Correct article usage is not exactly the most glamorous topic in language learning.
There’s something intrinsically dynamic and engaging about learning Spanish slang, reading a whole Spanish poem or training your ear to understand a Spanish song.
With all of these fun language learning techniques, it can be tempting to let grammar minutiae fall by the wayside.
Don’t fall prey to this trap!
Grammar is the glue that holds language together—and those little words called “articles” are highly important in Spanish. Without learning them well, you’ll find yourself (and your conversation partners) confused.
Spanish articles are simple to learn, but in practice their usage can be a bit tricky for English speakers.
If you devote some time and energy to learning the ins and outs of Spanish articles, you’ll notice a quick jump in your Spanish speaking ability. Your sentences will sound more natural and more like those of a native speaker.
Read on for a complete overview of definite and indefinite articles in Spanish, as well as seven tricks and tips to help you use them correctly in your everyday speech.
What Are Definite and Indefinite Articles?
Articles are words that refer to nouns. The English articles are: a, an, the and some.
In English, “the” is considered a definite article because it refers to a defined, specific object.
Pass me the salt.
The car is around the corner.
A, an and some are indefinite articles because they refer to a general idea of an object, rather than a specific object.
She has an older brother.
There’s some cheese in the refrigerator.
Note the difference between these two sentences:
The hamburger on that plate looks delicious.
I want a hamburger.
The first sentence uses a definite article because it refers to a specific hamburger—the one on the plate. The second sentence uses an indefinite article because it’s not talking about one particular hamburger, but rather, the concept of a hamburger.
How Do Definite and Indefinite Articles Work in Spanish?
In Spanish, the definite article has four forms: el, la, los and las. When deciding which form to use, you must first identify both the number and gender of your noun.
For a run-down of Spanish gender, click here. Likewise, here’s an overview of Spanish plurals. If you’re already familiar with these two concepts, read on.
When choosing the correct Spanish definite article:
- Use el for singular, masculine nouns. El coche (the car), el queso (the cheese) el hombre (the man).
- Use la for singular, feminine nouns. La mochila (the backpack), la manzana (the apple), la muchacha (the girl).
- Use los for plural, masculine nouns. Los ojos (the eyes), los colores (the colors).
- Use las for plural, feminine nouns. Las narices (the noses), las letras (the letters).
Now, let’s look at indefinite articles.
The Spanish indefinite articles are un, una, unos and unas. Just like the definite articles, each corresponds to a gender and to a number.
- Use un for singular, masculine nouns. Un día (a day), un perro (a dog).
- Use una for singular, feminine nouns. Una semana (a week), una hoja (a leaf).
- Use unos for plural, masculine nouns. Unos estudiantes (some students), unos caballos (some horses).
- Use unas for plural, feminine nouns. Unas actrices (some actresses), unas mesas (some chairs).
Although Spanish articles and English articles are somewhat similar, there are a few tricky rules that differentiate Spanish article usage from English article usage.
7 Tips and Tricks for Correct Usage of Definite and Indefinite Articles in Spanish
The tips below will get you started with using definite and indefinite articles like a pro. For a learning boost, pair this article with the videos and learning materials on FluentU.
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1. Use Definite Articles When Talking About Likes and Dislikes.
In English, when talking about our likes, loves and dislikes, we don’t generally use articles.
“I like monster trucks.”
“I hate black olives.”
In Spanish, however, you must use definite articles (el, la, los, las) when talking about these general likes and dislikes.
Me gusta el arte. (I like art.)
Odio las películas de terror. (I hate horror movies.)
2. Use Definite, Feminine Articles to Tell Time.
Times in Spanish are all feminine, and you always need to include the feminine definite article (la or las) when telling time.
When learning to tell time in Spanish, there are two important phrases to remember:
Son las… (it’s)
A las… (at)
Son las ocho de la mañana. (It’s 8:00 in the morning.)
El concierto empieza a las diez y media. (The concert begins at 10:30.)
The only exception to son las and a las is when you’re talking about a time with the hour 1:00 as your reference. Why? Because 1 is singular! Therefore, naturally, you must use the singular feminine article la.
Voy a llegar a la una y veinte. (I’ll arrive at 1:20.)
¡Ya es la una y cuarto! (It’s already a quarter past 1!)
El partido terminó a la una menos diez. (The game ended at 10 to 1.)
