Spanish Grammar Guide | Subject Pronouns

Not sure what a subject pronoun is and how to use them? Become super clear on what the pronouns replace, even when they are not there. This is hugely important to conjugate verbs and match for number, person and gender. Plus, I answer the most common and tricky pronoun questions. 

 

I’ve been learning Spanish for about twenty years now and sad to say – some uses of pronouns are still confusing to me when I am talking. And I’ve had plenty of classroom and textbook grammar experience. Knowing these important concepts has given me greater confidence.

I know the common questions and areas of confusion. I’ve been there.

Should I use tú or usted?
What the heck is vosotros?
Wait, I already learned three singular verb conjugations, there are more?
There’s no it!!! Then how can I say…?
Is usted second or third person for verb conjugation?

None of these concepts exist the same way in English. That’s why we constantly get stuck on the same things, get distracted and loose confidence. So let’s get clear on these uncertainties.

And it’s time for a refresher for me. Since your my friend, I will take you along and show you what you need to know. 

Real Life Subject Pronoun Confusion

The two you’s, which one tù or usted?

Everyone has got a reason for learning Spanish. Mine – I wanted to learn the language of my man, and Spanish was his first language. Spanish 101 here I come.

One day after class, I went to la casa de su mama (his mom’s house). Her house was a piece of Mexico in the United States. There was café con pan dulce, chilaquiles, salsa verde and always Spanish conversation.

Professor textbook told me to use usted to show respect.

I respected my future mother in law. I probably said something stupid like “usted tiene comida rica” or “usted me enseña cocinar?”

She was really nice and told me I should not use usted with her – it was for people you don’t know.

Then I ran into a stranger at la bodega (the store). “Usted…” Wrong again!

It was way too complicated for me, back then. No one had the answer. Only they knew and they couldn’t explain it. Now I know the code and it’s much simpler than you think. All it took was a little fight, then it became crystal clear. More on that later.

For now, let’s dig into the basics, then I will clear up the confusion. This post will cover:

Parts of Speech Overview

Pronoun Definition

Subject Pronoun List

Subject Pronoun Visual Concept

Tips to Avoid Pronoun Confusion

Parts of Speech Overview

Pronouns are one of the eight parts of speech. Every word falls into one of these categories. We will cover this special group of words in pink. Links to other parts of speech are in blue.

Noun – Sustantivo

Pronoun – Pronombre

Adjective – Adjectivo

Verb – Verbo

Adverb – Adverbio

Preposition – Preposición

Conjunction – Conjunción

Interjection – Interjección

Today, we will see exactly what a pronoun is and how they are used in Spanish. They are important for understanding who and what is being talked about. Telling stories, sharing information, connecting with others and following instructions is so much easier with a clear understanding of pronouns.

This ghost activity is a way to learn hands-on the subject pronouns and how to use them correctly.

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Pronoun Definition

Being able to identify a pronoun goes a long ways. And I love definitions. They are so clear and concise, instant solution for any confusion.

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a substitute for a noun or noun phrase.

Anywhere a noun is used a pronoun can go in it’s place. They share the same connections and uses.

Nouns and pronouns are tightly related and very similar in their uses. That’s because pronouns are a substitute for a noun (or noun phrase). These pronouns tend to be smaller and more succinct. Nobody wants to keep repeating the same name or word. It’s boring.

Pronoun

A word that replaces a noun to avoid repetition.

Pronombre

Una palabra que sustituye un sustantivo para evitar repetición.

Subject Pronoun List

For list lovers and note takers, all the possibilities are noted in both the singular (one) and plural (more than one). Here is the entire list of subject pronouns for your enjoyment:

FIRST PERSON

  • YO
  • NOSOTROS & NOSOTRAS

SECOND PERSON

  • VOSOTROS & VOSOTRAS

Use these with anybody, friends, strangers and influential – want to create distance? mad at a friend or family member? need to put your tail between your legs (be really humble)? hand over all your relational power? submit to a bully? show honor to authority? Use these ones:

  • USTED
  • USTEDES

THIRD PERSON

  • ÉL & ELLA
  • ELLOS & ELLAS

So, in the next section, the visual can help you to connect the pronoun and idea.

