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When to use subject pronouns in Spanish?

Horses galloping in a field.

A subject pronoun like yo (I) or nosotros (we) is a word that takes the place of one or more nouns, and carries out the action expressed by the verb. Subject pronouns are generally, but not always, dropped in Spanish since the verb endings tell us “who” or “what” the subject is. 

However, there are cases in which the subject pronouns can’t be dropped. Do you want to know about these cases? We have the answers for you next!

Table of Contents

For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.

What’s a subject pronoun?

A subject pronoun is a pronoun used as the subject of a verb in place of one or more nouns that have already been mentioned. The subject performs the action described by the verb.

For instance, take the following sentences:

Juan se levanta temprano.
Juan gets up early.
Juan toma el autobús todos los días.
Juan takes the bus every day.

The subject of both sentences is Juan. He’s the person doing the actions described in both verbs: Juan is the person getting up early and taking the bus every day.

In order to not repeat the subject, we may use a pronoun to stand for it. In this case, the Spanish subject pronoun for a male is él (he). Therefore, the previous sentences can be rewritten like this:

Juan se levanta temprano.
Juan gets up early.
 Él toma el autobús todos los días.
He takes the bus every day.

⤷ Remember that the verb conjugation always matches the subject.

However, subject pronouns in Spanish are normally omitted. Verb endings usually make clear who or what the subject is without a subject pronoun. Therefore, the previous sentences would be best rewritten by omitting the subject pronoun:

Juan se levanta temprano.
Juan gets up early.
Toma el autobús todos los días.
He takes the bus every day.     

In some cases, the subject pronoun has to be present. Keep reading to know when subject pronouns are necessary.  But first, let’s go over what the subject pronouns are in Spanish.

What are the subject pronouns in Spanish?

Here’s a list of pronouns used as subjects:

PronounEquivalent in EnglishExampleTranslation
yoIYo estudio inglés.I study English.
you (singular, informal)Tú cantas bien.You sing well.
vosyou (singular, informal)Vos cantás bien.You sing well.
ustedyou (singular, formal)¿Viene usted?Are you (sir or madam) coming?
élheÉl va a la universidad.He goes to college.
ellashe-Ella es doctora.She’s a doctor.
nosotroswe Nosotros no participamos.We don’t participate.
nosotraswe Nosotras no fuimos.It’s not our fault.
vosotrosyou (plural, informal)¿Vosotros vais a viajar este año?Are you guys traveling this year?
vosotrasyou (plural, informal)Vosotras salís mucho.You guys go out too much.
ustedesyou (plural, formal and informal)A ustedes no les interesa.It’s none of your business.
ellosthey Ellos llegaron tarde.They were late.
ellasthey Ellas ya terminaron.They are already finished.

You might be wondering, how come we have three pronouns for “you (singular)” and three pronouns for “you (plural)”? Have you ever heard of vos? And, where’s the equivalent of “it”? Find out next!

'Tú' vs. 'usted'

Spanish has three pronouns for singular “you”: , usted, and vos. Let’s explore the first two. 

and usted (abbreviated as Ud.) vary in formality:

Hola, Juan, ¿cómo estás (tú)?
Hi Juan, how are you?

Doctor Martínez, ¿cómo está usted? 
Dr. Martínez, how are you?

Did you know?
In Costa Rica and other Central American countries, Colombia, and Chile, they use usted informally with family members, spouses, and even friends!

To make things even more interesting, Spanish has a third pronoun for you-singular, namely pronoun vos. Let’s go over what this pronoun is all about!

‘Vos’

This pronoun is used instead of, or alongside, in several American regions. Its use and acceptance vary from region to region:

IMPORTANT

Unlike , vos does not change its form whether it’s used as a subject pronoun or as the object of a preposition:

To learn how to conjugate verbs using the vos form, head over to: How to use the pronoun ‘vos’ in Spanish?

‘Ustedes’ vs. ‘vosotros’ and ‘vosotras’

Ustedes (you-plural) (abbreviated Uds.) is used in all varieties of Spanish. However, its use is more restricted in Spain.

Hola, Dr. Martínez y Dra. Pérez, ¿cómo están (ustedes)?

Hello, Dr. Martínez and Dr. Pérez, how are you?

So, what’s the plural of in Spain? The answer is vosotros and vosotras:
Hola, chicos, ¿cómo estáis (vosotros or vosotras)?

Hi guys, how are you?

Here’s a summary of all the forms of “you” in Spanish:

Latin American varietiesSpain varieties
SingularPluralSingularPlural
Informaltú, vosustedesvosotros, vosotras
Formalustedustedustedes

‘Ellos', 'ellas' and 'nosotros', 'nosotras'

The only difference between ellos and ellas, and nosotros and nosotras, is the gender of the nouns they stand for. The same difference applies to vosotros and vosotras.

