Which noun? That one!
A definite article is a part of speech which shows whether the noun being described is a defined, specific object or a non-specific (arbitrary/random) one (a.k.a. its definiteness). In English “the” is the definite article, which is used to refer to a specific noun, while “a/an” is the indefinite article, used when referring to an unspecified noun.
Can you hand me the shirt I picked out yesterday? (the specific shirt)
Can you hand me a shirt? (any one will do)
In Spanish, the definite article needs to be adjusted depending on the gender and number of the noun. All Spanish nouns have an arbitrary gender of masculine or feminine. Therefore, there are masculine articles in both definite and indefinite, and feminine articles for both definite and indefinite cases.
|the phone / the phones||el teléfono (m)||los teléfonos|
|the chair / the chairs||la silla (f)||las sillas|
Note: Careful not to confuse the definite article el with the pronoun él (he).
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When to use the definite article
The definite article is used more often in Spanish than in English. For example, the definite article is required when talking about:
- Days of the week
- Generalized categories and abstract nouns
- With people’s titles (such as professions)
- When naming languages
- With parts of the body
- With articles of clothing
- When telling time
1. Days of the week
All of the days of the week are masculine, meaning you’ll use el when talking about a specific day, or the plural article los when talking about what generally happens on that day of the week. Articles are not required when talking about the months of the year (Voy a Perú en febrero).
Voy a Perú el lunes. I am going to Peru on Monday.
Use the plural article to talk about habitual actions.
Los lunes voy al yoga. On Mondays I go to yoga.
2. Generalized categories and abstract nouns
When discussing groups or categories of nouns, such as your likes and dislikes, you should use a definite article.
Me gusta la cerveza, pero odio el vino. I like beer, but I hate wine.
Los perros están demasiado sucios para tenerlos en cama. Dogs are too dirty to have in your bed.
This is also the case for general concepts or ideas (related to the abstract nouns above).
El feminismo es una ideología contemporánea. Feminism is a contemporary ideology.
El amor es un campo de batalla. Love is a battlefield.
3. With people’s titles (such as professions)
When talking about someone in the third person (not addressing them directly), use the definite article before their title.
El Señor Méndez es el mejor chef de repostería de la ciudad. Mr. Mendez is the best pastry chef in town.
Por favor, espere a que llegue la doctora Rodríguez. Please wait for Dr. Rodriguez to arrive.
4. When naming languages
Use a definite article when discussing languages as abstract entities, such as discussing “the English language” or “the role of Chinese” as a language in general, but not when it’s the object of a verb (like hablar or aprender) or when it’s preceded by en. Articles are not required when referring to the name of a country (Vivo en Mexico /
Vivo en el Mexico). Also note that the name of the language shouldn’t be capitalized.
El francés es un idioma importante para trabajar en las Naciones Unidas. French is an important language to learn to work in the United Nations.
Aprendí español en la escuela secundaria. I learned Spanish in high school.
Le escribí una carta en italiano a mi abuela. I wrote a letter in Italian to my grandmother.
5. With parts of the body
In Spanish, rather than using the possessive pronoun (“my leg”), you refer to body parts with the definite article (“the leg”).
Me lastimé el brazo jugando fútbol. I hurt my arm playing soccer.
Me voy a hacer un tatuaje en la espalda. I am getting a tattoo on my back.
6. With articles of clothing
Just like parts of the body, use the definite article when you would use a possessive pronoun in English for articles of clothing.
Lavé la camisa anoche. I washed my shirt last night.
7. When telling time
Use the feminine definite article before the hour you’re referring to. For all hours except “one” (because it’s singular), use the plural article las. Note that you’ll also need to change the verb to be singular (for example, from son to es).
Son las cinco en alguna parte. It’s five o’clock somewhere.
Nos vemos a las tres. We’ll see each other at three.
¡Es la una de la mañana, no hay restaurantes abiertos! It’s one in the morning; there aren’t any restaurants open!
A few other tips…
You’re almost ready to start using definite articles to correctly specify a noun, but there are a few more situations you’ll encounter that may leave you scratching your head. Notice anything funny about the articles in the following examples?
Derramé el agua sucia. I poured out the dirty water.
Lo interesante de eso es que ni siquiera leyó el libro. The interesting thing about it is that he never even read the book.
No voy al concierto. I’m not going to the concert.
Before (some) nouns that start with “A”
Certain nouns that begin with “A” are pronounced with a “tonic” or stressed “A” sound. When these nouns are feminine, it’s too difficult to pronounce two of these “A” sounds in a row. In these cases, el is used for the singular, but las is used for the plural.
la agua el agua las aguas
El águila nació. The eagle was born.
Las águilas están volando The eagles are flying.
As the noun remains feminine, adjectives, etc. still need to be adjusted to match, as sucio (“dirty”) has been changed to sucia in the example from above.
Derramé el agua sucia. I poured out the dirty water.
Note that even if another word occurs in between the two “A” sounds, the singular version still uses the masculine article, just to keep things consistent.
El bebé águila nació. The baby eagle was born.
Lo: Neuter Article for non-specific nouns
When using an adjective (such as “important” or “interesting”) to form an abstract noun without a specified gender (“the important thing” or “that which is interesting”), the “neuter” article is used because it also doesn’t specify a certain gender.
Lo importante es ser feliz. The important thing is to be happy.
Lo fácil es encontrar los ingredientes, lo difícil es cocinar la receta. The easy thing is finding the ingredients; the hard thing is cooking the recipe.
Combining el and la with prepositions
When the definite article el occurs after the preposition a (“to”) or de (“of”), it is transformed to enable easier pronunciation.
a + el parque = al parque Voy al parque. I am going to the park.
de + el parque = del parque Está regresando del parque. He is returning from the park.
Since pronunciation is not affected by the combination of la or the plural los and las with these prepositions, they remain as two separate words.
Voy a la playa. I am going to the beach.
Está regresando de la playa. He is returning from the beach.
Now that you’ve learned a few new versions (masculine, feminine, plural) of the definite article and a few new situations which require the use of the definite article, you’re ready to specify when you’re referring to a specific noun (rather than a random one with the indefinite article).
Getting used to including the definite article in the situations mentioned above will take lots of practice, an important part of which is being exposed to lots of examples in the Spanish language, allowing your brain to soak up all of the appropriate usages. Check out Lingvist’s online Spanish language course to see definite articles in action and quiz yourself on which articles go where!