Definite articles in Spanish (el, la, los, las “the”) are used to refer to unique items (La capital de Colombia es Bogotá. “The capital of Colombia is Bogotá.”) and also to introduce a noun when used in a general sense (La comida española es deliciosa. “Spanish food is delicious.”). This is the general rule, but there are other uses. In this post, we’ll review what definite articles are, when they are used and omitted, and the special case of lo. Are you curious? Read on to learn more!
Table of Contents
For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.
What are definite articles?
Definite articles are words that introduce a noun in a general way. In English, the word “the” is the only definite article, but in Spanish there are four equivalents, because each one agrees in gender and number with the noun it modifies, and they are always placed before the noun.
Some feminine nouns like agua (water) use the masculine article el. To find out more, check this list of feminine nouns that use a masculine article!
Check out our post on how to know the gender of Spanish nouns, and how to form the plural of Spanish nouns!
When are definite articles used?
Definite articles in Spanish are used to: refer to people or objects, refer to titles and family names, accompany certain verbs, express time and date, refer to languages and academic subjects, identify some nouns like body parts, and with some proper nouns. Although the uses of the definite article in Spanish and English can overlap, Spanish uses the definite article much more frequently. For example, Spanish uses definite articles before certain objects instead of Spanish possessives. Let’s take a closer look!
To refer to people or objects
Use definite articles to refer to people or objects in the following cases:
Unique or specific person or object
Santiago es la capital de Chile. Santiago is the capital of Chile.
In this case, I’m not talking about any city in Chile, but about its capital — the only one.
To refer to something already mentioned
Tengo un perro. El perro se llama Capitán.
I have a dog. The dog’s name is Capitán.
Here, I’m using the definite article to refer to a noun that was introduced in the previous sentence.
Me encanta el café.
I love coffee.
Los niños son el futuro.
Children are the future.
Here we use the definite article to bring focus to an entire group or concept by uniting all of the things referred to by the noun. In these examples, we focus on coffee in general and all children as a group.
Did you notice how we used the article in Spanish, but not in English? There are other contrasts between the two languages; next, we’ll focus on other article uses that are very different from English, so don’t go anywhere!
To refer to people’s titles and family names
Definite articles also introduce people’s last names and titles, but it is not common to use it to introduce a person’s first name:
|La profesora Jiménez dará la conferencia.||Professor Jiménez will hold the conference.|
|El señor López llamó esta mañana.||Mr. López called this morning.|
With last names referring to the members of a family, we keep the last name in singular but use the plural article:
Los López no vienen a la fiesta.
The Lopezes are not coming to the party.
When we use a last name to refer to a person who has qualities associated with the last name (often a famous one), the last name and the article can be singular or plural depending on who we are referring to:
Ese chico es el Einstein de la clase.
That boy is the Einstein of the class.
En esta clase están los Einsteins del mañana.
The Einsteins of tomorrow are in this class.
With some verbs
When we use infinitives as nouns, we can introduce them with a definite article; this is optional though — the infinitive alone is also correct. The equivalent in English is the use of “-ing”:
|(El) Caminar es muy relajante.||Walking is very relaxing.|
We can also use definite articles with the verbs tocar (to play a musical instrument) and jugar (to play a sport or game):
A Juan le gusta tocar la guitarra.
Juan likes to play (the) guitar.
Los niños juegan al fútbol todos los domingos.
The children play soccer every Sunday.
Did you know that Spanish has only two contractions?
Al is short for a (to) + el (the), and del is short for de (from) + el (the). Use them with a singular masculine noun:
Voy al parque todas las mañanas.
I go to the park every morning.
Venimos del hospital.
We come from the hospital.
But with feminine nouns with the prepositions a or de, you don’t need any contractions. The same happens with a proper name:
|Voy a la tienda.||I go to the store.|
|Voy a El Salvador de vacaciones.||I’m going to El Salvador on vacation.|
With time, dates, and days of the week
Pay extra attention here: different from English, Spanish requires that you introduce the following time expressions with a definite article:
Son las cinco de la tarde
It’s five in the afternoon.
