Maybe you’re already thinking, “Definite articles in Spanish sound like complicated grammar.” Surprise! English has them, too, so you should already be familiar with definite articles and how to use them in sentences. The main difference is that definite articles in Spanish are gendered, so you’ll need to match the correct definite article to the gender of the noun.
El, la, los and las are the four definite articles in Spanish. Maybe you’ve already learned a bit about them, but Spanish definite articles can cause Spanish language learners trouble all the way up through intermediate levels of Spanish.
Here are some tips and tricks to help you understand and use definite articles in Spanish.
- What are Spanish definite articles?
- How and when to use definite articles in Spanish
- Examples of definite articles in Spanish
What are Spanish definite articles?
Consider these two sentences in English:
- “Can I have the cake?”
- “Can I have a cake?”
In the first sentence, both the listener and the speaker know which specific cake is being talked about. Maybe they’re even looking directly at it. In this sentence, “the” is the definite article because the identity of the noun is specific and known.
In the second sentence, the speaker is talking more generally about cake. It could be any cake; in any case, there is no specific cake in question. In this sentence, “a” is used as an indefinite article because the identity of the noun is not specific enough to be considered “definite.”
The definite article in Spanish is much the same as English:
- ¿Me da el pastel? (Can I have the cake?)
Both the speaker and the listener know which cake is being referred to.
There are four definite articles in Spanish, and which one you use depends on the gender of the noun and whether it’s plural or singular:
- el (masculine, singular)
- la (feminine, singular)
- los (masculine, plural)
- las (feminine, plural)
How and when to use definite articles in Spanish
Now that we’ve explained what the definite articles in Spanish are, let’s explore how to use them.
Most nouns in Spanish need their definite article:
- El gato me arañó. (The cat scratched me.)
- Los gatos comen atún. (Cats eat tuna.)
- La comida está rica. (The food is delicious.)
- Las televisiones grandes son costosas. (Big TVs are expensive.)
These are typical uses of the definite article in Spanish.
Feminine nouns beginning with ‘a’ or ‘ha’
When a feminine noun begins with “a” or “ha,” we use the male definite article. This prevents the vowels from mixing and helps make speech clearer. Something similar happens in English with indefinite articles, when we turn “a” to “an” if the noun following the article starts with a vowel (for example: an eagle, an orange).
- la águila → el águila (the eagle)
- la agua → el agua (the water)
However, this exception doesn’t extend to the plural form, because the “s” prevents the vowels from mixing. In these cases, the noun’s definite article stays feminine:
- las águilas (the eagles)
- las aguas (the waters)
Unlike in English, your body parts don’t experience the sensation themselves in Spanish. Instead, they make you experience them.
Because of this, we don’t use possessive pronouns to talk about body parts. We use definite articles instead.
So, in English we’d say:
- My head hurts.
- My hands are sweaty.
- My feet are itchy.
But in Spanish, it’s:
- La cabeza me duele. (The head aches me.)
- Me sudan las manos. (The hands sweat me.)
- Me pican los pies. (The feet itch me.)
In Spanish, we normally use definite articles with all body parts.
Talking about a person
When using honorifics in Spanish, you also need to use definite articles:
- ¿El Señor. Rodriguez está aquí? (Is Mr. Rodriguez here?)
- ¿Es usted la Señora. Thompson? (Are you Mrs. Thompson?)
- El Profesor Otero la está esperando. (Professor Otero is waiting for you.)
- La Dra. Lacuesta está de guardia. (Dr. Lacuesta is on call.)
Some country names in Spanish require definite articles, as well::
- los Estados Unidos (the United States)
- el Reino Unido (the United Kingdom)
- los Países Bajos (the Netherlands)
- la URSS (the USSR)
Some cities’ official names in Spanish include the definite article, although this is rarely the case in English. Since the article is part of the name, it needs to be capitalized:
- La Habana (Havana)
- El Cairo (Cairo)
- La Haya (The Hague)
And lastly, you may also see definite articles before toponyms even when it’s not strictly necessary. Though rare nowadays, it’s a traditional, intellectual and somehow poetic way to refer to some countries, historical regions or cities:
- el Japón
- el Perú
- la India
- la China
Examples of definite articles in Spanish
Let’s apply what we’ve learned! See if you can select the right definite article in Spanish for the following four sentences:
- __ carnicero corta carne. (The butcher cuts meat.)
- Quiero ir a __ India. (I want to go to India.)
- ¿Cuando llegó __ Señora Ulloa? (When did Mrs. Ulloa arrive?)
- No me gusta __ agua mineral. (I don’t like mineral water.)
Answer key: 1. el 2. la, 3. la, 4. el
Using the four definite articles in everyday Spanish
The use of the four definite articles in Spanish isn’t so different from what you’re used to in English. Although some unique uses are not found in English, you should be able to quickly pick up the most common uses of these definite articles. And once you get the unique uses and changes down, you may be surprised by how using definite articles starts to become second nature.