The Italian Indirect Object Pronouns Explained
Yes, pronouns are not easy to grasp, but they’re worth mastering. Why? It’s simple. We use them all the time. We use them to avoid repeating things and be concise, typically in a conversation. It’s the same in English and in many other languages.
Knowing the Italian pronouns will not only help you speak better Italian, but especially improve your listening skills in Italian.
I promise, next time you‘ll her gli-la-lo, etc you won’t have a hard time figuring out what they stand for
What is a pronoun?
A pronoun is a word like you, her, him, them that we use to see who is affected by the verb’s action. Or, in simple terms, it’s a chunk we use to replace something that was mentioned before in a conversation and you don’t want to repeat it.
Vuoi il caffè? Sì, lo voglio
Prendi lo zucchero? Sì, lo prendo
In both sentences, lo stands for “it” and it‘s helping us avoid the repetition of “caffè” or “zucchero“
There are two types of pronouns in Italian: direct object pronouns and indirect object pronouns.
What makes indirect pronouns different from direct pronouns?
The direct pronouns answer the questions “what?” or “who?”
The indirect pronouns answer the questions “to whom” or “for whom”
|DIRECT OBJECT PRONOUNS||INDIRECT OBJECT PRONOUNS|
|mi (me)||mi (to me, for me)|
|ti (you)||ti (to you, for you)|
|lo (it m., him)||gli (to him, for him)|
|la (it f., her, you polite)||le (to her, for her, for you polite)|
|ci (us)||ci (to us, for us)|
|vi (you pl.)||vi (to you pl., for you pl.)|
|li (them m.)||gli (to them, for them)|
|le (them f.)|
IMPORTANT! As you can see, for the forms of mi, ti, ci, vi there is no difference between direct and indirect pronouns. You only need to think of a difference just for the third person singular and plural.
We can otherwise say that direct object pronouns are used with transitive verbs and indirect object pronouns are used with intransitive verbs.
Examples of direct pronouns
- La mangio sempre –I often eat it
- Li chiamo sempre – I always call them
- L’ho cucinato oggi – I cooked it today
Examples of indirect pronouns
- Le mando una mail – I send her an email
- Ti voglio bene – I love you
- Gli telefono tutti i giorni – I call them every day
The indirect object pronouns
Mi – to me / for me
Ti – to you / for you (familiar singular)
Gli – to him/ for him
Le – to her / for her (polite singular)
Ci – to us / for us
Vi – to you / for you (plural)
Gli – to them / for them
Direct pronouns & indirect pronouns: the difference explained
The million dollar question is when to use direct pronouns and to use indirect pronouns.
Direct pronouns are used with transitive verbs (that answer the questions who? or what?) and to replace people and things as previously mentioned.
- Compro il latte – I buy the milk
- lo compro – I buy it
- Vedi Luigi? – Do you see Luigi?
- lo vedo – I see him
- Preferiamo la cucina italiana – we prefer Italian food
- La preferiamo – we prefer it
- Mi chiami? Sì, ti chiamo – are you calling me? yes I’m calling you
Indirect pronouns are used with intransitive verbs (that answer the questions for whom? and to whom?), and are used to replace just people; they also can be used in conjunction with a direct object
- Mando una mail a Marco – I’m sending to Marco a letter
- Gli mando una lettera – I’m sending to him a letter
- Insegno italiano agli studenti – I teach to students Italian
- Gli insegno l’italiano – I to teach them Italian
- Do una mano a Lucia – I give to Lucia a hand
- Le do una mano – I give to her a hand
How do you know when to use indirect object pronouns instead of direct object pronouns in Italian?
The best way is to memorize and practice the verbs that typically use indirect pronouns. It can also help to remember that indirect pronouns are meant to replace people, not things.
This is a list of common verbs using indirect object pronouns in Italian
Dire – to say / to tell
Dare – to give
Chiedere – to ask
Telefonare – to phone
Scrivere – to write
Offrire – to offer
Insegnare – to teach
Mandare – to send
Prestare – to lend
Rispondere – to answer
Now, put this list in your flashcards and remember that in Italian these verbs are used with indirect object pronouns.
“I answer her” should be le rispondo (not la!)
“I answer him” should be gli rispondo (not lo!)
- Ho detto a Luisa di comprare il pane – I said to Luisa that she should buy some bread
- Le ho detto di comprare il pane – I said to her that she should buy some bread
- Ho prestato la bicicletta a te la settimana scorso – I lent the bike to you last week
- Ti ho prestato la bici la settimana scorso – I lent you the bike last week
- Ho telefonato a Lucia e Michele – I phoned (to) Lucia e Michele
- Gli ho telefonato – I phoned them
- Scrivi sempre a Marco? – Do you write often to Marco?
- Gli scrivi sempre? – Do you write to him often?
You should also know that…
- Unlike in English, the pronouns usually precede the verb.
- Indirect pronouns are used with intransitive verbs.
- Some verbs, like piacere, such as: interessare, succedere, sembrare, servire, bastare, use indirect object pronouns in their conjugations.
- The pronouns are attached at the end of the verb in its infinitive, gerund, and imperative form.
English vs Italian: The Difference
What leads to confusion is that some verbs that take a direct object in English use an indirect object in Italian or vice versa. For example, the verb insegnare uses the indirect object in Italian; in fact, we say “insegnare a qualcuno” while in English, the verb to teach uses the direct object. In English, you say “to teach someone”.
Most of the time, however, this is not the case, and there’s a parallel between English and Italian.
The rule of thumb is to consult a dictionary to see if the verb needs a direct or indirect pronoun.
- Maria insegna italiano agli studenti americani
- Maria gli insegna l’italiano – Maria teaches Italian to them
The same occurs with the verb “phone/call”. In English, one calls someone, but in Italian, “someone calls to someone” and so we need an indirect object pronoun.
- Marta telefona a Lucia
- Marta le telefona – Marta calls (to) her
Indirect pronouns and modal verbs
This is a rule valid for all types of pronouns, not just the indirect ones.
With the modal verbs (volere, potere, dovere), the pronouns can be placed either at the back of the infinitive verb (following the modal verb) or just before the modal verb. There’s no difference between these two, and it’s up to you which pattern to use.
- devo dirti una cosa (I must tell you something)
- ti devo dire una cosa (I must tell you something)
Indirect pronouns and the imperative
In some imperative forms (when you’re urging someone to do something) the pronouns are placed at the back of the verb.
- Digli la verità – tell him the truth
- Non dirgli la verità – don’t tell him the truth
If you need a refresher on the imperative in Italian, check out this article
Having a hard time with Italian pronouns? These textbooks might be useful.
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