Latin America)

When do we use Spanish subject pronouns?

An important thing to know about Spanish is that it’s what we call a ‘null-subject language,’ which means that we don’t always need pronouns to understand what’s being said. 

When we conjugate verbs, the endings tell us everything we need to know about the person and number of the subject. For example, ‘bailas’ means ‘you dance.’ We know that from the -as ending of the verb, which is why we didn’t have to include the subject pronoun ‘tú.’

In fact, most of the time, you don’t need to use the subject pronoun, but there are times when they’re helpful and necessary ...

  • Emphasis

We can add a subject pronoun to put emphasis on the subject rather than the action.

Hazlo.Do it.
¡Hazlo !You do it!
¿Vas a una discoteca?Are you going to a club?
¿Vas a una discoteca tú?Are you (of all people) going to a club?!

  • Contrast

Sometimes we want to clarify that we’re talking about one person as opposed to someone else. Including these pronouns is the Spanish equivalent of English-speakers putting emphasis in our voices.

Él es buena persona, pero tú, tú eres mejor.He’s a good person but you, you’re better.
Pues yo no voy a beber.Well, I’m not going to drink (even if you are).

  • Clarifying ambiguity

As you know, usted is conjugated the same as él/ella, and ustedes is conjugated the same as ellos/ellas. Similarly, in the imperfect tense, yo has the same verb endings as él/ella/usted. 

Including the subject pronoun clears up any ambiguity caused by these similarities.

¿Va a cantar ella?Is she going to sing?
¿Va a cantar usted?Are you (formal) going to sing?
Fui al mercado con mi hermano. Él tenía una lista de la compra.I went to the market with my brother. He had a shopping list.
Fui al mercado con mi hermano. Yo tenía una lista de la compra.I went to the market with my brother. I had a shopping list.

  • To emphasize respect

When it’s clear from context that we’re using the polite forms usted and ustedes, we might repeat the pronoun anyway just to reinforce that formality!

¿Trabaja aquí?Do you work here?
¿Trabaja aquí usted?Do you work here, sir?

  • Making yourself known!

Subject pronouns can identify someone. For example, when you announce yourself at someone’s front door or on the phone, you can use a subject pronoun rather than your name. Use the verb ser.

Abre. ¡Soy yo!Open up. It’s me!
Mamá, ¿eres tú?Mom, is that you?
—¿Quién rompió el vaso?
—¡Ha sido él!
Who broke the glass?
It was him!

  • One-word answers

Sometimes in Spanish we use the subject pronoun where in English we’d use an object pronoun or prepositional pronoun. All this means is that we use the Spanish for ‘I’ instead of ‘me.’

Todo está resuelto, según ella.Everything is resolved, according to her (directly translates as ‘according to she’).
—¿Quién quiere ir a la playa?
—¡Yo!
Who wants to go to the beach?
Me (directly translates as ‘I’)!

  • With mismo/a/os/as

A Spanish subject pronoun combined with the correct form of mismo means ‘oneself.’

¡Lo hice yo mismo!I did/made it myself!

Quiz

 1. Tengo un hermano y una hermana. _ es dentista, y _ es pianista. (I have a brother and a sister. She’s a dentist, and he’s a pianist.)

      a.  Not needed

      b.  Ellos, ellas

      c.  Ella, él

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 2. Según _, es mala idea. (If you ask me, it’s a bad idea.)

      a.  yo

      b. mi

      c.  

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 3. _ voy a Madrid. (I’m going to Madrid.)

      a.  

      b.  Not needed

      c.  Yo

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 4. ¿Cuándo salen _? (When are you leaving?)

      a.  vosotros

      b.  ustedes

      c.  nosotros

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 5. Tengo dos hermanos. _ viven en Australia. (I have two brothers. They live in Australia.)

      a.  Not needed

      b.  Ellos

      c.  Ellas

Click to reveal the correct answer:

Great job—now you know how to use Spanish subject pronouns! The trick is to only use them where necessary. Have fun practicing!

About the Author Annabel Beilby

Annabel is a language-enthusiast from the UK. She studied Spanish and French at the University of Southampton (with an Erasmus study year in Madrid!) and recently graduated. She has interests across the Spanish-speaking world, and is a fan of language in general.

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