Spanish definite and indefinite articles are great because in most situations you’ll use them in the same way as English articles.
But, there are several situations such as talking about transport, dates, the time, or referring to someone’s identity where Spanish articles don’t behave as you would expect.
While Spanish articles tend to cause fewer headaches than other topics such as ser and estar, por and para, or direct and indirect objects, if you want your Spanish to sound more natural, then you will need to develop a strong knowledge of these frequently occurring Spanish words, especially the exceptions.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about Spanish definite and indefinite articles including what they are, when to use them, and most importantly when not to use them.
An introduction to Spanish definite and indefinite articles
A perfect place to start is to think of the most frequently occurring word in the English language, the definite article: ‘the’.
The translation of this word into Spanish also happens to be the most frequently occurring pair of words in the Spanish language, the Spanish definite articles: el and la.
In both languages, we need definite articles to refer to specific things or people in a group or class.
But, where Spanish articles differ from English articles, if you want to refer to a specific thing or person, you’ll need to match the article with the gender and plural of the noun.
This leads to four possibilities for the translation of ‘the’: el, la, los, and las.
Here are some examples of Spanish definite articles in action:
English: The table.
Español: La mesa.
English: The fact.
Español: El hecho.
English: The bottles.
Español: Las botellas.
English: The workers.
Español: Los trabajadores.
Of course, you’ll need to be careful with the gender of Spanish nouns. But, apart from the exceptions discussed later in the article, you can simply choose one of el, la, los, and las as the translation of ‘the’.
In contrast, if you aren’t referring to specific things or people, but instead you want to generalise, you’ll need to use an indefinite article.
The Spanish indefinite articles are: un, una, unos, and unas, which are possible translations of the English articles ‘an’ or ‘a’ in singular, or ‘some’ or ‘a few’ in plural.
You can also use the singular Spanish indefinite articles un and una to describe a quantity of ‘one’.
Here are some examples of Spanish indefinite articles in action:
English: A school.
Español: Una escuela.
English: One moment.
Español: Un momento.
English: A few things.
Español: Unas cosas.
English: Some details.
Español: Unos detalles.
As you can see, once you’ve got gender and number sorted, you can translate Spanish articles fairly simply from English articles.
But, of course, there is more to the story…
Spanish definite articles vs indefinite articles
Before I get to the exceptions for Spanish articles, I want to give you a few example situations to demonstrate the contrast between Spanish definite and indefinite articles.
As mentioned above, you’ll need a definite article to talk about a known item or place, and an indefinite article to talk about an item or place in a general way.
Here are some examples to demonstrate the difference:
English: I need a spoon. (Could be any spoon)
Español: Necesito una cuchara.
English: Pass the spoon please. (That specific spoon over there)
Español: Pásame la cuchara por favor.
English: Where does Diana work?
Español: ¿Dónde trabaja Diana?
English: In an office. (Could be any office)
Español: En una oficina.
English: Where is Diana?
Español: ¿Dónde está Diana?
English: She is at the office. (That specific office she always works in)
Español: Ella está en la oficina.
As you can see, these examples are fairly logical. But, I just wanted to make the difference as clear as possible before we dive into the exceptions.
When to exclude Spanish articles: Identity
In this section, and for the rest of the post, I’m going to talk about where you need to be careful with Spanish articles because they could be different from English.
The most important area to avoid the temptation to translate directly from English is when talking about identity.
If you are discussing someone’s profession, religion, nationality, political ideology, or other roles such as ‘being a parent’, you need to drop the article in Spanish.
Here are some examples:
English: I’m an atheist.
Español: Soy ateo.
English: She is studying to be a lawyer.
Español: Ella estudia para ser abogada.
English: He is a Canadian.
Español: Él es canadiense.
English: Pablo Iglesias was a socialist.
Español: Pablo Iglesias era socialista.
English: Are you a teacher?
Español: ¿Eres profesor?
English: What’s it like to be a father?
Español: ¿Cómo es ser padre?
Of all of the areas I’m going to cover in this post, this is the one where we hear Spanish students making the most errors. So, make sure you practice these a lot!
When to include Spanish articles: Identity
After getting used to dropping Spanish articles when talking about identity, there are a few scenarios where you need to include them.
