Substituting ‘El’ for ‘La’ for Spanish Feminine Nouns

tocar el arpa
Tocar el arpa. (Playing the harp.). Daniela Vladimirova/Flickr

El is the singular, masculine definite article, meaning "the," in Spanish and is used to define masculine nouns, while la is the feminine version. But there are a few instances where el is used with feminine nouns.

Gender in Words

An interesting thing about Spanish is the fact that words have gender. A word is considered male or female, depending on what the word refers to and how it ends. A general rule of thumb is if a word ends in -o, it is most likely masculine, and if a word ends in -a, it is most likely feminine. If the word is describing a female person, then the word is feminine and vice versa.

Definite Articles for Nouns

In most cases, el is used for masculine nouns and la is used for feminine nouns. Another rule supersedes this, and that is when the feminine noun is singular and starts with a stressed a- or ha- sound, like the words agua, meaning water, or hambre, meaning hunger. The reason the definite article becomes el is mostly a matter of how it sounds to say la agua and la hambre and the clunkiness of the "double-a" sounds repeating. It sounds more definitive to say el agua and el hambre.

There is a similar grammar rule in English about the use of the "an" versus "a." An English speaker would say, "an apple" instead of " a apple." The two repeating "double-a" sounds are too close to each other and sound too repetitive. The English rule states that "an," which is an indefinite article modifying the noun, comes before nouns that have a vowel sound at the beginning of the word and "a" comes before consonant-starting nouns.

Feminine Words that Use the Masculine Article

Notice the substitution of el for la takes place when it comes immediately before words starting with an "a" sound.

Feminine Nouns English Translation
el agua the water
el ama de casa the housewife
el asma asthma
el arca the ark
el hambre hunger
el hampa the underworld
el arpa the harp
el águila the eagle

If the feminine noun is modified by adjectives that follow the noun in the sentence, the feminine noun retains the masculine article.

Feminine Nouns English Translation
el agua purificada purified water
el arpa paraguaya the Paraguayan harp
el hambre excesiva excessive hunger

Reverting Back to the Feminine Article

The thing to remember is that words that are feminine remain feminine. The reason why this matters is if the word becomes plural, the word goes back to using the feminine definite article. In this case, the definite article becomes las. It sounds fine to say las arcas since the "s" in las breaks up the "double-a" sound. Another example is las amas de casa.

If a word intervenes between the definite article and the noun, la is used.

Feminine Nouns English Translation
la pura agua pure water
la insoportable hambre the unbearable hunger
la feliz ama de casa the happy housewife
la gran águila the great eagle

If the accent of the noun is not on the first syllable, the definite article la is used with singular feminine nouns when they begin with a- or ha-.

Feminine Nouns English Translation
la habilidad the skill
la audiencia the audience
la asamblea the meeting

The substitution of el for la does not occur before adjectives that begin with a stressed a- or ha-, the rule only applies to nouns, despite the "double-a" sound. 

Feminine Nouns English Translation
la alta muchacha the tall girl
la agria experiencia the bitter experience

Exceptions to the Rule

There a few exceptions to the rule that el substitutes for la immediately before a noun that begins with a stressed a- or ha-. Note, the letters of the alphabet, called letras in Spanish, which is a feminine noun, are all feminine.

Feminine Nouns English Translation
la árabe the Arabic woman
La Haya The Hague
la a the letter A
la hache the letter H
la haz

uncommon word for face,
not to be confused with el haz,
meaning shaft or beam

Feminine Words Can Use the Masculine Indefinite Article

Most grammarians consider it correct for feminine words to take the masculine indefinite article un instead of una under the same conditions where la is changed to el. It is for the same reason la is changed to el, to eliminate the "double-a" sound of the two words together. 

Feminine Nouns English Translation
un águila an eagle
un ama de casa a housewife

Although this is widely considered correct grammar, this usage is not universal. In everyday spoken language, this rule is irrelevant, due to elision, which is the omission of sounds, especially as words flow together. In pronunciation, there is no difference between un águila and una águila.