Visual Tour of the Subject Pronouns

To learn these subject pronouns, it is best to connect the word to the word meaning (not the English word). This graphic steps through the concept, the word and the concrete meaning.

 

For all the visual learners out there, connect the pronoun to the graphic and a mental picture together. The small target is a single. The large target is groups. The starting point is in the center.

Remember, these subject pronouns are replacing the specific subject of the sentence – noun or noun phrase.

FIRST PERSON

talking about yourself

Your name is replaced with YO in the center of the small circle.

First, you are standing in the center of the small target. Call yourself YO. 

Want to join a group? Poof, now you are standing in the center of the large target. Now, call replace your group’s name with NOSOTROS (group of ladies and gents) or NOSOTRAS (group of ladies).

Instead of using a noun, a subject prounoun takes it’s place. The same thing happens when you talk to or about someone else. 

SECOND PERSON

talking to (tú) someone

Back to the small target, from your spot in the center, YO is looking at TÚ. This is the person you are talking to. Is YO talking to a group? To talk directly to a group, YO replaces the group name with VOSOTROS or VOSOTRAS (all females).

talking to someone indirectly

Hold on, there’s another replacement. USTED can be used with anyone. But you don’t want to. This is a pronoun says a lot about status and relationships. And if it’s a group, USTEDES. More on the meaning of using the second person pronouns is below.

THIRD PERSON

talking to someone about other people

Still in the center by yourself, YO, or in a group, NOSOTROS or NOSOTRAS (all females), talk about the guy in the next circle ÉL. Or for a female, ELLA. The same happens when ÉL is in a group called ELLOS, or if they are all female, ELLAS.

How do pronouns fit into a sentence?

They are everywhere and anywhere in a statement, command or question. Since they replace nouns, you will find them wherever nouns can be. And guaranteed, every sentence has a subject. Chances are high that that subject will be a pronoun, if the subject is already understood.

Noun Pronoun Parallels

But have you ever run into a sentence without a subject (noun or pronoun)? That’s because there are three possibilities for sentence subjects:

  1. noun
  2. pronoun
  3. implied subject

Funny how that works in Spanish. Just like nouns, pronouns can be unstated. You don’t have to guess or make things up. The subject is implied which means you can figure it out from the verb. Because pronouns are directly connected to the verb – the action or state of being in the sentence.

Pronoun and Verb Agreement

The subject of every sentence agrees with the verb in three different ways. The concepts of person, number and gender are carried in the verb ending. Nouns and pronouns carry these meanings.

In fact, you will first run into your first set of pronouns when you start conjugating verbs. The conjugation patterns are connected to the list of subject pronouns. For each subject pronoun there is a unique verb ending.

With implied subjects, the verb ending reveals the subject. Each subject pronoun agrees with the verb ending for person, number (how many) and gender.

Person Perspective

who is doing or being

Think of person this way… distance. I and we {yo, nosotros, nosotras} are the FIRST PERSON. I am in my skin. Sorry, but you {tú, vosotros, usted, ustedes} all come SECOND. We are close but not as much as I am with me. Even more regrettably, he/she/them {él, ella, ellos, ellas} finish THIRD. They are out there.

The second person has two perspectives. Depending on the attitude of the speaker, you can be either close or distant. Usted follows the third person verb conjugation patterns, even though it is definitely you. This create distance in the relationship between two people.  

As you can see, there are three persons and each of these have number and gender variations.

Number Counts

individual or groups

Each person perspective has a set of singular and plural subject pronouns. It is good to give attention to the singular verb conjugations (yo, tú, usted, él and ella). The trouble is when you neglect the plural verb conjugations (nosotros, vosotros, ustedes, ellos, ellas). I know there are a lot of them, but it is worthwhile to learn all six conjugations equally from the start.

