Triple pronoun positions in Spanish

I recently ran into a sentence with one conjugated verb and two infinitives.


But seriously…it was a sentence like Quiero poder hablarlo ‘I want to be able to speak it’, where ‘it’ referred to, perhaps, the Spanish language. I don’t remember whether this sentence came up in a student’s paper or was just something I was working out in my head. At any rate, I was curious to find out how many possible positions there were for the lo pronoun in this sentence.

As all of you know if you’ve tangled with Spanish grammar, an object pronoun like lo can come either before a conjugated verb or after an infinitive. (These are the main two rules, though there are others.) So in a sentence with two verbs, of which the first is conjugated, the pronoun can either precede the first (Lo quiero hablar) or follow the second (Quiero hablarlo). Both are equally valid, and Spanish speakers freely alternate between them.

I wondered: in a sentence with one conjugated verb and two infinitives, are there three possible pronoun positions?

  1. Lo quiero poder hablar
  2. Quiero poderlo hablar
  3. Quiero poder hablarlo

I posed this question on two of my favorite forums, /r/Spanish and WordReference, and the answer was a resounding : all three positions are legitimate.

How cool is that?

13 thoughts on “Triple pronoun positions in Spanish

  1. Lynda Pilgreen

    Really?! I’m surprised. I would have that it could not be attached to the middle verb. To me, in your example (Quiero poderlo hablar) would translate as “I want to be able IT to speak.” Interesting.
    Also, I noticed that you mentioned “Before the conjugated verb” or “after the infinitive.” I like to stress “ATTACHED to the infinitive” because many students put it separately. Or, they put it in between 🙂 I try my best to tell them to “take a stand!” because in the middle is never right.
    Thanks for the info and the discussion!

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Yes, it surprised me too, but a number of knowledgeable native speakers on both forums were quite sure that all 3 positions were kosher.

  2. Lynda Pilgreen

    I meant to mention something else :). My students and I have tried to find / make an example that uses reflexive, direct, and indirect pronouns. About all we have come up with is “Quiero que tú ponertemelo.” I want you to put it on (like a hat) for me. Something a mom would tell her kids when they ask why. Or the command: “Pontemelo!”
    Is this possible?? Is it right? Does anyone have any other situations other than these?

    1. jhochberg Post author

      As Ricardito said, Quiero que tú ponertemelo doesn’t work because Quiero que triggers the subjunctive (ponga). However, in that case, since ponga is conjugated, the pronouns would have to come before it, as in Quiero que me lo pongas.

      The example I always come back to for a full RID sequence is Cómetemelo ‘Eat it all up for me’, which is also a good example of stress five syllables from the end of a word!

      1. Fernando

        Tiene razón, Judy, “quiero que” antecede siempre a un subjuntivo. Quiero que te me lo pongas.

        Las tres opciones del artículo: “lo quiero poder hablar”, “quiero poderlo hablar”, “quiero poder hablarlo”. Tienen el mismo significado y la casi misma frecuencia de uso.
        Existió una cuarta forma en castellano antiguo “quiero-lo poder hablar”; cuando el clítico, no era admisible delante del verbo.

        Si alguien desea profundizar en los porqués de la variedad de formas de los pronombres clíticos, hay varios trabajos disponibles en internet; por citar un ejemplo: Josep M Fontana, “Phrase structure and the syntax of clitics in the history of Spanish” (January 1, 1993)

        Un placer leerla y un saludo.

      2. Lynda Pilgreen

        You’re completely right! The subjunctive part went totally over my head! I should of used “Puedes” or “Vas a.” Thanks for fixing it! 😉

  3. Ricardito

    I am not sure about the pronouns, but the sentence is not right anyway. You can’s say “tú” and follow it with an infinitive. After “quiero” you would use present subjunctive So you would have to say something like: “Quiero que tú póngastemelo” but that sounds pretty weird,so I’m not sure.

  4. Ricardito

    This is the sentence I was referring to: About all we have come up with is “Quiero que tú ponertemelo.”


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