Articles are more common in Spanish than in English. An article is a word used before a noun. In English some examples of articles are: “the”, “a”, or “an”. In Spanish, there are four definite articles (“the”)
Defining the terms:
Before going any further in this lesson, let's define some terms:
1. In Spanish, articles are either: masculine or feminine.1 Articles are masculine or feminine based on the noun after them. Masculine words do not necessarily have to do with manly objects. It’s simply the way the language works.2
2. In Spanish we’ll see that articles can also be singular or plural depending on the noun following them.
If a something is singular, it means it is "one." If a something is plural, it means it is "more than one."
3. We have definite and indefinite articles in Spanish. In English, the definite article is “the,” while “indefinite articles” are “a,” “an,” and some.”
Pass me the book. (Pass me the specific book.)
Pass me a book. (Pass me any book.)
Pass me some books. (Pass me any books.)
In Spanish, there are four definite articles (“the”)
el – the (before masculine, singular noun)
El niño tiene solo dos libros.
The boy has only two books.
El gato es gordo, blanco y negro.
The cat is fat, black and white.
El libro cuesta diez dólares.
The book costs ten dollars.
¿Tienes el dinero?
Do you have the money?
la – the (before feminine, singular noun)
La niña tiene sólo tres plumas.
The girl has only three pens.
Ella corre dentro de la casa.
She runs inside the house.
¿Tomaste la medicina?
Did you take the medicine?
Juan estudió la lección.
John studied the lesson.
los– the (before masculine, plural noun)
¿Cuánto cuestan los libros?
How much do the books cost?
Los muchachos llevaron la carta a la oficina.
The boys took the letter to the office.
Los muchachos lavaron la ropa.
The boys washed the clothing.
Yo creía que laslos boletos.
I thought that the girls had bought the tickets.
las – the (before feminine, plural noun)
Las naranjas cuestan tres Euros el kilo.3
The oranges cost three Euros per kilo.
Nosotros pintamos las paredes.
We painted the walls.
¿Oíste las noticias?
Have you heard the news?
Yo tengo que aprender las palabras para el examen.
I have to learn the words for the test.
Although the definite articles (el / la / los / las) often mean “the”, there are many times when they do not translate in English.
The definite article with titles + last names
When titles are used with last names of individuals, the definite article is used when talking about the individual, but not when addressing the individual directly. Some titles used in this way are:
señor general presidente
Nos reuniremos con la señorita Juanita Castellanos y su novio el doctor Jorge Ramírez a las ocho.
We'll meet with Miss Juanita Castellanos and her fiancé Jorge Ramírez at 8:00.
Pero: ¿Cómo está usted, señorita Castellanos?
But: How are you, Miss Castellanos?
The definite article is not so used with titles normally accompanied by just the first name, such as don, doña, san(to), and hermano/a.
Cada día don Ramón reza a San José por una muerte feliz.
Every day don Ramón prays to St. Joseph for a happy death.
1. Spanish comes from Latin. In Latin, nouns are also masculine and feminine as well as the nouns in the other languages that came from Latin: Portuguese, Italian, & French.
2. So while for ‘el hombre’ the article is masculine (el), there are many words that have nothing to do with gender in English like “el vestido” (the dress) and “el” is still used because the word ends in ‘o’.
3. Notice that we don't always translate the definite article in English. Even though we say "el kilo", in English we would say "per kilo", not "the kilo."
4. See lesson on Uses of definite articles here for more information.