The subject of a sentence is its acting force–the subject is who/what is performing the main verb. Sometimes, the verb is transitive, meaning the action of the verb is transferred: i.e. there is something performing the verb, and the verb acts directly on something else. This something else is called the direct object. Spotting direct objects is simple: just take the subject & verb, and then ask yourself, “What/Whom?” The answer to that question (if there is one–sometimes there isn’t) will be the direct object. For example:
I am reading a book.
I = subject; reading = verb
I am reading what? a book.
book = direct object
He is serving coffee.
He = subject; serving = verb
He is serving what? coffee.
coffee = direct object
They are laughing.
They = subject; laughing = verb
They are laughing what/whom? That makes no sense–’laughing’ isn’t a transitive verb
no direct object
There are also indirect objects. With a few exceptions, only sentences that already have a direct object can have an indirect object. The indirect object takes the sentence one step further. The direct object answers the question, “what/whom?” The indirect object answers the question, “to/for what/whom?” The verb acts on a direct object, and the verb is received by an indirect object. Let’s return to our example sentences, and add some indirect objects.
I am reading a book to him.
I = subject; reading = verb; book = direct object
I am reading a book to whom? to him.
him = indirect object
He is serving coffee to us.
He = subject; serving = verb; coffee = direct object
He is serving coffee to whom? to us.
us = indirect object
She tells them.
She = subject; tells = verb; no direct object
She tells whom?
them = indirect object
Whoa, wait a second. Why is “them” in the last sentence an indirect object when it answers the question “whom?” The idea is that, with verbs of communication, there is an implied direct object in the communication itself. When you say something to someone, the things you say are the direct object, even if we don’t mention them in the sentence. The person receiving the communication, then, is an indirect object.
Think of it this way: verbs with indirect objects have some sort of transaction. Imagine handing something over to somebody. The thing in your hand is the direct object, and the person you give it to is the indirect object. You can apply this image metaphorically. So when you read a book to somebody, it’s as if you hand the book to them. When you give somebody something, you hand it over to them. When you tell something to somebody, you hand your information over to them–they are receiving it, so they are the indirect object.
Now that we have a good understanding of what exactly direct and indirect objects are, let’s learn how to use their pronouns in Spanish.