If you are going to add a descriptive adjective with the noun, you have to include the Spanish article:
English: I’m going to be a great journalist.
Español: Voy a ser un gran periodista.
English: She is an incredible doctor.
Español: Ella es una médica increíble.
English: He is the best realtor in town.
Español: Él es el mejor agente inmobiliario de la ciudad.
Note the location of the Spanish adjective is also an important consideration here.
In addition, if you are referring to someone by their profession, then you need to include an article:
English: Who is Marisol?
Español: ¿Quién es Marisol?
English: She is a singer.
Español: Es una cantante.
English: Who is Carla?
Español: ¿Quién es Carla?
English: She is an engineer that works with me.
Español: Es una ingeniera que trabaja conmigo.
While these examples translate a lot better between English and Spanish, they can be difficult after you have adjusted to the rules from the previous section.
When to exclude Spanish articles: Things
When you are talking about things (just stuff in general), you don’t need to use an article if you are talking about the things in a general way, especially if quantity is not important.
Here are some examples:
English: I don’t have a car.
Español: No tengo coche.
English: Do you have a girlfriend?
Español: ¿Tienes novia?
English: We need meat and cheese for tonight’s dinner.
Español: Necesitamos carne y queso para la cena esta noche.
English: Juan sells computers.
Español: Juan vende ordenadores.
English: Felipe doesn’t like meat.
Español: Felipe no come carne.
As you can see, when quantity doesn’t matter, sometimes you can think like you do in English and sometimes not.
When to include Spanish articles: Things
In contrast to the previous section, you’ll have to include a Spanish article when referring to specific things.
English: Do you have the tickets for the concert?
Español: ¿Tienes las entradas para el concierto?
English: What are you looking for?
Español: ¿Qué buscas?
English: The house keys, I don’t know where I have left them.
Español: Las llaves de la casa, no sé dónde las he dejado.
Also, if want to spell out a specific quantity of items such as ‘one’ or ‘a few’, then you’ll need to include an article:
English: Alexa sold a car on her first day.
Español: Alexa vendió un coche en su primer día.
English: I bought some vegetables for lunch.
Español: Compré unas verduras para la comida.
When to exclude Spanish articles: Transport
When you are talking about a mode of transport in a general way then you need to omit the Spanish article.
Moreover, there are no specific rules for different types of transport. In other words, you can treat each of autobús, avión, coche, metro, tren etc. in the same way.
Also, if you are talking about people using a mode of transport, then you need to use the preposition en. If you are talking about things going in a mode of transport, then you need to use por.
Here are some examples:
English: We would rather go in a car than fly.
Español: Preferimos ir en coche que volar.
English: I sent the package by boat.
Español: Envié el paquete por barco.
English: How much does it cost to go by train?
Español: ¿Cuánto cuesta ir en tren?
English: I don’t like long trips in a plane.
Español: No me gustan los viajes largos en avión.
When to include Spanish articles: Transport
In contrast, instead of talking about a general method of transport, we can also refer to the mode of transport as a physical space. E.g. I’m physically on the bus, or in the car, etc.
When you are talking about the car or the train as a physical location, then you need to include an article.
English: I left my wallet on the train.
Español: Dejé mi cartera en el tren.
English: We are still on the bus.
Español: Todavía estamos en el autobús.
English: It’s not a good idea to take your shoes off on a plane.
Español: No es una buena idea descalzarte en un avión.
Note descalzarse is a fun Spanish verb that means ‘to take off one’s shoes’, it is kind of like ‘to de-shoe’.
When to exclude and include Spanish articles: Places
This section on places is going to be a little annoying because there isn’t a general rule.
Instead, we’ll take a look at a few common places and how they behave with Spanish articles in a few common expressions.
1. Clase, casa
Firstly let’s look at clase and casa.
When you are going to or you are physically located ‘at home’ or ‘in class’, you should drop the article.
English: I’m at the house (I’m at home).
Español: Estoy en casa.
English: We have to go to class.
Español: Tenemos que ir a clase.
As an exception to this, when you aren’t talking about these places in terms of their physical location, you should include the article:
English: How many students are there in the class?
Español: ¿Cuántos estudiantes hay en la clase?