Gender Differences

masculine and feminine

Not all persons have gender. Among the combinations only three have masculine and feminine pairs.

  • First person plural {nosotros, nosotras}
  • Third person singular {él, ella}
  • Third person plural {ellos, ellas}

The rest are gender neutral – yo, tú, usted and ustedes.

Not Only Subjects- Other Kinds of Pronouns

Pronouns are spread around all over, before the verb, with the verb and even after the verb. This is how you can tell what kind it is. Like nouns, they have several uses. I want you to know there are more sets of pronouns out there. Here they are:

Subject – every sentence has at least one
Direct Object – second entity
Indirect Object – third entity
Object of Preposition – used after a preposition

I’ll save more about all these for another day. Let’s focus on the areas of confusion where pronouns are the sentence subject.

Tips to Avoid Pronoun Confusion

These are the most confusing parts about pronouns. I’ve had to deal with them all. And the good news is they are not as bad as they seem.

How do I say it in Spanish?

There is no it in Spanish. The subject it is so convenient in English, but there is no equivalent in Spanish. This is one more reason why a direct translation does not work.

Either there is a different way to say it.

Hace sol. It’s sunny.

Or, the subject it is implied. 

Está perdido. It’s lost.

The direct objects lo and la, are not used as subjects, only as objects. They can never take the place of the subject in a sentence.

Use demonstratives pronouns {este, estos, esta, ese, esos, esa, aquel, aquellos} where it would be. Like subject pronouns, these replace a subject noun.

Aquel es mío.

That’s the beauty of Spanish, it’s different.

Should I use tú or usted?

The short answer

It’s as simple as this – if you call the person by their first name, use tú. On the other hand, if you call them by their title, then use usted. In English we say Mr. or Mrs. The equivalent in Spanish is Señor and Señora. For example:

Your bestie, Julia – tú

The person who works at the coffee shop – tú

The rich and powerful businessman, Mr. Colonna – usted

Your professor, Mr. Textbook – usted

That’s pretty straight-forward.

The reversal

Now, let’s take it one more level deeper where relationships change things. Tú is for anyone you want to bring closer. Usted is for the people you need to keep distance from. Let’s take another look at the first examples:

Your bestie who just stole your favorite lipstick – usted

The rich and powerful businessman you want to do business with  – tú

You are married to a professor, Mr. Textbook – tú

That’s what I call the reversal. Life is complicated by attitudes and motives. As you can see, usted can be a weapon against someone close who offended you. And likewise, tú is used to build a relationship, whether professional or personal.

The real question to ask is —

Will using tú or usted send the right message to the person I am talking to? Do they want to be close or of equal status?

If you’re like most people, you spend most of the time your around the people you share closeness to, so the default use is tú.

Hey, Ya’ll

What the heck is vosotros?

When you speak to a group of people directly, you call them vosotros. We say you, or some say you all. Most people don’t use this plural form too often, but it is important to understand.

Six-Packs are Better

Wait, I already learned three singular verb conjugations, there are more?

Yes, there are six verb conjugations – three singular and three plural. Most often, we use the singular – yo, tú, el and ella. Don’t be lazy and skip the plural forms or you’ll regret it later. You will need them from the start. 

Second is Third Craziness

Is usted second or third person for verb conjugation?

This is so important to understand for conjugating verbs. Remember, person changes the verb ending. Usted is deceptive.

Although the subject pronoun, usted is second person, it follows the third person conjugation patterns. Why?

Usted creates a distance between the speaker and the person being spoken to. By speaking in third person, it adds more distance. It’s a way of speaking indirectly to someone. I am not talking to you; I am talking to myself about you.

Yeah, that’s why I jammed usted into third person section on the verb conjugation practice sheets.

Practice daily with this set of conjugation sheets

Click here to download

 


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