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Definite Articles Often Used in Spanish Where They Aren't in English

Lesson 7 in the 'Real Spanish Grammar' Series


Old Mac computer

Una computadora. (A computer.)

Photo by Bruno Cordioli; licensed via Creative Commons.

Rules for using definite articles can be complex, as the following selection demonstrates.

Excerpt from news article: Lo cierto es que los mismos códigos binarios que infectan los ordenadores afectan a los sistemas operativos de los "teléfonos inteligentes", y los riesgos van a crecer en 2013, según el informe anual de predicción de amenazas de McAfee.

Source: Agencia EFE article as found at Terra.es. Retrieved Feb. 1, 2013.

Suggested translation: What is certain is that the same binary codes that infect computers affect the operating systems of smartphones, and the risks are going to increase in 2013, according to McAfee's annual threat predictions report.

Key grammatical issue: This sentence has seven uses of definite articles, and the rules of their use can be quite complex. "The" is the only definite article in English, while those in Spanish are el, la, lo, las and los; all of these can also function as other parts of speech.

Fortunately for the Spanish student, when "the" is used in English, one of the definite articles is nearly always used in Spanish. But the reverse often isn't true. In other words, there are times that Spanish uses a definite article that doesn't have to be translated to English. In the sample sentence, two such cases are in the use of los before ordenadores and before teléfonos inteligentes.

In this instance, the los is used because ordenadores and teléfonos inteligentes can be seen as generic nouns, that is, ones that refer to all the items of a type. The writer is speaking about basically all computers and all smartphones. The usual rule in Spanish but not English is that such nouns require use of a definite article.

What makes this sentence a bit complicated to analyze is that even when a generic noun is used, it is not unusual to eliminate the definite article after de, especially when the noun after de is used to describe the noun before de. It would not have been grammatically wrong here to say "los sistemas operativos de 'teléfonos inteligentes'" rather than "los sistemas operativos de los 'teléfonos inteligentes'." The slight difference in meaning, if there is one, would be lost in any reasonable translation, but the former might have placed a bit more emphasis on the operating systems rather than on the smartphones.

Note how there is no definite article between de and predicción nor between de and amenazas. That's because predicción and amenazas aren't being used as generic nouns. The writer isn't referring to all predictions nor to all threats, but only a certain kind, and each of the nouns serves to classify that noun that precedes.

With the exception of lo (see note below), the other uses of definite articles should seem straightforward to English speakers.

Other notes on vocabulary and grammar:

  • "Lo + adjective" is a common way of forming a neuter noun from an adjective. "Lo cierto" could have been translated as "what is certain," "that which is certain," "the certain thing" or even "the certainty."
  • Mismo is the usual word to indicate that something is the same or identical.
  • "Teléfonos inteligentes" is an example of a calque from English. The article and its headline had earlier referred to the devices as "smartphones," and the phrase may have been used here for those who weren't aware of what the imported English word means.
  • The word ordenador is typically used to refer to a computer in Spain, while computadora is more common in Latin America.
  • It is common after some verbs to use the preposition a before the verb's direct object. Afectar is one such verb, but use of the a isn't mandatory.
  • Note that the word sistema takes the masculine adjective operativo even though sistema ends in -a. Like many other masculine nouns ending in -a, sistema is a noun of Greek origin.
  • Unlike in U.S. English, commas needed at the after words in quotation marks are placed outside rather than inside the quote marks.
  • Van is a conjugated form of ir. The phrase "ir a" functions as a kind of future tense and is the equivalent of the English "going to."
  • Según is a common preposition usually meaning "according to."
  • Amenaza is a cognate of and has a similar meaning to the English "menace." The plural word amenazas was translated as the singular "threat" in accordance with how this particular menace is usually referred to in English.
  • Because Spanish doesn't routinely make nouns function as adjectives the way English does ("predictions" in the translation is functioning as an adjective, for example), Spanish often accomplishes the same meaning using de. As in the sample sentence, this often makes Spanish wordier than English, and it isn't unusual, as here, to string together three or sometimes even more de phrases.
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