If you are sick, or you have been in an accident, then you should describe your time in bed without an article:
English: Adrian’s in bed with a fever.
Español: Adrian está en cama con fiebre.
Note the bonus expression in this example, ‘with a fever’ drops the Spanish article too ‘con fiebre’.
In contrast, if the context doesn’t involve being sick, you should use an article:
English: My wife is in bed reading a book.
Español: Mi esposa está en la cama leyendo un libro.
3. El Colegio, la iglesia, el cine, la universidad
In comparison with clase if you have to go to ‘school’ (el colegio) or ‘university’ (la universidad), you should include the article regardless of whether you are talking about the physical location or not:
English: Isabel is going to college next year.
Español: Isabel va a ir a la universidad el año que viene.
English: Where are you?
Español: ¿Dónde estás?
English: I’m at school.
English: Estoy en el colegio.
Most Spanish locations fall into this third group, so if you remember how to use cama, casa, and clase, you can safely assume that any other location will behave like el colegio or el cine.
When to include Spanish articles: Date and time
When it comes to talking about date and time, you generally need an article in Spanish.
This takes particular care since we rarely use articles with time in English.
Moreover, in English we often opt for prepositions (on, at, by, etc.) with date and time, whereas in Spanish we need to use the Spanish definite articles (el, la, los, las).
Here are some examples for talking about the time:
English: What time is it?
Español: ¿Qué hora es?
English: It’s 3:15.
Español: Son las tres y cuarto.
English: She usually exercises in the afternoons.
Español: Ella suele hacer ejercicio por las tardes.
English: The train is leaving at 2:30 pm.
Español: El tren sale a las dos y media.
When it comes to the days of the week and dates, if you are talking about fixed plans or commitments, you need to use the definite article:
English: I’m going to the mountains on Sunday.
Español: Voy a las montañas el domingo.
English: We are leaving Spain on August 10th.
Español: Salimos de España el diez de agosto.
English: We have to finish the project by Wednesday.
Español: Tenemos que terminar la tarea para el miércoles.
English: They see each on Fridays.
Español: Se ven los viernes.
In the last example, you could also say ‘cada viernes’ (every Friday), which is important to note because you need to omit the article in this phrase.
When to exclude Spanish articles: Date and time
In contrast to the last few examples in the previous section, if you aren’t talking about fixed plans but instead you are talking about the date in general, you should drop the article.
Here are some examples:
English: Today is the 3rd of June.
Español: Hoy es tres de junio.
English: Tomorrow is Thursday.
Español: Mañana es jueves.
English: What day is it today?
Español: ¿Qué día es hoy?
English: It’s Tuesday.
Español: Es martes.
In the last example, you can even drop the es and simply say martes.
Also, when you are talking about the months, even if you are talking about fixed plans, you need to exclude the article:
English: We’re going to Peru in May.
Español: Vamos a Perú en mayo.
Last thing for date and time, when it comes to talking time and you aren’t talking about a specific time between 1 and 11, instead of an article, you need to use a preposition (a, or de).
English: I fell asleep at midnight.
Español: Me dormí a medianoche.
English: The truck goes by in the middle of the night (early morning).
Español: El camión pasa de madrugada.
When to include Spanish articles: Verbs like gustar
When you use the Spanish verb structure ‘verbs like gustar’, you generally need to include a Spanish article.
This is because you need to think a little differently about the way sentences using verbs like gustar differ from their English equivalent.
For example, it is better to think of the following sentence:
I like football.
The football is pleasing to me.
And, note that when you change ‘football’ from the object of the sentence to the subject, it sounds better with ‘the’ at the start.
The same thing also happens in Spanish:
English: The football is pleasing to me (I like football).
Español: Me gusta el fútbol.
Here are some more examples:
English: My head hurts.
Español: Me duele la cabeza.
English: I’m worried about work.
Español: Me preocupa el trabajo.
Since there are lots of situations where Spanish definite and indefinite articles translate really well between Spanish and English, Spanish students tend to use them well.
But, of course, there are some important exceptions.
To help your Spanish sound more natural, pick a few exceptions you didn’t know before reading this article, then try to use them in your next Spanish class, language exchange, or any opportunity to use your Spanish.
How else can you use Spanish definite and indefinite articles?