Singular Indefinite Articles

'Un' and 'Una'

Casa de Europa
¡Qué casa! (What a house!). Feans/Creative Commons.

(If you listen to oldies music, you may recall one of the sentences of a Spanish-language dance tune: Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán, soy capitán. Translated, that would be, "I am not a mariner, I am a captain, I am a captain."

That sentence indicates one of the differences between Spanish and English. Although English requires the word "a" before "mariner" and "captain," Spanish doesn't require an equivalent word, which in this case would be un (or it could be una if marinera were used).

"A" and "an" are known to grammarians as indefinite articles, and the Spanish equivalents are un (used before masculine nouns and noun phrases) and una (feminine). Using the Spanish indefinite articles when they aren't needed is one of the pitfalls for many beginning Spanish students. Say "no soy un marinero, soy un capitán," and it would sound as awkward (and improper) as one possible translation into English: "I am not one mariner, I am one captain."

Generally speaking, whenever you use un or una in Spanish, you need to use "a" or "an" to say the equivalent in English. But the reverse isn't true. The appearance is that Spanish frequently "omits" the indefinite articles. Although the rules of article usage can get complex, and there are cases where the use of un/una is discretionary, here are the most common cases where the article shouldn't be used even though it's used in English:

With Ser

Don't use the article before an unmodified noun after a form of ser ("to be"), especially in reference to occupation, religion, affiliation or social status.

Normally, if the noun is modified, the article should be used:

  • Soy profesor. (I am a teacher.)
  • Él es un buen dentista. (He is a good dentist.)
  • ¿Eres católica? —No, soy una metodista feliz. ("Are you a Catholic." "No, I'm a happy Methodist.")
  • Es artista. (She is an artist.)
  • Es una artista que muere de hambre. (She is a starving artist.)

    With Otro

    A common mistake made by English speakers is to use un otro or una otra for "another." Otro/otra stands by itself.

    • Quisiera otra taza. (I would like another cup.)
    • Compró otro coche. (She bought another car.)

    With Certain Large Numbers

    The numbers mil (1,000) and cien (100) do not need the article.

    • Gana mil dólares por mes. (He earns a thousand dollars per month.)
    • Tiene cien años. (She is a hundred years old.)

    In Exclamations Using Que

    In exclamations such as "¡Qué sorpresa!" (What a surprise!), there's no need to put anything between the que and the following noun.

    • ¡Qué lástima! (What a shame!)
    • ¡Qué casa! (What a house!)

    With Some Prepositions

    After sin (without), the article is usually omitted unless the speaker is emphasizing the utter lack of something:

    • Escribe sin ordenador. (He writes without a computer.)
    • El restaurante que tiene un equipo de meseros que te atiende sin camisa. (The restaurant has a staff of waiters who wait on you while shirtless.)
    • La cantante compartió fotos sin una gota de maquillaje. (The singer shared photos of herself without a single touch of makeup.)

    The article is usually omitted after con (with) when con has a meaning similar to English words or phrases such as "wearing" or "equipped with." When con can be translated as "using," the article is typically omitted if the object is being used in an ordinary way.

    • Compré una computadora con pantalla táctil. (I bought a computer with a touchscreen.)
    • El bebé come con cuchara. (The baby eats with a spoon. This is the ordinary use for a spoon, while the use in the next sentence isn't.)
    • El preso se escapó de la cárcel con una cuchara. (The prisoner escaped from the jail with a spoon.)
    • Vestir con zapato plano y obtener un resultado de 10 es posible. (Dressing with flat shoes and getting a "10" is possible. Contrast this sentence with the following example, where the shoe isn't being worn.)
    • Sé como abrir una botella con una zapato. (I know how to open a bottle with a shoe.)

    After Certain Verbs

    The article is frequently omitted after forms of tener (to have), comprar (to buy), llevar (to wear) and some other verbs when generically referring to things that people would normally have or use one at a time.

    • No tengo coche. (I don't have a car.)
    • Lleva camisa. (He is wearing a shirt.)
    • Vamos a comprar casa. (We're going to buy a house.)
    • ¿Tiene madre? (Does he have a mother?)

    If you're a beginning Spanish student, don't sweat the details of this final rule for now. As you use the language, you will get a feel for whether you need the article or not.

    Including the Indefinite Article

    Finally, there is one case where we don't use the indefinite article in English where it's needed in Spanish. In a series of two or more words joined by "and," we often leave out the "a" or "an," but when using y in Spanish the un or una is used to avoid ambiguity. In English we might say "a cat and dog," for example, but in Spanish it must be un gato y un perro. Without the second un, the phrase would be understood as referring to one creature, a cross between a cat and dog. Note the distinction in these sentences:

    • Conozco a un artista y un dentista. (I know an artist and I know a dentist.)
    • Conozco a un artista y dentista. (I know a dentist who is also an artist.)