Ellos, vosotros, and nosotros refer, by default, to a group of all males or a group of males and females. Ellas, vosotras, and nosotras refer to a group of all females.

For instance:

IMPORTANT

Some people believe the fact that the masculine form is used to refer to a group composed of both male and female individuals is considered non-inclusive. For this reason, some alternatives are being used:

How do you say “it” in Spanish?

There is no subject pronoun equivalent to the English “it.” Potential candidates such as él and ella only refer to people, they never refer to things. What’s the solution? We simply don’t use pronouns in instances where we would use the subject pronoun “it” in English.

La camisa es de algodón. Es azul.
The shirt is made out of cotton. It’s blue.

Similarly, there’s no equivalent to the English “they,” when referring to non-humans:

Estas computadoras fallan mucho. Cuestan mucho dinero.
These computers fail a lot. They cost a lot of money.

When is it necessary to use subject pronouns in Spanish?

As we just mentioned, subject pronouns are normally absent in Spanish. However, there are a few cases in which the subject pronoun has to be present:

Focus

The subject pronoun is used when the subject is the focus.

Compare these two dialogues:

  • – ¿Cuántos años tienes?
– How old are you?
– (yo) Tengo veinte años.
– I’m twenty years old.
  • – ¿Quién ha hecho esto?
– Who did this?
– He sido yo
– I did it.

The focus of the first dialogue is not the subject, but the object of the verb (the number of years). Therefore, the subject pronoun can be omitted since the verb ending makes it clear. However, the focus of the second dialogue is the subject (who did something). Thus, to emphasize who the subject is, the pronoun is present.

IMPORTANT

When the subject pronoun is present, its normal position is before the verb at the beginning of a sentence. However, notice how when the subject is the focus, the subject pronoun yo is placed after the verb at the end of the sentence. The reason for this is to emphasize even more that the subject is the focus of the sentence.

Contrast

The subject pronoun is present to mark the contrast between two different subjects, just like in English you would say “I” and “you” with emphasis:

Yo cocino y limpias.
I cook and you clean.

Change of subject

We use subject pronouns when we change from one subject to another:

Juan y María llegaron tarde. Él se duchó y se fue a la cama. Ella hizo unas llamadas y salió.
Juan and María arrived late. He took a shower and went to bed. She made a few phone calls and left.

Use of ‘usted’

The use of usted (you-formal) adds extra courtesy and formality.

The second sentence, which has a subject pronoun, conveys more formality than the first one, which omits usted.

Subject pronouns in Caribbean Spanish

Contrary to the rest of Spanish varieties, in the Spanish spoken in the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and parts of Venezuela and Colombia), subject pronouns are expressed in the following contexts:

So far, we have considered sentences that have subject pronouns. However, Spanish has sentences without a specific subject. They are called impersonal sentences. Let’s see those next.

Which kind of subject pronouns do we use in impersonal sentences?

Impersonal sentences are those with no specific subject. They correspond to the English passive voice or impersonal subjects such as “they,” “you,” “people,” or “one.”

The passive voice exists in Spanish. However, its use is disfavored as it’s considered more formal. To avoid the use of the passive voice and to deal with impersonal sentences, Spanish uses the following strategies:

  • Passive se in Spanish
  • The ellos, ellas, usted form of a verb, but without the subject pronoun
  • La gente (people)
  • Uno (one)

For instance, to express the fact that Spanish is spoken in Miami, one could say:

  • En Miami se habla español.
  • En Miami hablan español.
  • En Miami la gente habla español.
  • En Miami uno habla español.

Summary

Subject pronouns are words used in place of nouns that carry out the action of the verb. Spanish subject pronouns are very often omitted because the verb endings are usually enough to determine who/what the subject is, without the need to pronounce or write it. However, there are some cases in which subject pronouns have to be present: contrast, focus, change of subject, and extra formality with usted. Finally, don’t forget that Caribbean Spanish keeps subject pronouns in more contexts than the rest of the Spanish varieties.

Ready to practice? Check out this activity that we created for you.

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.

Unpacking the grammar

The passive voice is used to minimize the role of the agent (the person/object doing/causing the action) of the sentence in order to bring focus to the theme/patient of the sentence (the person/object that undergoes the action).

  • In Spanish it’s formed essentially the same way as in English. The passive voice is formed with the auxiliary verb ser (in any tense) plus the past participle of the main verb in the active sentence:Active (regular, normal, non-passive) sentence: Gaspar Noé dirigió esta película (Gaspar Noé directed this film). Passive: Esta película fue dirigida por Gaspar Noé (This film was directed by Gaspar Noé).
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Subject pronouns activity

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Subject pronouns activity

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