The word "the" occupies a unique place in the English language as the only word that grammarians classify as a definite article. It's not quite so simple in Spanish, where the English "the" has four equivalents. Like most adjectives, the definite article in Spanish varies with number and gender:
- Singular masculine: el
- Singular feminine: la
- Plural masculine: los
- Plural feminine: las
Although there are a few exceptions, as a general rule a definite article is used in Spanish whenever "the" is used in English. But Spanish also uses a definite article in many cases where English does not. Although the following list isn't exhaustive, and there are exceptions to some of these rules, here are the major instances where Spanish includes a definite article absent in English:
With nouns referring to all members of a group: When referring to objects or persons of a class in general, the definite article is needed. Los leones son felinos. (Lions are felines.) Los americans quieren hacer dinero. (Americans want to make money.) Las madres son como rayos de sol. (Mothers are like sun rays.) Note that this use of the definite article can create ambiguity that isn't present in English. For example, depending on the context, "Las fresas son rojas" can mean either "Strawberries in general are red" or "Some particular strawberries are red."
With abstract nouns and nouns used in a general sense: In English, the article is often omitted with abstract nouns and nouns that refer more to a concept than a tangible item. But it still is needed in Spanish. A few examples might help clarify: La ciencia es importante. (Science is important.) Creo en la justicia. (I believe in justice.) Estudio la literatura. (I study literature.) La primavera es bella. (Spring is beautiful.)
With most titles of people: The definite article is used before most titles of a person being talked about. El presidente Obama vive en la Casa Blanca. (President Obama lives in the White House.) Voy a la oficina de la doctora González. (I'm going to the office of Dr. Gonzalez.) Mi vecina es la señora Jones. (My neighbor is Mrs. Jones.) The article is omitted, however, when directly addressing the person. Profesora Barrera ¿cómo está usted? (Professor Barrera, how are you?)
Before days of the week: Days of the week are always masculine. Except in constructions where the day of the week follows a form of ser (a verb for "to be"), as in hoy es martes (today is Tuesday), the article is needed. Vamos a la escuela los lunes. (We go to school on Mondays.) El tren sale el miércoles. (The train leaves on Wednesday.)
Before verbs used as subjects: In Spanish, infinitives (the basic form of a verb) can be used as nouns. The article el is used when one is used as the subject of a sentence. El escribir es difícil. (Writing is difficult.) El esquiar es peligroso. (Skiing is dangerous.) No me gusta el nadar. (I don't like swimming. In Spanish, this sentence has an inverted word order that makes nadar the subject.)
Often before names of languages: The article generally is used before names of languages. But it can be omitted immediately following a verb that is used often with languages, such as hablar (to speak), or after the preposition en. El inglés es la lengua de Belice. (English is the language of Belize.) El alemán es difícil. (German is difficult.) Hablo bien el español. (I speak Spanish well.) But, hablo español. (I speak Spanish.) No puede escribir en francés. (He can't write in French.)
With some place names: Although the definite article is seldom mandatory with place names, it is often used with many of them. As can be seen in this list of country names, the use of the definite article can seem arbitrary. La Habana es bonita. (Havana is pretty.) La India tiene muchas lenguas. (India has many languages.)
With nouns joined by "and": In English, it often isn't necessary to include the "the" before each noun in a series. But Spanish often requires it. La madre y el padre están felices. (The mother and father are happy.) Compré la silla y la mesa. (I bought the chair and table.)
Note: Spanish also has a neuter definite article, lo. It has specific uses different than most of the ones listed on this page.