¿Hablas español? El español es la lengua de la Argentina. (Do you speak Spanish? Spanish is the language of Argentina.)
If you're paying attention or are particularly analytical about words, you may have noticed something about the words el and la — words usually translated as "the" — in the above sentences. In the first sentence, español is used to translate "Spanish," but in the second sentence it's el español. And Argentina, a country name that stands alone in English, is preceded by la in the Spanish sentence.
These differences typify just a couple of the differences in how the definite article ("the" in English and usually el, la, los or las in Spanish) is used in the two languages. Using the definite article when you shouldn't or the other way around won't make you misunderstood very often, but using it correctly will make you sound like less of a foreigner.
The easy rule: Fortunately, although the rules of using the definite article can be complex, you have a head start if you speak English. That's because nearly any time you use "the" in English you can use the definite article in Spanish. Of course, there are exceptions. Here are the cases where Spanish doesn't use the definite article while English does:
- Before ordinal numbers for names of rulers and similar people. Luis octavo (Luis the Eighth), Carlos quinto (Carlos the Fifth).
- Some proverbs (or statements made in a proverbial fashion) omit the article. Camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente. (The shrimp that falls asleep gets carried away by the current.) Perro que ladra no muerde. (The dog that barks doesn't bite.)
- When used in nonrestrictive apposition, the article is often omitted. This usage can best be explained by example. Vivo en Las Vegas, ciudad que no duerme. (I live in Las Vegas, the city that doesn't sleep.) In this case, ciudad que no duerme is in apposition to Las Vegas. The clause is said to be nonrestrictive because it doesn't define which Las Vegas; it only provides additional information. The article isn't used. But Vivo en Washington, el estado. Here, el estado is in apposition to Washington, and it defines which Washington (it "restricts" Washington), so the article is used. Conozco a Julio Iglesias, cantante famoso. (I know Julio Iglesias, the famous singer.) In this sentence, presumably both the person speaking and any listeners know who Iglesias is, so the phrase in apposition (cantante famoso) doesn't tell who he is (it doesn't "restrict"), it merely provides additional information. The definite article isn't needed. But Escogí a Bob Smith, el médico. (I chose Bob Smith, the doctor.) The listener doesn't know who Bob Smith is, and el médico serves to define him ("restrict" him). The definite article would be used.
- In certain set phrases that don't follow any particular pattern. Examples: A largo plazo (in the long run), en alta mar (on the high seas).