The Ultimate Guide to Definite and Indefinite Spanish Articles

Beginner Spanish learners who speak English as their first language often believe that the… Beginner Spanish learners who speak English as their first language often believe that the appropriate use of articles in Spanish is worth neglecting—it’s an understandable assumption. For starters, our minds are programmed to focus on big, potentially threatening things. If you’re out in the wilderness, that might mean protecting yourself from bear encounters. In the world of language, that means prioritizing verb conjugation.  Who has time to pay attention to tiny words like articles when you are dealing with 18 new tenses, new grammar rules, pronunciation, and literally thousands of new vocabulary words?  Well, Rosetta Stone can help you master each objective on your list—big or small—with lessons that make learning fun, immersive, and natural. You’ll never need to memorize a tedious grammar rule or vocabulary list again.  If you still want to preview what Spanish articles are all about, this guide will help you zoom in on the small (but still very important) stuff, with a guide to gender agreement, number agreement, and more!  >> Need a vocab primer? Jump into Spanish basics to get up to speed!  First things first: What is an article in Spanish? Since the answer to this initial question is the same for both Spanish and English, let’s address it quickly before we move to the translations. What is an article? In fashion, it’s a piece of clothing, but in grammar, an article is simply a small connecting part. Its various meanings depend on the context. The word “article” originated from the Latin word “articulus,” referring to a small connecting part. In general, all definitions of the word “article” share this common definition. In the grammatical sense, articles come in two categories, which are explained below. Indefinite and definite: Two types of Spanish articles Just like in English, articles in Spanish are used to indicate definiteness or indefiniteness of nouns. Am I talking about a house (any house, therefore indefinite or indeterminate) or the house (which is definite or determined, perhaps the one where we are staying)?  If I talk about “a cat,” I don’t reference a cat that is known (i.e., it could be any cat), while talking about “the cat” refers to a cat that is known, whether it be my cat, your cat, my friend’s cat, or a (specific) feral cat in front of us.  That is what sets the distinction between definite and indefinite articles in both languages. Unlike in English, however, articles in Spanish also indicate the gender and number of the nouns. This means that Spanish has not one, but four different definite articles and four indefinite articles to choose from. Let’s explore them together! Using definite articles in Spanish The definite articles in Spanish are used to refer to specific or known nouns. All four definite articles in Spanish constitute the equivalent to the English word “the.” In Spanish, these four definite articles have different forms depending on the gender and number of the noun, which is the criteria that you should use to choose the right one. These are the four definite articles in Spanish, all of which translate to the English definite article “the”: Gender and numberDefinite articleMasculine singularelFeminine singularlaMasculine plurallosFeminine plurallas When I need an article to determine a masculine singular noun, I use the masculine singular article el, while when I have a feminine singular noun, I would choose the word la, just like in the examples below: SpanishEnglishel gatothe catla casathe houselos librosthe bookslas mesasthe tables Examples sentences that use definite articles  El perro de mi vecina ladra todo el día. = My neighbor’s dog barks all day. (The noun perro is masculine and singular, so we use the article el) ¡La casa de tu tío es enorme! = Your uncle’s house is enormous!  (The noun casa is feminine and singular, so we use the article la) Los libros están en la mesa. = The books are on the table.  (The noun libros is masculine and plural, so we use the article los) Las sillas son pequeñas. = The chairs are small.  (The noun sillas is feminine and plural, so we use the article las) Using Indefinite Articles in Spanish The remaining articles are the indefinite articles, which, in both Spanish and English, are used to refer to non-specific or unknown nouns. They are equivalent to the English words “a” or “an” (in their singular versions) or some (in their plural versions). Analogously to definite articles, indefinite articles also have different forms based on the gender and number of the noun. Here are the indefinite articles in Spanish: Gender and numberSpanish Indefinite article English Indefinite article Masculine singularuna/anFeminine singularunaa/anMasculine pluralunossomeFeminine pluralunassome Examples of indefinite articles paired with nouns SpanishEnglishun gatoa catuna casaa houseunos librossome booksunas mesassome tables Examples sentences that use indefinite articles  Un perro ladra en la calle. = A dog barks in the street.  (The noun perro is masculine and singular, so we use un) Hay una casa en venta. = There is a house for sale.  (The noun casa is feminine and singular, so we use una) Unos libros son grandes y otros son pequeños = Some books are big and others are small  (The noun libros is masculine and plural, so we use unos) Unas alemanas viven en esa casa = Some German women (or girls) live in that house  (The noun alemanas is feminine and plural, so we use unas.)  