Subject pronouns in Spanish are a lot like medicine — they're often essential, but their use should be avoided when they're not necessary.
Overuse of subject pronouns — the equivalent of words such as "he," "she" and "they" — is common among English speakers learning Spanish. It's important to remember that in Spanish the verb forms often make subject pronouns unnecessary, and when that's the case the pronouns shouldn't be used unless there's a reason to.
Here is a sampling of sentences where pronouns are unnecessary:
- Voy al supermercado. I am going to the supermarket. (The verb voy can refer only to the person speaking.)
- ¿Adónde vas? Where are you going? (The verb vas necessarily refers to the person being spoken to.)
- Roberto no está en casa. ¿Fue al supermercado? Roberto isn't at home. Did he go to the supermarket? (Standing alone, the second sentence might be unclear about who the subject is. But in context, it is obvious that Roberto is being referred to.)
- Nieva. It is snowing. (Nevar, the verb for "to snow," is used in the third-person singular form and doesn't need an accompanying subject.)
Of course, not all sentences will be as clear as those are without explicit reference to the subject. Here are the subject pronouns in Spanish with their English equivalents:
- yo — I
- tú — you (informal or familiar singular)
- usted — you (formal singular)
- él, ella — he, she
- nosotros, nosotras — we (the first form refers to a group of males or males and females, while the second form refers to females only)
- vosotros, vosotras — you (informal or familiar plural; the first form refers to a group of males or males and females, while the second form refers to females only; this pronoun is seldom used in most parts of Latin America)
- ustedes — you (formal plural)
- ellos, ellas — they (the first form refers to a group of males or males and females, while the second form refers to females only)
Note that there is no pronoun listed for "it" as a subject; in sentences where we'd use the subject "it" in English, the use of the third-person verb nearly always makes a pronoun unnecessary. Although Spanish does have a rarely heard pronoun meaning "it," ello, its use is limited mainly to literature, and it isn't used to refer to named objects. Once in a rare while, when needed for clarification, you may hear él used to mean "it" when referring to a masculine noun and ella to refer to a feminine noun.
Also note that most of the subject pronouns in Spanish (all except yo and tú) can also be used as objects of prepositions. So while, for example, you wouldn't say "to he" or "from she" in English, you can say a él or de ella in Spanish.
When to use subject pronounsSubject pronouns are used in the following instances:
To avoid ambiguity: Context doesn't always make clear who the subject is, and some verb forms are ambiguous. Yo tenía un coche. I had a car. (Out of context, tenía could mean "I had," "you had," "he had" or "she had." If the context makes the subjects clear, the pronouns normally wouldn't be used.) Juan y María son alumnos. Él estudia mucho. John and Mary are students. He studies a lot. (Without the pronoun, it is impossible to tell whom the second sentence refers to.)
For emphasis: In English, unlike Spanish, we often use verbal stress to emphasize a pronoun. For example, if a strong emphasis is placed on the "I" in "I am going to the supermarket," the understood meaning of the sentence might be "I (and not somebody else) am going to the supermarket" or possibly "I am going to the supermarket (and I'm proud of myself)." In Spanish, one could similarly add an emphasis by using the grammatically unnecessary pronoun: Yo voy al supermercado. Similarly, haz tú lo que tú quieres could be understood as "you do what you want (and see if I care)."
Change of subject: When contrasting two subjects, the pronouns are frequently used. Yo estudio y él escucha el estéreo. I'm studying and he's listening to the stereo. Nosotros somos pobres, pero él es rico. We're poor, but he's rich. Note that in English you might use intonation — putting stress on "we're" and "he's" — to add emphasis. But such stress in Spanish would be unnecessary, as using the pronouns takes care of adding the emphasis.
Usted and ustedes: Even where not strictly necessary, usted and ustedes are sometimes included and can add a degree of politeness. ¿Cómo está (usted)? How are you? Espero que (ustedes) vayan al cine. I hope you are going to the movies.