One day someone in my class asked the very good question, "How do you know when to use a definite article in Spanish?" I gave the very bad answer, "Uh... well..." (The real answer for me is "when it sounds right." Imagine trying to answer the same question about English.)

I then started asking other Spanish speakers whether they had ever heard any rules, and by luck I ran across a linguist who had just written a paper on the topic. She gave me the following explanation, which seems to cover most of the bases:

If you would use an article in English, you use one in Spanish. If you would not use an article in English, you don't use one in Spanish. There are six exceptions:

1. The definite article is used in Spanish with gustar:

Raquel Rodríguez likes mysteries but A Raquel le gustan los misterios 2. The definite article is used in Spanish with general statements or abstractions referring to whole categories: Apples are delicious butLas manzanas son deliciosas

Philosophy is difficult butLa filosofía es difícil

Note, however: I ate apples for breakfast and Desayuné manzanas

Roberto Castillo studies archaeology and Roberto estudia arqueología.

In Las manzanas son deliciosas, you're talking about all apples, the whole category. You could insert the words "in general" into the sentence without really changing the meaning.  However, if you actually ate some real apples, you're not talking about all the apples in the world, and they're no longer abstract.

(Notice that this rule also explains rule #1. In "Me gustan las manzanas," you're once again talking about all apples, apples in general.)

3. The definite article is used in Spanish with some country names, although this rule is fading from the language and varies regionally. Generally, you'll need to pay close attention (or ask someone) when you learn a new country name.  Of the Spanish-speaking countries, Argentina and Perú often have the article.

Después de la guerra, Rosario se fue a (la) Argentina.

En el departamento de español, hay muchos instructores de(l) Perú.

4. The definite article is used in Spanish before titles such as Sr, Srta, Dr, etc. when the person is talked about (but not when you address the person directly): El nombre de pila del Dr. Iglesias es Arturo.

¿Está la Srta. Gómez?

[But note the following: "Buenos días, Dr. Iglesias."]

The titles don and doña, used with first names only, do not require an article. El señor Castillo vive en La Gavia but Don Fernando vive en la Gavia. 5. The definite article is used in Spanish with days of the week (often replacing the English preposition "on") and with hours of the day. See ya (on) Monday but Nos vemos el lunes

I have biology on Wednesdays but Tengo clase de biología los miércoles

Let's watch Destinos at six but Veamos Destinos a las seis.

6. The indefinite article is not used in Spanish with unmodified occupations, nationalities, or religions: Raquel is a lawyer but Raquel es abogada. (Angela es puertorriqueña. Mercedes es católica.) The article will be used if the occupation is modified with an adjective: Es una abogada famosa. (Es una católica devota) 7. (Yes, I know we said six exceptions, but this one isn't really an exception). There are some set phrases (idioms) whose closest English equivalents may use articles differently: We form a line but Hacemos cola (Although we stand in line, not in a line.) Generally you will learn these set phrases as a single vocabulary item, so they shouldn't be too problematic.

This is by no means a complete list of all rules about articles! However, it does cover the most basic, frequent situations you'll run across, and keeping these things in mind will give you a good start. Naturally, the best way to learn this is to pay close attention to what you hear and read, and try to formulate your own system of rules. If you do this, eventually you'll be able to discard the rules in favor of your own sense of what "sounds right."

Copyright Ann Wildermuth and Rosamaría Graziani (University of Texas at Austin, 1996, 2000) To request permission to use this page or any portion of its contents, contact the authors by e-mail.

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