Notice how the word “women” is omitted from the example above. That’s because “unas” signals gender, so including “hermanas” would be redundant. They might take more time to learn, but Spanish articles are incredibly useful, as they provide more information than their English counterparts.   In all of the previous examples, the definite articles (el, la, los, las) are used to refer to specific or known nouns, while the indefinite articles (un, una, unos, unas) introduce non-specific or unknown nouns. The gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural) of the articles and nouns match accordingly. How to identify when to use definite and indefinite articles in Spanish  To make you more comfortable with identifying definite and indefinite articles, it is always beneficial to compare them side by side. One of the most effective ways of doing that is to use the same exact sentences but changing only the topic that is being studied (in this case, the correct use of articles) so you can focus only on said topic.  Check out these examples of using masculine and feminine articles while choosing between definite and indefinite articles: El perro ladra. = The dog is barking. In this sentence, the definite article “el” is used before the noun “perro” (dog), indicating a specific dog known to both the speaker and the listener. In contrast, the indefinite article “un” is used before the noun “perro” (dog), suggesting any dog in a non-specific manner: Un perro ladra. = A dog is barking. In the example below, the definite article “la” is used before the noun “chica” (girl), referring to a specific girl known to both the speaker and the listener in some way. In contrast, the indefinite article “una” is used before the noun “chica” (girl), indicating any girl in a non-specific way: La chica estudia. = The girl is studying. Una chica estudia = A girl is studying. In the plural sentences below, the plural definite article “los” is used before the noun “perros” (dogs), indicating specific dogs known to both the speaker and the listener, while the plural indefinite article “unos” is used before the noun “perros” (dogs), suggesting an indefinite quantity or a non-specific group of dogs: Los perros ladran. = The dogs are barking. Unos perros ladran. = Some dogs are barking. Below, the plural definite article “las” is used before the noun “chicas” (girls), referring to specific girls known to both the speaker and the listener. In contrast, the plural indefinite article “unas” is used before the noun “chicas” (girls), indicating an indefinite quantity or a non-specific group of girls. Las chicas estudian. = The girls are studying. Unas chicas estudian. = Some girls are studying. In what cases should you never use an article in Spanish? One of the most common issues for English speakers learning Spanish—even advanced ones—is knowing when to use articles and when not to. The reality is that it isn’t always straightforward, but let’s at least start by getting the rules that are straightforward out of the way.  In general, you should omit the article when using proper nouns. An easy way of identifying proper nouns is by checking to see whether or not in starts with capital letters, like Madrid, or lower-case letters, like ciudad (city)—bonus points for you if you can identify whether the word ciudad is masculine or feminine after reading the rest of the article.  Luckily for you, this works the same way in English, and the examples below should help you see what this means:  Madrid es una ciudad bellísima. = Madrid is a very beautiful city. Rosetta Stone me enseña español. = Rosetta Stone teaches me Spanish. San Lorenzo era un diácono que ayudaba a los pobres. = Saint Lawrence was a deacon who helped the poor. Ayer vi “Friday Night Lights,” una película de fútbol americano. = Yesterday I saw “Friday Night Lights,” a movie about American football.  Include articles when it is necessary to associate the semantic content of the common noun determined by such article (i.e., what that noun stands for) to the proper noun in question: El Aconcagua es la montaña más alta de América = The Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Americas. El motor de interpretación del habla “TruAccent” compara mi voz a la de hablantes nativo para dar recomendaciones. = Rosetta Stone’s “TruAccent” speech recognition engine compares my voice to native speakers’ to provide recommendations. El San Lorenzo está en el estado de California. = The San Lorenzo is in the state of California. If we didn’t add el before San Lorenzo, the listener would think we are speaking of Deacon St. Lawrence’s remains instead of the San Lorenzo river. In what cases should I always use an article with common nouns? Since we want to focus on application and being understood, there is an infallible method for deciding when to use articles and when not to use articles, and that is by identifying both the subject and object. By always including an article when using a common noun as a subject (i.e., the one performing the verb), you will ensure that you will not be wrong or misunderstood. As a matter of fact, even in those examples when we could (not “must”) use nouns as subjects without an article, to emphasize that the noun is abstract, most Spanish speakers would believe that it is grammatically incorrect to omit the article! Examples: El desayuno es la primera comida del día. = Breakfast is the first meal of the day. La gente en Canadá es muy amable. = People in Canada are very kind. Los perros son animals leales. = Dogs are loyal animals. Las clases comienzan en septiembre = Classes start in September. Pairing articles with nouns: How do you identify a noun’s gender in Spanish? In Spanish, nouns have gender, and it is important to match the article with the correct gender, which will