The definite articles ‘el, la, los, las’

(Using the Spanish definite articles)

Table of contents – definite articles

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Forms of the definite articles
  2. Usage of the definite articles
  3. Shortening of ‘el’
  4. Particularities
  5. Further explanations and exercises

What are the forms of the Spanish definite articles?

In the Spanish language, there are two definite articles (in Spanish: artículos determinados): ‘el’ and ‘la’ – not only one as in English (the). Both can also occur in the plural, which sums it up to four different forms altogether.

Important: The definite articles express grammatical gender, which is masculine or feminine. There is no neuter article, although ‘lo’ is regarded as neutral (for details, see the use of ‘lo’).

Forms of the definite articles

Gender Singular Plural Examples with nouns
Masculine (male) el¹ los el árbol (the tree), los árboles (the trees)
Feminine (female) la las la calle (the street), las calles (the streets)

¹ Careful: Do not confuse the definite article ‘el’ with the personal pronoun ‘él’. In contrast to the article, the pronoun is written with an accent mark.

How are the definite articles ‘el, la, los, las’ used?

Principally, the Spanish definite articles are used similarly to English, as they are also placed before nouns or their determiners. However, the articles must be in agreement with their antecedents in grammatical gender and number. So, the following applies:

  • Masculine noun → masculine article:
    • Singular: el antiguo edificio (the old building)
    • Plural: los antiguos edificios (the old buildings)
  • Feminine noun → feminine article:
    • Singular: la buena relación (the good relationship)
    • Plural: las buenas relaciones (the good relationships)

Sometimes, the usage differs from English, particularly whether an article is needed. Compare:

Article used in Spanish—but no article in English

  1. When talking about a person and mentioning the surname or title:
    • La doctora Ruiz no está disponible hoy.” (Doctor Ruiz is not available today.)
    • “¿A qué hora llega el Sr. Vicente?” (What time is Mr Vicente coming?)
    • Careful: This rule does not apply to first names or salutations:
      • “¿Ha salido Pedro ya?” (Has Pedro left yet?)
        • For first names, the usage is the same as in English.
      • “Buenas tardes, Señor Ferreira.” (Good afternoon, Mr Ferreira.)
        • There is also no article for direct forms of address (salutations).
  2. For generalizations, where an article is rarely employed in English:
    • El papel todo lo aguanta.” (Anything can be said on paper.)
    • Los idiomas me gustan mucho.” (I love languages.)
  3. When the time is given, the feminine plural article ‘las’ is employed in Spanish:
    • “Quedamos a las cuatro.” (We are meeting at four o’clock.)
    • “Son las dos.” (It’s two o’clock.)
  4. When naming parts of the body, such as hair, eyes, nose, etc.:
    • “Miguel tiene los ojos marrones.” (Miguel has brown eyes.)
    • “Antes tuve el pelo largo.” (I used to have long hair.)
  5. Percentages can also have a definite article (alternatively, the indefinite article ‘un’ is possible):
    • El 30 % de la gente trabaja más de 40 horas a la semana.” (30% of the people work more than 40 hours a week.)
  6. In some expressions like those with the verb ‘jugar a’ (to play something):
    • “¿Jugamos al ajedrez?” (Are we playing chess?)
      • The verb ‘jugar’ usually requires the preposition ‘a’ combined with the article ‘el’ and shortened to ‘al’.
    • Juegan al tenis.” (They play tennis.)

Information: Sometimes, the order of article and determiner differs, which is the case with the word ‘todo’ (all), for example:

  • todo el día (all day)
    • Here, in the Spanish clause, the adverb ‘todo’ comes first and then the definite article. In English, there is no article at all.

Article in Spanish—but a preposition in English

Some phrases require the use of a preposition where an article is a suitable counterpart in English:

  • When weekdays, the word year or month, etc., are stated:
    • El mes pasado tuve un accidente.” (Last month, I had an accident.)
      • The masculine article ‘el’ appears before ‘mes’ (month), in contrast to English, where no article is utilized.
    • “Llegamos el lunes.” (We are coming on Monday.)
      • In Spanish, the article ‘el’ is correct. In English, however, the prepositionon’ replaces the article.
    • Los jueves tengo clase de español.” (On Thursdays, I take Spanish lessons.)
      • If a weekday is in the plural, the plural article ‘los’ is required (and not a preposition as in English).

When is the definite article ‘el’ shortened?

It is possible to join the definite masculine article in its singular form with the prepositionde’. Compare the different cases:

  • Shortening the masculine articleel’ and merging it with ‘a’ or ‘de’:
    • a + el’ becomes ‘al’, for example:
      • “¿Vamos al cine?” (Are we going to the cinema?)
    • de + el’ becomes ‘del’, for example:
      • “Mi hija ya ha regresado del supermercado.” (My daughter has already returned from the supermarket.)
    • Information: Exceptions are proper names when the article is a fixed part of the name. In these cases, the article is usually capitalized:
      • “Mi marido viene de El Cairo.” (My husband is from Cairo.)

What are the particularities of definite articles?

For reasons of pronunciation, the masculine article ‘el’ is utilized before feminine nouns that begin with a stresseda’ or ‘ha’. However, we can apply this rule exclusively in the singular and only when the article comes directly before the noun. Compare:

  1. el’ comes directly before the ‘a’ as the initial vowel:
    • El agua está fría.” (The water is cold.)
      • The adjective ‘fría’ (cold) shows that the noun ‘agua’ (water) is feminine.
  2. The same happens with ‘ha’ at the beginning of a word:
    • “Tengo mucha hambre.” (I’m very hungry.)
      • Here, ‘mucha’ shows that the word ‘hambre’ is feminine.
    • “Una galleta no te quita el hambre.” (One cookie won’t satisfy your hunger.)
      • The feminine noun ‘hambre’ (hunger) is used with the masculine ‘el’.
  3. Careful: If the first syllable is not stressed, the feminine articlela’ remains with a feminine noun:
    • la habitación (the room)
      • In this word, the accent mark shows that the last syllable, ‘-ción’, is stressed.

Further explanations referring to the topic ‘Definite articles’

These explanations relate to the ‘Definite articles (el, la, los, las) in Spanish grammar’ and may be helpful too:

  • The grammatical number in Spanish