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The Personal a in Spanish

Whenever a person is the object of a sentence in Spanish, the word a (which can literally mean "to," "at," etc., depending upon the context) must be included prior to the person. This is called the "personal a" in English and the "a personal" in Spanish.

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What is an Object?

In both English and Spanish, the subject of a sentence is the person or thing that performs an action and the object is the person or thing that receives it. For example, in the English sentence "Edison ate cake," "Edison" is the subject and "cake" is the object. And in the sentence "Gonzalo hugged Eva," "Gonzalo" is the subject while "Eva" is the object. So, while the translation for the first example, Edison comió torta, would not require the personal a, the second one would since Eva is a person: Gonzalo abrazó a Eva​.

 

Examples of the Personal a

Now that we understand a bit how the personal works, let's see a few examples where the same verb in the same tense either has a personal or doesn't, depending upon whether the object of the sentence is a person. You will note that there is no direct translation for the personal a in the English sentences. 

 

Ver:

 

Pero yo vi sombras.

But I saw shadows.

Caption 26, Tu Voz Estéreo Feliz Navidad - Part 4

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Yo vi a Pablo Escobar,

I saw Pablo Escobar

Caption 28, Los Tiempos de Pablo Escobar Capítulo 2 - Part 8

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Entender:

 

me di cuenta que no entendía todos los conceptos

I realized that I didn't understand all the concepts

Caption 73, Guillermo el chamán La tecnología maya

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De verdad, en ese momento no entendía a las niñas.

Really, at that moment, I didn't understand girls.

Caption 53, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 11 - Part 6

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Conocer:

 

Conocí las islas Barú de... de Colombia

I visited the Barú Islands in... in Colombia

Caption 89, Cleer y Lida Juego de preguntas y respuestas - Part 2

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Conocí a María ayer.

I met María yesterday.

Caption 22, Lecciones con Carolina Saber y conocer

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Using the Personal a with Pronouns

When a pronoun like alguien (someone), nadie (no one/anyone), quien, alguno/a(s) (some/someobody/one),  or ninguno/a(s) (none/no one/any) replace a person or people as the direct object in a sentence, the personal is used as well:

 

No queremos alarmar a nadie.

We don't want to alarm anyone.

Caption 52, Confidencial: El rey de la estafa Capítulo 5 - Part 8

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Perdón, eh, ¿busca a alguien?

Excuse me, um, are you looking for someone?

Caption 1, Muñeca Brava 8 Trampas - Part 10

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Todos los años, tengo que reñir a alguno.

Every year, I have to tell someone off.

Caption 46, 75 minutos Del campo a la mesa - Part 10

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Additional Uses of the Personal a

The personal a is also used with animals or inanimate objects when the person speaking about them "personifies" them or has affection for them. One example is pets:

 

¿Federico te regaló a Zazén? 

Did Federico give you Zazen?

Caption 9, Tu Voz Estéreo Laura - Part 6

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However, if an animal is not a pet, the personal a is not used:
 

Generalmente acá se ven elefantes marinos 

Generally, here you see elephant seals

Caption 37, Perdidos en la Patagonia La Punta Cantor

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Another example could be one's country:
 

Me fascina, quiero ayudar a mi país,

I love it. I want to help my country

Caption 24, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Manuel Orozco Sánchez - Part 1

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And someone might even have a particular affection for some other inanimate object:

 

Yo amo a mi carro. -Se nota. -Único, bello.

I love my car. -You can see that. -Unique, beautiful.

Caption 97, Encuentro Volkswagen en Adícora Escarabajos en la playa - Part 2

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This is definitely the exception to the rule, though. In most cases, the personal a would not be used with such inanimate objects:

 

Vaya a lavar el auto, por favor!

Go to wash the car, please!

Caption 31, Muñeca Brava 30 Revelaciones - Part 5

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When Not to Use the Personal a

The Verb Tener

The personal a is not generally used with the verb tener:

 

¿Tienes hijos? -No.

Do you have children? -No.

Caption 87, Adícora, Venezuela El tatuaje de Rosana

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However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. One is when one has an emotional or close relationship with someone:

 

Tengo a Alejandrita que tiene diez y James que tiene diecinueve.

I have little Alejandra who is ten and James who is nineteen.

Captions 59-60, 75 minutos Gangas para ricos - Part 20

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Another is when someone is physically holding someone:

 

Él tenía a mi hija en sus brazos

He had my daughter in his arms.

 

A third is when one "has" someone "somewhere":

 

Teníamos a los gemelos en una clase de baile

We had the twins in a dance class. 

 

The Verb Haber

The personal a is not used with the verb haber, either:

 

hay muchas personas que se oponen a que haya paz en Colombia.

there are many people who are opposed to there being peace in Colombia.

Caption 32, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 9 - Part 1

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había una mujer que podía ser la protagonista de mi canción.

there was a woman who could be the main character of my song.

Captions 48-49, Luis Guitarra Historia de Lucía - Part 2

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In conclusion, although the personal a in Spanish can be a bit counterintuitive for English speakers since we don't have anything like it, we hope that this lesson has helped you to understand what it is and when it is and isn't used, and... don't forget to leave us your suggestions and comments,

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