also help us choose adjectives accordingly. There are several examples of masculine and feminine noun endings described below, but the majority of nouns in Spanish end in either “o” or “a.” Nouns ending in “o” are masculine. Nouns ending in “a” are feminine. I have an easy rule for this: think of Mario and Maria, as they both have the same name with one difference: the name ending in O is masculine, while the one ending in A is feminine–just like most Spanish nouns! SpanishEnglishla ventanathe windowel murothe wallla casathe houseel pianothe piano Embrace the contraction: Using Spanish articles with prepositions In Spanish, articles can combine with prepositions to form contractions. The most common contractions occur with the prepositions a (to) and de (of, from). Here are some examples: a + el = al: Voy al parque. (I’m going to the park.) de + el = del: El libro del niño. (The book of the child.) Please note that the use of these contractions is not optional but mandatory: it is grammatically incorrect to write or say voy a el parque or el libro de el niño.   Common issues that often stump English speakers What usually stumps English speakers when speaking Spanish is not which version of the definite article (el, la, los, las) or indefinite article (un, una, unos, unas) to choose from, but rather when to use or omit articles. The reason for that issue is how you are accustomed to using articles in English. For example, if you say “I go to school,” in English, “school” is not a proper noun, like Abbot Elementary. What I am saying is go to “the place where I learn,” which also leads me to ask the following question: Why am I saying “I go to the place where I learn” instead of just “place where I learn,” like I do with the word school? Are they not both the same thing, and isn’t it true that neither of them is a proper noun? You could argue that it is because “school” is a specific one – whether you define that as the actual place or the specific stage of your education that is applicable to you (elementary school, high school, university, trade school, graduate school, etc)—but wouldn’t that make it a known place, calling for the use of a definite article, according to the definition? Think about other similar examples in English: I go to the supermarket, I go to the gym, I go to the river (e.g., a river by my house). Yet, I say “I go to school,” and “I go to church.” French and Italian speakers who go to l’école and la scola (the school) or “l’eglise” and “l’ecclesia” (the church) would not have a problem with that—just like, as an English speaker and unlike other languages, you probably didn’t have issues omitting articles for proper nouns or not capitalizing common nouns—but although English grammar calls for the same thing, the fact that we don’t say we “go to the school” or “go to the church” can confuse the English speaker when it’s time to say voy a la escuela or voy a la iglesia in Spanish. The reality is that languages are what we make them to be. We wouldn’t even have Spanish or any other Romance language in the first place, if it weren’t for the fact that unscholarly individuals vulgarly adopted them and adapted them—otherwise, we would all be speaking academic Latin instead of all of the many languages that stemmed from it. The collective use and misuse of language is what leads to grammar rules, widespread adoption, and certain language elements that change over time. Change happens quickly now—slang is both catchy and trendy, and all languages adopt new words into their vernacular each year!  The only way to master spoken Spanish, with its many exceptions, is by immersing yourself in the language. Using Rosetta Stone’s Dynamic Immersion method, you will learn through context and reasoning rather than rote memorization of rules, leading to a deeper, more enduring understanding of the language, in a way that is both more effective and less tedious than memorizing rules. Mastering Spanish articles and beyond with Rosetta Stone  Have you ever been to a gym, or practiced a sport or an instrument? If so, you have probably been given exercises to improve certain skills, and you probably know that knowing the way to exercise them is only the beginning. Acquiring any skill comes with practice! Likewise, mastering Spanish articles requires more than just rote memorization of the rules: To truly understand and use them correctly, it’s important to practice in context and immerse yourself in the language.  Thanks to its Dynamic Immersion method, Rosetta Stone offers a language learning experience that will plunge you into real-life scenarios with TruAccent speech recognition engine, which compares your voice to native speakers giving you instant feedback using data from millions of native speakers to accurately analyze the nuances of your pronunciation. With Rosetta Stone, you can learn and practice Spanish articles, but also explore every aspect of the Spanish language, including vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and cultural insights. Start your language learning journey today and unlock a world of opportunities to communicate effectively in Spanish! Start learning today! Written by Diego Delfino Polyglot copywriter, linguist, multi-instrumentalist, and Rosetta Stone user himself, Diego has worked as language coach and copywriter for companies such as Coca-Cola, Turner Broadcasting, Rolls Royce, and more. After a brain tumor nearly killed him and left him unable to speak, his drive to relearn his five languages simultaneously left him a renewed passion for them, as well as a deeper understanding of how they work and relate to one another.

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