3. Use Definite, Masculine Articles When Talking About Days of the Week.
In English, we rarely use definite or indefinite articles when talking about the days of the week. Sure, there are certain specific circumstances that require the use of an article (“the Monday after next,” for example). But more generally, we’re accustomed to preceding days of the week with prepositions.
I hope to see you on Thursday.
She won’t be here until Friday night.
In Spanish, on the other hand, when you want to talk about something happening on a specific day of the week, you must use a definite pronoun before the day of the week. The days of the week are always masculine, so you’ll use either el or los.
When talking about one specific day of the week, use el.
Iré a Bogotá el lunes que viene. (I will go to Bogota next Monday.)
When talking about something habitual, or something that happens every week, use los.
Voy al gimnasio todos los martes. (I go to the gym every Tuesday.)
Watch out: If the day of the week ends in an s, don’t change the spelling when you make it plural! So “every Saturday” would be todos los sábados, but “every Wednesday” would be todos los miércoles, with no change made to the word miércoles (Wednesday).
4. Don’t Use Any Article When Talking About Your Profession, Nationality, Religion, etc.
In English, we use the indefinite articles a or an when talking about our professions, nationalities, religions and the other abstract ideas that make up our identities.
I’m an anthropologist.
She’s a Catholic.
In Spanish, you must leave those articles out.
Soy abogado. (I’m a lawyer.)
Soy brasileña. (I’m a Brazilian.)
However, if you wish to qualify that abstract concept with more information, you usually need to insert an indefinite article (un, una).
Soy un buen doctor. (I’m a good doctor.)
Soy un católico con mucha fe. (I’m a Catholic with a lot of faith.)
5. Don’t Use Any Article When Talking About an Unspecified Quantity.
In English, when we talk about an unspecified quantity of something—or when we’re dealing with uncountable nouns—we generally use the qualifiers “some” or “any.”
There isn’t any bread on the table.
I have some green shirts in my closet.
Resist the urge to translate directly from English to Spanish! In Spanish, you don’t need to use an article when talking about an indefinite amount or using an uncountable noun.
Hay leche en el vaso. (There’s some milk in the glass.)
No hay coches en el estacionamiento. (There aren’t any cars in the parking lot.)
6. Colloquially, Use Indefinite Articles for Emphasis.
¡Tengo un hambre…!
In this kink of emphatic phrase the speaker leaves the phrase unfinished. The complete phrase would be ¡Tengo un hambre terrible!
This phrase literally translates to “I have a hunger!” It’s actually just a colloquial way to say you’re really hungry.
In Spanish, we frequently use the verb tener (to have) to express states of being. See, for example, tener frío (to be cold), tener calor (to be hot), tener sed (to be thirsty), tener dolor (to be hurt), tener prisa (to be in a hurry), tener suerte (to be lucky) and so on.
With many of these expressions, you can insert the correct indefinite article (un, una) to add emphasis or urgency in colloquial settings.
Tengo un frío… odio el invierno, tío. (I’m so cold… I hate winter, dude.)
You also must add the indefinite article if you want to qualify the state of being with an adjective or with more information.
Tengo un poco de calor. (I’m a little hot.)
Tengo una prisa terrible, lo siento mucho. (I’m in an awful hurry, I’m really sorry.)
Just be careful with tener sueño (to be sleepy). If you add the indefinite article, you can sound super inspirational instead of super tired—tengo un sueño can mean “I have a dream.” As many times in Spanish, you’ll indicate what you actually mean through your intonation, as ¡Tengo un sueño…! means “I’m so sleepy!”
7. Watch Out for Articles When Dealing with Nouns That Start with “A”!
As we’ve learned, a singular, feminine noun will usually use the article la.
However, when the noun starts with a stressed letter a, the article will switch to el. This exception exists to avoid the awkwardness of having two a’s next to each other. For example, the noun águila (eagle) is feminine. However, to say “the eagle,” you must use the masculine article: el águila.
However, remember that this rule only exists to avoid having two a’s next to each other! If you’re speaking about multiple eagles, you can switch back to the feminine article: las águilas.
Additionally, if there’s an adjective in between the article and the noun, you can use the feminine article la: la gran águila (the big eagle).
And, of course, remember that any associated adjective must be feminine even if you use the article el: el águila blanca (the white eagle).
Articles can definitely be tricky, but those tiny little words shouldn’t be overlooked. You can hardly form a correct sentence without them! These seven tricks and tips will help you utilize articles correctly in Spanish and resist the urge to translate directly from English.
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