Whenever a person is the object of a sentence in Spanish, the word a (which can literally mean "to," "at," etc., depending upon the context) must be included prior to the person. This is called the "personal a" in English and the "a personal" in Spanish.
In both English and Spanish, the subject of a sentence is the person or thing that performs an action and the object is the person or thing that receives it. For example, in the English sentence "Edison ate cake," "Edison" is the subject and "cake" is the object. And in the sentence "Gonzalo hugged Eva," "Gonzalo" is the subject while "Eva" is the object. So, while the translation for the first example, Edison comió torta, would not require the personal a, the second one would since Eva is a person: Gonzalo abrazó a Eva.
Now that we understand a bit how the personal a works, let's see a few examples where the same verb in the same tense either has a personal a or doesn't, depending upon whether the object of the sentence is a person. You will note that there is no direct translation for the personal a in the English sentences.
Pero yo vi sombras.
But I saw shadows.
Caption 26, Tu Voz Estéreo Feliz Navidad - Part 4Play Caption
Yo vi a Pablo Escobar,
I saw Pablo Escobar
Caption 28, Los Tiempos de Pablo Escobar Capítulo 2 - Part 8Play Caption
me di cuenta que no entendía todos los conceptos
I realized that I didn't understand all the concepts
Caption 73, Guillermo el chamán La tecnología mayaPlay Caption
De verdad, en ese momento no entendía a las niñas.
Really, at that moment, I didn't understand girls.
Caption 53, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 11 - Part 6Play Caption
Conocí las islas Barú de... de Colombia
I visited the Barú Islands in... in ColombiaPlay Caption
Conocí a María ayer.
I met María yesterday.
Caption 22, Lecciones con Carolina Saber y conocerPlay Caption
When a pronoun like alguien (someone), nadie (no one/anyone), quien, alguno/a(s) (some/someobody/one), or ninguno/a(s) (none/no one/any) replace a person or people as the direct object in a sentence, the personal a is used as well:
No queremos alarmar a nadie.
We don't want to alarm anyone.Play Caption
Perdón, eh, ¿busca a alguien?
Excuse me, um, are you looking for someone?
Caption 1, Muñeca Brava 8 Trampas - Part 10Play Caption
Todos los años, tengo que reñir a alguno.
Every year, I have to tell someone off.
Caption 46, 75 minutos Del campo a la mesa - Part 10Play Caption
The personal a is also used with animals or inanimate objects when the person speaking about them "personifies" them or has affection for them. One example is pets:
¿Federico te regaló a Zazén?
Did Federico give you Zazen?
Caption 9, Tu Voz Estéreo Laura - Part 6Play Caption
Generalmente acá se ven elefantes marinos
Generally, here you see elephant seals
Caption 37, Perdidos en la Patagonia La Punta CantorPlay Caption
Me fascina, quiero ayudar a mi país,
I love it. I want to help my countryPlay Caption
Yo amo a mi carro. -Se nota. -Único, bello.
I love my car. -You can see that. -Unique, beautiful.Play Caption
This is definitely the exception to the rule, though. In most cases, the personal a would not be used with such inanimate objects:
Vaya a lavar el auto, por favor!
Go to wash the car, please!
Caption 31, Muñeca Brava 30 Revelaciones - Part 5Play Caption
The personal a is not generally used with the verb tener:
¿Tienes hijos? -No.
Do you have children? -No.
Caption 87, Adícora, Venezuela El tatuaje de RosanaPlay Caption
However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. One is when one has an emotional or close relationship with someone:
Tengo a Alejandrita que tiene diez y James que tiene diecinueve.
I have little Alejandra who is ten and James who is nineteen.
Captions 59-60, 75 minutos Gangas para ricos - Part 20Play Caption
Another is when someone is physically holding someone:
Él tenía a mi hija en sus brazos.
He had my daughter in his arms.
A third is when one "has" someone "somewhere":
Teníamos a los gemelos en una clase de baile.
We had the twins in a dance class.
The personal a is not used with the verb haber, either:
hay muchas personas que se oponen a que haya paz en Colombia.
there are many people who are opposed to there being peace in Colombia.
Caption 32, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 9 - Part 1Play Caption
había una mujer que podía ser la protagonista de mi canción.
there was a woman who could be the main character of my song.
Captions 48-49, Luis Guitarra Historia de Lucía - Part 2Play Caption
In conclusion, although the personal a in Spanish can be a bit counterintuitive for English speakers since we don't have anything like it, we hope that this lesson has helped you to understand what it is and when it is and isn't used, and... don't forget to leave us your suggestions and comments,