Spanish Definite And Indefinite Articles - The Complete Guide

Check Out The Quizzes

What's the difference between definite and indefinite articles in Spanish?

Definite articles, like "the", (el / los and la / las in Spanish), are used to indicate that the word or words they're associated with is/are specific. Indefinite articles, like "a" or "an," (un/unos and una/unas in Spanish), are used to indicate that the word is not specific.

  • El Rey de España, Juan Carlos, pronunció un discurso The King of Spain, Juan Carlos, gave a speech (a definite person)
  • Un rey de Inglaterra podía hacer lo que quisiera A king of England could do whatever he wanted (nonspecific - any King back whenever)
  • La manzana no estaba madura The apple was not ripe (A specific apple)
  • Una manzana al día mantiene al doctor en la lejanía An apple a day keeps the doctor away (Non-specific - any apple)

What are the four forms of the Definite Article in Spanish?

The four forms of the Spanish Definite Article (the equivalent of the) are:

singular plural
masculine el los
feminine la las

There is also a neuter article lo. These words stand in front of a noun and agree in number and gender with it: él hombre the man, los hombres the men, la ventana the window (fem.) las ventanas the windows.

Exceptions to the rule using the Spanish definite article

When a feminine noun begins with a stressed a- sound, the masculine article is used in the singular, but the noun remains feminine and the feminine articles, definite and indefinite, are used in the plural: el/un águila the/an eagle, but las águilas the eagles.

The following are some common feminine nouns beginning with stressed a- or ha-:

Spanish English
el/un abra mountain pass
el/un alza rise/increase
el/un ancla anchor
el/un área area
el/un arma weapon
el/un aula lecture room/seminar mom
el/un haba bean
el/un habla language/speech form
el/un hacha axe
el/un haya beech tree

Feminine words beginning with an unstressed a- sound take the normal feminine articles:

  • la/una amnista the/an amnesty
  • la/una hamaca the/a hammock

La is used before letters of the alphabet beginning with stressed a-: la a the a, la hache the h

A to and el compound to form al. De of and el compound to form del:

  • voy al mercado I’m going to market
  • vengo del banco I've just come from the bank.

This is not done if the article is part of a proper name:

  • los lectores de El Pais the readers of El Pais (a Spanish newspaper)
  • vamos a El Paso we’re going to El Paso.

Uses of the Spanish definite article

Spanish Definite Article usage is subtle, prone to exceptions and may vary slightly between regions, but the general rule is that the Spanish Definite Article is used as in English except that:

It is required before countable nouns that are generalizations:

  1. Las ardillas son animales Squirrels (in general) are animals
  2. Me gustan las fresas I like strawberries (i.e. strawberries in general)

It is used before abstractions or substances in general when they are the subject or object of a verb or when they stand on their own:

  • la astronomía astronomy
  • la democracia democracy
  • el espacio space
  • la gripe flu
  • el oxígeno oxygen
  • El odio destruye todo Hatred destroys everything
  • Admiro la generosidad I admire generosity

Such nouns often appear without the article after prepositions, especially when they are the second noun in the combination noun + de + noun and the English translation could be a compound noun (two nouns joined together):

  • una lección de filosofía a philosophy lesson
  • una carta de amor a love letter
  • una fábrica de pan a bread factory

The Spanish defininte article is also not used with nouns describing abstractions and substances after con with and sin without:

  • con entusiasmo with enthusiasm
  • sin dinero without money
  • los españoles nunca comen nada sin pan the Spanish never eat anything without bread.

Articles are omitted before quantities and abstractions that refer only to a part, not to the whole (partitive nouns):

  • Trae azúcar Bring some sugar
  • No he puesto sal I haven’t put any salt in
  • Repartieron armas They distributed weapons

When does The Definite Article replaces Possessive Adjectives?

The Definite Article replaces Possessive Adjectives (mi my, tu your, su his, etc.) with parts of the body and with personal belongings - especially when these are the object of a verb or whenever an Indirect Object Pronoun identifies the owner:

  • Mario levantó la mano Mario raised his hand
  • Le robaron la cartera They stole his/her notebook/wallet
  • Yo me quité las botas I took off my boots
  • Te torciste el tobillo You twisted your ankle
  • Póngase el sombrero Put on your hat

The Spanish definite article should be used before each noun when more than one occurs, whenever the nouns refer to different things or people:

  • el perro y el gato the dog and cat
  • el padre y la madre de Antonio Antonio’s father and mother

but

  • el presidente y secretario del comité the chairman and secretory of the committee (same person)

It is used before titles like señor, señora, señorita, but not when the person is directly addressed and not before foreign titles:

  • Buenos días, señor/señora Rodríguez Good morning Mr/Mrs Rodriguez
  • Le dije buenos días al señor/a la señora Morán/a mister Brown I said Good Day to Sr/Sra Morárt/to Mister Brown

The definite article is used before the names of a few countries

There is much disagreement on this matter but students should note the following points:

(a) Always use the article when a country is modified by an adjective or some other woid or phrase that does not form part of its official name:

  • la España contemporánea modem Spain
  • el Méjico de los aztecas The Mexico of the Aztecs

but

  • Gran Bretaña Great Britain
  • Corea del Norte North Korea
  • The United States is either Estados Unidos (singular, the usual form) or Los Estados Unidos (plural):
  • Estados Unidos denuncia la actitud de Ruritania or (less commonly) Los Estados Unidos denuncian... USA denounces the attitude of Ruritania

(b) Use the artide with:

  • la India India
  • él Reino Unido the United Kingdom
  • El Salvador El Salvador

The article is more often than not used with el Líbano Lebanon and, in Latin America, with la Argentina. It is also frequent in Latin America with Perú, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brasil.

