The use of articles in Spanish is a topic that often troubles beginners who instinctively add or remove neutral articles in places where specific ones are required in terms of gender and number. Although this is one of those topics that is mastered with practice, knowing the overall structure of definite and indefinite articles will make things easier for you.
What are articles anyway?
In English, articles are words used with nouns to specify the “definiteness” of a statement in relation to the noun. In English, the definite article for singular and plural nouns is: “the” and the indefinite articles are: “a” and “an” (as well as “some” and “a few” in certain cases).
Lets look at a few examples:
- I want to read the book (a specific book)
- I want to read a book (any book)
- I like the movie (a specific movie)
- I like a movie (any movie)
- I need to go to the airport (a specific airport)
- I need to go to an airport (any airport)
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Now, in Spanish…
Although as in English, articles in Spanish specify the “definiteness” of a statement in relation to the noun; they also specify the gender and number of a noun. In other words, in Spanish, definite and indefinite articles vary with gender and number. Therefore, articles must match nouns in gender and number (singular or plural).
For instance, a feminine noun needs to have a feminine article, and if we are talking about a plural feminine noun, we need to use a plural feminine article.
Lets look at a few examples in English and Spanish:
- I have to buy the plate (a specific plate)
- Yo tengo que comprar el plato (a specific plate, and “plato” is a masculine noun)
- I have to buy a few plates (any plates)
- Yo tengo que comprar unos platos (any plates, and “platos” is a masculine plural noun)
- I want to buy a camera (a specific camera)
- Yo quiero comprar una cámara (a specific camera, and “cámara” is a feminine noun)
Now, lets review the details related to each type of articles.
Indefinite articles in Spanish are used to specify the gender and number of nouns and they are the equivalent of the English articles “a”, “an” (“some” or “a few” may be used in certain contexts). Additionally, indefinite articles in Spanish must match the gender and number of the article they are related to.
These are the indefinite articles in Spanish:
- Masculine: un
- Feminine: una
- Masculine: unos
- Feminine: unas
Although there are times when you will need to use an indefinite article in Spanish in places where an article is generally not needed in English (and viceversa), there are a few guidelines that will help you understand when to use indefinite articles in a majority of cases.
When to use Indefinite articles:
1- To describe a non-specific amount
- You have about 30 minutes to finish – Tienes unos 30 minutos para terminar
- She has a few days to finish the project – Ella tiene unos días para terminar el proyecto
- She bought a few tomatoes – Ella compró unos tomates
- I have some lemons – Tengo unos limones
2- To describe a person using a noun
- My friend is an excellent accountant – Mi amigo es un contador excelente
- He is an outstanding teacher – Él es un maestro sobresaliente
- You are a genius – Tú eres un genio
- You are an amazing person – Eres una persona grandiosa
- She is a disciplined woman – Ella es una mujer disciplinada
- He is a famous Colombian singer – Él es un cantante colombiano famoso
- I have a sister – Tengo una hermana
3- When using a plural noun to refer to a single item (it can mean “one” or “one pair”)
- I bought a pair of pants – Yo compré unos pantalones
- She found a pair of glasses – Ella encontró unos lentes
- He needs scissors – Él necesita unas tijeras
When NOT to use Indefinite articles:
1- When referring to a general concept and not a specific item.
- He is an accountant – Él es contador
- He is a teacher – Él es maestro
- You are awesome – Tú eres genial
- You are amazing – Tú eres grandioso
- She is catholic – Ella es católica
- He is Colombian – Él es colombiano
- Do you have siblings? – ¿Tienes hermanos?
2- When a noun is preceded by words that denote specificity, or by numbers such as: otro or otra (another), medio or media (half), cierto or cierta (a certain), veinte (twenty).
- I have another question – Tengo otra pregunta
- We have spent half a day walking – Hemos pasado medio día caminando
- A certain individual walked by – Cierto individuo pasó caminando
- We have twenty minutes to talk – Tenemos veinte minutos para hablar
3- To describe a non-specific amount of something
- Is there money in the account? – ¿Hay dinero en la cuenta?
- Are there empty rooms in your house? – ¿Hay cuartos vacíos en tu casa?
- Is there food in the fridge? – ¿Hay comida en el refrigerador?
4- After the words “sin” (without) and “con” (with)
- She makes decisions without a problem – Ella toma decisiones sin problema
- He talks with confidence – Él habla con confianza
There is one major exception when it comes to using indefinite articles in Spanish. In the cases where a feminine and singular noun in Spanish begins with a stressed: a, á or ha, the masculine indefinite article is used.
It is important to keep in mind, that this only applies to feminine and singular noun in Spanish that begin with a stressed: a, á or ha and not all feminine and singular nouns in Spanish that begin with the letter “a”.
Don’t worry too much about these exceptions, as they are relatively uncommon. Just know they exist, you will notice them naturally with practice.
A few examples of exceptions:
- Singular: un agua (a water)
- Plural: unas aguas (some waters)
- Singular: un hacha (an ax)
- Plural: unas hachas (a few axes)
- Singular: un águila (an eagle)
- Plural: unas águilas (a few eagles)
Although in English “the” is considered the only definite article, in Spanish there are 4 definite articles that must match the gender and number of a noun.
The definite articles in Spanish are:
- Masculine: el
- Feminine: la
- Masculine: los
- Feminine: las
In Spanish, you generally use a definite article that matches the gender and number of a noun whenever “the” is used in English.
However, there are cases when Spanish uses definite articles in circumstances when they are usually not required by English. Although there are a few exceptions, the following guidelines will help you understand a large majority of these cases.
There is one additional exception to keep in mind. It is similar to the one we discussed for indefinite articles. When a feminine and singular noun in Spanish begins with a stressed: a, á or ha, the masculine definite article is used.
It is important to keep in mind, that this only applies to feminine and singular nouns in Spanish that begin with a stressed: a, á or ha and not all feminine and singular nouns in Spanish that begin with the letter “a”.
This is an exception that is not used frequently, so just know know it exists, and move on.
A few examples of exceptions:
- Singular: el agua (a water)
- Plural: las aguas (some waters)
- Singular: el hacha (an ax)
- Plural: las hachas (a few axes)
- Singular: el águila (an eagle)
- Plural: las águilas (a few eagles)
For indefinite articles:
In a large majority of cases, whenever you have a phrase where you would use the indefinite articles “a”, “an” or “some” in English, you can use an indefinite article in Spanish, such as: un, una, unos or unas, that matches the gender and number of the noun.
A few examples are:
- A dog runs – Un perro corre (singular masculine)
- Some dogs run –Unos perros corren (plural masculine)
- A chair is expensive – Una silla es cara (singular feminine)
- Some chairs are expensive – Unas sillas son caras (plural feminine)
For definite articles:
In general, whenever you would use “the” in English, you can add a definite article in Spanish that matches the gender and number of the noun.
Let me say that in a different way. In most cases, if you have a phrase in English that has “the” in it, in Spanish you can add a definite article like: el, la, los las to replace “the” depending on the gender and number of the noun.
A few examples are:
- The dog runs – El perro corre (singular masculine)
- The dogs run – Los perros corren (plural masculine)
- The chair is expensive – La silla es cara (singular feminine)
- The chairs are expensive – Las sillas son caras (plural feminine)
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