A Simple Guide to Mastering Definite and Indefinite Articles in Spanish
A lot of the focus on learning a new language goes into the verbs and grammatical tenses. But what about the tiniest words, or articles? No, not a newspaper or magazine article. Those tiny words like “the” and “an.” While they are pretty straightforward in English, the world of definite and indefinite articles in Spanish is a bit more complex and absolutely essential. ¡Aprendamos!
What Are Articles and Why Do They Matter?
Articles are the words that go before a noun to describe which thing we are talking about. If you are talking about a specific item or idea, you use the definite article “the.” If you are talking about general ideas or no specific item, use the indefinite articles “a” or “an.”
The definite and indefinite articles in Spanish are similar to English in the fact that we use them to refer to specific and unspecific objects. Additionally, they are vital to correct and accurate speech.
However, the similarities end there. The definite and indefinite articles in Spanish are much more diverse and uses are slightly different.
Definite Articles in Spanish
There are four definite articles in Spanish: el, la, los, and las. Because English nouns don’t have gender, we can use just “the” before every word. However, every Spanish word has a gender, either masculine or feminine.
If the word is singular and masculine, use el.
If the word is singular and feminine, use la.
If the word is plural and masculine, use los.
If the word is plural and feminine, use las.
It is essential that the articles and nouns (and adjectives) agree in both gender and plurality. Let’s look at some examples.
El libro – The book
La mariposa – The butterfly
Los libros – The books
Las mariposas – The butterflies
Now, how do you know which words are masculine, and which ones are feminine? The examples above are simple, as most words that end in -a are feminine, and most words that end in -o are masculine. However, there are innumerable words that have other endings, so it honestly just comes down to memorizing the gender when you learn the word.
Of course, when we say most words that end in -a are feminine, that means that there are some exceptions that just have to be memorized. Some of the most common irregular articles include the following:
El agua – The water
El idioma – The language
El papa – The potato
El día – The day
El clima – The climate
El sofá – The sofa
La moto – The motorcycle
La foto – The photo
La radio – The radio
La mano – The hand
Contractions with Definite Articles
Just like how “a” turns into “an” in some situations, the Spanish definite articles have some tricks as well. When the definite article el is preceded by a or de, it forms a contraction with those words for easy pronunciation.
For example, instead of saying a el parque, which can be a bit of a mouthful to pronounce a and el separately, use al. Likewise, de ends with the same sound that el starts with, so they are difficult to separate in fast speech. Instead, for easy pronunciation, de el turns into del.
A + el = al
De + el = del
Al museo – to the museum
Al restaurante – to the restaurant
Al hotel – to the hotel
Del perro – of the dog, the dog’s
Del barco – of the boat, the boat’s
Del teléfono – of the telephone, the telephone’s
Indefinite Articles in Spanish
If you don’t want to talk about a specific object but instead about the thing in general, use indefinite articles. Just like how there are four definite articles, there are four indefinite articles in Spanish as well. Their use also depends on the gender and plurality of the nouns they precede.
If the word is singular and masculine, use un.
If the word is singular and feminine, use una.
If the word is plural and masculine, use unos.
If the word is plural and feminine, use unas.
One confusing aspect of the indefinite articles is that uno is not the singular masculine form. Uno is only used in counting. If you want to talk about “a” thing or “an” object that is masculine, use un.
Additionally, “a” and “an” are only for singular objects in English. There are no indefinite articles in English for plural objects, but in Spanish there are! In English, they would just be translated using the adjective “some.”
Un perro – a dog
Una mesa – a table
Unos perros – some dogs
Unas mesas – some tables
Irregular articles don’t only refer to definite articles. There are numerous exceptions to the rule that if a word ends in -a, it takes a feminine article. As a general rule, if the word uses an irregular definite article, it will also use an irregular indefinite article.
Un agua – A water (a container of water)
Un idioma – A language
Un papa – A potato
Un día – One, a day
Un clima – A climate
Un sofá – A sofa
Una moto – A motorcycle
Una foto – A photo
Una radio – A radio
Una mano – A hand
Using Definite and Indefinite Articles in Spanish
Remembering the rules about gender and plurality isn’t the only important thing about using the definite and indefinite articles in Spanish. Their usage is also unique. Here are some general rules to get you started.
- If you would use a definite or indefinite article in English, you would also use it in Spanish.
- You use definite and indefinite articles more in Spanish than in English.
When to Use Definite and Indefinite Articles in Spanish
Since definite and indefinite articles in Spanish are more commonly used than in English, let’s look at situations when you would use them in Spanish but not in English.
1. Talking about Days of the Week
When setting up an appointment or talking about your activities, instead of saying “on” the day, you say “the” day.
¿Quieres ver una película el viernes? – Do you want to see a movie on Friday?
Los lunes voy a mi clase de arte. – On Mondays I go to my art class.
2. After the Verb Gustar
Whenever you want to talk about what you like or dislike, remember to use a definite article – never an indefinite article.
Me gustan las cerezas. – I like cherries.
No me gusta el café. – I don’t like coffee.
3. Telling Time
Before any time or hour, you must use either la or las. Only use la before one o’clock, and use las for the other times. Because la hora is feminine, all times are feminine as well.
Son las tres de la tarde. – It’s three in the afternoon.
La reunión empieza a la una. – The meeting starts at one o’clock.