It is used with names of languages, except after the verb hablar and, usually, after aprender:

  • el español es una lengua latina Spanish is a Latin language
  • domina él chino he's totally fluent in Chinese

but

  • hablo/aprendo inglés I speak/am learning English.

The Spanish definite article is used with days of the week and seasons (but not after en):

  • Viene los lunes He comes on Mondays
  • Las hojas caen durante el otoño The leaves fall during Fall/Autumn
  • El invierno es la peor estación Winter is the worst season
  • En invierno nieva mucho It snows a lot in Winter

It is used before the names of streets and squares:

  • Vivo en la Plaza de España I live in the Plaza de España
  • un pequeño hotel de la calle de las Monjas a little hotel on Nuns’ street

It is used before percentages:

  • El cinco por ciento de los mexicanos... five percent of Mexicans

It is omitted before the second of two nouns joined by de when these form a compound noun. Compare:

  • una voz de mujer a woman’s voice
  • la voz de la mujer the voice of the woman
  • el agua de manantial spring water
  • el agua del manantial the water from the spring

How to use the Spanish Indefinite Article

The forms of the Spanish Definite Article (the equivalent of a/an) are:

singular plural
masculine un unos
feminine una unas

Un is used before feminine nouns beginning with stressed a:

un arma a weapon

un área an area.

The Spanish Indefinite Article is used in much the same way as its English counterpart, except that:

It is omitted after ser, and after verbs meaning to become, before the names of professions and, often, before words denoting sex:

  • Es profesora She’s a teacher
  • Quiere hacerse diplomático He wants to become a diplomat
  • No digo eso sólo porque yo sea mujer I don’t say that just because I’m a woman

But it is retained if the noun is qualified or modified by some word or phrase:

  • Es un profesor magnifico He’s a magnificent teacher
  • Es una mujer inteligente She’s an intelligent woman

It is omitted after tener to have, llevar to wear, sacar to take out and a few other common verbs, when the direct object is something of which we usually only have one:

  • Tiene mujer/secretarfa/paraguas He’s got a wife/secretary/umbrella
  • Mi casa tiene jardín y garaje My house has a garden and garage
  • Busca novia He’s looking for a girlfriend
  • Lleva corbata He’s wearing a tie

but

  • tengo un dólar I’ve got a dollar
  • tengo una hermana I’ve got a sister (because in both cases it would be normal to have more than one).

But the article reappears if the noun is qualified:

  • lleva una corbata de seda he’s wearing a silk tie
  • tiene una mujer muy atractiva he has a very attractive wife.

It is usually omitted after sin without, con with and como when it means for/as:

  • un sobre sin estampilla (Spain sin sello) an envelope without a stamp
  • un hombre con pasaporte a man with a passport
  • Me lo dio como regalo He gave it to me as a present
  • Ha venido como asesor He’s come as an adviser

But it is used before con when it means accompanied by:

  • ha venido con un amigo he’s come with a friend.

It is not used before otro another, or after qué what, medio half and tal such a:

  • Hay otra película que quiero ver There’s another movie/film I want to see
  • ¡Qué pena! What a pity!
  • medio kilo half a kilo
  • tal día such a day

It is used with percentages:

  • Los precios subieron en un cinco por ciento Prices rose five percent

How to use unos and unas

Spanish is unusual in that the Indefinite Article has a plural form. This is used:

To mean approximately:

  • Trajeron unos mil kilos They brought about 1000 kilos

To mean a/an before nouns that do not appear in the singular, or to mean a pair of before nouns like scissors, shoes, pants that either come in pairs or are symmetrically shaped:

  • unos zapatos de cuero a pair of leather shoes
  • unas tijeras a pair of scissors
  • unos pantalones a pair of pants (Brit, trousers)

In the case of nouns that always appear in the plural, e.g.

  • los celos jealousy
  • las vacaciones vacation/holidays
  • las ganas urge/desire

... and before nouns that would mean a profession if the Indefinite Article were omitted, unos/unas must be used whenever un/una would be used before a singular noun:

  • unas vacaciones magnificas a magnificent vacation/holiday
  • Yo tenía unas ganas terribles I had a terrible urge
  • Sentía unos celos incontrolables She/he felt an uncontrollable jealousy
  • Sois/son unos payasos You’re a bunch of clowns (in the way you act)

Compare:

  • Sois/son payasos You’re clowns (profession).

To mean a few, a couple of:

  • Me dejó unos libros He left/lent me a few books
  • Dale unas pesetas Give him a coup/e of pesetas
  • Unas veces sí, otras no Sometimes yes, others no

Share This Article