Use and Omission of the Definite Article

Part 1: When the Article Is Omitted

Calle de Tilcara
El español es la lengua de la Argentina. (Spanish is the language of Argentina.). Photo by Juan; licensed via Creative Commons.

¿Hablas español? El español es la lengua de la Argentina. (Do you speak Spanish? Spanish is the language of Argentina.)

If you're paying attention or are particularly analytical about words, you may have noticed something about the words el and la — words usually translated as "the" — in the above sentences. In the first sentence, español is used to translate "Spanish," but in the second sentence it's el español.

And Argentina, a country name that stands alone in English, is preceded by la in the Spanish sentence.

These differences typify just a couple of the differences in how the definite article ("the" in English and usually el, la, los or las in Spanish) is used in the two languages. Using the definite article when you shouldn't or the other way around won't make you misunderstood very often, but using it correctly will make you sound like less of a foreigner.

The easy rule: Fortunately, although the rules of using the definite article can be complex, you have a head start if you speak English. That's because nearly any time you use "the" in English you can use the definite article in Spanish. Of course, there are exceptions. Here are the cases where Spanish doesn't use the definite article while English does:

  • Before ordinal numbers for names of rulers and similar people. Luis octavo (Luis the Eighth), Carlos quinto (Carlos the Fifth).
  • Some proverbs (or statements made in a proverbial fashion) omit the article. Camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente. (The shrimp that falls asleep gets carried away by the current.) Perro que ladra no muerde. (The dog that barks doesn't bite.)
  • When used in nonrestrictive apposition, the article is often omitted. This usage can best be explained by example. Vivo en Las Vegas, ciudad que no duerme. (I live in Las Vegas, the city that doesn't sleep.) In this case, ciudad que no duerme is in apposition to Las Vegas. The clause is said to be nonrestrictive because it doesn't define which Las Vegas; it only provides additional information. The article isn't used. But Vivo en Washington, el estado. Here, el estado is in apposition to Washington, and it defines which Washington (it "restricts" Washington), so the article is used. Conozco a Julio Iglesias, cantante famoso. (I know Julio Iglesias, the famous singer.) In this sentence, presumably both the person speaking and any listeners know who Iglesias is, so the phrase in apposition (cantante famoso) doesn't tell who he is (it doesn't "restrict"), it merely provides additional information. The definite article isn't needed. But Escogí a Bob Smith, el médico. (I chose Bob Smith, the doctor.) The listener doesn't know who Bob Smith is, and el médico serves to define him ("restrict" him). The definite article would be used.
  • In certain set phrases that don't follow any particular pattern. Examples: A largo plazo (in the long run), en alta mar (on the high seas).

Far more common are cases where you don't use the article in English but you need it in Spanish. Following are the most common such uses. Keep in mind that there are some regional variations and exceptions. But this list should include most of the instances you will come across.

Days of the week: Days of the week typically are preceded by either el or los, depending on whether the day is singular or plural (the names of the weekdays don't change in the plural form).

Voy a la tienda el jueves. (I'm going to the store on Thursday.) Voy a la tienda los jueves. (I go to the store on Thursdays.) The article isn't used following a form of the verb ser to indicate which day of the week it is. Hoy es lunes. (Today is Monday.)

Seasons of the year: Seasons normally need the definite article, although it is optional after de, en or a form of ser. Prefiero los inviernos. (I prefer winters.) No quiero asistir a la escuela de verano. (I don't want to go to the summer school.)

With more than one noun: In English, we can often omit the "the" when using two or more nouns joined by "and" or "or," as the article is understood to apply to both. That's not so in Spanish. El hermano y la hermana están tristes. (The brother and sister are sad.) Vendemos la casa y la silla. (We're selling the house and chair.)

With generic nouns: These are nouns that refer to a concept or to a substance in general or a member of a class in general, rather than a specific one (where the article would be required in both languages).

No preferiría el despotismo. (I wouldn't prefer despotism.) Esto es la realidad de la vida. (This is the reality of life.) El trigo es nutritivo. (Wheat is nutritious.) Los americanos son ricos. (Americans are rich.) Los derechistas no deben votar. (Right-wingers ought not to vote.) Escogí la cristianidad.

(I chose Christianity.) Exception: The article is often omitted after the preposition de, especially when the noun following de serves to describe the first noun and doesn't refer to a specific person or thing. Los zapatos de hombres (men's shoes), but los zapatos de los hombres (the shoes of the men). Dolor de muela (toothache in general), but dolor de la muela (a toothache in a particular tooth).

With names of languages: Names of languages require the article except when they immediately follow en or a verb that is often used of languages (particularly saber, aprender, and hablar, and sometimes entender, escribir or estudiar). The article also is required after an adverb or a preposition other than en. Hablo español. (I speak Spanish.) Hablo bien el español. (I speak Spanish well.) Prefiero el inglés. (I prefer English.) Aprendemos inglés. (We are learning English.)

With clothing, body parts and other personal items: It is very common to use the definite article in Spanish in cases where a possessive adjective (such as "your") would be used in English. Examples: ¡Abre los ojos! (Open your eyes!) Perdió los zapatos. (He lost his shoes.)

With infinitives used as subjects: El entender es difícil.

(Understanding is difficult.) El fumar está prohibido. (Smoking is prohibited.)

Before the names of some countries: The names of some countries, and a few cities, are preceded by the definite article. In some cases it's mandatory or nearly so (el Reino Unido, la India), while in other cases it's optional but common (el Canadá, la China). Even if a country isn't on the list, the article is used if the country is modified by an adjective. Voy a México. (I'm going to Mexico.) But, voy al México bello. (I'm going to beautiful Mexico.) The article is also commonly used before the names of mountains: el Everest, el Fuji.

Before names of streets: Streets, avenues, plazas and similar places are usually preceded by the article. La Casa Blanca está en la avenida Pennsylvania. (The White House is on Pennsylvania Avenue.)

With personal titles: The article is used before most personal titles when talking about people, but not when talking to them. El señor Smith está en casa. (Mr. Smith is at home.) But, hola, señor Smith (hello, Mr. Smith). La doctora Jones asistió a la escuela. (Dr. Jones attended the school.) But, doctora Jones, ¿como está? (Dr. Jones, how are you?) La is also often used when speaking about a famous woman using her last name only. La Spacek durmió aquí. (Spacek slept here.)

In certain set phrases: Many of these involve places. En el espacio (in space), en la televisión (on television).

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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Use and Omission of the Definite Article." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, Erichsen, Gerald. (2017, March 2). Use and Omission of the Definite Article. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Use and Omission of the Definite Article." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 19, 2018).