Él and ella. Nosotros and nosotras. El and la. Un and una. El profesor and la profesora. In Spanish, everything is either masculine or feminine, right?
Not quite. True, Spanish isn't like German, where in terms of gender nouns fall into three classifications (masculine, feminine and neuter). Indeed, in Spanish, nouns are either masculine or feminine. But Spanish does have use for the neuter form, which can come in handy when referring to concepts or ideas.
The thing to keep in mind about Spanish's neuter form is that it is never used to refer to known objects or people, and there are no neuter nouns or descriptive adjectives. Here, then, are the cases where you'll see the neuter used:
Lo as the neuter definite article: Chances are that you're familiar with el and la, which usually are translated as "the" in English. Those words are known as definite articles because they refer to definite things or people (el libro or "the book" refers to a specific book). Spanish also has a neuter definite article, lo, but you can't use it before a noun like you do el or la because there are no neuter nouns.
So when would you use lo? It is used before singular adjectives (and sometimes possessive pronouns) when they function as nouns, usually referring to a concept or category, not to a single concrete object or a person. If you're translating into English, there is no one way in which lo is always translated; you'll usually need to supply a noun, the choice of which depends on the context. In most cases, "what is" is a possible translation, although not always the best, for lo.
A sample sentence should help make this easier to understand: Lo importante es amar. Here importante is the adjective (generally in the masculine singular when used with lo) functioning as a noun. You could use a variety of English translations: "The important thing is to love." "What's important is to love." "The important aspect is to love."
Here are some other sample sentences with possible translations:
- Lo major es el baño. "The best part is the bathroom." "The best thing is the bathroom."
- Lo nuevo es que estudia. "What's new is that he's studying." "The new thing is that he studies."
- Me gusta lo francés. "I like French things." "I like what is French."
- Le di lo inútil a mi hermana. "I gave the useless stuff to my sister." "I gave the useless items to my sister." "I gave what was useless to my sister."
- Puedes pintar lo tuyo. "You can paint what's yours." "You can paint your things."
It is also possible to use lo in this way with some adverbs, but this usage isn't as common as the cases above: Me enojó lo tarde que salió. "It angered me how late he left." "The lateness of his leaving angered me."
Lo as a neuter direct object: Lo is used to represent an idea or concept when it is the direct object of a verb. (This may not look like a neuter use, because lo can also be used as a masculine pronoun.) In such usages, lo is usually translated as "it." No lo creo. "I don't believe it." Lo sé. "I know it." No lo comprendo. "I don't understand it." No puedo creerlo. "I can't believe it." In these cases, lo/"it" doesn't refer to an object, but to a statement that has been made earlier or that is understood.
The neuter demonstrative pronouns: Usually, demonstrative pronouns are used to point at an object: éste, "this one"; ése, "that one,"; and aquél, "that one over there." The neuter equivalents (esto, eso and aquello) are all unaccented, end in -o and have roughly the same meanings, but as is the case with the direct object lo, they usually refer to an idea or concept rather than an object or person. They can also refer to an unknown object. Here are some examples of its use:
- No olvides esto. "Don't forget this."
- No creo eso. "I don't believe that."
- ¿Qué es aquello? "What is that over there?"
- ¿Te gustó eso? "Did you like that?"
- No me gusta esto. "I don't like this."
Note that the final two sentences must refer to an event, situation or process rather than an object with a name. For example, if you're walking in a dark jungle and get a creepy feeling about something that might happen, no me gusta esto would be appropriate. But if you're sampling a hamburger and don't care for it, no me gusta ésta would be appropriate (ésta is used because the word for hamburger, hamburguesa, is feminine).
Ello: Ello is the neuter equivalent of él and ella. Its use these days is extremely rare, although you may find it in literature. It usually is translated as "it" or "this."