4. At the Beginning of a Sentence
When you start a sentence with a noun, always use an article in Spanish. In English, there are situations in which you may or may not use one but always use an article in Spanish.
El miedo me controla. – Fear controls me.
La nieve se derrite. – Snow melts.
5. Talking about Body Parts
If you ever need to speak to the doctor in Spanish, this rule is especially important. In English, we use the possessive pronouns “my” and “your” before talking about your body parts, but in Spanish, we always use the definite articles.
Me duele mucho la cabeza. – My head really hurts.
Tienes que lavarte las manos. – You have to wash your hands.
6. Talking about Colors
Just like with body parts, colors always take an article in Spanish. This article is always masculine because the word color is masculine.
El morado es mi color favorito. – Purple is my favorite color.
El rojo no me gusta. – I don’t like red.
7. Talking about People
When referring to a person using their title, use a definite article beforehand.
La señora Ramírez nos va a hacer tamales. – Mrs. Ramirez is going to make us tamales.
El doctor Byron te va a atender. – Dr. Byron will see you.
These definite articles are also used colloquially in front of names in certain Spanish-speaking countries.
La Siliva me dijo que iba a venir. – Silvia told me she was going to come.
El Juan me ayudó. – Juan helped me.
When Not to Use Definite and Indefinite Articles in Spanish
1. With the Verb Tener
Sometimes (not always!) you do not use an article after the verb tener in Spanish.
No tengo novio. – I don’t have a boyfriend.
¿Tienes carro? – Do you have a car?
Let’s look at some situations that do require an article after the verb tener.
Tengo el documento que me pediste. – I have the document you asked for.
Tengo un perro. – I have a dog.
2. With Professions
What do you do for a living? We usually respond to this question in English with the indefinite article “a” before our job. However, that article is omitted in Spanish.
Soy maestra. – I am a teacher.
Él es abogado. – He’s a lawyer.
Practice Using the Definite and Indefinite Articles in Spanish
There are a lot of rules and exceptions surrounding the definite and indefinite articles in Spanish, but with practice, you can quickly master them. Try doing the following exercises and check your work with the answer key below!
Exercise 1: Write the definite article before the noun.
- _________ guitarra
- _________ vaso
- _________ idioma
- _________ manos
- _________ silla
- _________ espejos
- _________ agua
- _________ foto
- _________ pelos
- _________ mochilas
Exercise 2: Write the indefinite article before the noun.
- _________ día
- _________ chaquetas
- _________ teléfono
- _________ papa
- _________ zapatos
- _________ amigo
- _________ familias
- _________ estufa
- _________ plato
- _________ muñecas
Exercise 3: Translate the sentences to English.
- La presentación es el miércoles.
- Los niños me dieron un regalo.
- La esperanza nunca se acaba.
- Las noticias siempre son malas.
- Soy ingeniera y ella es enfermera.
- Tengo una pregunta y necesito una respuesta.
- ¿Te duele mucho la rodilla?
- Su color favorito es el verde.
- No me he lavado las manos.
- No me gustan los pájaros.
Exercise 4: Translate the sentences to Spanish.
- Sorry, I don’t have a car.
- I broke a plate.
- The animals left the zoo.
- We need to go to the hotel and then to the park.
- A monkey stole my food.
- Some families just arrived for the activity.
- The dog’s toys are very dirty.
- The keys are in the car.
- Mr. Sanchez will give the papers to you.
- I want a new computer.
Exercise 5: Write verdadero or falso for each of the following statements. If a statement is falso, correct it.
- There are four different Spanish articles.
- Indefinite articles refer to general things.
- There are two exceptions to the articles.
- You use the articles more in Spanish than in English.
- You must use articles before professions in Spanish.
How did you do with the exercises? (The answer key is below.) If you have any questions about the definite and indefinite articles in Spanish, leave us a comment! We’d love to hear from you and help you with your Spanish learning journey.
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Exercise 1: 1) la guitarra 2) el vaso 3) el idioma 4) las manos 5) la silla 6) los espejos 7) el agua 8) la foto 9) los pelos 10) las mochilas.
Exercise 2: 1) un día 2) unas chaquetas 3) un teléfono 4) un papa 5) unos zapatos 6) un amigo 7) unas familias 8) una estufa 9) un plato 10) unas muñecas.
Exercise 3: 1) The presentation is on Wednesday. 2) The kids gave me a gift. 3) Hope never ends. 4) The news is always bad. 5) I’m an engineer and she’s a nurse. 6) I have a question and I need an answer. 7) Does your knee hurt a lot? 8) His (Her) favorite color is green. 9) I haven’t washed my hands. 10) I don’t like birds.
Exercise 4: 1) Lo siento, no tengo carro. 2) Quebré un plato. 3) Los animales salieron del zoológico. 4) Necesitamos ir al hotel y después al parque. 5) Un mono me robó mi comida. 6) Unas familias acaban de llegar para la actividad. 7) Los juguetes del perro están muy sucios. 8) Las llaves están en el carro. 9) El señor Sánchez te dará los papeles. 10) Quiero una computadora nueva.
Exercise 5: 1) falso – there are eight, four definite and four indefinite 2) verdadero 3) falso – there are numerous exceptions 4) verdadero 5) falso – you do not use articles before professions in Spanish
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