When Do You Need to Use Subject Pronouns in Spanish

When should you use “yo”, “tú”, “él”, “ella” in front of verbs in Spanish?

What are Subject Pronouns?

The subject pronouns in Spanish are:

yo – I
– you
él / ella – he / she
usted – you (formal)
nosotros / nosotras – we
vosotros / vosotras – you (plural)
ellos / ellas – they
ustedesyou (formal, plural)

For people just starting to learn Spanish they often want to keep using these every time they say a verb, however this is often unnecessary as the ending of the verb tells you the subject of the verb. In this blog post, we will tell you when you should include the subject pronoun and when you shouldn’t.

When NOT to use subject pronouns

1) When asking someone a question it is normally obvious that you are asking about them and no-one else.

e.g. ¿Qué quieres tomar?What do you want to drink?

2) When talking about yourself this is also obvious and cannot get mixed up with anyone else.

e.g. Hablo español.I speak Spanish.

3) When using a person’s name, if you continue talking about them this is obvious you are talking about that person and no-one else.

e.g. ¿María está en casa? ¿No fue al trabajo?
Is Maria at home? Did she not go to work?

If you said the second question on its own, it may be unclear who you are talking about but because it comes straight after asking about María, it is obvious you are still asking about María.

4) Talking about the weather or objects (not people). There is no person involved so in this case you do not need a subject pronoun.

e.g. Llueve.It rains.

e.g. Son caros.They are expensive.

When you DO need the subject pronoun

1) To avoid confusion.

Sometimes it is not clear exactly who you are talking about. For example, in the imperfect tense which is a past tense to talk about things you “used to do” or to talk about descriptions of people and places in the past, the first and third person forms are exactly the same.

‘Tenía’ could mean “I had”, “he had”, “she had” or “you (formal) had”.

To avoid confusion you would add the subject pronoun:

Yo tenía = I had
Él tenía = he had
Ella tenía = she had
Usted tenía = you had (formal)

To make it clear exactly who you are talking about after mentioning more than one person:

Pedro y Carmen son estudiantes. Ella es inteligente.
Pedro and Carmen are students. She is intelligent.

If you left it as “es inteligente” it would not be clear if you were talking about Pedro or Carmen.
It is particularly useful to add in the “él” or “ella” pronouns to distinguish between “he” and “she” as the verb ending is the same for both.

2) For emphasis.

By adding a pronoun you are emphasising that person is doing the action and no-one else.

e.g. Yo voy a la tienda. – I’m going to the shop.

So you are stressing that “YOU” will go to the shop instead of someone else who could go.

e.g. Come tú lo que tú quieres.YOU eat what you want.

3) Changing subject

When talking about two different people in the same sentence it is better to add in the subject pronouns to make it clear that you are talking about two different people.

e.g. Yo aprendo español pero él aprende francés.
I learn Spanish but he learns French.

4) Adding in “usted” or “ustedes” to be polite

When you are addressing someone formally, (this could be because they are older than you or you are in a professional situation and want to show respect), it is good to add in “usted” or “ustedes” if you are talking to more than one person because it makes it clear you are talking politely and showing respect.

e.g. ¿Cómo está usted?How are you? (formal)