Using Definite Articles

They're More Common in Spanish Than in English

Red strawberries.
Las fresas son rojas. (Strawberries are red.). Paul Stein/Creative Commons.

English has one definite article — "the" — but Spanish isn't so simple. Spanish has five definite articles, varying with gender:

  • Singular masculine: el
  • Singular feminine: la
  • Singular neuter: lo
  • Plural neuter or masculine: los
  • Plural feminine: las

A definite article is a function word that comes before a noun to indicate that a particular being or thing is being referred to. Although there are a few exceptions, as a general rule a definite article is used in Spanish whenever "the" is used in English.

But Spanish also uses a definite article in many situations where English does not. Although the following list isn't exhaustive, and there are exceptions to some of these rules, here are the major instances where Spanish includes a definite article absent in English:

Using Definite Articles To Refer to All Members of a Group

When referring to objects or persons of a class in general, the definite article is needed.

  • Los leones son felinos. (Lions are felines.)
  • Los americanos quieren hacer dinero. (Americans want to make money.)
  • Las madres son como rayos de sol. (Mothers are like sun rays.)

Note that this use of the definite article can create ambiguity that isn't present in English. For example, depending on the context, "Las fresas son rojas" can mean either that strawberries in general are red or that some particular strawberries are red.

Using Definite Articles With Nouns Representing Concepts

In English, the article is often omitted with abstract nouns and nouns used in a general sense, ones that refer more to a concept than a tangible item.

But it still is needed in Spanish.

  • La ciencia es importante. (Science is important.)
  • Creo en la justicia. (I believe in justice.)
  • Estudio la literatura. (I study literature.)
  • La primavera es bella. (Spring is beautiful.)

Using Definite Articles With Personal Titles

The definite article is used before most titles of a person being talked about.

  • El presidente Trump vive en la Casa Blanca. (President Trump lives in the White House.)
  • Voy a la oficina de la doctora González. (I'm going to the office of Dr. Gonzalez.)
  • Mi vecina es la señora Jones. (My neighbor is Mrs. Jones.)

The article is omitted, however, when directly addressing the person. Profesora Barrera, ¿cómo está usted? (Professor Barrera, how are you?)

Using Definite Articles With Days of the Week

Days of the week are always masculine. Except in constructions where the day of the week follows a form of ser (a verb for "to be"), as in "Hoy es martes" (Today is Tuesday), the article is needed.

  • Vamos a la escuela los lunes. (We go to school on Mondays.)
  • El tren sale el miércoles. (The train leaves on Wednesday.)

Using Definite Articles With Infinitives

In Spanish, infinitives (the basic form of a verb) can be used as nouns. The article el is typically used when one is used as the subject of a sentence.

  • El escribir es difícil. (Writing is difficult.)
  • El esquiar es peligroso. (Skiing is dangerous.)
  • No me gusta el nadar. (I don't like swimming. In Spanish, this sentence has an inverted word order that makes nadar the subject.)

Using Infinitives With Names of Languages

The article generally is used before names of languages.

But it can be omitted immediately following a verb that is used often with languages, such as hablar (to speak), or after the preposition en.

  • El inglés es la lengua de Belice. (English is the language of Belize.)
  • El alemán es difícil. (German is difficult.)
  • Hablo bien el español. (I speak Spanish well. But: Hablo español for "I speak Spanish.")

Using Definite Articles With Some Place Names

Although the definite article is seldom mandatory with place names, it is used with many of them. As can be seen in this list of country names, the use of the definite article can seem arbitrary.

  • La Habana es bonita. (Havana is pretty.)
  • La India tiene muchas lenguas. (India has many languages.)

The definite article los is optional when referring to Estados Unidos (the United States).

Using Definite Articles With Nouns Joined by Y

In English, it usually isn't necessary to include the "the" before each noun in a series.

But Spanish often requires the definite article in a way that would seem repetitious in English.

  • La madre y el padre están felices. (The mother and father are happy.)
  • Compré la silla y la mesa. (I bought the chair and table.)
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Erichsen, Gerald. "Using Definite Articles." ThoughtCo, Oct. 7, 2017, Erichsen, Gerald. (2017, October 7). Using Definite Articles. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Using Definite Articles." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 19, 2018).