In English, we’re pretty lucky due to the fact that we only have one definite article – the. This makes things really simple. Anytime we want to refer to a specific singular noun in English, we just “the” to the front.
Spanish definite articles are a bit different, however. The rules are relatively similar, but not exactly the same. That’s why today we’re going over everything you’ll ever need to know about definite articles.
Types of Definite Articles in Spanish
There are two types of articles in Spanish that fall under this category: the masculine definite article and the feminine definite article, and they can be either singular or plural, which makes a total of four Spanish definite articles.
For singular masculine nouns, we have the definite article El. Then for the plural, Los.
For singular feminine nouns, we have the definite article La. Then for the plural, Las.
You’re likely already familiar with el/los/la/las, but it’s always a good idea to have a quick reminder. For some examples of these definite articles:
|El coche rojo||The red car|
|Los niños pequeños||The little kids|
|La comida rica||The tasty food|
|Las montañas altas||The big mountains|
When to use the Spanish Definite Articles
The Spanish definite article has slightly different rules than the English one, let’s look at all the different possibilities for how you can use the definite article.
This example is the easiest since we do this exactly the same way in English. Whenever you are referring to a specific object or a specific set of things, you would use an article.
- Los libros de Harry Potter son mis favoritos. – The Harry Potter books are my favorite.
- El vaso está roto. – The glass is broken.
- La chica dejó a su novio. – The girl dumped her boyfriend.
- Las manzanas están muy maduras. – The apples are very ripe.
So just like in English, if you are referring to a specific noun or object, then you can use a definite article in Spanish.
Here’s where things start to get interesting. In English, when we refer to something general or a concept, then we don’t use a definite article. Instead, we don’t use anything or we only use the plural of that same noun. However, in Spanish, we use El / La / Los / Las.
- Me gusta el café. – I like coffee.
- Los niños tienen mucha energía. – Kids have a lot of energy.
- La fruta es muy sana. – Fruit is very healthy.
- Las matemáticas son interesantes. – Math is interesting.
So when referring to general concepts, or talking about unspecific things, you still need to use the articles El / La / Los / Las. This is a major difference from English, so make sure you remember these rules so you don’t forget to use an article in Spanish!
Another big difference is that in Spanish, we always use the definite article when telling time.
- Nos vemos mañana a las cinco. – I’ll see you tomorrow at five.
- ¿Qué hora es? La una. – What time is it? One (o’clock).
The good thing is you only use the two articles, either La / Las. That’s because the feminine articles go with the noun hora.
This usage can be a little tricky for English speakers, but just remember – different languages, different rules. So don’t get caught up in the “why” of things, just know that when you tell time, you need to use articles in Spanish.
In the Spanish language, typically we don’t use possessives nearly as much as we do in English, especially for body parts. So check out this next way to use the four forms of articles:
|Tengo el brazo roto||My arm is broken|
|Me escuecen los ojos||My eyes itch|
|Me corté la pierna||I cut my leg|
|Tengo las manos frías||My hands are cold|
As you can see, in English you would always use “my”, but in Spanish, we’d use whichever type of article goes with the body part.
As you learn Spanish, one way to think about this is to understand that usually, it’s obvious that it’s your body part.
Clearly, you wouldn’t say that you “have” someone else’s cold hands. And if you do, then there’s a bigger problem than definite articles.
Days of the Week
This is another usage that sometimes is strange for English speakers, but for days of the week, we always use the article. In fact, all days of the week take a masculine article.
However, there’s a meaning change between using the singular masculine article and the plural masculine article. Look at the examples below:
- El viernes tengo cita con el dentista. – This Friday I have a dentist’s appointment.
- Las clases empiezan el lunes. – Classes start on Monday.
- Los domingos descanso. – On Sundays, I rest.
- Los jueves voy al gimnasio. – Every Thursday I go to the gym.
- Hoy es miércoles. – Today is Wednesday. **
As you can see, when using the definite article El, it refers to only one time, usually whichever day is coming up. But the plural article, represents repetition, something you do every week on that day.
** Just note in the last example that there is an exception! When you say “hoy es… / mañana es… / ayer fue …”, then we don’t use the article.
When referring to instruments, we also always need articles to follow Spanish grammar rules:
- Toco el piano. – I play the piano.
- Tienes que practicar más la guitarra. – You need to practice the guitar more.
This one is pretty similar to English, as well, so no tricks here! Just note that it’s only used in the singular form, so you only need the definite articles El / La.
Many times when we use someone’s title, we can use articles as well.
- La señora Paquita.
- El Doctor Gutiérrez.