Mi examen es el 10 de septiembre.
My exam is on September 10th.
Don’t use any article for the date when using hoy (today), ayer (yesterday), or mañana (tomorrow):
Hoy es 8 de agosto.
Today is August 8th.
Days of the week
While English uses the preposition “on” or no article to introduce the days of the week, in both cases, Spanish always uses the definite article el.
El lunes tengo clase a las tres de la tarde.
On Monday I have class at three in the afternoon.
El viernes es mi día favorito.
Friday is my favorite day.
When we talk about habitual or recurring days, we use the plural article. The days of the week are invariable:
Los lunes tengo clase a las tres de la tarde.
On Mondays I have class at three in the afternoon.
Languages and academic subjects
Use definite articles in Spanish when introducing the names of languages or academic subjects:
El español es un idioma muy interesante.
Spanish is a very interesting language.
Mi asignatura preferida es la filosofía.
My favorite subject is philosophy.
Don’t use a definite article with languages or academic subjects if you’re using the verbs hablar (to speak), saber (to know), enseñar (to teach), or estudiar (to study):
¿Usted habla japonés?
Do you speak Japanese?
Ella enseña ciencia en la escuela.
She teaches science at school.
Parts of the body, clothing, and personal belongings
In English, you would use a possessive adjective (“my,” “your,” “his”…) to introduce parts of the body, clothing, and personal belongings, but in Spanish we use definite articles:
Me duele la cabeza.
My head hurts.
Se puso la camiseta.
He put on his T-shirt.
Proper names of streets and buildings
When a street, square, avenue, cinema, hotel, museum, etc., is followed by its name, we use the definite article:
Visitamos el centro comercial Galerías en la calle San Martín.
We visited the Galerias mall on San Martín street.
There are a few other cases that are very similar to English. To know more about them, make sure you check out our list of specific nouns that require a definite article in Spanish.
The case of ‘lo’
In addition to el and la (the), Spanish has a third form: lo. This article is invariable and it can be used with:
An adjective as a way to mean “the thing”:
Lo difícil de los idiomas es la pronunciación.
The hard thing about languages is pronunciation.
‘Lo que’ and ‘lo cual’
Relative pronouns que (that) and cual (which) are used with lo to refer to abstract or unspecified concepts:
Lo que debemos hacer es estudiar toda la noche.
What we should do is study all night.
Tenemos mucha comida, lo cual es muy bueno.
We have a lot of food, which is very good.
When are definite articles omitted?
There are some cases where the definite article is omitted with specific nouns that don’t require an article in Spanish. We’ve compiled this list of cases when Spanish definite articles are omitted (pp. 4 & 5) and some are exceptions to the rules above.
We have just learned when to use definite articles in Spanish. As you can see, there are similar cases with English, but there are also differences, so pay attention to the differences and you’ll become a pro.
Before you leave, check your understanding with this exercise on Spanish definite articles. Happy learning!
Gender represents categories in which nouns are split based on endings. In Spanish, there are two: masculine and feminine.
|el chico (m.)||the boy|
|la chica (f.)||the girl|
Number represents the quantity the noun refers to, meaning if it is singular or plural.
|el chico (s.), los chicos (pl.)||the boy, the boys|
|la chica (s.), las chicas (pl.)||the girl, the girls|
Possessive adjectives are adjectives that are used to show possession or relationship of the nouns they modify. Like all adjectives in Spanish, they must agree in number and gender with the noun they describe.
Possessive adjectives in Spanish include mi/mis (my), tu/tus (your singular), su/sus (his/her/your formal/its/their), nuestro/nuestra/nuestros/nuestras (our), and vuestro/vuestra/vuestros/vuestras (your plural).