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Definite and indefinite articles in Spanish

Are you struggling with definite and indefinite articles in Spanish? Well, struggle no more!

It’s true that, for instance, while English has only one form for the definite article (the), Spanish has four (el, la, los, las).

This is due to the fact that nouns in Spanish have grammatical gender as well as number. You can read my articles there for more information!

Once that is sorted out, the main difficulty lies on when to use the definite and indefinite articles correctly.

Because sometimes they are mandatory when in English they wouldn’t be used, and in some cases they can be omitted.

Are you ready? Let’s go!

Definite and indefinite articles in Spanish

Articles are classified into two categories: indefinite and definite. Their forms vary according to the gender and number of the noun.

Singularun amigouna amigael gatola gata
Pluralunos niñosunas niñaslos chicoslas chicas

Remember that after the prepositions ‘a’ and ‘de’, the definite article el is contracted to form only one word:

Tengo que ir al supermercado mañana. (a + el = al)

Podemos ver la transmisión del partido. (de + el = del)

But when used with a proper noun (i.e. a word that is the name of a person, a place, an institution, etc.), the article and the preposition aren’t joined:

Para practicar español es una buena idea leer los artículos de El País.

El año que viene viajaré a El Salvador para trabajar en un proyecto de voluntariado.

Now that you have this basic information, let’s move on!

Un/una: when to use indefinite articles

We use un, una, unos, unas to refer to something that can´t be uniquely identified by the other person either because it is just one of many or because it hasn’t been mentioned already:

Él es Juan, un hermano de Sara. (= a brother, Sara has many siblings)

Necesito un traje. Es para una fiesta. (= a suit, not one in particular, any is fine)

Hay un teatro en la avenida principal. (= a theater, it’s not identified because it hasn’t been mentioned before).

El/la: when to use definite articles

We use el, la, los, las to refer to something that is easily identified or understood by the other person, either because there aren’t other objects like that or because it has been mentioned before:

Este es Juan, el hermano de Sara. (= the brother, not a brother, because she only has one)

¿Dónde compraste el reloj? (= the watch, the person talks about this watch in particular)

Vimos una obra muy divertida en el teatro, te lo recomiendo. (= the theater, it’s already identified because it has been mentioned earlier in a conversation)

So that’s what happens with definite and indefinite articles in Spanish. Now let’s see the cases when they can be omitted!

Leaving out definite and indefinite articles

When we use a noun without an article, it means that we aren’t referring to an object in particular. Here some examples:

No puedo recibir mensajes porque no tengo teléfono. (= not a phone in particular, here phone is used just as a general means of communication)

Voy a la oficina en bicicleta porque es más ecológico. (= by bike, bike as a means of transportation)

Estoy tomando lecciones de piano con un profesor. (= piano lessons, not a piano in particular, just the type of lesson)

Para entrar en ese restaurante hay que llevar traje y corbata. (= referring to the type of clothes, not a suit and tie in particular)

When we talk about an unspecified quantity of something and we don’t need to refer to any object in particular, we use a noun without an article as well:

Countable nouns (in plural):

¿Venden libros de cocina?

Mi primo arregla celulares.

Uncountable nouns (in singular):

Ya no tenemos azúcar ni café.

Yo tomo agua antes de dormir.

And now let’s see when articles in Spanish are actually mandatory!

a cute cat - definite and indefinite articles in spanish
Un gatito latino preocupado después de leer este artículo. – Foto de Francesco Ungaro

Use of articles in Spanish to generalize

This is a key difference in comparison with English: when we generalize, the subject of the sentence (a noun that can be either common or proper) needs an article!

You have probably heard this phrase before: ‘Man is the only animal that trips twice over the same stone’.

In Spanish it’s translated as ‘el hombre es el único animal que tropieza dos veces con la misma piedra‘.

Do you see the article el there? In English it would be omitted, but it’s mandatory in Spanish.

More examples:

Los niños son el futuro. (= Children are the future, all children, in general)

Las mujeres merecen los mismos derechos que los hombres. (= women and men in general)

Me encanta el café. (= I love coffee, coffee in general)

Los gatos tienen siete vidas. (= cats in general; side note: seven lives, not nine – cats don’t seem as resilient in Spanish!)

On the other hand, when we talk about ane object that belongs to a type or class in particular, we use the indefinite article un or una instead:

—¿Qué es una bombilla?
Una bombilla es un utensilio usado para tomar mate.

But with nouns that aren’t used in singular we use unos or unas:

Unos anteojos de sol son necesarios para proteger la vista.

So far, so good! One more thing on this topic…

Definite and indefinite articles to replace nouns

When it’s clear what we are talking about, uno, una, unos and unas can be used without mentioning what noun they refer to:

Nuestro auto está viejo. Necesitamos uno nuevo.

Mis zapatos se rompieron y compré unos en internet.

Estas galletas están riquísimas. ¡Come una!

Si quieres recomendaciones, te puedo enviar unas por email.

Remember that when referring to nouns that usually aren’t used in singular, they go with the forms unos and unas in plural:

¡Me encantan los pantalones de Levi’s! Hay unos en promoción esta semana.

No sé dónde están mis lentes de sol. Estoy usando unos que me prestó mi papá.

Finally, definite articles el, la, los and las can be used without mentioning the noun they refer to only when they are followed by:

An adjective:

Tantos sombreros y siempre uso el azul. (= the blue one)

De + noun:

Me encanta la pizza, pero nunca comí la de Italia.

Que + noun:

¿Qué películas me gustan? Las que cuentan una buena historia.

And that’s all for today!

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