Learning to live without ‘ella’ (or ‘tú’, ‘yo’, and ‘ellos’…)

Personal pronouns aren't always your best friend

It surely won’t be a huge revelation to you to read that, in our English conversations, we must always make it blindingly obvious who is doing any given action.

We can’t just randomly say, for instance, “think” and assume that the other person will know exactly who it is that is doing the “thinking”.

To make ourselves understood, we instead have to make sure to include the “I”, “you” or “they” bit of the sentence (in grammar jargon, these terms are known as “personal pronouns”).

It’s natural enough to want to do the same when we come to talking Spanish. So, to say “I think”, “you run”, and “she works”, our instinct tells us we should go for: “yo pienso”, “ corres”, and “ella trabaja” etc.

So what’s the problem?

In any individual instance, this is a perfectly valid way to express things. The problem comes when you add in these ‘pronouns’ every single time you want to talk about anyone doing anything in Spanish.

For example, if chatting about your sister’s upcoming visit, a Spanish learner might speak like this: “ella viene a visitarme porque ella dice que yo he vivido aquí mucho tiempo y ella quiere verme”.

This’d be a foreign-sounding way to say “she’s coming for a visit because she says I’ve been living here a long time and she wants to see me”.

If you’ve been painfully slogging your way through endless verb tables, you’ll know that Spanish has far more changes in its verbs than we do. English is much more considerate to the needs of foreign students as it kindly doesn’t insist on too many alterations to such words. “I go”, “you go” “we go” or “they go” — it’s all much of a muchness.

That’s why, in our own tongue, the “I” or “she” or whatever always needs to be there. In Spanish, by contrast, the verb in these instances would change to voy, vas, vamos or van, ensuring there’s no way to get these confused about who is doing what (well, not for a native speaker at any rate).

In other words, Spanish speakers can instantly detect, from the version of the verb you’ve used and from the context of the conversation, who it is that you’re speaking about. And,
as a result, most of the ellas in our example sentence above become entirely surplus to requirements.

When can I use these words then?

It’s tough to say goodbye to old friends, but when chatting in Spanish we need to learn to leave these pronouns behind much of the time. That isn’t to say that you can never use them; our humble suggestion would merely be that you limit their use to the two main situations when native speakers use them:

  1. when referencing a new person in the conversation; and
  2. when you want to add special emphasis to something / contrast between ideas.

The first set of circumstances is easy enough to understand, but the second one probably could do with some further explanation. In fact, let’s try to illuminate things with an example or two.

Example 1

Imagine yourself on a university campus in Mexico. You’ve just left class with a friend, when a third one comes over to talk to you. After a little small talk, he asks you both if you’re headed to the library now.

To emphasise that you’re actually going to different places, you’ll need to dust off those pronouns and respond:

volume_muteYo voy a la biblioteca, pero él se va para la casa. ¿Adonde vas tú?

This would be: “No, I’m going to the library, but he’s going home. Where are you headed?”. Notice how the yo and él are included only to stress that everyone is doing something different?

If, however, it seemed everyone was going to the same place, it would be more natural to say:

volume_muteSí, ya vamos para allá. ¿Vienes?

That is: “yes, we’re headed there now. Are you coming?”. In this case, there would be no need to include the “nosotros” and the “tú” part of the sentence, as we might think we should.

Example 2

Another instance when it is common to hear a lot of “he”s “she”s and the like is when using verbs like “gustar, which work in a back-to-front kind of way (check out this grammar explainer on another site if you’ve not come across this concept already).

You’re especially likely to hear this during conversations about whether people like each other or not. With so many names swimming around in these sentences, it would otherwise quickly get confusing as to exactly who is into whom.

So, for exaomple, to say “he likes her” (as in, “he’s got a crush on her”), you’d be best to add these guys in, making the sentence:

Ella le gusta a élvolume_mute

Similarly, if you weren’t feeling overly modest and wanted to tell the world that some girl used to have a crush on you, you could express this as:

Yo le gustaba a ellavolume_mute

If you skipped out the “ella”, “yo” and “él” in this examples it would be impossible to really tell which way the love was flowing. The pronouns are included only to clear up the mystery.

A concluding thought

As we’ve seen, adding in the “I”/“you”/”she”/“they” part of the sentence often isn’t necessary in Spanish. In fact, if you constantly use “yo”, say, when talking about what you’re up to (e.g. yo voy a tomar el bus porque yo no quiero caminar), you’ll come across as more than a little odd.

To native speakers, it will sound like you’re continually trying to contradict some imaginary third person who has cast doubt on whether you really will do or say whatever you’ve promised. And you might prefer not to be needlessly argumentative.

Who’s got questions or comments about when, and when not, to use personal pronouns? Speak now, or forever hold your peace!

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