To refer to families as a whole, we always use plural masculine articles + last name. Alternatively, you could say la família + last name
- Vamos a invitar a los Rodríguez. – We’re going to invite the Rodriguez.
- La família Valle ya no vive aquí. – The Valle family doesn’t live here anymore.
When referring to things like specific rivers or mountains, or any kind of landmark with a proper name, then we’ll also use the article that corresponds to it.
- El río Nilo es el más largo del mundo. – The Nile River is the longest in the world.
- Los Pirineos son preciosos. – The Pyrenees are beautiful.
- Las Playas de Cancún son muy turísticas. – Cancún Beaches are very touristic.
- La selva en Costa Rica tiene muchas especies de aves. – The Costa Rica’s jungle have many species of birds.
Infinitives functioning as nouns
In English, when we want to turn a verb into a noun, we often add -ing. For example, “He reads often – Reading is important”.
In Spanish, instead of doing this, you can sometimes use the article El in front of the infinitive form of the verb.
- El estar bien es fundamental. – Being healthy is fundamental.
To be honest, you should be careful with this function of the definite article El. It’s certainly used, but sometimes there are more natural ways to express the same thing. For example, you would never say “El leer es importante”. Instead, it sounds better to say “Es importante leer”.
So it’s a great tool to keep in your pocket, but don’t overuse it.
With percentages, we’re going to be doing the same thing. We always add a singular definite article before the number:
- El 70% de la población está vacunada. – 70% of the population is vaccinated.
- Suspendieron el 10% de los alumnos. – 10% of the students failed.
The Neuter Definite Article “Lo”
While we just went over the two definite articles in Spanish, it’s important to know that there are some other options as well. You also have indefinite articles in Spanish (but that’s for another day), as well as a neutral definite article.
This may seem strange, considering there are no neutral nouns in Spanish, however, you can use a neutral article + an adjective to create a more conceptual noun. For example:
- Lo mejor es que no llovió. – The best part is that it didn’t rain.
- Lo malo es que no pudo venir Jessica. – The bad thing is that Jessica couldn’t come.
There’s a lot more to Lo than meets the eye, so you’ll want to master this part of Spanish grammar. Check out our article on Lo in Spanish where we talk more about it.
When not to use the Spanish Definite Articles
Now that we’ve been over when we should use a definite article in Spanish, let’s look at some examples of cases when we can leave them out.
The verb ser
Many times with the verb Ser, it’s not always necessary to use either El or La, unless you need to specify one noun out of a group of possible nouns. Here are some examples:
- Juan es abogado. – Juan is a lawyer. **
- Marisa es la médica que trabaja en el hospital grande. – Marisa is the doctor that works in the big hospital. (You might be talking about multiple doctors, but Marisa is the one who specifically works there)
- Soy peruano. – I’m Peruvian.
- Son musulmanes. – They are Muslim.
So when you use Ser with professions, religions, nationalities, or some other defining traits for people, you can skip the Spanish subject pronoun, unless you need to refer to a specific person.
** In the first example, note the difference here – You wouldn’t say “Juan es un abogado”.
When the amount of something isn’t important, it’s normal to skip the article. This makes sense since you don’t need a definite article if you’re not being very definitive with what you’re talking about:
- Hay que comer más verdura. – You should eat more vegetables.
- Allí venden libros. – They sell books there.
- ¿Llevan carne las empanadas? – Do the empanadas have meat in them?
So when you need to talk about an unspecified amount of something, you don’t need an article. But be careful, this isn’t the same as indefinite articles because an indefinite article would translate to “some” in English.
Articles and Prepositions
Another thing to keep in mind as you learn Spanish is that there’s a tendency to squish things together, both in speech and in written texts. And for articles, this is no different.
So when you need to combine the article el with either of the preposition de or a, we’re going to combine them to make things easier. Here are some examples:
- ¿Qué parte del libro te gustó más? – Which part of the book did you like the most?
- Vamos al cine luego, ¿no? – We’re going to the movie theater later, right?
There are a few exceptions and some more details we could go into when it comes to Spanish articles, but for today, the most important one is this one:
El agua clara
Why is it el agua clara? Well, that’s because when a feminine noun starts with a stressed letter A, then we can’t use a regular feminine article. Instead, we need to use the masculine one, but the noun stays feminine, so the adjective must match it, as well.
This only happens for the singular form, though:
- Las águilas rápidas.
- Las aguas movidas.
It can be a bit tricky to get used to, but really this rule is here to help you! It’s a lot easier to say el agua than la agua because you don’t get that a-a sound in the middle.
That’s all there is to know about definite articles for today. It’s a big list, but it’s not as difficult as it might seem. In fact, you’ll get used to them in no time.
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